Through Pictures, Contact High is Hip-Hop’s Visual History

Vikki Tobak’s photo exhibit shines a whole new light on hip-hop culture and icons.

Contact High: A Visual History Of Hip-Hop features 140 works from over 60 photographers and is currently being shown at The Annenberg Space For Photography in Los Angeles. The unusual collection of images paints a beautiful and haunting visual history of hip-hop’s humble beginnings and astronomical ascent.

The rare exhibit, curated by photojournalist Vikki Tobak, unearths endless treasures from hidden archives, which included these rare photos, videos, memorabilia and music.

Tobak exclusively shared with HipHopDX, “When I set out to do this project, I wanted to celebrate Hip-Hop’s visual legacy. Hip-Hop is now a global force and I wanted to trace the visual identity back to the roots. People always knew what Hip Hop sounded like, but what did it look like? And who was documenting the culture’s rise from the start?”

Hip-Hop pioneer Fab 5 Freddy served as the Creative Director for the project, which features works from famed photographers such as Barron Claiborne’s iconic pre-fame portraits of Notorious B.I.GJay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, and Kanye West as well as exclusive shots of Salt-N-Pepa posing for their 1988 single, “Shake Your Thang.”

The comprehensive exhibit also features a documentary, which gives voice to the photographers who are responsible for capturing these legendary moments and icons of hip-hop and American history.

The exhibit is an extension of Tobak’s 2018 novel of the same name. An immigrant from Kazakstan, Tobak’s family landed in Detroit just when hip-hop was beginning to expand beyond its coastal roots to the Midwest and the South. Speaking no English, she immediately took to hip-hop as she was coming to age in the 80s. Here is how Contact High came together.

BET: How did you get into hip-hop?

Vikki Tobak: I grew up an immigrant kid in Detroit and really fell in love with music as a way to understand America. Anyone that grew up in Detroit understands that music is foundational to who you are when you grow up in that city. I fell in love with it and it was speaking to the stuff I was already questioning as a kid. When I was a teenager in the late 80s, hip-hop was making its way beyond New York in a meaningful way. When I heard the music, I was like I really want to move to New York when I finish high school and be a part of this somehow. I moved to there when I was 18. I was really drawn to to the city and what was happening in hip-hop. At the time, it was really interlaced with the club scene, political activism, [and] the poetry scene. It wasn’t an established industry. There was a lot more of an ecosystem around hip-hop.

BET: The art exhibit is an extension of your 2018 novel of the same name. How did your book come about?

Vikki Tobak: Because I was immersed in the culture, I started freelance writing about it.  I went deeper into my writing and then I went on to work for bigger organizations like CNN and CBS. I started to see how they were treating their archives. If you wanted to go back and pull photos from the Korean War, you could. Photos were being treated so meticulously. I got that idea. There’s all these images that are shared in the cultural experience that tell the story and all these photographers that were dedicated so early to documenting this thing that a lot people didn’t even think would last. But they believed in it. I wanted to set out to create this  visual archive for hip-hop the same way I saw that these big news organizations had for important moments of American history.

The book came out in October. A couple of months later, Annenberg approached me to turn the book into an exhibit. It’s been a really beautiful thing to see people react to this group of photos. It’s really underscoring that this is a great American culture that was born in our time.

BET: Why is an exhibit like this relevant now?

Vikki Tobak: A couple of reasons. Hip-hop is the main global [genre]. Artists are leaders. Jay-Z has influence in the White House. They are looked to all over the world for whatever they say, whatever they wear, and whatever they do. They are icons. They have a lot more power now than even our politicians. We have a section in the exhibition called ‘This Is America’ that showcases how hip-hop has manifested into what America is now in good and bad ways. I think this exhibit comes right on time because of that and also because we live in this age where we really live through images. We are bombarded with images constantly. People really communicate through images. Even if you’re a kid in Afghanistan and you may not speak the language to understand the lyrics. You can look at a photo and it tells you everything you need to know.

BET: You can really see that and feel it throughout the whole exhibit. The level of detail across every aspect is really felt. What I like the most about the exhibit is how natural a lot of the work comes across as. How did you create that kind of feeling?

Vikki Tobak: I made sure to use the contact sheets and not just the main image. The contact sheets show the in-between and the imperfect moments, both of the photographer and the artist. I think because we live in this day and age where we see so much perfection and we see so much of a finished product, it messes with people.  People don’t get to see that Jay-Z didn’t become Jay-Z overnight. It’s the same with photographers. They made mistakes in their contact sheets. I think it's important to share something like this with each other, especially in this day and age.

In the exhibition, you can see that. I have people tell me all the time that different things in the book resonated with them. [Hip-Hop is] the type of music that changes people when they discover it. For a lot of people, it gives them confidence [and] a voice. The photos trigger all of these memories for people in the culture, too, which is another beautiful thing.

BET: What do you feel makes the Contact High exhibit different from previous and  similar bodies of work?

Vikki Tobak: I think because it uses the contact sheets and the photographer’s oral history as the storytelling, it just has a lot more cultural context. If you just see photos on their own without pulling out the details such as the neighborhoods and communities where people started, why Dapper Dan had to start his own luxury business because big brands where not even messing with hip-hop at the time, or showcase the reason behind what you see in the photo, you miss a lot. It just becomes an interesting photo. The thing that makes my exhibit different is that the photos are used to tell a story. It’s not just a bunch of cool photos.

BET: Do you have a favorite piece from the collection?

Vikki Tobak: It’s a photo of Nas and Tupac together. Redman is in the frame, too. It came about because there’s a really famous photo of Tupac and Biggie wearing this Morehouse T-shirt and Tupac is giving the middle finger to the camera. It’s a photo that people have seen over the years. I knew I wanted it in the book. When I asked the photographer for the contact sheet and the negatives he scanned that day, I was looking through the frames and I was like ‘Oh, Nas was in the photo too.’ I posted that photo to the Contact High Instagram. It turns out there had never been an existing photo of Nas and Tupac together, which I wasn’t aware of at the time. Everyone went nuts. In fact, they thought it was photoshopped. Nas reached out to a mutual friend over at Mass Appeal and asked him about the photo because it meant a lot to him. He asked if it was photoshopped because he only knew of the photo with Biggie and Tupac.

The interesting thing about that photo is that it was taken in 1993 which is the year before Nas released Illmatic. At the time, he was kind of known in the hip-hop world but Illmatic hadn’t come out yet so he was not famous. In the contact sheet, you can see where the photographer makes an edit mark to cut out Nas because he didn’t know who this young kid was.

They had a tumultuous but ultimately strong bond and for them to not ever have a photo together meant a lot to Nas. Also in that same photo standing behind Nas, is a childhood friend of his from Queensbridge who was killed years ago. Seeing how much that photo meant to Nas was really special because at the end of the day we think of these artists as big stars but these are also their family photos. These are guys they came up with. These photos are their come-up stories.

BET: The exhibit also does a great deal to pay homage to the leading ladies of hip-hop from Salt-N-Pepa to the women that worked behind the scenes. Sometimes it feels like women’s impact in hip-hop is forgotten so was that intentional on your part?

Vikki Tobak: People are always like ‘Wow, you have so many women photographers!’ I’m like it’s because I was there seeing who was doing the work. [Women] have always been there. The amount of women in front of the lens is a given. To me, it’s a completely different story for the women in this project who were behind the scenes. There’s many women photographers and writers that where there and doing the work, like Dream Hampton and Sheena Lester, who was the former editor in chief of XXL Magazine.

BET: What do you hope people will take away from this exhibit?

Vikki Tobak: The fact that hip-hop started in the places of everyday people. It was a time when emcees were on equal footing with the dancers and DJs. It was just everyday people. When you see the early days of hip-hop, you see the culture of Brooklyn and not just celebrities. I want people to take away and remember that this is a music that was born out of that. The music didn’t need a co-sign for itself. From the outside world, a lot of people thought it was a popular fad at the time. It’s the American dream come true. Without the co-sign, it could truly build on the beliefs of everyday people. That’s what I hope people can see and see it as the multibillion dollar industry it is that is influencing everything today.

The exhibit is on display through August 18 at the Annenberg Space For Photography in Los Angeles.

  • Check out some of the featured works below

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