Who’d veto that? I remember thinking immediately after someone in that fateful XXL meeting brought up a cover concept supposedly shot down before my arrival. A remake of Art Kane’s iconic Jazz Portrait, one of the most renowned photographs in music and magazine history, reshot on its original site? That seemed too fantastic — and frankly, too feasible — an idea for the smart brothers who preceded me to reject.
Maybe my years as editor-in-chief of Rap Pages had inured me to the idea of an impossible cover. Difficult? Sure. Impossible? Nope. There was nary a cover concept, no matter how odd or unlikely, that Rap Pages’ wildly imaginative edit squad couldn’t somehow massage into viability, then, ultimately, reality. We snuck onto government land to shoot Goodie Mob immersed in a dank pond where snakes swam almost as freely as fish. We talked Lauryn Hill into being slathered in sky blue body paint from her ears to her ankles. We even persuaded a lovely young model named Shonda Santiago to let Ol’ Dirty Bastard cup her bare breasts to playfully kick Rolling Stone’s infamous 1994 Janet Jackson cover in its shins. Gathering as many hip-hop artists we could on the same Harlem stoop beloved jazz visionaries like Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Art Blakey and their ingenious ilk once famously posed for Esquire? Hell, what was so hard about that? Granted, recreating Kane’s seminal image wouldn’t be easy. But, so what?
If there was ever a creative crew outside the Rap Pages squad that could do it, this was the one. Larry “The Blackspot” Hester had left Vibe with me to run XXL as the consummate lieutenant to my captain; we were clearly on a mission to tread some new and exciting territory. Everyone was. The skeletal staff at SLAM, Harris Publications’ wonderfully raw basketball magazine, had become its hip-hop cousin’s editorial girders by default after its original leaders’ departure: the wise and wily Tony Gervino, shit-talker extraordinaire Scoop Jackson, razor-witted Russ Bengston, mercurial design man Don Morris, deadline regulator Anna Gebbie and Ben Osborne, the young Wonder Twin opposite XXL’s zealous Datwon Thomas, the two our pack’s hungry, playful cubs, eager to learn and mature at their protective elders’ sides.
It was spring of 1998, and XXL’s inner circle found itself literally seated in one — no table between us, just notepads on laps and pens in hands. Just like at Rap Pages, XXL editorial meetings were, to me, always every week’s highlight. They, too, were exercises in productive engagement, used to not only plan and status-check details of pending issues, but also connect and bond over the music and culture we were immersed in and inspired by. Open, honest dialogue was encouraged and expected, and positions didn’t matter a bit; interns’ opinions were given equal weight as those of their titled supervisors. Spotting a skeptical lip curl or eyebrow raise from a junior staffer was always a treat for me at these sessions, as convener, since those tell-tale giveaways were sure-fire opportunities to coax out a contrary viewpoint that’d inform or deepen our discussions, frequently both. Over time, as those players’ confidence bulked up, the need to cajole out their insights disappeared, making for even richer in-the-huddle interchange.
So, here we were, talking about upcoming features to consider and highly-anticipated albums for summer and fall. Once the subject of recreating the Art Kane photo interrupted the agenda, all else hit the back burner.
But, surprisingly, this bright bunch needed to be convinced we could make it happen.
“Why not? What’s stopping us?” I shrugged in response, genuinely taken aback at their reluctance. “It’s not like Harlem is Mars; it’s a couple miles up the street! Why can’t we do it? Y’all are really going to have to explain it to me. Why can’t we do it?”
Asked aloud, something about the question’s fundamental simplicity must’ve started to shake the team’s doubt from its foundation, indicated by the shift in their body language. Facial expressions morphed from outright disbelief to hopeful contemplation. Crossed arms loosened into slow shrugs of consideration. Eyes peered skyward as whirring prospects spun behind them like pinwheels, sly smiles widening out underneath. A barrage of queries and comments erupted: “How would we decide who should be there?” “The original picture was taken when?” “It’d be an instant collector’s item, wouldn’t it?” “Could we bring in people to help?” “What if only East Coast artists show up?” Having knocked the concept into the realm of possibility, we kicked it around amongst us for a while. Thankfully, it didn’t take much effort to sway them. By the time we finished, their stubborn reservations had vanished — or, at the very least, been outsized by some eagerly-won certitude.
