No One Sees Rap Like Photographer Brian Cross
See photos from 'Ghost Notes: Music of the Unplayed,' featuring Outkast, Kendrick Lamar, DJ Quik, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and more.
Today, rap’s near-ubiquitous popularity sometimes obscures its turbulent ascent, the decades when large swaths of society regarded the genre as an ephemeral trend, a crude and lesser artform, or, worse yet, “dangerous” music made by dangerous people. The careers of many groundbreaking rappers who persevered in spite of public criticism and attempted government intervention are well-documented. But the journalists, photographers, documentarians, and academics who thoughtfully and passionately covered those careers in real time (not retrospect), when there was little money and significant risk (personal, professional, or otherwise), are often overlooked, their names relegated to appendices and fast-scrolling credits.
Photographer, director, author, and professor Brian Cross aka B+ deserves all commendation for his reporting and photography. For years, rap’s cognoscenti have revered his photographs and iconic album covers (e.g., Ras Kass’ Soul on Ice, DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing....., Jurassic 5’s Quality Control). With a career that spans roughly a quarter century, it seemed strange that someone had yet to compile at least a small portion of his work for the public. In December of last year, UT Press heeded the call, releasing the mid-career retrospective that is Ghost Notes: Music of the Unplayed.
Bookended by incisive and moving essays from renowned rap scholars Jeff Chang (Can’t Stop Won’t Stop), Greg Tate (Flyboy 2: The Greg Tate Reader), and Dave Tompkins (How to Wreck a Nice Beach: A Vocoder from World War II to Hip-Hop), Ghost Notes features over 200 of Cross’s photos. As a photo essay that traces his career, his travels, and the history of rap music, there are shots from locations as disparate as south central L.A., Cairo, Egypt and Kingston, Jamaica. The links between each photo—whether they be visual, aural, historical, or otherwise—may not be obvious at first glance, but that doesn’t detract from their impact or import. Ghost Notes, like the majority of Cross’s oeuvre, is essential viewing for anyone who considers themselves a rap fan.
Born and raised in Limerick, Ireland, Cross became infatuated with rap upon hearing Schooly D and Public Enemy in the late 80s. After earning a degree in painting from the National College of Art and Design in Dublin in 1989, he moved to a small apartment in North Hollywood and attended California Institute of the Arts to study photography.
In 1993, during his time at CalArts, Cross published It’s Not About a Salary. A pioneering work of ethnomusicology, the book begins with an insightful introduction from Cross that traces the musical and intellectual lineage of rap music and explores the nuanced styles, personalities, and socio-political messages in the then-burgeoning L.A. rap scene. What follows is an extensive collection of interviews punctuated by intimate, gritty, black-and-white photos. Featuring conversations with (and photos of) everyone from the Watts Prophets and Toddy Tee to Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Cypress Hill, and Freestyle Fellowship, It's Not About a Salary remains a vital document of a still woefully under documented time, place, and scene. Though the book has long been out of print, original hardbacks sell for hundreds of dollars online.
In the years since It’s Not About a Salary, Cross has served as photo editor at Rap Pages and Wax Poetics, founded a production company (Mochilla) with distinguished photographer Eric Coleman (see the cover for Madvillainy), directed music videos and a documentary ( Brasilintime: Batucada com Discos), become a professor of photography at UC San Diego, started a family, and continued to work as one the music industry’s most highly regarded photographers.
Last week, before Cross left LA for an assignment in Jackson, Mississippi, I visited him at his home in Glassell Park. Tall and broad-shouldered, his formidable physique seemed more fitting for a retired hurler than an artistically-inclined academic. As kind as he is candid, Cross didn’t require any prompting to discuss virtually any subject. Little was left off the record, including his propensity for profanity (he chalks it up to his Irish ancestry). What follows is a snapshot of Cross’s thoughts on several of the photos in Ghost Notes, his career, rap in the 90s, the state of photography in in the Instagram era, and the late Ganjah K. You can hear the earnestness and sincerity he’s brought to his work in every word.
Noisey: Do you feel that Instagram has changed the practice of a photography?
