When Hip-Hop ruled the earth
Mike Schreiber's True Hip-Hop reveals hip-hop in its heyday
It's the curse of every scene: Jazz, blues, glam rock, punk were all once seen as vanguard and outrageous, but each eventually had its teeth pulled, its sex drive squelched, its hair line recede. No doubt hip-hop will some day seem about as inoffensive as jazz, Nicki Minaj will get the Muzak treatment, and the younger generation will curl up its lip in disdain at grandpa's lame gangsta glory tales.
New York-based photographer Mike Schreiber's images of hip-hop artists do the job you expect of hagiographic work for sources such as Vibe, Urb and Source. They arrest the dangerous glamour of a movement, even as the musicians and the scene may fade away. True Hip-Hop at Hagedorn Foundation Gallery delivers the documentary, self-mythologizing quality of a scene looking badass while it still has time, authenticity shrouding it like a boxer's cloak. There are baseball bats waved menacingly at the camera, pit bulls held in a white-knuckle grip, and tattoos that promise the precipice of death has been witnessed and just barely escaped. In an image from 2004, a glassy-eyed Ol' Dirty Bastard offers up a glimpse of his crazy diamond teeth, blissed-out and unaware that beyond the margins of time and space in the image, he is already dead.
Shot on film in an era when our eye has grown used to digital, the coal blacks and shimmering whites in Schreiber's photographs of Mos Def, M.I.A., Jermaine Dupri and others offer a contact high with not just these darlings of music magazine covers, but the whole gestalt of their fascinating origins. Since so much of the hip-hop mythos is context — the violence, the rotten childhoods, the poverty and hustling — the images that tug at you are the ones with an evocative setting. Schreiber factors in the hard-edged architecture of city life to invest the images with grit and energy. Crucial insight into the grind of daily life is gleaned in the uncharacteristically melancholy portrait "Dwele," in which the singer is glimpsed through the scratched plexiglass windows of a subway car. "C-Murder" frames the rapper and convicted murderer against the war zone that was New Orleans' Calliope Projects. Bravado, fronting, all the things that define hip-hop come through in Schreiber's subjects' preening and posing as they fan a stash of $100 bills like a peacock's plumage, lean into jacked up cars or unveil torsos as wordy as a Kindle screen, with trompe l'oeil tattoos of pistols tucked into pants.
While Schreiber tends to endow his male subjects with something like agency, his female subjects possess a Garbo air of mystery. Despite wearing a hoodie with Stegosaurus prongs, M.I.A. in profile, her dark skin contrasted with the white hood, conjures up a Horst or Irving Penn fashion shot. Erykah Badu is a sphinx hidden by a shawl and hat, who emerges from inky shadow. An exception to that boy-girl divide may be the fetishistic, death trip photograph "Maino." In it, the Brooklyn rapper's downcast eyes allow us to ponder a rope of scar tissue smiling on his right cheek and a tattooed necklace on his bare chest promising "Death Before Dishonor."
Do Schreiber's images teach us anything new about these people? Maybe not. Portraiture has often frustrated for its ability to hover breathtakingly close to the skin of its subjects, while keeping the viewer at arm's length. But Schreiber, who studied anthropology as an undergrad, offers a memento of a cultural moment — the days when hip-hop ruled the earth.