“Now my mom pimps an AC with minks on her back, And she loves to show me off of course Smiles every time my face is up in The Source.”
Three lines from Biggie’s “Juicy,” perhaps the best rap song of all time. Those photo spreads he mentions? They were taken by Chi Modu, the Nigerian- born, Jersey-raised photographer of hip- hop’s breakout era.
For someone who spent years in the presence of so much greatness,Chi doesn’t seem jaded or high on his laurels, though he does approach one as a guy who knows a lot, who has seen a lot.
You meet Chi Modu and are immediately dissuaded of your prior presumptions of how a hip-hop photojournalist of his stature would appear.
Tall, with a becalming smile and grey-in- parts dreads, he wears glasses but could easily be one of those gures one spies around downtown Manhattan wearing shades everywhere, knowing and self- possessed. This spring, I met Chi in SoHo and went to a favourite spot of his where, though persons-of-interest turned heads, the bartenders immediately recognized him, bringing him a cool Heineken, which, for what it’s worth wasn’t on the menu that evening.
Speaking with Chi, hearing him discuss this era he helped enshrine, brings on waves of nostalgia, awe and, unexpectedly, sadness. Many of his photo subjects, people he got along with, friends even, are forgotten or have long since passed.
And those who’ve survived the times, he’s stoic about. He respects their longevity. Chi didn’t see everything; he made a point of not living the rapper’s life, but he saw the guns, gangs, drugs, the pressure to succeed, the ever-present threats from rivals or the police—the exact things these guys were rapping about.
Nowadays, years since the shoot for Doggystyle, the circles and circumstances have changed, but Chi still sees Snoop on occasion. “It’s all good,” he says. Daps exchanged, enthused to see a familiar face and not another thirst trap.
During a time in hip-hop when rappers were given to scholastic rhyme schemes, Chi is a historian, documentarian, a chronicler of personages who’ve bolstered a genre, embellished the game with just a few bars or a respected discography later in life, and captured icons for those who weren’t there but strive to make it in the game today.
Being a photographer put him at a comfortable distance from the hip hop world while enmeshing him in its pores, informing him of its moods and movements. He knew who was signed to what label, who had beef with whom, who was crushing on which chick, and
yet, he wasn’t beholden to any particular posse, artist or impresario. Working for The Source magazine, Chi was the photographer for what he describes as the “De nitive Era” of hip-hop. He could feel its fervour, its potential to take over the streets, airwaves and the popular mind of the collective. (Which it has.)
Touting an impressive 34 cover shoots and several features for The Source, Chi’s personal style was a sense of ease and collaboration that let whomever he was shooting to drop their guard. A particularly useful trait when one has to walk announced into an unfamiliar hood, or, in other words, location-shooting.
Infamous though he is, the role of the photographer is inherently masked. Chi makes art out of the subject even if that subject is an artist. For the most part, his images helped move discs, millions of them. Though,then as now, a Chi Modu photograph is unmistakeable. Even blind to his impressive social media following, gallery showings, interviews and amiable personality dotting certain SoHo locales, you may have seen his work grace billboards in New York City, where once again, Biggie and Tupac and the rest appear larger than life, if only in different form.
The Definitive Era, roughly Eazy- E’s “Eazy-Duz-It” to Mobb Deep’s “Hell on Earth”, was unfortunately capped by Biggie’s death, from which one of Chi’s most famous photos captures a generation’s worth of music. Tupac’s was gone by then and Big is looking tough— his line on “Juicy”, ‘blow up like the World Trade’, already on the airwaves, though it was (and still is) skipped over on radio play. It’s a powerful photo marked by a palpable almost mournful foreboding.
During those years, however, the tropes, accoutrements and stereotypes of hip-hop were not yet mass marketed. The hip-hop community as it was then was still coming into the multi-million dollar, the epic, “damn-they’re-bumping- Easy-E-in-the-suburbs” era. It was still somewhat raw, still a small enough world that Chi could feel a kinship with all his photography subjects despite the artists’ disputes with one another.
His freedom to move between coasts and communities and shoot and (not always, but often) hang with his subjects provided him with a deep cache of photography that verges on legendary. Chi claims without a doubt that “no one has more original photographs of Tupac” than him. His equally professional and disarming presence made rappers feel comfortable around him and got them to chill out—none more so than Tupac.
Rightfully so, he still owns most of his images outright, revitalizing them for projects such as his Uncategorized series of billboards and skateboard decks; but from the photoshoots, album covers and magazine spreads alone, Chi is able to claim dominion over how those images are used today. He hasn’t lost them to undue hype or kitsch.
Scrolling through his Instagram account is like sitting shotgun in the “It Was A Good Day” video or to be posted up on the block in the “C.R.E.A.M.” mise-en-scene. It’s apparent, for all to see, that Chi crafted the look and captured the moments that would establish hip-hop as the preeminent and most original cultural art and musical movement in recent history.
Sitting with him, you can tell he’s told these stories before. The names he reports to me are a roll call of who’s who: Tupac, Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, Eminem, Snoop Dogg, Biggie, The Wu-Tang Clan, Geto Boys, Nas, Mobb Deep, Das EFX, Pete Rock, Queen Latifah, Flava Flav, Naughty by Nature, Ice T, Bone Thugz and Harmony, Ice Cube, Leaders of the New School, Guru, Nate Dogg, EPMD, Jam Master Jay, A Tribe Called Quest, Wyclef Jean, Biz Markie, Common, Mary J. Blige, P. Diddy, Hit Squad, LL Cool J, KRS-1. The list is encyclopedic but not rehearsed; acting wistful but not boastful; the artist taking account of his contemporaries.
In many mediums, but especially in music, there’s a 16, no, 20 year gap for nostalgia to grow for an earlier time. The nostalgia for Chi’s hip-hop photography is experiencing a massive renaissance on the Internet.
“extraordinary people in ordinary places, so to speak, who open themselves up to his camera.”
So Chi finds himself in a unique position, the pivot man between two times: a figurehead of an era nostalgic for analogue and a DIY mentality, untempered by the Internet’s scruples. His work feels fresh compared to today’s “content”, which feels like posturing, hampered the disingenuous artifice of pixels on a screen.
That said, Chi has found success on social media, and greatly enjoys the verve fans across the words bring to his work. The overwhelming and positive response to his Instagram posts heartens him knowing that the love of “classic” hip- hop, as it’s now dubbed, is vibrant still. But this is also directly related to his personal style. Forgoing the traditional museum path, Chi has chosen to exhibit his most iconic images as huge vinyl overlays on billboards across Manhattan and Brooklyn, exhibited on the streets for the people to see and experience. No one was doing it, then as now, so he brought photojournalism of hip-hop to the streets. “All of my photography is learned out in the field.”
And Chi still shoots, of course. Though these days, it may be a trip to Nepal or Yamin or Indonesia to see folks, extraordinary people in ordinary places, so to speak, who open themselves up to his camera. He prefers to shoot with a medium format camera, getting those boxy frames lacking in negative space. Recently, he shot Mac Miller and The Internet at a festival over (of all places to bump to the beat) in Norway.