Whether you were there at the very start, were overseas feverishly browsing Subway Art or just stacking dog-eared XXLs, someone has helped define how hip-hop looks to you. George DuBose, Glen E. Friedman, Martha Cooper, Ricky Powell, Jamel Shabaz and Brian Cross among many, many others, have made memorable contributions by amber encasing key cultural moments. Despite his B+ moniker, Limerick-born Brian Cross is far from an underachiever, putting out A-grade output for nearly two decades, from coast to coast, but calling LA home. He gives the City Of Angels a unique contribution aesthetically – appreciating the elements that only a onetime outsider could bring to the surface.
While his productivity has exploded since, as primers go, you could do a lot worse than hunt down It’s Not About A Salary, Brian’s socio-economic study of West Coast sonics – then take a look at the small print on some of your favourite sleeve and music magazine rapper portraits. It doesn’t stop there.
There’s work alongside friend and frequent collaborator Eric Coleman, bolstering the good name of their Mozilla company. There’s directing the acclaimed KEEPINTIME and BRASILINTIME and a handful of music videos. Oh, plus a huge hand in the ambitious Timeless concert series, seamlessly merging the performances of legends with talented newcomers. This is a busy man indeed.
Music is the recurring theme, and the crate-digger mentality sees the dusty fingered approach applied to amassing a greater understanding of society as a whole, contextualised via a purely visual medium – from a position as Wax Poetics photo editor to personal visual explorations and beautifully compiled photo essays, using a less equipment-heavy, stripped down approach to photography has resulted in a greater freedom to move around, get the passport decorated and attain an honest global view of our relationship with music. The recent Ghost Notes exhibition is a perfect example, using post-millenial vinyl culture as a global jump-off.
With a knack for composition and a relentlessly inquiring mind, Mr Cross just can’t stop digging. It’s telling that the following exchange took place with Brian located in Colombia on a new project.
As a product of Limerick and then Dublin did being raised in a place so far removed from your current location breed a more obsessive mindset when it came to music?
Yes totally. Where I grew up we lived and died by the music comics as we used to call them. NME, Sounds, Melody Maker even Smash Hits…Very often I would know about bands and have read about them and be commited to them without ever hearing them. Scritti Politti was like this. This is also where I first got my politics.
With a degree in painting, have you worked on any paintings since? Actually, how did photography come into play – were you put onto it at university?
No, I was more interested in ideas to begin with. Painting was just where I ended up photography wasn’t even an option. I haven’t painted in a long time I have to be honest. I was never that great a painter really but I learnt a lot from the training.
I’ve always noticed a socially conscious vein throughout your work – was that something honed during your uni days?
Even before that really. I grew up in Ireland in the late ’70s and early ’80s – there was hunger strikes, bombing campaigns, all kinds of social justice campaigns, especially around solidarity with Central American socialist movements and anti-apartheid…and then 20% unemployment and massive immigration. We had lots of time for thinking about politics!
Did an ‘art school’ background aid your later work in terms of composition and arrangement?
Ah, big time. Not just that but everything I do has been informed by the post-conceptual period I was trained in. I like to think I have been obsessed for a long time with having an integrated, impeccable practice.
On leaving for LA, did you have a vision of how it would be? Did it live up to that? You arrived in 1990, a couple of years before the shit hit the fan so to speak…
I came here to go to school. It took a while before I even was used to the city but coming from Ireland everything looked dope.
With regards to It’s Not About A Salary, It’s so text-heavy that I forget there’s a strong photo-essay within it – how did it come about as a project? Is it something that just snowballed?
It started as a photo essay. It was inspired by Mike Davis – he was the one who thought it would be a good look. The oral history part of it came from really not having anyone being interested in writing the book.
Beyond say, David Toop and latterly Jeff Chang’s work, I’ve never enjoyed a straight attempt at hip-hop history within a single volume – I feel that it’s such a broad church that even by the late ’80s, we should have been studying regional sounds – were you conscious of that when you wrote the book?
No. I was really fighting the idea that there was hiphop in LA at all to be honest. Most people out here had such a inferiority complex about the whole thing compared to NY. But I agree. I think the regionality of the culture needs to be paid more attention to.
Circa ’91/’92 felt like the next ‘golden age’ for the West Coast, with Dre, Cube, Pharcyde, Good Life alumni, Soul Assassins, Compton’s Most Wanted etc. Were you aware you were witnessing a boom time for the area’s sound?
Yeah I mean by ’93 everything started to change. There was the birth of Left Coast and underground consciousness out here amongst hip-hop heads. But again we were fighting to have the hip-hop establishment pay attention. It was always a struggle.