Brian Cross: There’s definitely a shift in the practice of photography. I’d hate to think that I only see it as bad. I’m a teacher, and I have to deal with millennials every fucking week. For as different as it is, some of the most committed, sensitive, and serious folks that I’ve met have been folks like this.
I remember being that guy who was completely convinced by hip-hop in the late 80s and early 90s only to be confronted by crabby older musicians who failed to understand or be cognizant of the shifts that were happening around them. I don’t want to be that guy. I really don’t. That’s not right. That’s not what it’s about.
I believe you’ve had the title Ghost Notes for some time. When did you first use it?
The first time I used Ghost Notes as a title was for a show that was at New Image Art in 1998 or 1999... I would take all of the photos that weren’t being used for a job and put them in envelopes, and I would make little suites of photographs with what you might call the outtakes. I had tons of them, and they would have weird titles... I was turning up all of these photos and trying to find ways to arrange them, with the belief that somehow there was a real analogy between making beats, improvising rhymes, and making photographs.
Around that time, Numark showed me this instructional drum video of Bernard Purdie, and Purdie is talking about ghost notes. There was something about the way the two words sounded to me that had all kinds of resonances. Then I began to understand what ghost notes are, these kind of unintended sounds in a rhythm that give it its character... It’s rare, but sometimes a title can help you understand something better than before you had it.
Where did the shoot the cover photo, who’s in it, and how did it become the cover?
I was driving through Jamaica to Nine Mile, which is where Bob Marley is from. Damian Marley’s road manager at the time was driving me to photograph a Jamaican artist who’s part of their camp. We were somewhere in the middle of the country. There wasn’t even a crossroads to tell you where you were. Whatever way I looked, I was like, “Oh fuck, there’s a bunch of guys under a tree fixing a sound system. I was like, “Hold up.” We back up and park the car, and Damian’s road manager is like, “Let me go ask them dudes if it’s cool to take a picture.” I was right behind him. They were like, “No problem, man. Do whatever you need.” I took three or four frames and got back in the car.
I really didn’t think no more of it until I found it and I felt like, “This is saying exactly what I want for this part of the book.” The prelude to the book is a kind of potted history of hip-hop in twelve photos. I put it there, and then we’re picking covers for the book and not having much luck. That was one of the suggestions. I actually preferred a different photo, so I did what I always do—I went to the homies and I showed them the options. Everybody went for that photo. Then I was like, “I get it.” That was it.
What were some of the most damning critiques of rap music you remember reading in the early 90s?
One of the most infuriating things that I read from that time was that R.J. Smith wrote [in LA Weekly] that Death Certificate was “the most dangerous record ever made.” I don’t think there’s anything fucking dangerous about the record. What was dangerous was what the fuck was going on on the ground out here at the time, which was vindicated four months later when the fucking city burned to the ground... It was really a failure in terms of what music criticism was meant to be about, what cultural work was meant to be about. It was a failure of representation. It was a failure of an ability to be empathetic to a situation. I don’t know if RJ regrets it.
From those days I always had admiration for Cube. There’s something in Cube’s writing. As an artist he’s an interesting figure. He’s kind of Bowie-esque. He’s one of these dudes that’s very inspired by dudes that are around him, and he becomes them somehow. Mack 10, the Bomb Squad—there was a time where he sounded like Das Efx. There are other rappers that aren’t like that, that are only one thing. But Cube was always compelling. It was disconcerting. It was the first time that I realized what the liberal west side was about, and that was the LA Weekly at the time. The incapacity of those folks to actually understand what’s going on… We had that in Ireland, but I hadn’t recognized it here yet. It was really disturbing, more disturbing than Tipper Gore or anything else.
How did you wind up on the set of Xzibit’s “Paparazzi” video?
I was doing the photos for [ At the Speed of Life] and they told me they were doing a video in SF. They were all driving up, so I went in the spirit of adventure… I went there with my girl at the time and checked into a hotel. I didn’t get paid anything, but I made that photo. It’s another one of those ones where, if you asked me for Xzibit photos from that period, I probably would pick ones that I really liked from the cover shoot and from walking around downtown with him. But somehow in the suite of photos that worked much better. And that’s the way it is with a lot of these photos. It’s an essay. There are real links between these photos and the way they’re put together. Very few people actually get that deep, but that’s okay. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t.
