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A Conversation with Chi Modu, Photographer & Hip-Hop Documentarian

A Conversation with Chi Modu, Photographer & Hip-Hop Documentarian

By Torii MacAdams

You may not know Chi Modu, but if you love rap, you love his photography. 2Pac, fists to his forehead, exhaling smoke from a dwindling cigarette? Modu. A lithe, stone-faced Snoop Doggy Dogg standing beside a Route 187 sign? Modu. The Notorious B.I.G., rondure figure cloaked in a technicolor Coogi sweater, backgrounded by the Twin Towers? Modu. Mobb Deep, shrouded in baggy winter wear, standing on a rooftop in the Queensbridge Projects,? Modu. The covers for Mobb Deep’s The Infamous, Black Moon’s Enta Da Stage, and Method Man’s Tical? Modu.

As the Director of Photography for The Source, Modu not only captured some of the genre’s seminal figures, but often captured rare moments of youthfulness and vulnerability. Because The Source was the rap magazine of record, and because he took great care to create a rapport with his subjects, Modu was granted access to discrete bits of Americana. Staten Island’s Park Hill Projects, Houston’s 5th Ward, a dice game in Cleveland––Modu was there, camera at the ready.

I caught up with Modu on a warm weekday at Los Angeles’s HVW8 Gallery. Between August 25 and September 23rd, the gallery is hosting UNCATEGORIZED, a retrospective of Modu’s rap photography. It’s been two decades since the photos were taken, and many of his subjects have since passed, but Modu, whose dreadlocks have grown long and speckled with white, remains enthusiastic about the work. With a sometimes giggly candor, he spoke about his career, his photos, and his practice. And, using a trick likely gleaned from hours with reluctant rappers, he asks the first question.

Chi Modu. Photo: Joshua Zucker

CHI MODU: How old are you?

TORII MACADAMS: I’m 28. Why do you ask?

I’m always curious about the ages of people that are fans. It’s interesting how young it skews. I ran into this girl at my hotel on the way to breakfast wearing the picture [of Snoop Dogg standing in front of the 187 highway sign] and she’s 14. I shot this picture in 1994! That’s why I’m curious about the age sometimes.

I think a lot of your photos are iconic and definitive. I know, when I look at your photos, it feels like you capture the essence of a lot of people in interesting, vulnerable ways.

I think that’s my approach to photography. I think the subject matter helps, but like I said in my talk last night, I still have to see you when you’re cool to press the shutter, so i’m still making a decision. And sometimes people forget that. We’re the ones watching you, and looking at you. That’s the skill of the photography.

I was reading another interview with you, and you were talking about how 2Pac was very aware of the camera, which isn’t surprising because he was an actor and trained in a manner a lot of rappers aren’t.

He understood the importance of visuals. And I think what’s happening now, as you’re seeing with technology today, people are really starting to understand visuals a bit more. So, think about that: that was 24 years ago that we did these 4×5 portraits in a studio. That’s a long time ago, and a pretty high level of quality. He knew enough about how it works and the importance of it, to make sure to be documented properly.

I cover a lot of young rappers, and I don’t know if the quality of their photos and videos is a professional, high quality, but they are cognizant of documenting things. Or they had inchoate ideas about their place in history.

I’d say yes and no. I’d say yes, they are documenting, but they’re doing it in a more snapshot format, and I think that’s the one thing that’s missing. If they really dive in and do true storytelling, it would really be great to get a look inside the world of today’s modern rap star. Not just the good times, [but] who this person is, because I think that adds layers to people. And why some of these people are so iconic is because they have layers.

Something I saw recently, when XXXTentacion passed away, his Instagram account only had one photograph on it. Because a lot of people have this idea of wiping your account, not really understanding the importance of your history.

That’s actually one of the reasons I try to write about a lot of lesser-known artists, because they’re less guarded and they don’t have that same whitewashed aesthetic. I don’t like when people delete the old photos on their instagram.

It’s really––and I’m not being corny––it’s really bad because in today’s world, that’s how we know you are here. Deleting a photo does not delete the fact that you are here. Maybe the thing is that what you’re putting there you like, but you’re deleting it every 5 or 6 months, so that means you’re not really that sure of yourself. What attracts people is when people are sure of themselves. So you have to be careful. I know you’re a big star and all that, [but] there’s nothing about you that’s interesting and that would give a little more insight into your world for your fanbase that you control? I think there is.

Mood! Nasty Nas ‘93

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Are you becoming more comfortable being on the other end of the camera?

Yeah, I’m one of those people that never minded it. I don’t mind it. I know how to do it. But I knew, and believe, that that’s not why I was here. I was here to be behind it. I didn’t come out from behind it reluctantly, I came out behind it because it was time to talk about it. But the whole time you’re producing it, you’re behind it. You’re never in front of it. People don’t have any idea what I look like a lot of the time. And they still don’t, even though I have pictures on Instagram here and there, but it’s not every day, every week, every month. Whenever I get around to it. Because you’re there to see my photography, not photographs of me. Photographs of me just end up being reminders that I’m a person, and you have to do that periodically for people. But in the end they’re there to see the people they love through my eyes.

