How are you?
I’m feeling blessed. I really am. This is long overdue, my, I wouldn’t want to say “fame,” but just me being able to share with the hip-hop community and the world what I’ve been doing all these years. It’s a good feeling.
How did you get your start in music?
My dad was Tito Puente’s manager. That’s how I was introduced into the Latin music, by hanging out with my dad. I went to school with Tony Tone and Easy A.D. from the Cold Crush Brothers. That was my introduction into hip-hop. My grandmother was a big political activist in the Bronx at the time. That affected my upbringing in the Bronx. There are really three sides to my story.
What inspired you to start taking pictures?
My photography started in the early ‘80’s from my stepfather. I went to a private school, Columbia University in Manhattan. I was a high school photographer and that was when I was just getting introduced to the Cold Crush Brothers. I was taking pictures of the school basketball team where Easy A.D. was a star. When him and Tony were starting the Cold Crush Brothers, I was invited to take pictures. Back then I was a disco head. We’re talking the late ‘70’s, the height of disco. I went one day with them and that was it. It was at the T-Connection. I’ll never forget it. It was up on Gunhill Road in White Plains. I took pictures of these six guys, four guys rapping on the mic and two guys DJ’ing up in the DJ booth. I liked the breakbeats, I liked the groove and I liked what they were saying. The rest is history. It was the beginning of a 30 year friendship and career.
At the time, did you ever see the Cold Crush Brothers becoming legends in music?
Hell no. I thought at the time that I could make a few dollars by taking pictures. My aspiration at the time was to become a professional photographer. I thought I could make a few dollars working with them, but it grew into a friendship and a bond that’s lasted 30 years.
Some people involved in the business side of hip-hop today are aspiring or failed rappers or DJ’s. Did you ever have any musical aspirations?
I had a love for music. That was my aspiration. I had a love for music. In my house, you had the Latin music being played, the R&B being played and all of that. While my father was listening to Tito Puente, my mother was at the Apollo listening to Aretha Franklin. Me as a kid growing up in the disco era, I was listening to disco. My passion was the music itself and my contribution to the culture was documenting its inception, its birth. I was a people person and I still am a people person and I documented everything. I was a part of the band, so to speak. I was not a rapper or DJ. I was the Cold Crush’s full-time photographer. I was a part-time roadie, a part-time promoter…We all had our roles in the Cold Crush.
What was that experience like?
Picture yourself being a teenager being around a bunch of guys at the beginning of this phenomenon called hip-hop. It was unreal from the girls, the traveling, the notoriety, the club scenes and everything. It was just awesome.
Who were your favorite subjects to shoot?
Girls. Being a chubby little kid with a big afro who didn’t really play any sports and didn’t really have any outspoken talent, I realized that girls love having their picture taken. A man with a camera or a boy with a camera has a lot of girlfriends. I loved taking pictures of people and my surroundings. It was just awesome.
Are you still in touch with the Cold Crush Brothers today?
It was a bonding relationship that is still good 30 years later. Every single one of the Cold Crush Brothers, Charlie Chase, Tony Tone, Caz, J.D.L., K.G. and A.D., we’re all still good, good brothers today. There isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t speak to each and every one of them, especially in the last couple of years. There have been time periods when we have gone years without speaking to each other, especially when I was going through my drug days and trying to find myself. Now we’re all the best of friends and everything is good.
How much experience did you have studying photography before you started shooting?
I wanted to become a professional photographer. That was my dream and aspiration. I took a year off from school after high school. I worked for a fine arts photographer downtown. I practiced my craft, learned some techniques and different aspects of photography, and then I did a year and some change at the School of Visual Arts. That’s the most prestigious visual arts school in the country. Being a kid from the Bronx, I could not afford the $20,000 a year in college tuition. I’m pretty much self-taught.
How would you describe your contribution to hip-hop?
I documented the birth of hip-hop and the social changes in the Bronx in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s when the Bronx was burning and the governor of New York told the people of New York City to go to hell. I also saw the height of Latin music in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s. That’s when Latin music was at its peak. That’s what my archives consist of. The ‘70’s and ‘80’s weren’t really documented. They were to a point, but they weren’t really documented that much. I’m just a product of the Bronx who happened to be walking around with a camera 24-7.
Did you have a lot of competition when you started?
