On Saturday, journalist Vikki Tobak leads a conversation with renowned photographers and hip hop documentarians Chi Modu and Janette Beckman at the Former Residence of the Spanish Ambassador. Modu and Beckman represent two pillars of Tobak’s Contact High Project, a rare glimpse of the creative process that went into the making of some of hip hop’s most iconic imagery. We spoke with Vikki about the genesis of the project, the meaning and the eventual collection of the series and images in one, beautiful book following the series’ run on Mass Appeal.
Brightest Young Things: What was the genesis of the project? I know you worked in hip hop during one of it’s most creative periods, the early to mid 90s. How has that work informed the Contact High Project?
Vikki Tobak: At 19, I got a job working for a very small but important record label called Payday Records. At the time they represented Gangstarr, Guru, DJ Premier, Jeru the Damaja, Mos Def… we had Jay Z for a minute, Masta Ace. But Gangstarr is what the label was known for. Pretty much right away, I was named the director of publicity and marketing there and was the go between all those groups and the media. Photography especially. I would accompany them on all their shoots, their interviews, and I got immersed into that world. I toured with them, I traveled the world with them, and learned what it was like to see these images be put out into the world.
Afterwards, I became a music journalist and wrote for Vibe and Paper Magazine. I was actually the second person to interview 2Pac. Later on, I worked for bigger news organizations like CNN and really got into photography as photojournalism. I became really interested in the Magnum Photographers, a collective who’ve photographed wars to the civil rights movement. They put out a book several years ago that’s very well known and respected called Magnum Contact Sheet. It takes those images that have been printed in Time Magazine, or Life, of wars and protests and shows the contact sheets. You’d see a shot of a soldier lying dead in the battlefield and the book illustrated all the shots that came before and all the shots that came after. Shots of the the soldier getting ready. They’d interview the photographers about that day. I was really blown away, it really takes you in! I thought about hip hop imagery and how all these years later we have this archive, but, we don’t really have the stories behind what happened that day or what was happening for the culture at that time. This book was an inspiration to do something like that for hip hop.
BYT: Was there anything specific you hope to accomplish with your own, inspired version of something like their book?
VT: There’s all this talk about how black and brown people are portrayed in photos and in the media, and how the images you see in hip hop both now and especially back then feeds into a lot of stereotypical imagery. Being tough, or being masculine, or playing into a lot of clichés. My hope in doing this book and telling these stories and going a couple layers deeper was to paint a more nuanced picture of this culture that is now so mainstream.
BYT: For the series, are these photos that you remember from that era? How did you decide on which photos were iconic?
VT: I wanted to talk about certain images, like the Biggie King of New York crown image because it’s such a part of the fabric of everything. But it was a combination of wanting certain photos and then also wanting certain photographers that had these vast archives of imagery. People like Janette Beckman, she’s someone that had both. She had that Slick Rick image but her archive of images is insane. She can talk about each and every one, they all have a story that can take you so much deeper into the culture and the building of hip hop and everything that was happening. So, I’m excited to have her this Saturday.
Same with Chi Modu! He has such an incredible archive. He worked as the photo editor at The Source and was in the room with editors talking about who they’re gonna put on the cover, what image to use, and things that contributed to telling this bigger story. He also developed a deep friendship with a lot of the artists, especially 2pac, and he’ll be signing copies of that book on Saturday.
There’s still a couple that are on my wish list that have been a little challenging to get, like, the Public Enemy It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold me Back cover that Glen Friedman shot. Still working on that [laughs]. But, for the most part, photographers love this series because it not only appreciates their photography, it’s a way for them to tell their story beyond just showing their images.
All photographs courtesy of the Contact High Project