In pictures: Hip hop's pioneers on camera before fame

BY Peter Spirer

15th Nov 2023 Music

3 min read

In pictures: Hip hop's pioneers on camera before fame
As hip hop turns 50, the documentarian behind the film Rhyme & Reason recalls the genre's early days with candid shots of a young Jay Z, Biggie and Wu Tang
In my early days in Miami, Florida, I was always interested in not only listening to music but playing it as well. I majored in film at the University of Miami and created the first-ever music video as a thesis project, which ultimately went on to win the MTV Basement Tapes Award.
When I arrived in New York in the late 1980s, I discovered the whole new world of hip hop and immediately became an ardent fan.
My love of combining film and music flourished as I continued to produce and direct music videos. This led me to many connections in the hip hop world, and I quickly realised that this often misunderstood and maligned genre needed to be represented as a whole to break apart stereotypes—thus the birth of the critically acclaimed film Rhyme & Reason in 1997.
"I quickly realised that this often misunderstood and maligned genre needed to be represented as a whole to break apart stereotypes"
I became immersed in the lives of the artists, even for a short period, and grew to know them as the talented artists and people they were. They welcomed me into their lives, where I met their family and friends who lifted them up.
Over the course of the three-year film production, I was blessed with some downtime during setups and was able to break out my Rollei camera to snap candid shots of many of the artists I was filming.
These photographs have been carefully archived since then. When I was introduced to renowned book publisher Reel Art Press, they couldn’t believe the quantity of photographs I had. 
It was a difficult process to choose which ones to include in the book, but we made a concerted effort to represent those who founded hip hop, including well-known names and those who may have been forgotten or gone unnoticed.

Da Brat 

DA BRAT © Peter Spirer
We were at Jermaine Dupri’s place in a suburb in Atlanta. I can’t recall how I got her smoking in the bathroom but I’m glad I did. It’s a shot that represents her provocative and "do anything" spirit.

A young Jay-Z in the studio

JAY Z © Peter Spirer
He had not become a household name yet, but he exuded a vibe and urgency that this gifted artist was going to soon take off.  

Nas (with Jungle and Wiz)

NAS (WITH JUNGLE & WIZ, L-R) © Peter Spirer
This shot was taken in the Queensbridge housing projects in New York. He was still living there with his mum. When we shot him it was lightly raining. You can see it in the photograph.  

Craig Mac

Craig Mack © Peter Spirer
This photo is unlike any other because I shot it with a 35mm camera—I can’t tell you why. It looks like I was using kind of a wide-angle lens.
This is in Craig’s home somewhere on Long Island. He was very down to earth and discarded any of the pretensions of fame. He washed dishes while we conducted part of our interview with him. 

Biggie Smalls on the couch

The Notorious B
When I interviewed him, he had just received his platinum plaques from Bad Boy, his record company. I asked him to open them up on camera and talk about them. 

Lords of the Underground somewhere in New Jersey

I loved these guys and thought they were underrated. Chief Rocka is a gem. 

Biz Markie

Biz Markie © Peter Spirer
At his townhouse in Baltimore. Booking a show on the phone while mixing records. Loved his "pick a vowel" t-shirt. Pure Biz! 

Erick Sermon

ERICK SERMON © Peter Spirer
This is Erick drinking a 40 at a block party somewhere in Newark, New Jersey. He and Redman were there to the astonishment of onlookers who were there at the party.
There was a giant sound system set up in an abandoned lot. Redman actually battled on the mic that night and proved why he’s one of the best with Erick by his side.   

Wu-Tang Clan

WU TANG-CLAN © Peter Spirer
On the coldest day in February, a small crew and I went to Staten Island to interview the Wu. Method Man spit an incredible rhyme that day. Like many artists, we captured them before fame and fortune. 

Chuck D

At the since shuttered Virgin Mega Store in Los Angeles. Always insightful with plenty to say, he was on point as he gave us his insights into the music biz.

Puffy, with not a moment to spare

I remember having to wait hours before we could get in to interview him. Watching him work while getting his hair trimmed says it all.  
After keeping my photos on ice for 25 years I’m so proud to be able to share these with the world. As hip hop celebrates its 50th anniversary, these images offer fresh perspectives on the essence of hip hop culture, capturing its unique look, style and presence from that era.
The Book of Rhyme & Reason: Hip Hop 1994-1997 by Peter Spirer is available now (Reel Art Press, £39.95)
Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter