The Notorious B.I.G may have rapped, “You never thought that hip-hop would take it this far” in the 1994 anthem ‘Juicy’, but few could’ve predicted that by 2020, the crown he wore in Barron Claiborne’s iconic King of New York portrait would go under the hammer for $594,750. Biggie’s crown was among the hip-hop memorabilia at Sotheby’s inaugural auction dedicated to hip-hop, with other priceless pieces including Salt-N-Pepa’s ‘Shake Your Thang’ jackets, DJ Ross One’s boombox installation The Wall of Boom, and a sealed 12-inch single of ‘Beat Bop’ with cover art by Jean-Michel Basquiat, plus experiences such as a lyric-writing lesson with Rakim, and a private atelier appointment with Dapper Dan, the hip-hop tailor of Harlem. Proceeds from the auction, a total of $2,075,250, were donated to the Queens Public Library Foundation, to support its hip-hop programmes, and charities nominated by the artists themselves.
Fab 5 Freddy, whose 2013 painting Move The Crowd and gold and diamond MTV ring commissioned for the show Yo! MTV Raps went for well over their asking prices at $22,680 and $35,280 respectively, reveals, “I had paintings come up for auction at Sotheby’s prior, but the context of this show was unique because it looked at hip-hop culture across a broad spectrum. I thought it was really bold and kind of revolutionary, and I was super-impressed to see the works they curated. Sotheby’s can sell a work on paper by any number of artists that are worth an astronomical amount of money, but that’s typically what they do. This got them an avalanche of attention because it was so unique. And I was quite pleased with the outcome as well,” he smiles.
The visual artist, filmmaker and hip-hop pioneer is currently curating Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop – an exhibition based on the book of the same name by Vikki Tobak – at Manarat Al Saadiyat in Abu Dhabi until 31 May 2021, in association with Sole. “Of course, obviously the big sale was Biggie’s crown, which is still a part of the Contact High exhibit – luckily Barron had another one done – so we see the sister to the crown that went for over half a million dollars.”
Vikki admits, “To me, the Sotheby’s auction was incredible to see happen. It was definitely a milestone. I was also looking at it through the eyes of an archivist. What happens to these objects of hip-hop culture that came from a community, to how they’re being made accessible to scholars, to people from that community? I guess you could say I was having mixed feelings about it a little bit. You know, happy, but also concerned in the long term, because I think this material needs to be accessible.”
The author continues, “And I was so pleased that Fab’s archives went to Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, which is part of the New York Public Library, and will be accessible for years to come. I know a couple of the pieces from the Sotheby’s show were bought by museums, so I was also happy that the culture is being treated with consideration by institutions, which also speaks to what Contact High is about.”
The eponymous exhibition in Abu Dhabi is based on the book Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop by Vikki Tobak (Clarkson Potter). SHOP NOW
Published in 2018, Contact High charts the history of hip-hop from the late ’70s via the Golden Age, up to the present day via the archives – and anecdotes – of its most influential photographers. These include seminal album covers such as Drew Carolan’s Follow The Leader shoot for Eric B. and Rakim; Danny Clinch’s captures for Nas’ ‘Illmatic’ – shot when he was interning for Annie Leibovitz and of course Barron Claiborne’s iconic image of Biggie. “It’s like the Mona Lisa of hip-hop,” Vikki explains. “At the time of that photo, Barron was a young Black photographer and he was very intentional with what he wanted to do on that shoot – he wanted to photograph Biggie as a king, as royalty, was in response to how young Black men were being portrayed in mainstream media, at least that’s what Barron says. The inspiration was that he wanted to show a more nuanced image of a man, so I think that’s equally powerful, given that Barron himself was a young Black man when he took that photo.”
Another moving moment is Armen Djerrahian’s photo of Mos Def attending a police brutality rally in New York in 2000. “Activism is a big part of the photos, and that Mos Def photo came right on time,” Vikki points out. “All these themes in society that we talk about today, you can see in these photos. We were having those conversations. Frank Ocean talking about Black masculinity and what does that look like going forward. Photos of Cardi B and Nicki Minaj talking about how women in hip-hop evolved, and making a powerful statement of being in control of their careers and not having to look a certain way unless they want to, unless that’s authentically them. So you can find everything in the photos, they’re all right there.”
The fact that the culture’s most enduring images have found their way into a gallery in the Middle East comes as no surprise to Fab 5 Freddy, who’s been an advocate of hip-hop as an art form and was pushing the idea of elevating graffiti from the sides of trains in Brooklyn onto canvas since he starred in the breakthrough film Wild Style in 1982. “I just had a vibe that that was the right thing that needed to happen at that time,” he shrugs. “I wasn’t trying to take it off of the trains,” he clarifies. “I just think it expanded the arena, the audience, the challenge, if you will. To take the work into another space is what I felt needed to happen, so that’s what I was about helping to facilitate.”
