Martha Cooper's new photo book captures hip-hop culture at its creative inception
As recently as 1996, heads looking for critical thought on the culture of hip-hop were pretty much stuck with a handful of texts. David Toop's Rap Attack was considered by many critics to be the first book to accurately document the rise of the urban movement. Tricia Rose and Houston A. Baker Jr covered the academic front with Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Photographer Brian Cross locked down the West Coast with It's Not About a Salary and journalist S.H. Fernando Jr. essentially remixed Toop's work with his often overlooked The New Beats. These days a hip-hop themed book drops about every other week, and they can all be traced to the grandaddy of them all, Henry Chalfant and Martha Cooper's vibrant Subway Art.
Perhaps the most unlikely of hip-hop luminaries, Martha Cooper, a 56-year-old white woman from Baltimore, began documenting hip-hop culture in New York City at its inception in 1979. She went on to shoot a phenomenal 10,000 color and black-and-white slides, preserving so much of the culture it could even make KRS-One smile.
Her latest book, Hip Hop Files, makes a significant chunk of her incomparable archive accessible to the masses - or at least those who can afford the cover price - for the first time. What separates this tome from other hip-hop photography books, and even photography books in general, is that even though the photos were taken more than 20 years ago, Cooper and graffiti writer/b-boy Akim Walta (aka Zeb.Roc.Ski) spent four years tracking down the subjects in order to include their unique insights within the book's pages. Far from being a casual observer, "Marty truly understood us and she knew how important it was to document the movement. It was the beginning of what turned out to be Hip Hop!" confirms DURO, one of the first writers she came into contact with after meeting DONDI, "her official guide into graffiti subculture." Her admiration for these cultural revolutionaries reverberates throughout the pictures and words included in the book, which includes chapters on writers, b-boys, DJs and emcees, style, and early media coverage.
The chapter on graffiti art is especially significant because it includes much more than the standard shots of colorful pieces. Cooper wisely documents the entire creation process as well. To capture her subjects, she spent time in blackbook sessions at DONDI's house, frequently waited at an empty lot in the South Bronx for more than five hours for beautifully bombed trains to roll by, and went to the yards on multiple after-hours occasions. Cooper understood the power of graffiti, both as an art form and as a vehicle of social change, as reflected by TRACY 168: "Back when you could still paint the trains, the subway cars were moving canvases. Millions and millions of people were looking at canvases that were brought to them instead of them having to go somewhere. People don't have time to go to no museum. For the first time, it was art for the people, by the people." KASE 2 adds: "Graffiti can save someone's life because it takes you away from being a drug addict or runnin' around in the ghetto with other drug addicts. It's a feelin' when people got a good common sense of doing something or working something together."
Despite her extensive coverage of graff, Cooper didn't isolate the art from its culture and covered all aspects of hip-hop's visual and aural elements in depth. Her first exposure to breakdancing came in 1980, when her photo editor at the New York Post heard on the police radio that there was a riot in Washington Heights. The alleged disturbance turned out to be a group of elementary school age b-boys battling in the subway station. She went on to cover battles everywhere from block parties in the South Bronx to outdoor festivals at Lincoln Center.
"It was amazing to see how quickly this previously unknown activity was catapulted into the mainstream. At first, I tried to photograph all the events, but soon there was so many, I couldn't keep up," Cooper recalls. Many first-generation heads would beg to differ, remembering Martha as the ubiquitous white woman with the camera bag at all hip-hop related events.
Easy Ad, of Cold Crush fame, makes this case for the musical and cultural movement captured within the pages of Cooper's book: "Hip-Hop, to me, represents many different things. It represents culture, it represents growth, it represents knowledge, and it represents freedom." Cooper does an amazing job of capturing these elements in her work. Gratitude is echoed throughout the pages of Hip Hop Files, with perhaps the best reflection offered by b-boy Mr. Freeze: "All I can say is that if it wasn't for Martha Cooper, our culture would not have been captured in its purest form. Thank God for Martha's dedication, for her love of our culture." •
| Hip Hop Files: Photographs 1979-1984
By Martha Cooper
From Here to Fame
$39.95, 237 pages
By M. Solis and Kate Dalton