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David Corio's Hip Hop Chronicles: 1981-1995

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 by Craig D'Arville
David Corio and Dennis Brown
David Corio with musician Dennis Brown, the "Crown Prince of Reggae", circa late 1990s | © David Corio

In 1978, David Corio began taking photographs for influential UK-based music journals and pop culture magazines, launching a career that continues to this day. I caught up with Corio to talk about his time documenting the US/UK hip hop scene from the early-1980s to the mid-1990s, from which we've chosen a selection of signed prints to offer collectors through FFOTO's special partnership with Getty Images Gallery.

Craig D'Arville, FFOTO 

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Craig D'Arville: Let’s start by talking about the early days of your career, during the heyday of music magazines in the 1980s and 90s. Younger readers might not grasp the importance that titles like New Musical Express (NME), Q, and perhaps especially The Face had in setting the tone for music-oriented popular culture. How important were those outlets for you in establishing yourself as a professional photographer?

David Corio: From the age of 14 or so (1974) NME was like the bible for me and many others in the UK. Every Thursday, this weekly music paper would be telling you what to listen to with in depth interviews and reviews. This was a time before Spotify and the internet, so you heard music on a couple of pirate radio stations (if you could get reception), one alternative music show on BBC radio (John Peel), or from your local record shop and NME. I went to art school doing photography in Gloucester for 2 years at 16 and when I was 18 started shooting gigs and dropping off prints at NME the next morning in the hope they would use my photos. After six months or so they did and started giving me regular assignments - concerts first and then portraits as well. They had championed punk and new wave music when it was only getting adverse press almost everywhere else. They also used black-and-white photography in a creative way and the other photographers’ work, like Pennie Smith and Chalkie Davies, were a big influence on me.

I started working for The Face in the early 1980s. They had several NME freelancers and ex-staff (it was started by former NME editor Nick Logan). I guess I really first thought of it as just another way of getting a few jobs but it rapidly defined itself as more than just a music magazine. Its coverage was broader, with fashion and design to the fore. Their in-house designer Neville Brody was incredibly creative with dramatic layouts, designing his own fonts. The assignments I got from them really opened my eyes to other sub-cultures as well, which is one of the magazine’s lasting influences. They asked me to shoot everything from rubber and leather fetish clubs, young working class teens wearing Italian designer clothing, going on tour with New Romantics band Spandau Ballet and meeting Curtis Mayfield in a tiny nightclub in east London.

These were the two most influential magazines for me when I was starting out. By about 1983 I had begun to grow tired of most of the white indie bands that were predominating the UK music charts and went with the music that I loved and enjoyed photographing more which was predominantly reggae, soul, r&b, jazz and blues and the newest arrival on the block - hip hop. I began to work for City Limitswhich was a left-wing London listings magazine, and Black Echoes around that time. They paid very little but I got the chance to photograph the musicians I particularly admired. 

Run DMC
My Adidas - Run DMC performing at Hammersmith Odeon, London, UK, 13 September, 1986 | © David Corio / Getty Images Gallery

CD: The artists you worked with in this selection of photographs are now household names. Did you have a sense that you were documenting a particularly important moment in our culture during that time when hip hop was beginning to really establish itself as a genre with international appeal? 

DC: There was a level of excitement at the early shows I went to in London in 1982/83 where you got the feeling that you were experiencing something that was quite revolutionary as it was so different to what we had heard or seen before. It certainly felt important to me but I don’t know if people thought it would have much longevity as it seemed like an underground movement that wasn’t in the music charts or on the radio at all in those days – not in the UK much anyway. It started to get air-time on pirate radio stations - small illegal radio broadcasters and in clubs around London but it wasn’t getting covered on a commercial level much. 

CD: What memories stick out in your mind about the making of some of these photographs?