And if there was any doubt about his impact in hip-hop’s cultural crossover, take it from Debbie Harry, who namechecks him in the lyrics to the Blondie song ‘Rapture’ when she raps “Fab 5 Freddy told me everybody’s fly.” He recalls, “Personally, when I became connected with people in the Downtown New York cultural scene, people like Blondie and people in bands and other underground filmmakers had a similar sensibility. So, at the time when no one really embraced any of this culture – the rap, the painting, the dancing – I felt like that would be an audience that would have an open mind, creatively and on many different levels, and I was right about that. So that was really a big challenge, because I saw that what they were doing culturally was crossing over into mainstream, or getting mainstream recognition, and that included The Clash – the British new wave and punk guys – who I was very close to as well,” he adds, painting a picture of quite the coterie. “They all embraced what we were doing, as did similar people in the Downtown New York scene. Once I’d won over people in that audience, they became supporters. That helped to tell a story and that helped to push the narrative along.”
On his role as a connector of cultures, social classes and musical movements, he concedes, “I’m just an artist, trying to make art, trying to create a space for myself and for my homies, which was my intention back then. I was inspired by other historical art movements, particularly in Europe – the Constructivists from Russia, the Futurists in Italy, the Surrealists. They had these kinds of ideas about really doing something focused, radical and game-changing. I found it fascinating and wanted to do something similar with graffiti and other artists. So I was able to gather a bunch of people – myself, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Futura – and we all had a similar goal. And then we looked out for each other, turned each other on to different stuff and we built enough of a groundswell of support across an interesting spectrum of creatives that helped knocked down barriers for people who were just too dumb to get it.”
Another ’hood hero Fab 5 Freddy introduced to the world was Dapper Dan. Fab remembers, “Rap magazines still hadn’t happened when Yo! MTV Raps began, but I had a hit show with a national audience, so I thought, ‘Let’s show people what goes into making music, making the culture. Let me figure out who the style maestros are,’ and Dapper Dan was that dude. Dapper Dan was the couture designer of the moment. He was designing outfits for the artists you see in Contact High – Eric B. & Rakim, LL Cool J, even KRS-One, Dapper Dan made all of that stuff. Salt-N-Pepa too, he made those outfits as well. It was just at the point where we reached a mainstream audience outside of the inner circle of the ’hood in Harlem and the hip-hop world.”
Long before the luxury brands ventured into athleisurewear, Dapper Dan was creating bootlegged logo-strewn looks, thus making the codes of the European fashion houses available to his community – much to the consternation and legal wrath of the likes of Gucci, Fendi, Louis Vuitton, and MCM, who eventually issued cease-and-desists that forced his operation underground.
An uncredited homage to one of Dapper Dan’s designs on the Gucci Cruise catwalk by Alessandro Michele in 2018 eventually led to a peace treaty, which resulted in a Gucci x Dapper Dan collaboration, with the Italian brand building an atelier for Dapper Dan in Harlem. “I think it was just great and, in a sense, long overdue,” Fab admits. “It was a smart move that Gucci made, as opposed to fighting the force, which all of those luxury brands did in the beginning. They didn’t want to have Black and Latin street people wearing high-fashion super-exclusive luxury brands. They have now come to the table, which is a beautiful thing. It really frames the whole topic that Virgil Abloh runs Louis Vuitton menswear, a multibillion-dollar fashion brand. This is a dude that six or seven years ago was making streetwear and T-shirts for Kanye West. Now, he’s running Louis Vuitton,” he laughs.
For Vikki Tobak, the making of Contact High was the beginning of creating an archive of hip-hop’s visual legacy. “Photographers like Jamel Shabazz and Joe Conzo were documentarians, and now all these years later are thinking about what to do with their archives. Part of the process of Contact High was going through these contact sheets – which a lot of photographers hadn’t looked at for many years or hadn’t organised – and I started to realise how important it is that these images are preserved and stored, long-term. After these photographers pass away, who’s going to have these archives?
There are a lot of private companies trying to control these images, so it’s a big decision.” She continues, “It’s really more of a technology play. Digitising archives is very labour intensive and it’s going to take a large-scale cultural archiving initiative and bringing in the likes of Google or a company that has the capabilities, the manpower and the money to archive it so they can be accessed by the public.”
Ironically, Contact High has fresh appeal and significance in the digital age. Vikki notes, “There’s been a huge resurgence in vinyl records and analogue photography lately. I think what people are drawn to is the humanity of it. We live in this world where Instagram and digital media and Photoshopping and a lot of what we see in this world is perfect. And so when you start seeing a contact sheet, with its mistakes and messiness; when you start hearing all the little hisses, bumps, scratches on the record, it connects you to the shared human thing of imperfection,” she marvels.
“It’s really important to show that, especially in this day and age. I think it’s something that young kids are really connected to because they grew up on perfection and finished products. It’s important to share the mistakes and the messiness and these aspects of being human. There’s nothing like holding a record in your hand and turning it over and reading the liner notes. There’s nothing like figuring out on your analogue camera, and having the flash go off maybe accidentally to see what that does. And definitely, I feel like that’s new almost to this generation.”
So far, Manarat Al Saadiyat has been the only stop on the Contact High exhibition tour outside the US, but Fab 5 Freddy and Vikki have plans for world domination. “It’s really important for me to have this show travel globally so that I’m putting that out there in the universe to places like South Africa and Egypt and London, to keep the message going.” Vikki adds, “I feel like every city now across the world has a local hip-hop scene, has its own kind of history and community and I feel like every city will have its own special interpretation of the show.” And if you don’t know, now you know.