Our meeting ended on a high, the fundamental vision firm, yet morphing with every impromptu conversation and brainstorm summit between us over the next couple of weeks.
Once we discovered it was Jazz Portrait’s 40th-anniversary year, the die was cast, but instead of planning the shoot for a random month’s cover, it was slotted for year-end. As expected, Dennis Page, the magazine’s publisher, was an easy sell, even on hiring an outside firm to manage the whole thing. A Trenton, NJ guy with a love of black music deeper than well water, Dennis was no stranger to Kane’s photo or its significance. He loved everything about the recreation idea from the door, even when originally proposed by executive publisher Jonathan Rheingold, at the suggestion of his wife, Pamela, as XXL’s launch cover image. But Dennis was the man holding its wallet, so he knew, more than the rest of us, the crucial need to position ours — branded “Hip-hop on a higher level” — as a stand-out from all the other urban ‘zines on newsstands. The timing, he’d surmised, had to be right. Seven issues in, it was.
We sketched out a rough framework from which to launch: An open call for every artist or figure — old school and new, indie soldiers and major-label chart-dwellers alike — who’d made an unquestionably noteworthy impact on hip-hop music and its progress or had ever recorded a rap album. That spared us the drama and trauma of having to comb through a miles-long roster of deserving DJs, b-boys, b-girls and graf writers across the country who’d made immeasurable contributions to hip-hop; we’d stick to those who made records. Naturally, we’d ask the inventors and originators to be there, but we’d hit every signed act we could reach, too, hoping that if they were familiar with Kane’s famous Esquire photo — or their publicist was — and believed it worthy of a hip-hop remix, they’d get the concept, get themselves to the shoot site, and get on XXL’s cover. We only needed 57 people to match the number of jazz masters in Kane’s image, so if even a smidgen of those we invited showed up, that’d be a feat.
Now, who to help us pull it off? Had to be someone who’d know the artists to target and how to reach them without any handholding from an already deadline-dazed staff. I gave Dennis the contact info for Lesley Pitts, the fierce, widely-adored publicist who’d been a force of nature at Set to Run, Leyla Turkkan’s standard-setting PR house and hotbed of black-music publicity talent, then served as Jive Records’ vice president of publicity before finally stepping out and starting her own company, No Screaming Media. Lesley’s collaborator would be the equally formidable Biff Warren, a veteran publicist I’d met years prior during his stint at Pallas Records. He’d handled press for a mix of underground rap grimies and A-list R&B phonies for years, so Biff had the trust of cats on Brooklyn’s back streets and in lush high-rise suites. Their combined acumen guaranteed that our ambitious project would be in capable hands. Plus, as an added bonus, any time spent toiling aside these two was just as sure to be a hoot, even amid the stress.
Once contracted and officially on the clock, Lesley, Biff and I took the 6 train uptown to further scope out the block of 126th Street, between Madison and Fifth avenues. A handful of us from XXL had already swung by the site address — 17 E. 126th Street — so we three went in search of the closest nearby church that could act as our outpost, a place with a decent-sized community space where the invitees could post up before and afterward with some catered food, probably from the nearby Sylvia’s. As luck would have it, the massive Metropolitan Community Methodist Church sat right on the northeast corner of 126th and Madison, where a sweet woman named Denise Pickett greeted us with warm hugs. She let us tour their huge, second-floor multi-purpose room and made arrangements for Les and Biff to connect with its pastor to talk specifics. As we were leaving, talk turned to security, and it was unanimously agreed, maybe even suggested in unison: The Nation of Islam. Boom.
Lesley’s call a few days later flipped our entire script. She had a suggestion from her longtime love, writer Michael Gonzales, a close personal pal and professional favorite of mine since the Rap Pages days.
“You know who we should get to shoot the cover?” she gushed excitedly when I answered — no greeting, nothing.
