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.
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?”
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.