No. There was no other competition. There was nobody else taking pictures. Charlie Ahearn came up from Manhattan to document, but his intentions were making a movie. Then you had Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant who were sent up to the Bronx to document this phenomenon that was happening. As far as competition, I was having a good time. They were here for other reasons, and God bless them because their archives are spectacular, but I’ll never forget Tony Tone saying in an interview one time that Joey Kane, now known as Joe Conzo, was a part of the Bronx and a part of hip-hop who is hip-hop. He said, “He wasn’t sent here to cover something.” My photographs have been described as “a fly on the wall documenting something.” When you have an outsider come in and take pictures, the pictures seem posed and unnatural. But when you have somebody who’s a part of something taking pictures, the pictures are more natural, more loose and more uninhibited. As far as competition, there were only a handful of people documenting that. That was only a handful of people like Charlie Ahearn and Martha Cooper. You had Jamel Shabazz who was documenting a whole different style in Brooklyn. You had Ernie Paniccioli who is considered the dean of hip-hop photography. His early work is mostly graffiti that was around the time when hip-hop became commercial.
When hip-hop became commercial, how did things change on the photography scene?
Around the time things became commercial, like in the early ‘80’s, the Cold Crush were pretty much becoming commercial themselves. I had started dibbing and dabbing into drugs, so my photography wasn’t as extensive as it was in the beginning. The photography scene changed a lot. It wasn’t being done for the passion and love for hip-hop. It was being done because “we’re putting an album out. We have to get on the radio and we have to sell this record.” Russell Simmons said that the Cold Crush could have been the greatest hip-hop group ever if they had just stuck to their game. Their game was being the raw, tough, harmonizing group. But when they became commercial with punk rock and rap and changed their appearance, things got different. Things changed.
My photography was pretty much coming to an end in terms of documenting the culture of hip-hop around ’83 and ’84 when I started getting heavy into drugs.
Looking back on your drug problem, is that something you had to go through or do you want those days back?
By all means, if I hadn’t gone through what I went through in those days, in terms of my drug experiences, being homeless, getting arrested and all that, those life experiences made me into the man that I am today. As much as I’d like to change some of the experiences that I went through, those experiences shaped who I am today. I am a 15 year veteran with the New York City Fire Department. I am a union official with the largest union of EMT’s and paramedics in the nation. I travel across the world promoting activism and unionism. And my photography stands alone. Who would ever imagine a kid from the South Bronx like me and an ex-dope fiend traveling to London and Japan and having a book deal? My images were being shown at the Apollo Theater for the New York Hip-Hop Dance Convention. That’s amazing. I’m blessed.
How active are you in photography today?
I’m more active today than I ever was. I’m a staff photographer for Hip-Hop Connection Magazine based out of London. Whenever they need a New York photographer, I get called. Every day I get another email from a publication for pictures. Last weekend I was shooting Roberta Flack in concert. I got a show coming up at Hostos Community College for Latin Jazz Week. They’re showing 30 of my images of my Latin music archives of artists like Tito Puente and Ray Barretto. The Latin Grammy’s just called me up and told me they needed pictures.
I shoot more today than I ever have. I’m shooting lots of hip-hop. The last two years, I shot the annual Save Hip-Hop Concert in July in Crotona Park in the Bronx. I shot the VH1 Hip-Hop Honors. I shot Ice-T at BB King’s. I shot Rakim. I’m shooting more and more today than I ever did, whether it’s hip-hop, Latin music or events like the Immigrant Rights Demonstration.
How important is your contribution to hip-hop?
I don’t want to sound egotistical or anything like that. I’ll quote Charlie Chase. Charlie said, “If it wasn’t for somebody like Joe Conzo who documented the Cold Crush Brothers way back or the Treacherous Three or Afrika Bambaataa or Kool Herc, who would have known or seen what we had done back then?” My archives and my body of photos are here today to show people what happened back then. I think it’s a significant contribution. When you have the Smithsonian breathing down your neck to get your archives, I think that’s pretty significant.
Charlie Ahearn gets a lot of credit for his work while you often don’t get mentioned. Do you feel like Charlie gets too much credit?
Charlie has contributed to this culture and you have to tip your hat off to him. Charlie made one of the most influential hip-hop movies. That’s big. That movie took the culture of hip-hop worldwide. The Cold Crush Brothers and a bunch of other people went to a bunch of countries like Japan behind that movie (Wild Style). So he deserves all the credit he’s getting today and all the credit he’ll ever get. We may not see eye-to-eye all the time. I was a little pissed at the book Yes, Yes Y’all because they used a lot of my photos without photo credit or payment. But that’s okay. Charlie’s a great person. He’s a great person.
Is photography an element of hip-hop?