I feel quite similarly about being a writer. I’m not comfortable being a public persona. I would rather speak through the work.

I believe that’s probably the best way. It has the longest life. I’m twice your age, and I’m still here. That’s a pretty good accomplishment.

I read that one of the first places you shot for was the Amsterdam News. I don’t think a lot of people outside New York, or outside Harlem, understand how important the Amsterdam News actually is. What do you think about your time there?

I think it definitely has a legacy, andI think it represents probably one of the most prominent black communities in the nation. I wasn’t getting paid that much money to do it, but it was worth it because it was the Amsterdam News. I think it plays a role, and the whole media landscape has changed dramatically over the past 10-15 years. But people still need information, they just get it in different ways, so I think a lot of these brands that have a reputation need to leverage their brand and not as much their printed platforms––although I like print.

You grew up in Jersey with a father who has a PhD from the University of Chicago. I assume you got into rap when you were quite young––were your parents understanding?

Oh, yeah! I think they knew it was a youth movement, and when they looked at it––my parents were really pretty bright––so when they looked at it they knew it was important, so they didn’t tell me “don’t do it.” In fact, my dad, very early in my career, said, “You need to stay right where you are. You’re on to something.” I had full family support. I come from a heavy duty education family––Princeton, Harvard, all that––but I think because they were so smart they allowed for some leeway for another way of doing things, with the same level of smarts, but applied a different way. I don’t do mathematical formulas; I do photographs. I’m glad I have the parents I have. My parents were mad cool.

How old would you have been when “Rapper’s Delight” came out?

I would’ve been 14, 15. So in college, it was Run-DMC, Beastie Boys, Ultramagnetic MCs, Big Daddy Kane, Rakim, and then coming out of college was De La Soul, Arrested Development had their little run, and then we got into the Snoop, Dre, Puffy, Bad Boy [era].

Growing up in Jersey, did you feel a kinship with New York’s rap scene? Or did you feel isolated?

No, it’s just a quick ride over the bridge. We’re really a part of it in the end. You’re right there. Real New Yorkers know where we fit into the scene. Sometimes I think it’s the best of both worlds: you get to leave that New York siren sound, which can kind of wear on you after a while.

“We were young, and kind of fearless. Since we were groundbreaking, we were having fun.”

I actually lived in New York for a couple years, and the other day I walked outside and smelled hot garbage and my brain was like, Oh, that’s the New York smell.

There you go. It has its things, but it has its beauty as well. For me to be in L.A., it’s like a home away from home, I get so much imagery. When I come here, I’m well-received in the streets.

You started shooting for The Source in ‘90. What was that like?

We were young, and kind of fearless. Since we were groundbreaking, we were having fun. And it was kind of nice to earn some money when you’re having fun at the same time. That’s a nice combination.

You definitely caught The Source at its most influential and stable era.

I would say not just caught it, but was very foundational to it. We were the critical elements to how people see the magazine. Not just the magazine, but even throughout the community. That’s what it was.

Your photo of Snoop in front of the 187 highway sign was for The Source or Rap Pages?

That was for Rap Pages. There were two shoots of me and him in front of that 187 sign. The ones where he’s in that Virginia State shirt, that was the Rap Pages cover, and that was the first time I met him. The ones where he’s in the Dickies and Carhartt jacket––that’s when we were doing his album. That’s the 1-2 punch. Which we talked about last night.

I think Snoop in front of the 187 sign are my favorite photos of yours.

It’s kinda fun. They’re playful, but they’re serious.

When I look at a lot of your photos, both your rap photography and your travel stuff, they feel very youthful. Is that something you’re cognizant of trying to capture?

Youthful being light?

You take a lot of photos of kids in the street.

Yeah, I think the trick in life is to really have a sort of have a fun life if you can, to stay youthful as long as you can while still earning a living. Because the magic that the mentality of youth can deliver is remarkable. Charles Schulz could keep drawing Peanuts later in his years. Yes, you are getting older––and I’m very aware of my age––and the reality is I don’t mind it, because I still lead. The only time you start regretting your age is if you feel it’s almost leaving you behind. And there aren’t a lot of photographers doing this in this category. I just came from Berlin, and three months before I was in Brazil, and six months before I was in Norway. I can keep going around the world constantly, and always have an audience. That’s the power of these artists and these photographs.

Mobb!

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I was flicking through your photos last night, and there’s a sort of magic to how young everyone is.

