Book Review: Hip Hop At The End Of The World
To hear the images of photographer Ernie Paniccioli “tell” it, the late-80s and early-90s were to hip-hop what the late-30s and early 40s were to America’s nuclear program: an unparalleled confluence of creative minds birthing works of tectonic influence. However, there’s considerably more kinetic energy and color (sartorial and otherwise) in the over-three-decades of images comprising the photographer’s new collection, Hip-Hop At The End Of The World, than those depicting Robert Oppenheimer fiddling with his pocket protector in a bunker laboratory.
And here’s another undercooked analogy, which the reader is invited to accept or discard as readily as they might have the previous one: braggadocio is as integral a part of hip-hop as anorexia is of ballet; Paniccioli, born in Brooklyn and raised on its meaner streets, seems to have been steeped in that strong tea, judging by the interview opening the book, humbly titled “Hail to the Chief.” The accompanying photo shows Paniccioli, a Native-American of Cree blood, clutching a huge feathered spear and staring daggers through the camera in the manner of his subjects.
However, the author’s olympian posture would seem to have been earned: the sense of intimacy and unguardedness these photos convey indicates to me that “Brother” Ernie enjoyed nearly unfettered access to this particular artistic subculture and its practitioners, which furthermore indicates he enjoyed their respect. In light of this elusive quality of immediacy, the man’s fiercely confrontational mien (which he clearly doesn’t limit himself to, judging from the photo below) and accompanying regalia are difficult to dismiss.
For post-Baby Boomers, it’s hard to imagine life without hip-hop, and easy to think of the art form in the era captured by Paniccioli’s work here, i.e., the Golden Age of Hip-hop, as never-not-being, eternal as The Big Dipper. But in the late-80s/early-90s, the music, born from poor black communities in NYC (its Bronx-specific origins are disputed by the denizens of, in the main, the borough of Queens), was like a crop of carrots whose green tops had only just broken through the soil into the sunshine of popular culture a handful of years earlier.
The first major salvo bringing hip-hop to wider attention was “Rapper’s Delight” (1979) by the Sugarhill Gang, which, while commercially successful, was almost immediately derided by “real” hip-hop fans as a paltry imitation of the real thing. Paniccioli was 32 at the time, taking photographs at the Roxy, a club and roller skate rink frequented by, in the photographer’s own words, “everybody.” Among the venue’s adherents were members of Run DMC, whose wild success in 1984 righted, by virtue of their authenticity, Sugarhill’s perceived betrayal - while proving an even greater financial boon.
Much of the content in “Hip-hop At The End Of The World” comes closely, in relative terms, on the heels of that mid-80s watershed moment. Viewed in light of what would in the next couple of decades become (in this writer’s utterly weightless estimation) of hip-hop’s mainstream, Paniccioli’s images are like polaroids of a doomed soldier’s bachelor party before deployment, with our knowledge of his subsequent death freighting them with both nostalgia and dread. Because sharing the popular airwaves of the era were, among many others, Digital Underground, NWA, Public Enemy, Tribe Called Quest and Wu-Tang Clan: a mainstream heterogeneity greatly diminished in our present era. Excluding as his book does artists who made their bones after 2000, descrying where Paniccioli’s own bias points seems a simple matter.