“Who, girl?” We’d been contemplating some candidates, mainly photographers who’d already shot covers for us. Tragically, Kane himself, who was among our initial-brainstorm considerations, had committed suicide in 1995.
Gasp. Of course.
Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks. The groundbreaking Life magazine photojournalist. The founding editorial director of Essence. The filmmaking pioneer who brought charismatic-PI badass John Shaft to silver-screen life, carving an unabashed black-swagger bas-relief onto the world’s cinematic consciousness while simultaneously saving a borderline-bankrupt Hollywood studio. Plus, so much of Parks’ own story mirrored the culture itself. Like hip-hop, very few corners in black America hadn’t been somehow touched or shaped by his audacious brilliance. Like hip-hop, he was the ultimate insider to Life’s mainly-white audience, his images serving as windows into worlds and secrets kept hidden not by deliberate concealment or force, but by apathy and disinterest. He, too, was passionate, complicated, principled, flawed. And his wondrous galleries told tales of brutality and beauty with the same detail and nuance as hip-hop’s starkest, most enigmatic verses.
Even better: Parks had a rich, important history in Harlem, sealed by the moments he captured there. His close, storied friendship with Malcolm X began uptown after he followed the then-NOI spokesman from 125th Street and Seventh Avenue to a Muslim restaurant on Lenox; the fiery orator had just effectively dressed down a group of white NYPD officers standing on the periphery of a crowd of black Harlemites enthralled by his eloquence. Parks was still being lauded some five decades after he pointed his camera at Red Jackson, the handsome, charismatic subject of 1948’s Harlem Gang Leader, the centerpiece of his debut photo essay for Life. Twenty years later, Parks put its readers face to face with uptown’s violent poverty via the haunting, revelatory A Harlem Family and his weeks living with perpetually jobless, frequently abusive alcoholic Norman Fontenelle, Norman’s beleaguered wife, Bessie, and the youngest of their eight children. His sharp, detailed examinations of heartbreak and exhaustion poignantly illustrated the strength and humanity of America’s put-upon black step-children with a depth and grace unseen before or since.
With his fabled eye behind the lens, XXL’s cover shoot would result in so much more than any of us envisioned. We’d no longer simply be remaking a classic picture to cap off our best-of-1998 coverage. This photograph would become an artifact in its best, most accurate sense, a masterwork that would join the universally-celebrated canon of one of the nation’s true cultural giants.
Gordon Parks. He was better than perfect. He was a game changer.
“Oh, my god, Lesley! Are you kidding me?” I replied hysterically after the mental backflips stopped. “That is fucking ingenious! Gordon Parks! He is exactly the right person! Oh, my god, that is the best idea ever! Do you think he’ll do it?”
“I’ll find a number for him,” she countered excitedly, her usual optimism abounding. “All we can do is ask, right?”
Harry Allen and I were arm-in-arm at the Museum of the City of New York about two weeks or so later, taking in — by bizarre coincidence — the Half Past Autumn: The Art of Gordon Parks exhibit, when my pager went off. It was Lesley’s office number with a 911 — for emergency — at the end. Thankfully, no one was at the payphone near the entrance.
“Hey, girl. I got your page. What’s up?”
“Bad news,” she groaned. “Gordon Parks said no.”
Aww, damn. “Really?” I was equally crushed. “Did he say why?”
“His assistant said he wasn’t interested,” she said. “They probably field all kinds of requests to shoot some amazing things at some amazing places, so he can pick and choose. Guess he’s not exactly in a hurry to shoot a bunch of rappers.”
Shit, shit, shit. “So, what now?” I asked her, deflated. Knowing that anyone among XXL’s talented scrum of contributors could get the shot was zero consolation. After being so close to booking a demi-god like Parks, they all felt like let-downs.
“I think you should call him, Sheena, and get him to change his mind,” Lesley said decisively. “Pull out those powers of persuasion.” After a beat, she added with a giggle: “Put that sexy voice to some use.”
Oh, that was funny. “You’re stupid.”
“No, seriously,” Les said solemnly. “Call the man. If you want him to shoot this cover, you really do have to.”
I took a breath, both in resignation and to calm this fear suddenly seizing my insides. “I know.” Fuck. “Gimme the number. If all else fails, I’ll beg.”
“You ain’t too proud,” she joked. “Good luck, mama.”
I wasn’t even sure I had more change for the payphone. Found a couple quarters, thank heaven, so I dropped one into its slot and dialed the Parks Foundation while praying inwardly like a madwoman. Mr. Parks’ assistant answered right away, as if she’d been on stand-by at Lesley’s instruction. After the traditional niceties, she put the gentleman himself on the line.
“Mr. Parks! Hello!” I blurted, trying not to sound too gushy, especially challenging since I’d been standing four feet away from his prestigious handiwork just minutes ago. “My name is Sheena Lester, and I’m the editor-in-chief of XXL magazine. Thank you so much, sir, for taking the time to speak with me today. It’s both an honor and a pleasure.” Shut the hell up and breathe, woman! screamed the voice in my head that’s always obeyed.
“The pleasure is all mine, miss.” His voice was deep, gravelly — friendly, elegant but no-nonsense. I imagined him, Kapp & Peterson pipe in hand, under a cloud of gray hair and smoke haze, standing beside a carved marble fireplace inside a luxe townhouse study, his own framed etchings dotting rows of antique mahogany shelves teeming with rare books and personal treasures.
“So,” I began carefully, “my associate tells me that you’ve turned down our request to take the cover photo for XXL’s year-end issue.”
“Yes, that is correct,” Mr. Parks retorted matter-of-factly.
“Well, I can’t tell you how disappointed I am to hear that,” I told him, my nerves somehow eased by his directness. “We were really hoping that, because of its historic intent, how it pays homage to the generation of black genius that preceded this one, shooting this cover would be something that would appeal to you.”
C’mon, Mr. Parks, I pleaded inwardly. You get this. You embody black genius.
His subconscious must’ve heard mine.
“Explain to me again exactly what it entails,” he insisted.
My spiel was ready: We were assembling rap’s finest for XXL just as Art Kane had amassed the era’s jazz titans for Esquire, in tribute to the young lensman, his illustrious subjects and the objet d’art created that summer morning 40 years prior. We were paying homage to hip-hop’s musical godfathers by bringing their artistic progeny to the very same steps in Harlem those elders’ presence had consecrated. We were making a statement about hip-hop’s import and impact, how it, like the jazz music he so adored, expressed the indelible pain and hard-won progress endemic to the black experience that birthed it, all while being derided by an uptight audience that would eventually embrace it. And we were creating an artifact that would capture and encapsulate what fulfilled promise looks like personified however-many-times over, a family portrait that would connect each attendee, and all who viewed-slash-experienced it, to that moment, to each other, to hip-hop itself, like no other in existence.
His hesitance was palpable. If only I had the authority to negotiate a higher fee, I’d have a back-up fail-safe or, at minimum, an essential tool with which to negotiate. I didn’t even know what we’d offered to pay the man.
“Mmmmmm … no,” was Mr. Parks’ resolute rejoinder. “I’m sorry, miss. That doesn’t sound like something I should shoot.”
Damn, I thought, before taking a deep breath, silently praying: Please, ancestors, work with me. Into the receiver, though, went my only straightforward argument and enticement — not facts, just truth.
“Well, Mr. Parks,” I said, “XXL could get any photographer to take the picture: Brian Cross, Danny Hastings, Jonny Mannion, Carl Posey,” mentioning those names as a sort of subconscious assurance to him that hip-hop had cultivated its own masters of the medium he’d dominated since before any of them were born. “But, in all honesty, sir, we believe no one should take it but you. For every reason in the world that really matters, Mr. Parks, no other photographer should take this picture but you.”
Another deep breath, thankfully not mine this time.
“What’s your name again, young lady?” Mr. Parks inquired gruffly.
“Sheena Michelle Lester, sir,” I replied, every muscle tensing like the crossed fingers on both my hands.
Another pause. It felt like forever.
“All right, Miss Lester. I’ll do it.”
I screamed. Right there in the museum. It was quick, not into the phone — a girl was excited, not insane — nor did it attract undue attention, instead eliciting a long, baritone chuckle on the other end and the quizzical look on Harry’s face when I returned, still reeling, to his side after signing off with Mr. Parks, calling an overjoyed Lesley, then my equally-happy parents collect with the news. Lesley’s delight and Mom and Dad’s pride were thrilling, but it was while recalling the conversation’s minutiae to my brother-friend and watching his expressive countenance warm with each word that the reality of it all struck me:
Gordon Parks said yes.
The tale told, Harry grasped my shivering hands and held them tightly. We just stood there, still, quiet, our eyes locked, smiling ‘til our faces were sore. The magnitude of our elation was … indescribable. Almost physical. It was as if, in that split second, what the two of us came to understand had zapped our unsuspecting spirits like white-hot lightning bolts, and we wanted to feel its enormity course through our bodies like electric currents. For those few precious minutes, Harry and I reveled in the realization, something the world over would learn soon enough: Hip-hop — via this moment in hip-hop — really would be here forever.
From the outset, XXL’s cover event was labeled “A Great Day in Hip-Hop” as a way to double-dip on the tribute-paying: Not only would Jazz Portrait get the love it so richly deserved as a singular photograph, but so would A Great Day in Harlem, the 1994 Oscar-nominated, Quincy Jones-narrated documentary that caught Pam Rheingold’s eye. Directed by Jean Bach, it captured the goings-on the August 12 morning of Kane’s 1958 photo shoot, rooted in home-movie footage shot by famed bassist Milt Hinton, his wife, Mona, and recollections from some of the musicians who participated. Similarly, hip-hop now had an indisputable date with destiny just over four decades later: Tuesday, Sept. 29, 1998.
Mr. Parks secured, Lesley and Biff’s dual-engine publicity machines went into overdrive. They activated their direct relationships with indie and label publicists alike and their river-deep connections to a wide swath of hip-hop notables and industry blabbermouths to maximum effect. As weeks flew by, responses from artists and their reps rolled in just as rapidly. Among the early regrets: KRS-One was relocating out west. Ice Cube had unbreakable film obligations; TV commitments had ensnared Queen Latifah and LL Cool J. Public Enemy, of course, would be on a world tour, and neither Nas nor Snoop could alter prior plans.
Still, confirmation calls kept No Screaming’s phones abuzz: Busta Rhymes was in. So was Common and fellow Chi-town representers Crucial Conflict. Kool Herc. Ultramagnetic MCs. Scarface. Kurupt. Third Bass’ MC Serch. Heather B. Mobb Deep. Eightball and MJG. The Roots. The Fugees. The Fresh Prince? No. DJ Jazzy Jeff? Yes. The original Jazzy Jeff? Hell, yes — plus the other Funky Four. The Cali cognoscenti would be in full effect: MC Eiht, Xzibit, Tha Alkaholiks, Mack 10, DJ Muggs repping for Cypress Hill. Bay Area royalty E-40, Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, Souls of Mischief and the Hieroglyphics massive. Slick Rick. Joseph “Run” Simmons and his big brother, Rush. Andre “Dr. Jeckyll” Harrell. Fab 5 Freddy. Blondie’s Debbie Harry and Chris Stein. Luther Campbell. Pete Rock. Daddy-O. De La Soul. Wu-Tang Clan’s U-God and Inspectah Deck. Fat Joe. A+. Ed O.G. Canibus. Outkast and Jay-Z had albums dropping on the 29th — Aquemini and Vol. 2 … Hard Knock Life, respectively — so they’d be no-shows. Conversely, A Tribe Called Quest, Brand Nubian and Black Star, releasing The Love Movement, Foundation and Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star LPs that day, affirmed they’d make it, as would Schoolly D. Angie B. Kool Moe Dee. Rakim.