Break Dancer 02

Break Dancer 02 - Break dancer at Roxy Club at 515 W18th St, NYC on 27 September, 1981 | © David Corio / Getty Images Gallery

DC: The break dancer balanced on his head was my first encounter with hiphop. It was a mad day. I had gone to NYC on a holiday and it was a Sunday afternoon. I had been walking up the West Side Highway on my own and encountered a gang in one of the disused piers that were still standing then and I had to run away after a couple of them started following me. After that I managed to run the gauntlet as this gay nightclub ‘The Anvil’ was spilling out at midday and loads of guys in leather chaps and Stetsons were spilling out. I walked up by the river and came across The Roxy – an old roller-disco on W18th St and 11th Ave in the early afternoon and there was hip hop pumping out of the open doors. The club wasn’t open to the public but I wandered in and met some young kids practising their break dancing moves. One of them turned out to be GrandMixer D.St who was the in-house DJ. I had never seen anything like this before and compared to most of NYC at the time I was surprised to see how multi-racial the group were, too. It was only years later that I discovered how influential The Roxy was regarded in the early days of hip hop.

Afrika Bambaataa

Afrika Bambaataa at The Venue, London, UK, 23 November, 1982 | © David Corio / Getty Images Gallery

DC: The photo of Afrika Bambaataa was probably my second encounter with hip hop. This was the first show to come over to London in 1982 and the bill was Bam with GrandMixer D.ST, Fab 5 Freddie, graffiti artists Dondi (the photo of him is from the same show) and Futura 2000 along with the Rocksteady Crew (the floating break dancer shot of Frostie Freeze is from the show too) along with double dutch skippers. As the show progressed the graffiti artists painted the entire backdrop from scratch. This silhouette of Bambaataa was actually taken after the show had ended. I had gone to get a drink at the bar at the back of the venue and whilst leaning against the bar he came back on to pick up his records. I only had time for the one shot but it summed up the early hip hop movement pretty well, I thought.

Biz Markie

Biz Markie on Kensington High Street, London, UK on 5 April, 1988 | © David Corio / Getty Images Gallery

DC: The shot of Biz Markie was taken when he was on the Cold Chillin Tour that had just arrived in London. Prior to their shows they were doing interviews at WEA Records in Kensington and I was asked to photograph him along with Big Daddy Kane, MC Shan and Marley Marl, each individually. I was only given 30 minutes to do all four shoots and had to keep getting them and returning them to the record company offices, so only took them a few yards from the front door. I was used to having a short amount of time for a session but this was fairly extreme (although James Brown once gave me a minute and timed me too!) Biz was the first of the four and as soon as I got him onto the street he ran over to a parked BMW and climbed up onto its hood and jumped off and proceeded to pull faces and tugged at his rope chain necklaces. He was a dream to photograph as he didn’t stop making mad poses. Big Daddy Kane by contrast was next and was very quiet and serene. He had a powerful presence that I hope I managed to capture although I only took about 15 shots of him. The overcast London sky is always good for capturing darker skin tones in these circumstances, too. There is rarely time to use extra lighting and I avoid using a flash gun.

Eric B and Rakim

Eric B & Rakim at the Kensington Hilton Hotel, London, UK, 6 November, 1987 | © David Corio / Getty Images Gallery

DC: Eric B & Rakim were probably my favourite hip hop act when I went to meet them at their hotel. The photos were for the first colour cover of Black Echoes and usually the art directors like as much variety for a few different cover choices and interior shots as well. I would normally chat a bit to people before photographing them to loosen them up and make them feel more comfortable in front of the camera. However Eric B was extremely hard work. He never said a word the whole time I was there and barely moved. Rakim was fine and moved around the Buddha-like frame of Eric B but it was quite a contrast to shooting someone like Biz Markie.

Public Enemy

Public Enemy in Hyde Park, London, UK, 2 November, 1987 | © David Corio / Getty Images Gallery

DC: Public Enemy had just arrived in London on the first leg of their debut European tour and as there was a lot of interest in them I was allocated the first photo shoot with them for NME. I was due to shoot them in the morning which was an unheard-of time to be photographing a hip hop group. I persuaded them to leave their hotel and cross the road into Hyde Park. There was still an early morning mist lingering but they were great at posing – their army style fatigues and big clocks were equally serious and funny. Suddenly several of them started to do Black Power signs - raising their fists in the air - which seemed incongruous as several little old ladies tried to avoid them as they took their dogs for a walk. Halfway through the shoot a couple of the group asked me very seriously if there were any McDonald's in London as they hadn’t seen any on their trip the evening before from the airport. I had to assure them that McDonald's did exist and they wouldn’t starve while they were in town.