Of course. Of course. It is just now, in the last two or three years, that photography and video recordings are being recognized. I’d like to call myself, Jamel Shabazz and Ernie Paniccioli the sixth element of hip-hop – the documentarians, so to speak. Because without us documenting this phenomenon, what references would we have to this culture? None. Graf writers do what they do. B-Boys do what they do. MC’s do what they do. DJ’s do what they do. Bam says the fifth element is knowledge and respect. A lot of people feel the documentators are the sixth element of hip-hop.
Are you constantly upgrading your equipment today?
You have to. You have to change with the technology. I used to smoke a bag of weed and spend hours in the darkroom in my house developing my pictures. At each Cold Crush event, we would throw out pictures to the crowd. I would blow up a few hundred 8x10’s in my bathroom. It’s not like now where you can drop off the film at the store and come back a half-hour later and you have a hundred 8x10’s. I had to do it by myself by hand. I love film. Digital photography is the new technology. My darkroom is my computer today. I just did a photo shoot for the New York Hip-Hop Dance Convention. I hung out with Beyonce and Britney Spears. I went home, loaded the pictures into Photoshop, tweaked them a little and sent them out.
What do you think of Photoshop?
It’s good. I can do what I do in the darkroom with Photoshop. It’s just replacing chemicals. Yeah, you can take somebody’s head and put it somewhere else. I could do that in the darkroom also. Photoshop is a great tool to have.
With all the new technology so easily available, do you think hip-hop photography will get watered down?
If somebody wants to take pictures, be my guest. Photography, for me, was a way for me to escape my environment growing up in the South Bronx, just as hip-hop was a tool for getting out of the streets in the South Bronx. If I can pass that on to any kid today who would rather pick up a camera than a gun and save him from the streets of the Bronx, by all means, pick up a camera. Pick up a camera instead of a gun or drugs. Life is a competition, but I would rather see a kid pick up a camera instead of a gun or drugs.
What makes a great hip-hop photo?
A great hip-hop photo, in my opinion, is if you’re able to convey what you’re trying to shoot. There are many elements of hip-hop. If you’re trying to convey an MC doing his thing on the mic, convey it and convey it well. Tell a story with your photos. Try and show the true essence of what you’re trying to show. I hate those posed, studio, non three-dimensional shots. There are some beautiful, beautiful photographers out today like Ben Watts, Jeanette Beckman, Ernie and Jamel. There are some great photographers out there today. What sets us apart is we tell a story with our photographs. We get intimate with what we’re shooting. You can get intimate with a Kodak throwaway camera. It’s about what you’re shooting and developing your eye. One thing Jamel Shabazz likes to say is, “Keep your focus.” If you keep your focus, you set yourself apart from everybody else.
What do you think of the shots used in popular magazines today?
What they do is okay, if that’s what they’re trying to convey. My style is not from a fashion point of view. It’s more from a documentarian point of view. If I wanted to shoot in a studio, I would go get lights and props. My stuff is performing in the streets.
How close are photographers with each other?
Believe it or not, there’s a close bond between photographers. Yeah, it can become a dog-eat-dog world. I have to shout out a friend of mine named Mike. He was a photographer at the VH1 Hip-Hop Honors and didn’t know me. He did me the biggest favor of my career. They wouldn’t let me take my equipment in there because I didn’t have the right credentials. He took my equipment in and wouldn’t take my money when I offered it to him. A few days later, he emailed me telling me he knew my work. That’s the bond photographers have.
For many years I followed the careers of Jamel Shabazz and Ernie Paniccioli, who have tons of books out between them. They’ve taken me under their wings. We have a bond that’s closer than brothers. They’re doing a documentary on the three of us called One Love. Koe Rodriguez is the producer. He’s doing a documentary on three photographers who have spent their lives on documenting the culture of hip-hop.
How’s your book, Born in the Bronx, coming?
That’s coming along beautiful too. I was blessed to have met a gentleman by the name of Johan Kugelberg. He’s a big collector and historian. Grandmaster Caz introduced us. He saw my photographs and was blown away by the candidness of the photographs. He said the photos needed to be out there. Three years later I’ve been out to London and Japan and I have a book deal. He described my book as the Dead Sea Scrolls. It’s a lot of work putting together the book. The book is based on the exhibit of my photographs, flyers and Johan’s discography of hip-hop records. Everybody thinks that “Rapper’s Delight” was the first hip-hop record, but Johan, being the historian and collector that he is, has found thirty records before those records came out. The first hip-hop record might even be a Spanish record. You heard it first on HipHopGame!
How important are people like Johan Kugelberg in keeping hip-hop’s history alive?
It is very important. We must document our culture. Preferably, I would like to see people from the hip-hop culture document their own culture. It’s a shame that other people have to document our own culture. Johan will be the first one to tell you that he’s not a part of this culture and never intended to be a part of this culture. But he’s such an enthusiastic person, that when he documents something, he has to get it right. For Johan to get it right, it’s just awesome and amazing. Johan is my biggest fan, my best friend and my co-worker. He’s the best.
When will Born in the Bronx be released?
The book is slated to be released in September of ’07. The exhibit, which just returned from Japan, will be opening in the Bronx around the same time the book comes out. I would like to have the exhibit open up in the Bronx Museum, but they’re turning their back on me. If my exhibit has to open up in a swank museum in Manhattan, I will slam the Bronx Museum and the Bronx itself every chance I get because I am a product of the Bronx. Hip-hop is a product of the Bronx. Something as significant as this exhibit and this book should be in the Bronx. If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen.
How did you end up in the New York Fire Department?
I’m a paramedic there. You have firemen, paramedics and EMT’s. When I could not make it as a professional photographer, I applied to be an army photographer. They didn’t have any slots open. At the time, I was working as a clerk in Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx in the Emergency Room. I joined the Army as a combat medic. I just fell in love with the medical field and helping people. My career just blossomed and continued. I became a nurse in the Army. When I got out, I joined the New York City Fire Department as a medic. I’ve been doing that for the past fifteen years. I also got involved in the activism part and the union. So when I’m not in an ambulance saving lives or delivering babies, I’m at City Hall fighting for better working conditions or better wages and health benefits for my members.
Does having a job outside of hip-hop help your work in hip-hop?
It balances my life. Have you ever heard the term “starving artist”? I would be poverty-stricken if I depended on my photography. In today’s day and age, photographers come a dime a dozen. If you don’t have that special niche or special whatever, you’re going to be a starving artist, period. Don’t get me wrong, I make a few dollars off my photography, but I don’t make anything I can live off of. I’m not driving a Mercedes Benz living in a five-story mansion. I depend on my 9 to 5 job, which is the New York City Fire Department. What I get out of my photography is that I can share my archives with the world today. That, to me, is priceless.
Do you see your fellow pioneers coming together now more so than in the past?
Yeah, but there is still a lot more to go. We are coming of the age where we’re not getting any younger. We’re getting older. It’s getting harder and harder for us to make a living. That’s not my case because I’m blessed with a 9 to 5 job in the New York City Fire Department. A lot of pioneers depend on their legacy, their music and their contributions to the genre. A lot of them live week-to-week. The unity is there, but it should be a lot better. If it was a lot better, everything would be beautiful.
The common stereotype for pioneers is that they’re disgruntled. Is that true?
They should be disgruntled. Here is something they gave birth to, and they have to fight for table scraps. They should be disgruntled. They are disgruntled. How hard is it for a P. Diddy or a Nas to give a call to a Grandmaster Caz and say, “Come on, let’s do a collaboration”? How hard would it be for them to call Grandwizard Theodore? What’s so hard about that? In today’s world, everything is driven by money for the record companies, so that’s not going to happen. They have every reason to be disgruntled, but they shouldn’t be disgruntled all the time because it’s written in history that Grandmaster Caz is the greatest MC and the innovator of the scratch is Grandwizard Theodore. Nobody can change that. But when you’re trying to put food on your table and pay rent, history doesn’t pay rent.
Respect me for who I am, period, bottom-line. And if VH1 and everyone else who’s living lovely off this culture would respect, and I mean respect, three-quarters of the pioneers wouldn’t be disgruntled today. Respect me for who I am. Why should the pioneers have to beg for tickets to go see a show that’s based off of what they did? Respect is priceless. But when a 23 year-old intern says, “Grandwizard Theodore, I’m sorry, you’re not on the list. I can’t let you in.” Fuck you. I could probably go to Louis Horwitz, the producer of the VH1 Hip-Hop Honors, and mention “Joe Conzo,” and he would go, “Who?” That’s a shame. I know who he is. Does he know who I am? Does he know who Grandmaster Caz is?
How much homework should someone do if they want to be a part of hip-hop culture and earn the respect of the older generations?
There really isn’t that much homework. Hip-hop has only been around for 30 years. Today it’s a billion dollar worldwide phenomenon, but the history of it is very small because there are very few people doing it. It ain’t that hard. It really ain’t hard. If you can do it, I’m pretty sure they can do it.
Do you see hip-hop culture expanding in the next ten to fifteen years?