With the orchestra and everything, they must have had a sizeable budget for At the Speed of Life. I’d argue that it’s still probably the most overlooked in Xzibit’s catalog.
Xzibit’s a really good dude. I’ll tell you this: I never liked Steve Rifkind. I always thought he was kind of a privileged white dude. These motherfuckers wouldn’t pay me [for the Xzibit photos]. It was the second or third time they’d pulled that trick on me. They were desperate to get the record turned in, including Xzibit, who was in the same predicament. He was due to get money when the record got turned in, too. Xzibit came to my house and was like, “I will personally get you this fucking money. We need to get these fucking photos today.” I said, “You showed up here. You’re a human being. You’re dealing with this shit in a real way. You’re not avoiding my phone calls. We will get this done.” After that, he just moved into a different category of people to me than a lot of the cats I was working with at the time, cats who would just play the company line.
How have you balanced commercial work with work that fulfills your artistic passions?
From the mid to late 90s I had a kind of crisis. I was making a lot of money, but I was desperately unhappy. I was making photos for a lot of records I wasn’t committed to. I was doing a kind of photography that was more like a service-oriented photography, where it felt like I was doing what other people wanted me to as opposed to what I thought I should be doing. It was devastating in some respects, because I kind of had to go back to zero, which meant reinventing myself and the kind of photography I was doing. That had economic consequences that were really fucking hard. But in the long run that change sustained me.
There are times when the two things coalesce. It’s fun to do things with Quantic or Damian Marley or Kamasi Washington or DJ Shadow and have it feel like it’s as personal as it needs to be and be getting paid to do it. But there’s been lots of work I’ve done where I hadn’t heard of the band or had no interest in the band. The notion is that if I did it well enough that I’d be able to pay for the other stuff. That’s some eyes on the prize shit. But you always learn something, even from the most commercial gigs. You always try to pay attention to the things you can do to make yourself better.
Do you feel that the image of Ice Cube and Dr. Dre sitting with their backs to one another says something about their relationship?
This was their coming together around the “fuck Eazy” moment, which continues even in the Straight Outta Compton movie. Really fucking lame. Those dudes’ legends are secure. It just seemed petty to cartoon Eazy-E to that level in the movie. Eazy wasn’t like that. He wasn’t fidgety and kind of crackheady. Eazy was a cold dude.
You don’t mind this going to print?
Nah. I worked with all of them dudes back in the day. F. Gary Gray directed a lot of videos for them. That’s how he cut his teeth. In them days Gary Gray and Cube knew me. One of the first people I gave It’s Not About a Salary to was Cube. He wrote me back through his publicist and was like, “This is a fucking great book. This is really true. It’s important.” I took that seriously.
I never really worked for them, whereas I did work for Eazy. Eazy hired me. It’s just fucking funny. I idolized Cube and thought he was incredible. Then I met Eazy-E and I thought, “Maybe Cube doesn’t tell the truth all of the time.” I was like, “[Eazy] isn’t a shady dude.” He was a really interesting, unique kind of person that was able to think outside of the box that he’d been put in. Who else was signing the Black Eyed Peas and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony in the same month, as well as Blood of Abraham? He wasn’t just signing dudes from Compton.
Did you take the photo of the Goodie Mob in the dungeon? Why were you there?
I did. I was there to shoot the cover of Rappages. I saw that documentary [The Art of Noize] and I was like, “Fucking hell, they don’t actually have a good photo of them in the dungeon.” I went back and I was like, “Holy fuck, I have this photo of Goodie Mob in the dungeon.” It’s not the world’s greatest photo. The aperture on my camera snapped that day, so the image is underexposed. But it’s the spot.
The shot of records burning in the desert for Blackalicious’ Blazing Arrow is incredible. Can you tell me about the inspiration for that shot?
