Book Review: Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop
by Erik Nielsen
Tupac Shakur, the rebellious icon of hip-hop, was a poet and in one of his many verses said “Did you hear about the rose that grew from the crack in the concrete?”. Hip hop is just that: the rose that grew from concrete, not only a type of music but a movement, a celebration, an affirmation of voice from the tragic conditions of being black in America. The pictures gathered in Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop is an assemblage of historical documents that give voice to the legacy of a newfound expression and a lens into the experience that, for a while, was tucked away in the shadows.
“The first thing you think of isn’t a snatch of a melody, it’s a picture.”, notes ?uestlove, drummer of the hip-hop group The Roots in the introduction. As a listener, we connect an image to the music, and through the shutter of a lens these images become the defining moments of hip-hop. The photographers gathered for the book had a great understanding of the significance of the movement based on their collaborations and the stories they tell that accompany each image in the book; because of this and the level of empathy they exude, propelled these rebels, like Eazy-E, Run DMC, KRS-One, from the hood into icons. The book is not only a testament to hip-hop but an insight into the photographic process and the relationship between subject and photographer.
Hip-hop is and will always be a grassroots movement formed from the structural oppression of the black experience. The iconography of said experience can be seen throughout the book as many rappers include images of Malcolm X in their shoots. Rappers like Chuck D of Public Enemy and Guru of Gang Starr will channel X’s voice through the rap continuum as an ever-evolving search for self in a nation that fails regularly to recognize what it is to be black in America.
The contact sheets of the shoots also provide a rare insight into the character of the artists that goes beyond the iconic imagery. As we get a glimpse at the outtakes we also get candid moments of reflection. The “holy grail” of contact sheets in Contact High is one of Biggie Smalls, otherwise known as The Notorious B.I.G.. During the crowned king of New York hip-hop shoot with photographer Barron Clairborne, we see him smiling and laughing, something so off-character it acts as a brief moment of catharsis because we know the fate of the legendary rapper. Three days after the shoot, Biggie Smalls was shot, and the same crown picture was passed around in remembrance at his funeral. The image cemented his legend; his spirit will forever live through the picture.
With hip-hop, it was never just about the music but the look, as well; there is a debt of gratitude we owe to the 50 photographers featured and to Vikki Tobak who put the book together. The photographers knew and understood the message and were able to relay that to millions of people who could not put a face to the music. The images helped shape and evolve an art that started as a DJ, two turntables and a microphone, but which has now become the dominant genre in American music.
You can purchase a copy of the book here.