A&E Pick of the Week
A 3-foot-tall photo of the Notorious B.I.G. hangs on a dark red wall in Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture. It’s the image we all picture when we think of Biggie, the one taken by Barron Claiborne with the tilted crown, the chain, the furrowed brow and the frown, from the last photo shoot of the “King of New York” before he died.
If you base your idea of Biggie on the photos that graced magazine and album covers, you’d think that frown never left his face. But the contact sheets hanging next to the photo show different sides of the rapper, including a blurry shot where he’s cracking a goofy smile, all his teeth showing.
These sheets full of outtakes from famous shoots make up much of the traveling “Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop” exhibition, based on a book of the same name by journalist Vikki Tobak, which is at MoPOP through March 2023. The exhibition chronicles how hip-hop grew from a Bronx subculture into one of the world’s most popular art forms. At the same time, it reveals the creative processes behind hip-hop’s most influential photos, providing rare unedited glimpses into artists’ lives.
Hip-hop “has always been about self-definition,” according to a plaque in the exhibition. The art form’s image has always been as important as its sound — the sneakers, jackets and jewelry rappers wear tell a story about where they’re from and what their music will sound like. From early on, the images artists put into the world were highly controlled and curated.
A contact sheet from Eric Johnson’s shoot of Aaliyah (with the photo that memorialized her on the cover of Vibe magazine when she died a few months later) is covered in red “X” marks, where the singer crossed out the photos she didn’t like. The contact sheet shows how much Aaliyah shaped her image but also reveals a relatable side of the singer — she, like most of us, didn’t like most of the photos taken of her.
Though image was important to hip-hop from the beginning, the exhibition shows how artists’ ability to manufacture their images changed over the years. The first room of the exhibition is filled with black-and-white photos taken by amateur photographers, including a photo of hip-hop founding fathers DJ Kool Herc and DJ Tony Tone taken by photographer Joe Conzo Jr. before he got famous.
These early photos aren’t as strictly curated as later images and show raw, authentic portraits of rappers, DJs and b-boys and b-girls who were all on equal footing in the scene before rappers and hip-hop singers became stars. Later images in the exhibition, like the photos of Megan Thee Stallion wearing a thick fur jacket and A$AP Rocky wrapped in an American flag, are shot by professional photographers and focus solely on the rappers.
MoPOP’s version of the exhibition offers some pieces other iterations won’t. MoPOP curator Brooks Peck says he worked with Tobak to enhance it with photos and artifacts from the museum’s collection.
Among the artifacts on display from MoPOP’s permanent collection are a suit worn by Biggie (its width showing how incredibly massive the rapper was), a jacket worn by the inventive wordsmith Rakim and turntables used by Grandmaster Flash, a DJ who pioneered techniques like scratching records. On display, too, is MF Doom’s famous metal mask, on loan to the museum for the exhibition.
Don’t miss the Seattle hip-hop artifacts in the exhibition, including a photo of Sir Mix-A-Lot and editions of the ‘90s hip-hop zine The Flavor, proof that the city had great hip-hop before Macklemore.
Correction: This story has been updated with the correct photo credits.