Was the research for that book an eye-opener for you – learning as you conducted interviews and developed further contacts? For a provincial UK small-towner like me, I learnt a lot – the images of the Good Life crew as opposed to some of the gangster stances elsewhere, were an education for me – more moods to LA than I knew about…
Totally. Your discovery was mine also. I had no clue. It was amazing to see the connections come to life too. Horace Tapscott recorded with the Freestyle Fellowship, Roy Porter made a hip-hop record…it was beautiful really.
I’ve heard tales regarding encounters with the likes of O.F.T.B, Frost and Boo-Yaa, yet in the interviews they come across as particularly articulate individuals – did you encounter any static during the book’s development? I remember a quote in Ronin Ro’s Have Gun Will Travel surrounding Daz at Death Row and colours…
All these cats were great people trying to do better for themselves under difficult circumstances. Yes I was shot at, yes I had drama for wearing a red shirt once but overall I was shown an incredible amount of love, generosity and trust under some pretty crazy times.
The series of bedroom shots was an innovative touch – Skatemaster Tate’s crib was incredible! What was the intent behind those images?
The series was in answer to film-maker and mentor Billy Woodberry’s (Director of the excellent Bless Their Little Hearts) question – where is the master shot? I’m glad you liked those photos. They still make me happy today. I’d like to think they influenced the Behind The Beat book by Raph, the Australian photographer. Great book by the way.
We know that T-Love went on to do, but what’s Raegan Kelly currently working on?
Last I heard she was working on web design – she is a great thinker and a really great person. Over the years we haven’t been so great at keeping in touch but her and her family really supported me when I came here in ’90.
It’s notable that despite your published author status, photo essays and journalism took precedence – were there plans for a follow-up, I know a tentative second volume lineup is mentioned in the book?
Nah, I never really planned to do a follow up. I want to do Ghost Notes next. But these things take time.
As a networking opportunity for commissioned work, did that book prove useful? Did the inner sleeve images for Innercity Griots come about as a result of that book?
Sort of… I mean most people gave me gigs not because of the book but because they had met me. Innercity Griots came from me writing about them dudes forever in Urb and championing what they were trying to accomplish..
Leading into future work, do you think ‘outsider’ status aided you in any way? Did it allow you to look at the region differently – for example, not taking certain things for granted as a lifelong resident might?
Yeah I think it worked to my advantage. You know you couldn’t ask me what high school I went to…And my outsider status gave me a little bit more cultural cache for sure.
Onto Eazy-E, the It’s On… cover is one of my favourite covers of all time – what’s the story behind how that came about? Did you both brainstorm that image? I love it in the same way I love Music To Driveby and Act A Fool – it has a depth and cinematic quality…
It really was all his idea. He was upset with Dre and he wanted to drop the bomb on him. The photo was made in his mother’s house in the backyard. I just set up the lights and that was it. I agree though, it has a cinematic quality – I never really thought about that before.
I heard that you and Eric were close as a result of working together. Was he looking into learning photography? His open-mindedness, like the mooted Guns N’ Roses collaboration, spotting Bone Thugs’ talent or attending the Republican dinner always demonstrated a vision that set him apart from competitors to me…
I agree – he was always thinking of ways to collapse the stereotype. He was very bright guy. He was full of insight and always had that special humour and great weed. Yeah close to the end he wanted to be a photographer I don’t know why but he was suddenly interested in it. He would have been a great one I’m sure. I miss that dude. It was just his anniversary.
Having worked on a ton of other, pretty well-known sleeves, from Endtroducing to the Damien Marley Welcome To Jamrock LP, do you have any other personal lesser-known favourites from your portfolio?
Oh shit, how much time you got? Yeah, lots and lots and lots…
The 1996 Ras Kass Soul On Ice photography is classic to me – how is Ras as a collaborator? Were those black and white inner-sleeve images to correlate with the tracks taken especially for the album? That’s going beyond the call-of-duty.
Yeah I loved Ras. I got so much mileage out of those demos for that record. I think it is a slept-on great record, but well, it’s slept on. I really liked the idea of doing an image for each song and damn, I worked on it for months and months and months. We churned up some great images for that album and then Priority fucked it up.
The Rap Pages era under Larry Flynt saw some of the best magazine covers ever – was that a big budget operation?
Hell no, we were strickly shoestringing it.
The ODB ‘Janet Jackson’ shoot must’ve been an interesting one? How was he? And how did the Kool G Rap ‘firing squad’ shoot go down? Those covers, plus the Roots, Goodie Mob ones were as good, if not better than their official album images.
