WALK THIS WAY
In 1981 young French photographer Sophie Bramly arrives in New York City and soon immerses herself in the newly-born hip-hop scene. The love is instant. More than a witness, she starts to be part of the community, using her camera days and nights to shoot close friends and future legends like Afrika Bambaata, Grand Master Flash, Futura2000, Zephyr, Fab 5 Freddy, the Rock Steady Crew, Run DMC , The Beastie Boys, and many more… recently released and limited to 500 copies, her impressive photo book “Walk This Way” - in collaboration with Galerie213 - perfectly sums up this incredible and unique area.
What was the mood of the city, in the streets, in every day life? How did you feel there?
It was a very prosperous time, anything was possible, you could feel the energy in the air and artistic creation was everywhere and very rich. There were lots of parties, and downtown - where I lived - was incredibly diversified: old women preparing their vegetables sitting on a chair on the sidewalk in Little Italy, “Bag Ladies” pushing their carts on the Bowery while vociferating, eccentric artists, Asians selling counterfeits on Canal Street, black people buying their gold chains, etc. The ethnic mix was there and that was quite unique for the US - even if segregation had been abolished - it was still very strong in people’s minds. The rest of New York was more segmented, but you could still feel the energy. The black neighborhoods of Harlem and the Bronx were very poor and cut out from the rest of the world, so I would say that there - it was more about tensions than anything else.
Before meeting and shooting all these
people we can see in “Walk This Way”, what did you already know about hip-hop culture which was then at a real turning point?
I had danced countless times to songs like “The Message” or “Rapper’s Delight” without knowing it was called rap music. No media to my knowledge was reporting it, it was an underground culture that was barely making it in the NY downtown scene and was invisible just about everywhere else. So I knew absolutely nothing about it.
So your first encounter with hip-hop was with the NYC Breakers at a party. How did you start taking pictures?
It was from there that I started asking questions and requested to meet people in order to photograph them. Although I did photograph numerous breakdancers during the four years I lived in New York, I rapidly shifted to DJs, rappers, and graffiti artists. I somehow related more strongly to them. I don’t remember whom I photographed first though and certainly don’t remember deciding clearly “this is what I have to do”. I guess it probably started without me noticing my shift... but I do recall how every time I went to the lab to get my contact sheets, I was thrilled about what I was seeing, about how photogenic they all were.
Afrika Bambaata, DST, Rocksteady Crew, Futura, The Beastie Boys, Run DMC, Slick Rick, Fab 5 Freddy, Kenny Scharf, and so many others, known or unknown, how did you manage to be close to them, gain their trust and shoot them? What was your state of mind?
It was quite simple really: it was a small scene, I was religiously present at the Roxy (THE hip-hop club in Manhattan, where just about everyone from the scene attended) every Friday night, so people sort of knew me and from one person I met the next. People would often advise me to go and meet so and so, whom I should photograph. But I also became very close friend with people like D.St, Fab 5 Freddy, Futura, Bambaataa, Zephyr, etc., and was always hanging out with them. They don’t even remember me with a camera, as I obviously did not shoot 24/7, but I do remember how much they helped me. I felt thrilled to witness something that I thought was rejuvenating, and nothing gave me more energy. On the other hand, I couldn’t sell my photos to anyone because no media cared about the subject yet, and it was quite difficult to have a job without any income. I was lucky enough though to be from a bourgeois background, which allowed me laugh about it... I had expensive designer clothes, but sometimes not even a dime to make a phone call. Thankfully I had generous friends and knew that if things turned really bad all I had to do was just hop on a plane and go. But it was precisely that thought of myself back in France that kept me going no matter what ;)
I read that you have a funny story about the first time you met Rick Rubin, The Beastie Boys, and Russell Simons, could you tell us about it please?
Someone once played me a tape of the song “Cookie Puss” on a ghetto blaster, and the song just hit the right spot for me. I had no idea who they were or what color they were, but was eager to meet a group that had enough humor to do a song inspired by a Carvel ice cream cake radio commercial called the Cookie Puss. A few months later, I went to a dorm at NYU and met Rick Rubin who, while graduating, had just started the Def Jam label with Russell Simmons. He had stacks of records in his bedroom, and gave me my 12”, telling me that he had been the fourth Beastie on the vinyl only. I later met Russell whom I hung out with for quite some time (particularly later, when I was doing Yo! for MTV Europe), and the Beasties, who were barely 16.
Who were the other artists that impressed you the most back then?