Not surprisingly, Les and Biff proved to be all that and more as project managers. They handled every detail of “Great Day,” from reaching out to major print, TV and entertainment media outlets and handling the crush of local press requests to obtaining the necessary city permits and renting a comfortable on-site trailer for Mr. Parks, whose involvement had rendered XXL’s cover shoot virtually mandatory for any rapper worth their salt. Dennis and Jonathan were walking on sunshine next to the guys in sales. Over on our side, the entire edit staff fielded increased calls from colleagues and friends wondering if there was guest-list-onlooker love to be doled out. Not much, no. But we weren’t pressed. We were all flying high.
I crashed late one morning after a fuming Lesley called the office, practically spitting fire, angrier than I’d ever heard her.
“You are not going to believe this!” she seethed. “You’re at your desk, right? Sitting down?”
Oh, lord, I think. Is the church trying to jack us for more money? Not yet. This development was a slight more ungodly.
“Danyel is telling publicists at the labels that any of their artists who show up for ‘Great Day in Hip-Hop’ will be banned from Vibe.”
Huh? I bolted up in my chair. “No, she’s not, Lesley. Tell me you’re joking.”
“I’m not,” she muttered testily. “I wish I was. Can you believe it?”
Just like that, my instinct-led leap the year before to roll the dice at XXL had been validated.
Vibe’s former editor-in-chief, Alan Light, had lured me away from Rap Pages intent on making his book more like our irreverent, edgy mix of hip-hop music and culture reporting, commentary and what not. Upon Danyel Smith’s appointment to the top job after her stint as music editor, she summoned me to lunch at ABC Carpet and Home, where she explained that, as far as Vibe’s music coverage was concerned, the plan on her watch was “to follow the pop charts.” The words echoed in my ears like church bells. Follow the pop charts? I sure as hell didn’t leave Los Angeles’ loving embrace or haul my pregnant-with-twins behind from the big chair at Rap Pages to track pop audiences’ fickle whims. The masses are asses, remember? Our chat made it clear the Vibe Danyel planned to create wasn’t one I’d enjoy or thrive in. That was when I, as Large Professor so succinctly stated, started looking at the front door.
But this time, shock instantly morphed into rage. She’d already brought Lesley some industrial-strength hurt: Instead of being happy for the huge feather “Great Day” would put in the cap of her close friend’s young business, Danyel stopped speaking to Les after No Screaming partnered with XXL. Plus, not only was this competition at its ugliest and most twisted, it was ineffectual. ‘Cause everybody – everybody – recognized that Mr. Parks’ participation, his willingness to elevate this photo into his glorious portfolio, gave our shoot undeniable historic significance. It transcended magazine rivalry. The fact that she’d attempt to cow a single soul from taking part was as mystifying as it was infuriating.
Needless to say, I was beyond infuriated.
“I’ll call you right back,” I hissed, slamming down the receiver before lifting it into a tight grip while furiously dialing the number of Vibe’s chief executive officer, Keith Clinkscales. He had forgiven me long ago for persuading Blackspot to leave their ranks with me.
“Hey, lady! What’s going on?” Keith asked before I could utter a word, probably forewarned by his secretary that something was off in my usually-friendly tone. “Everything okay?”
“Not at the moment, no,” I replied flatly. “A very reputable source just told us that Vibe’s editor-in-chief”— avoiding the taste of her name in my mouth, I was so disgusted – “is threatening record company publicists, warning them that if their artists pose for XXL’s ‘Great Day in Hip-Hop’ cover, the one being taken by Gordon Parks, they’ll never be featured in your magazine again. You wouldn’t know anything about this, would you?”
“Wait … what?” He sounded truly taken aback.
I began again, teasing Lesley’s claims apart slowly. Keith listened with Job’s patience, saying nothing, but I suspected he’d be gobsmacked. One, this proud FAMU graduate would forfeit a thumb before intentionally blocking a lone black person – let alone dozens of black cultural pioneers – from being captured for posterity’s annals by a giant like Parks. Two, blind gamblers in the dark could see how remote odds were that any shrewd media executive would greenlight so chickenshit a tactic. Word would spread like wildfire, and it’d be universally perceived as desperate, not a power play. Keith knew that. His magazine’s editrix apparently did not.
