7. Sole DXB Brings NY Hip-Hop to Abu Dhabi
By Larayb Abrar
Published on February 20, 2021
The decades-long history of hip-hop finds a visual voice in Vikki Tobak’s book and exhibition, Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop. Through photographs that date back to New York City in the 1970s and up until the genre’s present global pull, the project captures the narrative of a culture developed primarily by Black, brown, and immigrant communities.
The exhibition includes nearly 150 works from over 60 photographers including Janette Beckman, Al Pereira, and Danny Clinch alongside original photo contact sheets that illuminate the photographers’ creative process.
Debuted outside of the U.S. for the first time on December 15th 2020 at Abu Dhabi’s cultural hub Manarat Al Saadiyat, and in partnership with Sole DXB, the curation documents up to four decades of hip-hop culture through photographs, album covers, magazine pages, and even iconic outfits such as the mask worn by the late MF DOOM.
The featured images reveal not only the development of a musical style, but also the mediums through which communities in the U.S. carved out a space for themselves amid a hostile media climate following the Civil Rights Movement in the ‘60s and President Reagan’s War on Drugs in the ‘80s. Hip-hop first emerged through underground parties and break dance battles in the Bronx, New York City, creating crucial spaces for self-expression. These were spaces where Black voices and bodies were cheered on, admired, and ultimately elevated to the status of art – and where the city-wide policing of the Black body could be drowned out by the beat and witty, self-celebrating rhymes.
Organized chronologically, the show begins in the 1970s at the roots of hip-hop history in the Bronx.
Organized chronologically, the show begins in the 1970s at the roots of hip-hop history in the Bronx. The very first image, of DJ Kool Herc standing side by side with Tony Tone, invokes the musician’s early experimentation of isolating the instrumental portions of hard funk records to emphasize the drum beat — or “break” — in the music. Switching from one break-beat to another at his acclaimed house parties where b-boys and b-girls would compete for dance bragging rights, Kool Herc is said to have laid the foundations of hip-hop as we know it today: beats, entertainment, records, and showmanship.
As we move through the exhibit’s visual timeline, hip-hop’s evolution is further fleshed out – from an outlet of self-expression, to ultimately a movement of protest and self-assertion. With the emergence of groups such as Run-D.M.C., N.W.A., and Public Enemy in the 1980s, the image and voices within hip-hop developed a political edge. A defining feature of this turn, among changing social hierarchies and exacerbated race tensions, included the sartorial shift to streetwear and sneakers. Popularized by the powerful images of photographer Janette Beckman, sportswear and jewelry – used primarily as tools for subversion – became genre-defining for the industry. One must mention Dapper Dan, Harlem’s iconic stylist and designer, who cemented logo-mania in early hip-hop and arguably gave way to today’s global veneer surrounding streetwear and European luxury houses.
4. Janette Beckman, Run-DMC - Queens, 1984. Courtesy of Fahey Klein Gallery.
One popular image of Run-D.M.C. depicts each member of the group proudly wearing a pair of white Adidas sneakers sans laces, echoing the style of prison inmates as shoelaces were not allowed in jail. The group eschewed the flashy style choices of their predecessors in favor of sporting the everyday clothing of Hollis Avenue, the street they grew up on in Queens, New York. By embracing streetwear, they challenged the status quo, pushing back against policed attire, conduct, and other stereotypes based on looks.
Sportswear and jewelry – used primarily as tools for subversion – became genre-defining for the industry.
Beckman’s 1987 shoot of the femme group Salt-N-Pepa similarly demonstrates how fashion is a mainstay of hip-hop. The trio is wearing baggy baseball jackets, chunky gold chains, knee-high boots, and stretchy spandex tights. Meanwhile, the contact sheets show a certain fluid freedom. The women are at ease with their bodies and one another. They strike up playful poses, they take up space, and above all, they are having fun.
7. Jayson Keeling, Lauryn Hill - Brooklyn, 1996.
8. Eric Johnson, Aaliyah - Manhattan, 2001.
These early photos pave the way for today’s rebellious, bold, and outspoken female artists like Nicki Minaj and Megan Thee Stallion. Perhaps most refreshingly, Contact High demonstrates the fluidity in female style, the early challenging of gender norms in a male-dominated industry, and spotlights the women who are typically excluded from historic narratives. We see icons from the likes of Lauryn Hill – staunch in her criticism of the industry – to Cardi B, now making calls to de-stigmatize female sexuality. The exhibition’s balanced inclusion of female rappers and photographers makes it clear that as the genre evolves, women will be at the forefront of change-making and disruption.
“We consciously did that,” smiles Farah Bushnaq, an event programmer at Manarat Al Saadiyat. “Even if that meant putting aside pictures traditionally deemed a bit more ‘iconic’, we felt it was necessary to equally include the women who were foundational to creating the hip-hop scene,” she added.
The exhibition’s balanced inclusion of female rappers and photographers makes it clear that as the genre evolves, women will be at the forefront of change-making and disruption.
Power, fashion, and provoking image all coincide in what might be the literal crown jewel of the exhibition: Barron Claiborne’s famous photograph of Notorious B.I.G. donning a golden crown against a bright red background. Biggie is depicted here not only as rap royalty, but as the king of New York, a powerful Black man – an acclaimed symbol of Black excellence at a time when people of color had so few influential figures to look up to.
