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Sue Kwon: Rap Is Risen: New York Photographs 1988–2008

Words: Calum Gordon

Images: courtesy of Sue Kwon

It’s easy to romanticize the past. Comforting even. To look back at its imperfections, realities, and complexities, all smoothed out with the distance of time, and think that it was somehow better. Usually, this is false.

But one example where this probably does ring true is publishing. The money was astronomical; the expense accounts, unparalleled; and the access to the subject, unbridled. Periodically, an anecdote about the good old days will be published, and then shared with incredulity across social media. Recently, it was Candace Bushnell revealing that, during the 1990s, she would receive 5,000 dollars a month from Vogue to write her column “People Are Talking About.” The inarguable truth, it seems, was that for publishing – magazines, newspapers, books – things were better back then.

Rap is Risen, a new book by New York photographer Sue Kwon, which charts the city’s hip hop scene from the late 80s to the late aughts, is yet another example of this. It is a tome that flaunts its unfettered access to the stars of 90s rap music, from Mobb Deep to Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Notorious BIG. 


“In the beginning, art directors, photo editors or whoever would often hand you a phone number, usually of the artist themselves or another contact that was close to the artist,” remembers Kwon. “Or, I would simply pick a location to meet the artist and they would be told where to show up — no glam or stylist either. By the end of the 1990s, this rarely happened anymore.”


But Kwon’s book is more than a case of right place, right time. The vast majority of the images featured have never seen the light of day before, many of them offering candid or tender glimpses of faces we have come to recognize so well: Fat Joe playing baseball, Method Man with his young son, NAS in the studio — deep in thought, pen in hand. These images are where Kwon’s inarguable talent becomes apparent, in her ability to capture a flickering moment of magic, or put someone at ease to the extent their personality can shine through. Often both. 

Rap is Risen allows the reader to indulge in nostalgia for a scene that no longer exists. Both rap and publishing’s golden era, some might say. But in its recording of emergent celebrities, often away from the glare of the public eye, it is also a document of an embryonic scene that would reconfigure pop culture at large. As a result, it offers a sense of romance, but just as importantly, reality.

C G_________You’re perhaps best known for your work within music, spanning hip hop to hardcore. Is that the route you always wanted to go down with your photography?

S K_________I originally wanted to be a war photographer, but the birth of my first son and no war conflict immediately accessible to me was more than enough to keep my feet planted on the streets of NYC. I was able to continue shooting for various publications, such as The Source and Village Voice where I was given a variety of assignments related to NYC. I feel very fortunate that I was able to combine my love of music with my love for photography.


C G_________Let’s talk about Rap is Risen. What provided the impetus for you to publish this book?

S K_________When I first envisioned it, I was also planning to include shots of skateboarders and New York City street scenes, but once my editor and I started going through my contact sheets it quickly became obvious hip hop was deserving of the whole book. We went through a couple thousand contact sheets, negatives, and transparencies that had been stored away for a long time. Over a period of months, working almost every day, we narrowed it down to about 800 images – 300 of which made the final cut.

C G_________There’s an intimacy to a lot of the photos included, as noted in the book’s blurb. How did you manage to put your subjects at ease, allowing you to capture these moments?

S K_________ I prefer to let them be who they are, what they are feeling. Of course, the way I may frame an image imparts my point of view, but it’s important to be respectful to the subject, to have a sense of trust. Photographing people is a collaboration and I am grateful that people allow me within their space to capture that singular moment.


C G_________Do you have a favorite image in the book?  

S K_________ I have many favorites, but I’ll speak to the image of ODB laughing on page 82. This was captured in-between takes on the set of the Brooklyn Zoo video on Mott Street and Pell Street in Chinatown. This is the last shot on the roll and when I got my film back, I knew it was the one. He was purposefully making goofy faces and then this moment is when he cracked himself up. Right after, he was called back to set and that ended this session. I love the candor of his joy in this purely unguarded moment.

 This article was taken from issue 06 of WIP magazine, available from Carhartt WIP stores and our online shop.