Yeah. Me and Brent Rollins have had an ongoing collaboration. We used to work for Rappages together. We were kicking it back and forth about restaging the collage that he did on the previous Blackalicious record, which was Nia. That collage wa very Bay Area looking and kind of foggy. That kid was sitting there with all of the records and the equipment. I was like, “What if we go the opposite direction altogether? What if we go to the desert, and as opposed to a collage of the elements we’ll try to use real things and set that shit on fire?” In those days we had a budget. It was like, “Yeah. Let’s do it.” It was supposed to be the cover. The reason it isn’t the cover is because when Universal saw the two speakers and the way they were on fire they were like, “No, it looks like the twin towers.” But that’s the level of fear and paranoia that existed in that period. So Brent then did that collage on the front.
When and how did you shoot Kendrick?
Me and Eric Coleman shot him for the cover of Complex in like 2014 or 2015. It was a good year before To Pimp a Butterfly, but Complex thought that TPAB was imminent. The editor at the time had this pretty lame photograph of Ernest Hemingway that he wanted to recreate... It was very forced. It’s one of those things where you don’t have access to the music, you want to do something that feels authentic and appropriate and pushes the envelope a little bit, but you don’t really know who the fuck you’re dealing with.
If you want to see something authentic about Kendrick, look at what Kahlil Joseph did [with the short film for good kid m.A.A.d. city]. That’s somebody with the astute eye. And it was somebody who took the time, did the research, went there and found the thing and made it happen. And it was so good that Kendrick brought this home movie footage that his mom had shot in March of 1992 of a four-year-old Kendrick asleep on the bed and all of his uncles and everybody were standing around him with shotguns. That’s what’s up.
This [Complex shoot] was a small opportunity for us to collaborate with someone we were interested in. I was just lucky enough to catch that shot. It was at a spot that I was very happy about shooting in. It was a place called the Flying Fox, which is gone now. It was a really old bar over by the Crenshaw Mall. We shot with Kendrick all day, and the guy [who rented the space] had no idea who Kendrick was.
As we were finishing the shoot, all of these old folks from the neighborhood started showing up and having their tacos and drinks. Then Kendrick and his folks left, and me and my crew ended up staying there and getting drunk. We ended up smoking weed and hanging out with all of these folks from the neighborhood and dancing to sort of barbecue hood classics.
Your introductory essay in It’s Not About a Salary includes a photo of Ganjah K’s rhyme book. There’s also a photo of him in a cypher in Ghost Notes . How well did you know him? Has it been difficult to deal with his passing?
I knew him very well. I had fallen out of touch with him for a number of years, and then over the past two or three years [we reconnected]. It turns out that the midwife who caught our baby was very close with him. I kind of got back in touch with him. We would talk from time to time. I knew he had issues with his health.
In that era from ‘94-’95, he was certainly one of the most respected and one of the toughest MC’s. His record from that time that was never released, Harvest for the World, is one of my favorite records from that period, right up there with To Whom it May Concern and Hip-Hopera and the original version of Soul on Ice (not the one that came out on Priority). He was very unlike a lot of the other cats in that scene in the sense that he seemed more mature. His ego was less of an issue… He always understood himself as being the team guy.
That’s not to take away from his cultural importance. He was known as KMC the Chronic. That was his name when I first met him. He wasn’t Ganjah K yet. That use of the word “chronic” came from him. He was the one who sold weed to Snoop and them. Snoop and them used to come to the Good Life, and that’s how they met Ganjah K.
In terms of weed in California, which is now very much a part of everyone’s lives and has transitioned from the illegal side of the spectrum to the legal side of the spectrum, he is the first dude that we’re all of aware from south central Los Angeles that went to Humboldt, bought the really high-end sticky green weed in bulk, and brought it to the hood. You can’t underestimate the importance of that.
It was profoundly sad when he passed. I cried that day. I had a lot of good times with that dude. He had a crazy raspy voice. He always had a problem with his lungs. But he also had this very distinctive laugh. I could clearly hear his laugh…. He was a lovely guy.
Max Bell is a writer based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter.