“Looking back on that cover shoot and the outtake photos from everyone involved that day reminds me of why I do what I do. You can see the pure happiness and passion from everyone on set. It’s one of my goals to be an artist who inspires generations after me. This cover shoot in Harlem is significant for the fact that it represents unity, the power of hip-hop, and the best of the best lyricists, poets, storytellers and battle rappers coming together for their craft. I’m an artist who takes my craft serious, and I like to inspire our will to be heard like they did. Everyone in that photo — Rakim, Slick Rick, Wyclef, Cam’ron, all of them — had a power to be heard, and it inspires those after to do the same, just like I plan to do.” — Tory Lanez
My journey recounting the Greatest Day in Hip-Hop only gets more interesting — taking me places I would never have expected … connecting with the greatest people.
So there we were at 17 East 126th Street in Harlem, waiting for Rakim after we had just heard that a major newspaper was pulling out of the story about the “Great Day” exhibition at the Gordon Parks Foundation gallery, where my photos are being shown alongside Gordon Parks’ and Art Kane’s.
Sheena Lester, former editor in chief of XXL, had landed in New York from L.A. on a red eye and, earlier that day, showed up at my door on her cellphone participating in a conference call with myself, a respected publicist and his reporter contact.
Just like 20 years ago, she was repitching how important the photo Gordon Parks shot in 1998 was to hip-hop history. I chimed in and said, “There’s the astronauts planting the flag on the moon, the sailor kissing the woman in Times Square after World War ll and the image of close to 200 rappers on three stoops in Harlem. It’s an iconic image that could never be replicated again and signifies an entire culture — period.”
Later on 126th, as we waited for Rakim to arrive, Sheena struck up a conversation with a nice lady with a thick Caribbean accent who came out of No. 19 as I was putting down the 40×40 image I had blown up for Rakim that I shot of him on September 29, 1998. The woman told us, “Many people come to the stoops as a tourist destination” — for the jazz shoot in Esquire and the hip-hop gathering for XXL.
I helped her bring her groceries up the stairs in her cart and came back down the stoop to talk with Sheena. We decided to stick it out. Where there’s rejection, there is opportunity. Suddenly, Sheena pointed to a black Hummer with tinted windows rolling up the block. It stopped a few stoops ahead and across the street. Sheena said, “That’s him.” I took the picture from the stoop and carried it over in the bubble wrap covering it. The window rolled down and there he was. He looked exactly the same. A tad older. Clearly even wiser. I said, “Before we talk, I got something for you.” I lifted up the picture of him on that very block 20 years ago, and he said, “Oh, shit.”
“You like it?” I asked.
Rakim said, “Yeah, man, uncover that so I can see it.”
“You like it?” I asked again.
“I love it. Put it in the back of the truck.”
I told him, “I’ve been waiting 20 years to get you this photo.” He laughed.
We broke the news that the newspaper dropped out, and they certainly weren’t going to wait the acceptable hour that Rakim was late. He was coming from Pennsylvania, where he has a lot of land and a beautiful home. Where he’s hanging that picture. “Yo, why don’t you come downtown to the studio and we can have a conversation there?” he said. “I just need to change my jacket and get a hoodie and I’m good. Two stops.”
“That’s a beautiful invitation, man. We’ll take you up on it.” Within two minutes Matt Kempler, Rakim’s trusted manager, had texted me the address. I knew no matter what, that RESPECT. would be documenting this experience.
Sheena and I got some lunch and walked to the studio on Broadway. In the elevator lobby, the only choice that seemed to be the closest thing to the studio was Mass Appeal. Sheena and I looked at each other and were like, “Oh, snap.” I said, “It’s got to be.” So floor 2 it was, to the reception of Mass Appeal.
“Hi, is there a studio here?”
“Yes, there is,” the receptionist said. Just as I was saying we were here to see Rakim, he tapped me on the shoulder and told us to relax and take a seat. We met Matt, his manager, and then out came XXL veteran Rob Kenner. And then I see this cool cat walking toward me with some swagger wearing Cazal glasses, a flannel and some fancy new kicks: Sacha Jenkins, a founder of Ego Trip, a respected hip-hop scholar and Television Producer at Mass Appeal. What a trip. Hadn’t seen this gent in a long time, and once again, I knew this photo from 20 years ago was reconnecting me and introducing me to some incredible people.
We waited two hours. Sheena was nodding out on the couch. The red eye from L.A. had set in on her. Then Matt came out and said, “My apologies. Come with us.” We were told that the delay was because Nas had shown up to the studio to meet with Rakim. We walked down the hall, stopped in Sacha’s office to check out some of his trophies and photos, then headed to the studio. Opened the door, smelled some flower and there they were. Rakim stood and immediately welcomed us while Nas was sitting across the room in a chair. It was indeed Nas and Rakim.
Sheena and I talked with Rakim about our recollection of him on 126th that day in 1998. It was fresh in his mind. He even made a caveat:
“I knew back then how important that was, because I remembered the jazz photo.” Knowledge is power. That’s why when you talk to an O.G., there’s deep thought that goes into their statements. Rakim didn’t only come to the original because he heard there was an epic gathering taking place; he knew the importance and valued the history associated with those stoops on 126th.
I explained to Rakim my connection to the Greatest Day and how I happened to bring my camera with me, hence the photo I gave him earlier. I pulled out my iPhone photos and showed him this shot.
He looked at it for a minute as I said to him, “I wonder what you were whispering to that cat. Anytime I look at the photo, that’s what I think.”
He followed: “There was a situation. And I remember that and I had to address it.” He continued to identify who the individuals were in the image. Mystery solved. Amazing he could remember. More incredible how am image can unearth deep memories and events that could just as easily been forgotten.
That’s the core to this journey for me. Keep going, J.R., and the plot will thicken …
I then turned to Nas after he stood up. Sheena was talking with him, and I still have not regrouped with her to find out what they discussed. When I rolled over, I introduced myself and told Nasir that this was an incredible moment to see them together. Rakim walked over and I asked, “Gents, may I please get a shot?” Naturally, what has become apparent to me is to carry my camera at all times or it will only be a memory.
After Rakim and Nas allowed me to take a few shots, I had an interesting moment talking to Nas, who was not there on September 29, 1998. However, he knew very well about it and recognized the significance of that photo being iconic to the culture, and he wasn’t weird about it because he was not present that day — speaks to his no-ego, true-artist perspective on greatness. Plus, don’t forget his dad is the renowned jazz musician Olu Dara. More reason for him to understand the significance of the Great Day series of images, from jazz to hip-hop. He doesn’t deny it. I explained what brought Sheena and I to the studio, and all I can say is while the conversation was brief, he is an intent listener and an incredibly respectful human being.
DJ Shadow had been sitting on the couch, and I had not realized it was him until Sheena dashed to the lobby exhausted, needing to get to Penn Station on time. I gave a pound to Rakim and Matt, and we made plans to continue the conversation about Rakim’s recollection of that Greatest Day. We didn’t plan this experience, and what was supposed to be a chat with Rakim on 126th and then an excursion to the gallery in Pleasantville, New York, ended up putting us up at Mass Appeal, hanging with Rakim and Nas. Not so bad!
The provenance continues …. RESPECT. x Rakim interview coming soon.