The genius of this exhibit’s curation is further seen as a precise dip in the wall, neatly frames a portrait of Tupac Shakur placed on the opposite side of the walkthrough. The placement perfectly distills Claiborne’s words from the original photobook, “Biggie ... was a big Black dude. Tupac was the complete opposite. I like the duality of it. They’re both considered kings. But Biggie has the crown.” The viewer’s eye seamlessly connects and compares these two rap kings, automatically depicting the tension between the two rivals, as well as the East/West Coast hip-hop rivalry.
The viewer’s eye seamlessly connects and compares these two rap kings, automatically depicting the tension between the two rivals, as well as the East/West Coast hip-hop rivalry.
Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop first opened in Los Angeles at the Annenberg Space for Photography, before essentially “coming home” to the International Center of Photography in New York City. Now, as the exhibition has made its way to Abu Dhabi in partnership with creative agency Sole DXB, the genre and culture clearly demonstrates a global pull, resonating much beyond its origins.
From Arab rapper N1YAH to Dubai-based R&B singer Sobhhï, the hip-hop scene in the Gulf has been primed for the opening of the exhibition. While Dubai or Abu Dhabi may not be the first cities one thinks of when it comes to street culture and hip-hop, it makes sense that a genre largely concerned with identity and finding our place in society appeals to youth in the UAE. As a country made up of mostly expats, it is admittedly difficult finding that sense of identity whilst navigating the confusion of being part of a third culture. Sole DXB’s programming reflects a very global outlook on street culture, having previously showcased Japanese street culture, South African artists, and Jamaican designers.
While Dubai or Abu Dhabi may not be the first cities one thinks of when it comes to street culture and hip-hop, it makes sense that a genre largely concerned with identity and finding our place in society appeals to youth in the UAE.
“[Hip-hop] is a medium for people in the region to be able to tell their own stories, and it offers a shared connection to communities in other cities,” says Raj Malhotra, partner at Sole. Indeed, each of the more than 8 million expat-residents of the UAE play an important role in the perception, progress, and narrative of the country. Finding the space to express our unique identities while asserting the importance of belonging becomes all the more essential.
Contact High speaks to that need for community and connection through a selection of mixed media, including album covers and magazine spreads. These items include the iconic XXL magazine spread of A Great Day in Hip-Hop taken by Gordon Parks in 1998. The photograph featured over 200 MCs, DJs, and dancers the likes of Rakim, Slick Rick, and A Tribe Called Quest. The shot was taken at the historic 126th Street in Harlem, between Fifth and Madison Avenues – the original site of the 1958 photo A Great Day in Harlem capturing a similar class picture of renowned jazz musicians.
A glossy magazine cover photo of Aaliyah further testifies to the success of hip-hop-pioneered publications like The Source, Rap Pages, and Vibe in centering the voices and images of those at the origins of what is today the most popular music genre in the world. With the hip-hop industry organizing its own photoshoots and stories, the convergence of the right photographer and editorial staff built a thriving artistic community while ensuring authentic representation.
Through Contact High — both the book and curated show — Tobak illustrates not only the evolution of hip-hop, but also that in-between space, the lull where hip-hop was still finding its footing and image. The more than 50 featured photographers capture the nearly universal importance of being seen. Tobak realizes that many featured rappers — from Questlove and Mos Def to more recently acclaimed Kendrick Lamar — were not looking to get into the mainstream. Many were not even famous at the time their photos were taken. All they were looking to do was impress their close buddies, their crew, the kids on their block who were scratching records and inventing the genre with the same improvisation of jazz.
“I want the readers [and viewers] to come away appreciating that hip-hop was born from a community where there were all these amazing image makers that pointed their cameras at a moment that wasn’t mainstream,” Tobak says in a CNN interview. “They just thought it was important.”
In fact, much like the make-up of the Gulf, these image-makers hail from a variety of diasporic backgrounds. From Beirut-born Ahmed Klink, to Tunisian-French Sophie Bramly, to Saudi Arabia-born Mo Daoud – the visual culture of hip hop has been created by those who historically haven’t fit the neat, tidy box of identity. And perhaps that fact is exactly what makes this such a relevant show in a city like Abu Dhabi – a city created out of a multitude of identities, a city in which many are questioning their own identities, and within a larger region that produces a record number of third-culture kids.
The early MCs in the Bronx were outsiders looking into society, and who had a complex ethnic and cultural make-up that they needed to express and celebrate to their own beat. And today, that longing to express and be seen continues to resonate globally.
Malhotra ends our conversation on an apt note, “We don’t believe the function of hip-hop in the regional context needs to be any different than anywhere around the world. It’s the most popular musical genre in the world. It has been since the late ‘90s. It inspires, educates, entertains – and where the opportunity arises, it can continue serving as the voice of the underdog.”
From Beirut-born Ahmed Klink, to Tunisian-French Sophie Bramly, to Saudi Arabia-born Mo Daoud – the visual culture of hip hop has been created by those who historically haven’t fit the neat, tidy box of identity.
14. Clay Patrick McBride, Kanye West and Jay-Z - New York, 2005.
Larayb Abrar is an arts journalist, cultural critic, and hip-hop fan based in Abu Dhabi. She graduated from NYU Abu Dhabi with a major in Literature and Creative Writing, and minors in Social Research and Public Policy and French Language. A global thinker, she has accumulated work experience in Toronto, Jeddah, New York City, Paris, Sydney, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and has previously written for Musée Magazine and Postscript Magazine. Follow her on Twitter for more of her work.
Many thanks to Farah Bushnaq, Raj Malhotra, and Sole DXB. Unless otherwise stated, photography was provided by Sole DXB.