Doug E Fresh

Doug E Fresh, posed in the centre of a group, 123rd St, Harlem, New York, 7 November, 1993 | © David Corio / Getty Images Gallery

CD: How did photographing these hip hop legends on their home turf of New York City compare to working with them in the UK?

DC: It was fairly different and sometimes capturing them in London was easier as they didn’t have familiar distractions. Also these were early days before they had big management teams around them. All of these shoots were done with just me and the artists. There were no press, managers, stylists, art directors, hair or make-up people. Apart from the Eric B and Roxanne Shante shots there was no studio lighting either so it gives a much more personal, impromptu feel I think. The shots of De La Soul and Doug E Fresh were taken in Harlem and they had more people interacting with them on the streets so trying to get a shot where everyone is focussed on the camera and paying attention can be much more of a challenge. All of these photos were taken with film as well, so unlike digital you couldn’t check to make sure you had got everyone in the frame and looking OK. I never used automatic exposure or focussing so there was more to concentrate on in all of the shoots. I hand-print all the photos and the rough black borders show the full frame of the negative as I always prefer to frame the image in the camera rather than crop the image after I have taken it. Printing your own images allows you to put a more personal stamp on the images and I prefer to do the whole process myself from doing the shoot, to developing the film, and printing the final print. It feels more complete.

DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince (Will Smith)DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince (Will Smith) at the Swiss Cottage Holiday Inn, London, UK, on 21 October, 1986 | © David Corio / Getty Images Gallery

CD: Some of the photographs we’re offering have a vulnerable, “behind-the-scenes” feel to them. What do you do to make your subjects feel comfortable?

 DC: As I previously mentioned I usually talk with them a bit before a shoot and whilst I am taking pictures. Usually asking them about themselves to relax them and depending on their personality maybe asking about what they listened to growing up or just general chatting to make them feel comfortable. I don’t tend to pose them too much but let them do what they want to do and let their own personalities come over in the photos. Most of the portrait sessions would be one or two rolls of film and be done in less than 20 minutes at the most.

CD: Any hip hop performers/scenes from that time that you wish you could have photographed? 

DC: I never got to shoot many of the west coast acts like Tupac, NWA or Snoop which I regret as all of them are great subjects. Doing portraits of Biggie Smalls would have been good too, but at least I got to shoot him live a couple of times. I also wish I had photographed the whole NY subway graffiti culture too. 

Dondi White

Dondi White at The Venue, London, UK, 23 November, 1982   | © David Corio / Getty Images Gallery

CD: Do you feel that the nature of how you work with artists today has changed in our era of Instagram-influencer culture?

DC: That ability to have control without any outside influences like art directors and record company and management interference is now long gone. The immediacy of digital photography, and cameras in phones, means everyone can be a photographer. It has cheapened the skill of photography in some way and now imagery is very throwaway. So many pictures get taken now and even ones that might be extraordinary are less likely to have any longevity I think. 

CD: Any additional thoughts you'd like to share about revisiting this time in music/cultural history and your career?

DC: I’m sure every photographer has regrets about missing a shot or not photographing someone or something and I know I do over all the different music genres and cultures I have captured. However, I am very grateful to have been able to photograph so many different artists and been able to witness so many great shows - particularly when artists were just beginning to form their own musical identity (and particularly with regards to the hip hop artists). I was lucky to be involved in, and photograph, various musical scenes when things felt fresh and more genuine and much more innocent. It is often only in retrospect when I have revisited some of these photographs that I have got to realise what an important time in musical history it really was.

hip hop crowd

Hip hop crowd in Harlem, 11 February, 1995 | © David Corio / Getty Images Gallery
David Corio lives and works in London, UK.
Follow him on Instagram and at DavidCorio.com