I see it coming back full circle. I see it coming back to its roots. I can only pray that it comes back to its roots. Life is a full circle. You always come back to the beginning, to your roots. That’s what’s happening. This gangster shit with whores and pimps is getting played out. Killing each other in the name of hip-hop is coming to an end. Hip-hop’s going to crash and burn and it’s going to come back to its roots and it’s going to be bigger and better. That’s my prediction. And if it doesn’t happen, I’m just happy that I was a part of something that nobody can take away from me and I have the pictures to prove it.
DJ Disco Wiz said that hip-hop companies would be very different if they employed one pioneer. How do you feel about that statement?
I agree with him 100%. You take the ten biggest record companies. If each and every one of them employs two pioneers. Start out with Caz, Theodore, Wiz, Easy A.D., Tony Tone…You’ve pretty much covered the foundation of hip-hop right there. There are only 20 or 30 pioneers out there. If each and every one of these record labels would hire one of them, this record industry would change dramatically. They would be doing an honor to the pioneers and they would be giving back.
Do you see things getting better for the pioneers?
With hip-hop getting back to its roots, it’s going to benefit the pioneers, but I don’t know if the pioneers are going to be around. We’re getting older. I’m going to be 44 in February. Some of them are older than me and some of them are younger than me. We’re getting older. Overseas, in places like Japan, the elders are held on pedestals and they’re treated with ten times the respect the elders in the United States are treated. A lot of musicians end up living overseas at the end of their career because they’re much more respected. Why do I have to go to Japan and London to show my archives of work of photographs and be treated like a king and a god when I can’t even get a ticket to shoot for the VH1 Hip-Hop Honors in New York? I’ll never forget my dad telling me that Tito Puente was more famous in Europe than he was in New York. He was born in New York! Look at all the jazz musicians that die in Europe. It’s just a different culture overseas.
Could you leave New York?
I would leave New York in a heartbeat, but I got my roots here. I got 15 years invested in a pension. My passion and everything I love is here. I would love to live in Europe. It’s so beautiful and clean. Plus I love my community in the Bronx. We’re so rich in culture. My grandmother gave her life trying to change the Bronx. My mother runs a drug rehab for women with children. She just opened up a medical clinic. This is what she does for the people in her community. I will probably give my life doing the same thing. I help my community by documenting it and working as a paramedic in the streets of the South Bronx. But I would love to live in London. I would love to live in Tokyo.
What advice do you have for young photographers?
Keep your focus and keep your camera on you 24-7. Photograph your surroundings because before you know it, your surroundings will change. You will get older. A photograph is like a time portal back into an era that’s been gone. You can’t erase a photograph. If that’s what you want to do, do it to your best ability.
What’s your focus going to be for the next couple of months?
The book. The book is taking a lot of my time. I’m also doing little, small galleries. I just did a weekend-long event for the New York Hip-Hop Dance Convention. That was amazing. Kool Herc was honored along with Tony Tone. B-boys and b-girls were dancing on the stage. My work was broadcast on a huge screen above the theater. That’s amazing. Joe Conzo photographs at the Apollo. That’s amazing. I have some more galleries coming up but the book takes up a lot of my time. It depends what work comes up. I’m going to be shooting The Temptations, Natalie Cole and Whoopi Goldberg in the next couple of months. Hip-Hop Connection Magazine in London is always sending me out to shoot somebody. And every day is a different day at the Fire Department.
What do you want to say to everybody?
God bless. Peace and blessings. If you love hip-hop, become hip-hop. Stay hip-hop. Stay true to the elements of hip-hop and stay true to the essence of hip-hop. Let’s bring it back to its roots. There is nothing wrong with going forward in terms of technology and new ideas and everything like that, but when you lose the message that hip-hop had when it first came about, the essence is dead. If you call yourself hip-hop, then you’re responsible for giving and sharing the essence of the culture of hip-hop. If you can’t do that, you’re not hip-hop, period. And like Tony Tone says, “I am hip-hop.” I am hip-hop in every aspect of my life and how I live my life. Grandmaster Caz is hip-hop. Tony Tone is hip-hop. Charlie Chase is hip-hop. Disco Wiz is hip-hop. L.A. Sunshine from the Treacherous Three is hip-hop. That is hip-hop. Support organizations like the Universal Federation for the Preservation of Hip-Hop Culture. Support the Zulu Nation. Support those organizations. Support HipHopGame. Support the true elements of hip-hop. What pisses me off is to open up a magazine like The Source, who calls itself “the hip-hop magazine” and to see some scantily clad hip-hop honey in it. It pisses me the fuck off. It’s not about tits and ass. It’s not about guns. It’s not about how much jewelry you have on. That’s not hip-hop.
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