RESPECT. headed north to Harlem, where many converged upon the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture to reflect upon XXL magazine’s Greatest Day In Hip-Hop, a moment in history made even more important due to the event photographer, the legendary Gordon Parks. Led by Vikki Tobak (of whom you’ll learn more about her latest book), Sheena Lester, Datwon Thomas, RESPECT. founder Jonathan Rheingold and more, the packed auditorium listened along to vivid stories of how the Greatest Day went down, complete with timeless video and photos to match.

Enjoy RESPECT.’s reporting of the event below, as well the World Premiere of “The Game Changer” — The real story behind “The Greatest Day In-Hip Hop” an audio recording — as told by former XXL Editor-In-Chief, Sheena Lester.

Cover photo: Jonathan Rheingold

The Greatest Day's power players reflect on the iconic event.

Vikki Tobak’s Contact High Pays Tribute to XXL’s Greatest Day

Words: Jasmina Cuevas
Photos: Jon Powell
RESPECT. Founder: Jonathan Rheingold
Copyright Musinart LLC 2018

It’s difficult to picture a time where we wouldn’t think of Hip-Hop History Month without thinking about “The Greatest Day in Hip-Hop.” An unforgettable moment to say the least, “The Greatest Day in Hip-Hop” was unexpected but a confirmation of what we already knew: Hip-hop is historical.

It’s 1998 and you’re chilling in Harlem, on 126th to be exact, and you start to see some of hip-hop’s finest coming up the block. You’re not sure what is going on, but of course you’re intrigued — these are legends walking right by you. So, naturally, you follow them in hopes of catching a glimpse of musical magic going down. Perhaps they have a show going on. Or maybe they are heading to a studio. Whatever it is, you want in. But what you end up stumbling upon is probably more than your eyes can actually handle. You find yourself on East 126th, in the middle of over 200 hip-hop artists laughing, politicking, collaborating and just enjoying being in the presence of one another. This is definitely more than just musical magic — this is Hip-Hop.

See, “A Great Day in Hip-Hop” wasn’t like anything anyone had seen. It most certainly wasn’t planned. XXL magazine’s former editor-in-chief, Sheena Lester, took a leap of faith and asked legendary photographer Gordon Parks to shoot some of Hip-Hop’s important artists on a Harlem stoop to pay tribute to “A Great Day in Harlem.” When he agreed (after a few nos), neither he nor Lester were prepared for the turnout that would take place on September 29, 1998. Lester, along with some very important people in this story (Lesley Pitts, Jonathan Rheingold, Datwon Thomas, Michael Gonzales), found themselves in the midst of artists like Rakim, The Lox, Rev Run, Fat Joe, Fab 5 Freddy, Kool Herc, members of Wu-Tang, Grandmaster Flash, Pete Rock, The Roots, A Tribe Called Quest, Debbie Harry, Big L and so many, many more. It was epic! So it was only right that the story of this historical day was shared with hip-hop fans for its 20th anniversary.

On November 7, hip-hop fans from all over New York gathered at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture to hear about that memorable day. Along with fans, folks who were a part of making that photo happen and the people in the actual photo excitedly filled up the seats of the Schomburg Center. As the panel began and Lester, Gonzales, Fab 5 Freddy, Thomas and Styles P swapped stories, you couldn’t help but get yourself wrapped up in all of it. From Styles P meeting Rakim for the first time to Thomas bringing Big L to the shoot, the stories had you in awe. Even people in the crowd had their own stories about that day.

No matter which angle that historic moment was approached from, there was nothing but love and admiration for what took place that day. As Styles P put it, “There were no egos that day.” And that ego-free environment inspired others to continue to celebrate “A Great Day in Hip-Hop” even 20 years after it happened, thanks to the organizer of the event, author Vikki Tobak.

Jonathan Rheingold discusses the creation of his timeless Gordon Parks photo with an attendee.
A close-up of Vikki Tobak's 'Contact High'.
Sheena Lester and Datwon Thomas reconnect at the Schomburg Center in Harlem.

In conjunction with the celebration of “A Great Day in Hip-Hop,” Tobak shared with attendees her book, Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop, and guess what photo was included in it? Yes, you guessed it: “A Great Day in Hip-Hop.” Along with that special photo, the book includes over 100 outtakes from rare shoots and some interviews and essays that celebrate the hip-hop culture.

Even Rheingold shared photos he took that day that nobody even knew about. From an infamous photo of Rakim to a photo of Gordon Parks smoking a pipe, the recently developed photos shared behind-the-scenes moments that would forever resonate with us.

All in all, the 20th anniversary of “A Great Day in Hip-Hop” was filled with nothing but happy faces, laughs, amazing stories and memories that would be cherished for as long as possible. Even after the panel was done, people stuck around to get their books signed, and the room was just filled with love. People from all parts of the hip-hop culture connected, and the mood in the room was confirmed by Styles P: “Our culture runs the world. It breaks every barrier.”

And with every year that passes, it’ll continue to break barriers, just as “A Great Day in Hip-Hop” will continue to be the story we tell.

Watch RESPECT.’s video recap of the 20th-anniversary celebration of “A Great Day in Hip-Hop,” and check out some of the photos from that day below.

Image credit: Gordon Parks (as seen in “Contact High”)
REVIEW: Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop by Vikki Tobak
Words: Jon Powell

Back in 2010, I was fortunate to get my hands on a book by journalist Dan Charnas titled The Big Payback, a book that chronicled the Hip-Hop culture from a behind the scenes perspective. That book taught me more about the earlier years of Hip-Hop and Rap music in a way that allowed me — and any other reader — to connect the dots between the past and the present. Our predecessors (doesn’t matter if you’re an artist or writer) paved the way to create this thing, Hip-Hop, that we live and die by everyday. I preface with this because we now have another piece of literature armament that gives us more of that very narrative: Vikki Tobak’s Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop, another recounting of iconic moments in the culture’s 40-year history. Where Charnas centered on the business aspect of Hip-Hop, Tobak takes it straight to the photographer — bringing us through the many lenses that captured all of your favorite Rap moments in time.

The way Tobak curates her compiling of photos and commentary is genius: now only does the reader get a fill of timeless stills, they also get to hear from the shooter of said stills in regards to what was going on to create the picture. Case in point, check out this excerpt from what was apparently The Notorious B.I.G.’s first-ever photo shoot, courtesy of George Dubose:

The Notorious B.I.G./Biggie Smalls, by George Debose
Image credit: George Debose, from Vikki Tobak’s ‘Contact High’

“About twenty of Biggie’s friends showed up midway through the shoot and were really excited about what was happening and wanted a photo of everyone together. I then found myself looking for a place to pose twenty guys that showed up seemingly ‘out of the blue.’ I chose a wall of graffiti that was not too far from the intersection that would accommodate everyone. Only after I closely examined the photos in the darkroom did I realize that some of the graffiti referred to or was done by Biggie.”

Simply put, Contact High is a must-add for any Hip-Hop fan’s library; given the fact that it starts with Kool Herc and ends with A$AP Rocky, you’ll be able to enjoy this combination of word and picture regardless of where in the Hip-Hop spectrum you reside. This is the type of product that bridges the gap between all generations, something that’s sorely needed in today’s climate. Period.