Ah, thanks man – I know they influenced a lot of album covers. ODB is in the Sun Ra/George Clinton division. He could do no wrong to me – he was a genius. Shooting him was about as easy as you get, there are no bad frames. Kool G Rap was easy too he is a pro – that was fun. The Roots was my last assignment for Rap Pages and the guy on the ground is Brent Rollins and it was his last issue too. The end of an era really. The Goodie Mob one I was very proud of – it was ripped by Artifacts for their record which was funny ‘cos they coulda called me but whatevs. But getting them guys into that swamp in the ATL – that couldn’t happen now in the Gnarls Barkley era, or maybe it could. Much love to Cee-Lo though. He is a trooper.
How did you meet with Eric Coleman – would you define yourselves as like-minds?
Actually our minds are very different but we are kindred spirits. I met him in the end of ’96 on a boat at a party…crazy – I don’t think there has been five consecutive days that I haven’t seen him since. We understand each other profoundly. Words can’t explain.
I’m sure I’m overanalysing here, and it is only one other example, but as with Estevan Oriol’s role in Soul Assassins, I see your contribution to the Soulsides and the Stones Throw collectives as integral as the artists on the roster contributing the sounds – is this a Left Coast thing?
Yeah but then you have Mannion for Jay-Z and them. But thank you, I appreciate that you feel like we are artists on par with those who have record deals in the building of these empires. Sadly the execs never see it like that, but there you go. Is there a Blue Note without Francis Wolf and Reid Miles? I don’t think so.
Mochilla’s Dogma-style, bare-bones backpack approach to working feels a world apart from those slick, composed conceptual Rap Pages shoots -is it a liberating feeling? Has it allowed you to grow as an artist?
Well those Rap Pages covers were never really that slick but yes, the leave-the-lights-behind vibe has liberated us back to doing what we love – making images as opposed to worrying about production values. Totally.
As a self-confessed cratedigger, digging seems so personal, but for me,you’ve taken some of the best pictures of Dilla and Madlib ‘in the act’ -it seems to bring out the personality in even the most reticent subjects -is your body of work as a whole pretty much one big beat-digging expedition?
Basically yes. I love digging, I love approaching the archive. I believe that’s what I do as a photographer too. See The Gleaners by Agnes Varda. She is way more sophisticated than I am but it’s all there.
Nerd question that I guess applies to an early digging photo essay – was Psycho Les’s (Beatnuts MC/producer),” Kill a photographer shooting as a freelancer…” line really directed at you?
Yes. He denied it afterwards, but yes. I had it confirmed by several people inside the record company. Stupid people think that you can keep certain information secret. I wasn’t that interested in blowing up their spot, but their New York paranoia got the better of them.Thankfully the internet has ended all that shit.
On the J Dilla subject, you recently put out the print with Shepard Fairey and organised the Suite For Ma Dukes with Carlos Niño and company – it’s a sad and messy situation with regards to funds and royalties – are there further projects planned?
Well the DVD of the live show, which was remarkable. But I believe that the royalties situation is being solved as we speak.
The KEEPINTIME project seemed intensely personal – more so after Roy Porter passed – and from your own recollections surrounding Earl Palmer elsewhere, it’s clear that he was a gentleman and consummate professional – you were integral in helping him get his final moments in the spotlight, but do you think Earl, Roy, Paul and James still get the props they deserve?
No I think that we are too obsessed with temporal fame and celebrity – youth as a commodity as opposed to an oppositional force and less with wisdom, ancestry, ghosts, and the things that make music of the diaspora great. Earl has that, as does Paul and James and many many others that play all the time in our cities unnoticed and uncelebrated. I’m just shining a little light where I can. There is no great American music without these cats and many more. Yet while we use this music to sell our lifestyle we can’t even support those who really created it.
In the digital era, there’s less scope for studying sleeve art and musical credits, even photographic credits – does this make a project like KEEPINTIME, BRASILINTIME and your other work even more relevant than ever?
I mean its relevant because it is the transition from doing primarily sleeve art to actually making the whole object for me. But yes – it’s like the credits became the object. I agree. These transitions were inevitable but in the end it’s not the technologies fault, but those that own it. And that isn’t the musicians or visual artists, trust.
You’ve documented producers, DJs, MCs, sample sources via the likes of David Axelrod, Galt McDermot and the aforementioned drummers, record stores and their owners – even the environment that created these artists – as far as documenting hip-hop, do you think you’ve completed the whole 360 degrees?