“Awww, the poor thing’s choking on envy right now, isn’t she?” I spat, consciously watching my volume, as others’ work spaces were close by. “Is your editor jealous that our picture’s going to be hanging on museum walls in 100 years?” My taunts turned into snarls. “You tell that bitch that if she keeps trippin’, we’ll throw a goddamn press conference on the steps of Vibe’s building and call her raggedy ass out by name for being the sore fucking loser that she is! Please tell her that, hear?!”
“Calm down,” Keith finally interjected. “Let me find out what’s going on. Stay by your phone.”
About 20 minutes later, it rang.
“Hello?” It was Keith.
“Everything’s fine,” he said.
A deep sigh. “Thank you, Keith. Thank you. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that.”
He chuckled. “I know you do. Good luck with your thing. And Sheena?”
Confirmations continued to fly into No Screaming: Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Marley Marl. UTFO. Nikki D. Saafir. Nice & Smooth. Jermaine Dupri. D-Nice. MC Shan. Chuck Chillout. Naughty By Nature. Freddie Foxxx. The Jungle Brothers. The Beatnuts. Queen Pen. Poor Righteous Teachers. Channel Live. Shyheim. DJ Hollywood. Kris Kross. Paula Perry. Awesome 2’s Special K and Teddy Tedd. Black Moon. The Lox. Jane Blaze. Shaq. Kid Capri.
One early August afternoon, about a month and a half ahead of the big day, Lesley marched into our weekly-update working lunch with a magazine tightly coiled into the crook of her arm and a beaming Biff in step behind her. The pair said nothing, stopped above where I sat and peered down at my curious, upturned face. Lesley opened the ‘zine; it was Vibe’s September “Juice” issue, Will Smith’s handsome mug atop it bearing an inquisitive expression. She flipped through its colorful, 300-plus pages before locating a two-page layout, then, with a dramatic flourish, dropped the open spread onto the table in front of me.
Vibe had gathered the rappers who’d participated in two ensemble recordings: 1988’s “Self Destruction” and 1990’s “We’re All in the Same Gang,” a list that included Chuck D, Digital Underground’s Shock G, Big Daddy Kane, MC Lyte and MC Hammer. The group photo, visually styled after Kane’s famous photo, was taken on Morehouse College’s campus in Atlanta.
Its title? “A Great Day in Hip-Hop.”
I looked up at Biff and Lesley, our respective side-eyes locking.
The three of us burst into laughter.
XXL magazine issue #7 published at the time by Harris Publications, Inc. (XXL magazine is Copyright © Townsquare Media, Inc.)
Newspaper clipping excerpt New York Daily News. (Copyright © New York Daily News)
The events of that late September afternoon 20 years ago were lovingly revisited by Harry Allen and Miles Marshall Lewis for XXL in dual cover pieces for its Dec. 1998 issue and recalled since by Michael Gonzales in articles for Red Bull Music Academy and Ambrosia for Heads. Nelson George’s 1999 documentary short, A Great Day in Hip-Hop, captured the proceedings superbly, albeit too briefly. Be assured, as anyone who attended or participated will attest, it was as extraordinary as you can imagine.
On Aug. 3, 1999, less than a year after XXL’s “A Great Day in Hip-Hop,” Lesley Pitts died of a pulmonary aneurysm. She was 33.
On Aug. 19, 1999, Los Angeles photographer Arnold Turner gathered dozens of California hip-hop heavyweights under a freeway overpass for “A Day in the West.” No picture from that shoot was ever released.
In 2003, John Grooms, with Kemi Dennings, shot “A Great Day in Atlanta,” memorializing the city’s rap icons and scenemakers at Clark Atlanta University. Two years later, as part of filming for its My Block series, MTV did the same at the Gilbert House.
Hundreds of musicians and creatives in other cities, national and international, have staged their own “Great Day” homage photo shoots. In June of this year, photographer Kwaku Alston shot a mix of talented black actors, directors and producers for Netflix’s “A Great Day in Hollywood” at the famous Harlem address.
Gordon Parks died on March 7, 2006 of liver cancer. He was 93.
“The Game Changer” story © Musinart LLC
All Photos © Jonathan A. Rheingold