When people are young, they’re the most alive. And what I mean by that is, they move in life like they have nothing to lose, so they’re somewhat freer. Now, that can be dangerous but it can do remarkable things. You don’t start working in hip-hop in your 40s. It’s something you start in your young years because you can explain it better. Of course you’re crazy when you’re young, but what we were crazy doing turned out to be this global economic that has rocked the whole world. It’s a pretty wild reality.

I wanted to ask you about one of your Ol’ Dirty Bastard portraits. He looks very tender, and his eyes are open, and he looks vulnerable. You don’t see a lot of photos like that of him, looking unguarded.

I think the reality is the portrait is similar to other portraits I take. The whole point is to provide an environment where a person can relax. And once people relax, you really get to see what’s going on in their world. The real trick for me is to get people to relax, and then the truth will come out. What I also have to do, if the truth is dark, I have to guide it a little bit. That’s the other side, too. That might just be the mood you’re in this year, but that might not be what defines you. So I have to sort of shape it a little bit, where it moves you in a positive way. That’s part of the power of the show.

Mood.

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How do you get someone like ODB relax?

It’s really not that hard. It’s the same way I got you to relax in the few minutes you’ve known me. You have to be pretty open, and you can’t be worried about flaws. And when you’re not worried about flaws, you’re not worried about other people’s flaws. So, when you have that, people can relax. Like, Okay, you get me. You’re not here to judge. And you don’t have to be from the same background to get people, you just have to able to have some empathy and feeling, to kinda understand you might be going through something [and] I have no idea what it is. I’m not here to fix it. I’m here to take some pictures that helpfully solve some of that through what these pictures can do for you, whatever it is. In a way, you do somewhat come bearing gifts, that’s just the nature of photography.

“The whole point is to provide an environment where a person can relax. And once people relax, you really get to see what’s going on in their world.”

I wanted to ask you about your photo for the cover of The Infamous.

What I think throws people off sometimes about studio stuff is that they like my street so much, being out in the hood with people walking around. And I do, too. But sometimes you do cover work. I think cover work is only good if you back it up with the ‘in the hood’ stuff. That tells you the back story. People know more about Mobb. They see the cover photo, but they also see the photo of us on the rooftop of the Queensbridge Projects. They see us moving around in the streets. That’s how they know who the Mobb is. That’s what I mean about documenting and telling a story. It’s very important.

A lot of your photos of Mobb Deep really capture a bygone sense of Queens, or a bygone sense of New York.

They’re my guys. I really appreciated Prodigy, rest in peace, and Havoc. I was with them a good chunk of their careers, [at] important times. When you take photographs of people that are important pictures of them, they never forget you. Like last night I saw Snoop for the first time in 24 years, but it doesn’t matter because we’re back to yesterday. We did some real important things during their young years, things that have withstood the test of time. When you get to connect like that, that’s pretty special.

Something that also struck me when looking at your photos was that a lot of your subjects have since died. How do you feel about that?

As you get older, you realize people die, and when they die it’s tragic, but it’s part of life. So what I look to is: What did they leave behind? Because that’s what defines us, no matter how long we live. So, for me, a visual artist, you see that I’m very focused on what I leave behind. I don’t really worry about death and things the same way as people that don’t focus on leaving stuff behind. You’re gonna go any way, at some point––I’m in no rush, I’m enjoying it––[but] when that day comes––way down the road I hope––I know that I laid enough down that people will remember.

Were you cognizant of legacy-building from a young age?

With a camera, yes. Because I knew as soon as I grabbed a camera, the power of it. It can make people cry. Without going through the work of painting and drawing, that’s hard. Not that photography’s not hard, but it’s different. If you’re kind of blessed with that talent, and you can focus and get that talent better and hone it, it’s the tool for you. The camera’s just an extension of my body. That’s what I do.

Another thing about your photos is that a lot of your photos are in the hood, in New York, in the ’90s. A lot of your recent work is also about poverty.

Oh, yeah, all hoods. Favelas, all that. That’s what I do. For me, a camera is what I use to sort of, bring some voice to communities. Because people look at my photographs, and it’s a chance to put some light on that. I know a lot of people don’t know anything about Bangladesh, but they see pictures on my page. Now they know a little bit about it. That’s more what my ambition is: connecting the similarities and peoples.

“The camera’s just an extension of my body. That’s what I do.”

Chi Modu. Photo: Joshua Zucker

Do you still feel involved in rap? Do you still feel emotionally invested in the same way you did when you were young?

No. Except for when a song comes on in my car. And I’m rockin’ out, and I’m back in. That’s the music. You think that you’ve left it, then something comes and on you’re like Whaaat? Okay, okay. I like songs, and they still are producing songs.

***

All photos courtesy of Chi Modu. Follow Chi on Instagram @chimodu and @mrleicam.

Chi Modu’s UNCATEGORIZED exhibit will be open until September 23 at HVW8 PLANA (5416 Wilshire Blvd).

Chi Modu portraits taken by Joshua Zucker.

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