Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Eric B & Rakim

Rakim & Eric B, Toronto, 1987

I CAN'T EXPLAIN WHY NOW, but for at least a year or so at Nerve I ended up being a big part of the magazine's coverage of hip-hop, which is what I'm sure we were calling it by then, "rap" having gone the way of "jass" and "beat music." From 1986 till the early '90s, I ended up reviewing, shooting and/or interviewing LL Cool J, Run-DMC, Ice Cube, Ice-T, Schoolly D, the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy, among others.

The highlight, though, was the shoot I did with Eric B & Rakim to accompany a feature I wrote about the duo. They'd just released Paid In Full and were about to put out Follow The Leader, their probable masterpiece, and I brought along my portable studio to the usual location - a hotel room or record company office, I can't honestly remember which any more.

I had just figured out the optimal angle to put my light that would make my background a mostly bright white, and my new umbrella bounce softened up my bare flash enough to produce a flattering portrait. With some judicious dodging I might be able to give a squinting approximation of a studio shoot, and thankfully Eric Barrier and William "Rakim" Griffin addressed my lens with just enough seriousness that I ended up with at least two portraits worth printing.

Eric B & Rakim, Toronto, 1987

This was just before every rap outfit was obliged to pose with cartoon menace and throw gang signs, and Eric B and Rakim presented themselves with a laconic cool that I was grateful to see as I peered through my focusing screen. The biggest hip hop cliches visible are the massive gold ropes around their neck and Eric's Kangol cap, but I'm grateful for them now - they pin the shots firmly to a point in the history of that music.

Buying a medium format camera was a sort of dare I made myself on my way to becoming a professional photographer, and the first year I owned this piece of hardware became on-the-job learning as I struggled toward creating the simple, classical portrait that I'd seen in books by Penn, Richard Avedon, Beaton and others. With my Eric B and Rakim session, I felt I'd actually reached a milestone of sorts; not that what I was doing was as good, but that their influence was at least palpable.

As for hip hop, it didn't take long for brute demography to leave me behind. Much as I'd loved Public Enemy, they made race an issue, not a context, in the music, and before I was out of my twenties I already felt too old - and too white - to pretend that any of it was being made for me. I still love those first three Eric B & Rakim records, which are now acknowledged as classics on the order of Rubber Soul or Disraeli Gears, which is appropriate when you consider that they're older now than those Beatles and Cream records were when I took these pictures.



  1. Rick, fantastic photos. Is the Nerve article available online or elsewhere?

    1. Nope. I'm afraid Nerve is from very far into the pre-internet world, and it's pretty unlikely to ever show up online. Thanks, though.