I guess all those that where my friends made the biggest impression. Fab 5 Freddy was quite fascinating because he was the only one I knew (besides Jean-Michel Basquiat whom I only briefly met) who could mingle just as well in the white arty downtown scene as with his own people. He was from Brooklyn and his father was a well known jazz player. D.St too in a very different way: although he was already a dad, he lived at his mum’s house in a Bronx project, toured the world like everything was normal, and he had an extra sharp sense of humor. Zephyr was a sweet man of integrity, who never accepted seeing his art in a gallery, Futura was discovering Russian abstractivism and wondering if his roots were there, and then Bambaataa, who was like magic... with his sweet round face and calm silence most of the time, he controlled crowds no matter what and it was pretty intense to watch. I remember a Zulu Nation anniversary party at the Bronx River Center, when everyone panicked after a gun shot. In a matter of seconds, Bam played a James Brown track and everyone was back on the dancefloor as if nothing happened. It was just incredible.
We can imagine that not so many people were documenting the hip-hop scene, while in New York were you aware of Marthas Cooper’s or Henry Chalfant’s works – or others?
It’s true that not too many people where there documenting the early days, but because the scene was so small, I did know of them. Henry was mainly doing the trains, so I don’t think I ever met him. Martha and I probably crossed paths, although I don’t remember it vividly. And then Joe Conzo was around, but I think he was just a little kid... We were all of the same sentiment probably, doing it mainly for our own interest. And that’s probably what shows now, we really had different ways of looking at it. I was (still am) more obsessed with intimacy, so it was in their homes that I liked shooting them the most, and I don’t think anybody else did that probably because with the American approach it is more about staging glamour and success, while I particularly like doubt, hesitation, moments of abandon.
And in the global media, what memories do you have about the way some of these artists were treated in the scene?
Around that time, there was just about nothing! All I remember is one show late at night on WBLS (a black radio station), and maybe some stuff on Glenn O’Brian’s TV show. The only ones I remember receiving media attention were Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, but they didn’t fully belong to the hip-hop scene in my book, they borrowed from it and did something else with it, which is fine but puts them apart. And then in the mid-eighties there was a lot going on, but mainly in Europe. It was still difficult in the US for white media to speak out about black urban culture and it was just as difficult for black media as they were rather bourgeois and desperately wanted to stay away from the ghettos. In France, however, they got really into it, more than anywhere else in the world, but they got everything a little mixed up, and the local scene too. I remember that graffiti artists there would tag or do pieces in the most beautiful places in Paris, out of a need to scream their bad nature. It was often about fighting against injustice. The two cult movies that came out at the time that best show the differences between these two sides are in my opinion: one side - you have “Wild Style” which is all about getting out of the ghetto and making life better - and on the other side you have “La Haine” (Hate), where the title just about sums it up. But in short, the media does what it does best: stages things, and because they are staged, they do not necessarily reflect the reality that you live. It’s just like when there is a bomb in a country: seen through the media, it is general chaos, seen through a local’s eyes, it is often noninvasive.
In your book’s intro you write “these pictures are not a catalog of the past but reflect the reactions of hundreds of teenagers to a complex social situation”. Were you already aware of the unique human and social circumstances which helped hip-hop emerge?
I don’t think you can live something and analyse it at the same time. However, coming from Europe, the situation black people were living in was shocking. The fact that they were parked in ghettos was shocking. The fact that white people wouldn’t go to Harlem, and that black people were not visible in mid-town companies was shocking. I was a bourgeois, and got struck by the fact that no matter their situation, these were incredible people who were mostly laughing and had the sheer energy to make their lives better every day - and it was working. They were not saints, not everyday was fun, but overall they all knew it was working and all they had to do was to stick together and keep working, it was coming their way... only years later did it take the world by storm and change the way people thought of themselves. Hasn’t the world today caught on to how silly it is to dress in designer clothes and logos at astronomical costs only to look their best for others? Aren’t social networks a way for one to continue rapping to others about how great one can be? I realize that I witnessed how outcasts became trendsetters and money makers in a culture way bigger than I could’ve imagined, a culture that saved people’s lives.
Rap music is now mainstream, hip-hop is everywhere and no longer underground but still very creative. Do you like what’s been happening since some time now?