Wow, well I’m trying…But there is so much more to go. And I’m only one degree really – If that. There is so many more voices to be heard.
You’ve evidently built up some real friendships with some legends over the years – David even named Big B-Plus after you – that’s serious! Just when it felt that vinyl culture is more niche than ever, a big video game like Grand Theft Audio uses two Axelrod productions, and Lil Wayne’s album flips Holy Thursday again – are we looking at a resurgence?
Another Axelrod resurgence, sure why not? It never went away to me. I don’t play video games or listen to Weezy but there you go…
How do you differentiate photographs of hip-hop as opposed to ‘hip-hop photography’? Is one a documentation, whereas the other is a hip-hop element in itself?
Yes. That’s the basic point I’m trying to make. What does a hip-hop photography look like? Can it be photographs of horses and still be hip-hop? As Saul Williams says, I’m paraphrasing, “Until you have heard Biz Markie on a mountain top, you have not heard hip-hop….” You know? Not that we can extricate the urban African American experience from the culture but where can it take you is the question… I’m trying to find that out. My eyes are those of one who found himself in many ways through the culture but what does that mean? If I repeat what has been done before am I true to what Herc and Bam believed? What is a corollorary to their breakthroughs, except as opposed to a turntable, with a camera? It is really a question or a manifesto – I’m not sure I have the answers, but my photos try to make the question more complicated.
The Dickies Working In Los Angeles project was great – it had authenticity and substance. How did the project come about? When it comes to commercial endeavours do you look for an element of authenticity before agreeing to it?
I try but it’s hard. The advertising agency weren’t really looking for that – their idea was much more ironic and sarcastic. But in the end they saw the value in treating working people with a dignity of sorts that you don’t see too much these days. I get lucky. I don’t try to oversell myself I just do my thing and people usually come to me – so that’s okay.
South America has featured strongly in your latter work – did music lead you there?
Yeah totally. Music in the Americas has never been restrained by national boundaries or primitive migration policies. I feel to make those connections is important. Hip-Hop’s genesis isn’t confined to the influences of native born United States people – it’s history is spread like seeds on a cold wind of slavery that traverses the Atlantic to every country in the Americas. I need to see the other examples too. Chompeta, cumbia, samba, maractu, coco and embolada all contribute to our understandings of Jay-Z if we allow them to.
Any new …INTIME projects on the horizon? How can you top the branded nose flutes? Best piece of tie-in merchandise ever!
Thanks man…I’m very proud of them nose flutes and it is my instrument of choice. Whenever you wanna battle let me know.
It’s been touched on with the mention of the Suite For Ma Dukes but the Timeless series looked tremendous – the Arthur Verocai show is something else – more to come next year? Any dream candidates for a show you’d like to see?
Ohhhhh, we have a few tricks up our sleeves. But I don’t wanna give too much up yet. We already have institutional biters that we then have to compete with – nice job Royce Hall/UCLA!
Have you been following LA’s ‘new breed’ – Flying Lotus, Dam Funk, Ras G and Gaslamp Killer?
Of course – those are the homies. Lotus has been super supportive – he came to Brasil with us for the launch of BRASILINTIME. Subsequently ended up lending us a camera for like, a year. He is an inspiration in the end. Dam is a beautiful cat, man. What a humble guy. He is a soldier in this. Ras is like a wise old tree. He has been in this as an observer for a long time and now is his time to shine. Gotta love Ras. South Central all day. Don’t sleep on his Mochilla mix. GLK is like a wild, hyperactive cat – super smart, super hyped DJ, and a good cat in the end. I’m very happy that a whole new generation has emerged around Lotus and Sketchbook (Kutmah and Coleman’s old club) and now Low End Theory. They are building a new avant garde again with the same tools and materials as those that went before. This is important work.
What’s the story with the Ghost Notes: A Photographic Mixtake? exhibition – I’ve seen a selection of images, but is it something you’ll be adding to and altering over time?
Yeah, it is a vessel for me. It’s basically a riff on the meaning of ghost notes – a weird term that describes notes heard and felt but not played. I feel that my photos are like that – so when I need to show work that isn’t specifically around a certain series I dig up the Ghost Notes. It will also be the title of the next book.
I know it’s a staggeringly obvious question, especially as a finale, but any hints as to what’s next? Any new regions to explore?
Man, there is soooooo much to explore. I wanna go to Angola, I wanna go to the Middle East, I have some ideas for films, a book with Jeff Chang – there’s lots of work to be done. In the meantime watch for the Timeless DVDs and this collabo with Quantic – it’s on Vimeo, at least the trailer is…