Throughout the 1980s, corporate media called Hip Hop a “fad,” trying to dismiss a culture that made its way up from the streets and required no formal musical education — just beats, rhymes, and life. It wasn’t until 1989 that the Grammys introduced a rap category, but after a decade of snubs, artists had had enough. DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, who had won the first-ever Best Rap Performance for “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” boycotted the show along with Salt-N-Pepa, LL Cool J, Slick Rick, and Public Enemy.
By the time the 1990s rolled around, Hip Hop was a distinctly underground phenomenon that made headlines as the subject of FBI attention and Senate hearings organized by Second Lady Tipper Gore. Although it would be years before white audiences transformed Black and Brown street culture into a billion-dollar global industry, Hip Hop was in its Golden Age.
Throughout the ‘90s, skater turned photographer T. Eric Monroe was on the scene, creating a massive archive of Hip Hop icons including Biggie Smalls, Tupac Shakur, Wu-Tang Clan, Nas, Lil’ Kim, the Fugees, and The Roots. Featured in the 90’s HipHop Art Tour on New York’s Lower East Side and the three-volume set Rare & Unseen Moments of 90s Hip Hop, Monroe retraces his journey documenting the scene for record labels and magazines including The Source, XXL, Thrasher, and Transworld Skateboarding.
Monroe got his start as a professional photographer in 1992 after attending a skateboarding event at the MTV Beach Bash. He secured a press pass from a friend, photographed a concert, and reached out to Thrasher, which first published his photographs back in 1988 when he was a high school junior. “I didn’t have a word for what I was trying to do but I knew I needed a magazine to get behind me,” Monroe says. “Working with Thrasher gave me my rhythm, my understanding of the music industry in New York, and helped me find my way.”
By 1994, Monroe was spending time with artists like Digable Planets while they were working on their second album, Blowout Comb, while running around the city to meet with magazines and record labels trying to sell his work. Freelancing was great but then, as now, it was a hard way to go to make rent. In order to pay the bills, Monroe worked as a wedding photographer.
“That was part of the everyday grind of the early ‘90s,” he remembers. “You had to do multiple things to survive. I was fine with it because I wasn’t thinking about it in such a calculated way like I was trying to turn this into my profession or career. I was looking at the adventure of capturing different artists and discovering a new moment.”
With only a beeper and a pocket full of loose change for payphones, Monroe had to be on his game, always thinking three steps ahead. He’d network, pass out promo postcards, and be on the set of music videos where he could meet the labels. Sometimes the relationships started organically, with Monroe inviting an artist for a shoot, getting to know the artists without inserting himself into their moment.
Looking back at a 1997 photograph of Lauryn Hill taking a break while directing the video for Common’s “Retrospect for Life,” Monroe remembers the exact moment this photograph came to be. “There were in-between scenes while shooting the video, so Lauryn came back to my area just to take a breath and relax. There’s a lot of commotion behind her, but she was very calm and I was able to take this picture where you see her as she was.”
Everything is Everything
Looking back through his extraordinary archive, Monroe expresses a reference for the years he spent alongside some of Hip Hop’s most influential artists. “I wasn’t chasing the dollar; I was chasing my joy of doing something,” he says. “I didn’t know how important these photographs would become or how special it was to have a friendship or common bond with these artists because back then, they were still coming up and developing.”
Such bonds could run deep. Monroe remembers Wyclef Jean inviting him to photograph his wedding. “In my years, I had never photographed a Haitian wedding before,” Monroe says. “When it was over, I gave Wyclef the prints he wanted along with all my negatives except one just to have the file. I’ve never shared them and I don’t think he has because this is personal.”
Monroe recalls another moment, this time in 2006, when he was able to talk his way into the Loud Records 25th anniversary concert and make his way backstage without so much as a ticket or pass to his name. He entered Fat Joe’s dressing room and waited until everyone left. Then Joe lit up at the sight of Monroe.
“Joe gave me a big hug, then turned to my business partner and said, ‘You don’t understand — this guy is not your average!’” Monroe remembers with pride. “Joe was giving a speech about how great a person I am and I was crying. I was not expecting that, to find out I am that special in someone’s life to the point where they still appreciate you and what you’ve done for them.”
The World is Yours
Monroe’s intimate photographs of 90s icons capture a pivotal time in Hip Hop history, creating a bridge between the past and the present. The artists he photographed were not yet products groomed and branded within an inch of their life; instead they maintained the from the streets ethos that defines Hip Hop.
In his 1996 photograph of the Notorious B.I.G. at “Hoodshock,” a free outdoor charity festival held on 125th Street in front of the Harlem State Office Building, we see more than a legend in the final year of his life — we see a portrait of New York as it was in its prime, before gentrification began to erase the world that gave birth to Hip Hop.
“Today I was talking to a kid about a photograph I did in 1995, and he told me, ‘Damn man, I was born in 1995!’” Monroe says. “We’re having this conversation in the community, not on Instagram. We’re bringing the art and books to the places where the new generation goes, so that they can really touch the 90s and connect with their roots. I’m out here walking around, encouraging them and letting them know they can do this too.”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, including Time, Vogue, Aperture, and Vice, among others.
Rare & Unseen Moments of 90s Hip Hop, three Volumes and a Collector’s Edition. Starting at $29.95. Available here.