Once things get really big, I find it hard to keep up, so I’m not fully aware of everything that’s going on in the rap scene, like I used to. However, once in a while there’s always one artist that brings something new to the party and gets me excited all over again (Rick Ross, Tiffany Foxx…). I went to the last RedBull BCOne event and couldn’t believe the levels of the dancers from all around the world, they really took it to another level. It’s almost a sport now. Graffiti wise, I’m less aware, but I can see that it is still growing. It is fantastic that the whole hip-hop scene has become commercial, not only because it allows a lot of people to make a living, but also because it’s a fantastic switch of power. I can’t even begin to say how exhilarating it is for me every time a rapper does something with a luxury brand: it’s like, wow, they used to sue them for wearing counterfeits and now they are paying them millions. Isn’t that fabulous?
With your camera, you were really at the forefront, like almost no one else… What are your feelings when you think back about all those incredible moments?
I don’t look back and my memory is very selective, so I rarely think about it and, when I do, I obviously have sweet memories about a New York that no longer exists. What really strikes me is how other people look at hip-hop now, like it was just a massive thing they missed, a time of excitement made of parties, nights in the train yards, days in recording studios or dancing in the streets. But it was just moments of magic intertwined with moments of doubt and moments of difficulty. Things got really big more than a decade later, that’s a long time to wait for recognition for those who where part of it. However, I have to say that when it comes to me, I certainly appreciate how lucky I have been, and how carefree my life was.
You took so many photos… how did you manage to make the final selection and do the art direction for the book, and overall, what story did you want to tell with “Walk This Way”?
It all happened in two steps. A couple of years ago I was asked by RedBull France, who owns an art gallery, to do an exhibition. For that first selection, I wanted to give people some pictures that I never printed before, where the intimate side of this period could be witnessed, I wanted to show what moved me. So I selected photos of famous people from back then, in their homes, with their families, etc. from my black & white archives only. Then, when Galerie213 asked me to do a book, they asked Julien Frydman (who was director of Paris-Photo) to curate the photos. He did something I was incapable of doing: choosing from an artistic point of view rather than an emotional one. It wasn’t about who should be in the book, but what photos are best. He worked with Cléo Charuet, the art director who designed the book, and most of the time I felt more like a spectator, watching them do the book. It was a really nice feeling, as in the past 30 years I never once asked myself if there were any good photos in my work, but only worried about who could be missing. Even at the start of the book, all I ever wanted to do was to - as the French saying goes - “give back to Cesar what belongs to Cesar”. Although my participation was minimal, the book does reflect exactly what my photos are all about: showing intimacy and empowerment, which are my two main and obsessive subjects.
We also know you from the early “Yo! MTV Raps” TV show in the 80s. How did you go from taking pictures to producing such a popular program?
In between my years in NYC and those in London for “Yo!”, there was Paris, where I stayed for a couple of years. It was there that the first ever hip-hop TV show in the world happened, on a national channel, on prime time. France was taken by storm, and for a whole year it seemed that nothing mattered but hip-hop. Even car or yogurt commercials couldn’t be without rap music and breakdancers. The Paris scene was incredibly active, and I was lucky to work on that show. Then in ‘86 I was asked to move to London to work at MTV Europe, it was the director of programming, Liz Nealon, who hired me, who asked me to do a hip-hop show. She knew my background and thought it should be part of the MTV Europe she wanted to do, groundbreaking, innovative. I was very surprised, as MTV back then was known for airing white music only, but I was thrilled too. I called it “Yo!” because I was listening non stop to Public Enemy’s album “Yo! Bum rush the show”, and it just so happened that Bambaataa was in London for the first show, so I felt it was just perfect to start the first ever rap show on MTV with him. If I helped rap in Europe, and European rappers, it was a small amount as the MTV Europe audience was still growing. It was only a year later, when “Yo! MTV raps” started in the US that hip-hop went to the next level. They had a massive audience, Fab 5 Freddy was the perfect host, and bingo, they took the world by storm. MTV was a fabulous time for me, I had complete artistic freedom, was producing my own show, hopping on planes all the time to go here and there to interview whomever I wanted, from NWA in LA to Urban Dance Squad in Amsterdam, it was just fabulous. So fabulous in fact that I stopped working for a television after that, knowing that no other broadcaster in the world would give me such freedom.
Last question, what were your latest projects and what are you working on right now?
Over the past few years, I’ve been more concerned with female sexuality. I felt a lot had to be done in this sphere, so I produced adult movies directed by female artists. My sexual freedom and power is inspired by funk and rap which has led me to work on various documentary projects that explore these ideas of empowerment and intimacy, my two eternal obsessions.