When Hip-Hop Was Young

Sue Kwon photographed the artists whose music would go on to change the world. 
Nas writing lyrics in a studio.
Nas in the studio, 1996.Photographs by Sue Kwon

What made Sue Kwon one of the great photographers of hip-hop’s ascension was her innate understanding of the tensions felt by so many of the artists. They were still learning how to dream. Back when everyone, from the artists to the promoters and managers who had arisen around them, was still figuring things out, her subjects were less infatuated with chart-topping pop stardom than with becoming local superheroes. The former seemed distant and impossible; the latter offered a way to craft a new origin story, to represent where they came from, even as they dreamed of going someplace else. In Kwon’s photographs, rappers and d.j.s are imperious one moment, vulnerable and down-to-earth the next, never far from the neighborhoods that made them.

Mobb Deep, 1996.
Salt and DJ Spinderella at the Source Awards, 1995.
Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Method Man on the set of the video shoot for “Brooklyn Zoo,” 1995.
Jay-Z at the Hot 97 radio station, 1998.

Most importantly, Kwon’s subjects entrusted her to tell their whole stories. “Rap Is Risen: New York Photographs 1988-2008” (Testify Books) is a long-overdue survey of her hip-hop photography. Images of rappers looking supreme and regal—think EPMD lounging on the set of the “Gold Digger” video—are as memorable as ones of them cradling their children or making goofy faces. In 2009, Kwon published “Street Level: New York Photographs 1987-2007,” which placed images of well-known rappers, such as Mobb Deep or Jay-Z, alongside everyday New Yorkers. The implicit argument was that everyone represented the city in their own way. “Rap Is Risen,” which was published in November, captures hip-hop in various poses—public and private. There are the pictures for magazines or promotional material, demanding a larger-than-life grandeur. Kwon’s compositional sense is breathtaking. The Beastie Boys huddle together on a Lower East Side rooftop, looking as if they haven’t seen the sun in ages, their faces fading into the gray clouds. Organized Konfusion’s bluejeans and brown boots perfectly match the speckled concrete slab that the two rappers sit atop, the endless, possibility-rich sky behind them. Shot from below, Cypress Hill are flanked by skyscrapers; they look as sturdy and immovable as their surroundings.