Ever since she was a teenager growing up in New York City, Lisa Leone has always had a camera in her hands.
"I started working in high school as an assistant to photographers," she recalls. "Now it's like second nature, like a part of my body."
Throughout her 25 year love affair with the lens, the New Yorker has seen it all. But one of the most significant moments the photographer has captured is the birth of hip-hop.
"It happened naturally," Leone fesses.
"I went to the High School of Art and Design, which was really the high school of graffiti and break dancing," she laughs. "A lot of graffiti artists and break dancers came out of that school. It was before people outside of New York City knew what breakdancing was."
"I was always more into documentary and street photography as opposed to a set up, so I would just document the world around me and take pictures of them 'cause they were my friends."
The "friends" Leone is talking about are Fabel, Doze, and Mare 139 to name a few.
Today, these guys are known as early hip-hop icons, but back in the day, they were just a bunch of kids doing what they loved - little did they know that they would become the pioneers behind a global cultural phenomenon.
"It's not like I went around and was like, 'These are the people I know are gonna make it,' but the people that did [make it], there was a certain thing about them and you kinda knew already."
Twenty five years and thousands of archived photos later, Leone has complied her first monograph, Here I Am, which shares the history and evolution of hip-hop through photography in 104 pages.
"As an artist, you look back and the work I did 25 years ago holds so much more meaning now. That time was really about community and creativity and support. It was such a different time than it is now, especially in hip-hop."
Leone will take over Rec Room tonight in celebration of her book release along with hip-hop legends Fab 5 Freddy, the Jungle Brothers, and Maseo de la Soul. But before she and the gang party like it's 1989, the photographer chatted with Crossfade and shared some of the most legendary moments in hip-hop history captured by her on camera.
Grand Master Flash, Rock Steady Park, New York City, 1991
"Rock Steady Park was like home, a community. It was all friends and people I grew up with. It was reminiscent of a mini block party. This picture of Grand Master Flash was just a moment I captured. There was usually a circle with people rapping or dancing. I actually found a picture of DMX rapping and I looked back and was like, 'Holy shit! That's DMX.' It was great. I always looked forward to going up there. It was like little reunions. That girl he was talking to, Margaret, she was the manager of one of the major dance crews. Anyway, she wasn't such a nice woman, and his face says it all. [Laughs] I was like, 'That's exactly how you should look at this moment!'"
Mary J. Blige at her record company, New York City, 1992
"I just happened to be up in the record company at the time and they asked me if I wanted to meet a new recording artist. I had never heard of Mary J. Blige and I took her pictures. I ended up becoming a huge fan. It was the only time I met her and the only images I have of her."
Premiere, Q-Tip, Nas, and Large Professor recording Illmatic, New York City, 1993
"We didn't really know what this album was gonna become. He [Nas] was a young guy. I don't even remember, to be honest, how I got there [to the recording studio]. I don't remember if it was an assignment or if someone told me about it. It might have been for Sacha Jenkins for Ego Trip magazine. But I'm glad I ended up there. Sony Music even called me because they used the picture for Illmatic's 20th anniversary re-release."
Snoop Dogg on the set of "Who Am I (What's My Name?)," California, 1993
"Snoop changed the whole hip-hop game in L.A. This was taken on the set of his first video for "Who Am I (What's My Name?)" directed by Fab 5 Freddy."
The Fugees on the set of "Vocab," East Harlem, New York City, 1994
"It was a moment in between takes. They were waiting, but it was more of a quiet moment in the middle of a crazy hectic music video. It felt like getting into the feeling of just who he [Wyclef Jean] was in music during that time and Lauryn [Hill]. It captured something between them that was more than the facade of what we actually see. It's peaceful, like no one else was there when in fact there was like 200 people behind us. It was kinda removed from that moment. You can be in the middle of mayhem, but still have that moment to capture the essence of the artist. I also love the backdrop."
YoYo, MC Lyte, Brandy, and Latifah on the set of Brandy's "I Wanna Be Down (Remix)," New York City, 1994
"This represents the female movement in hip-hop. Hip-hop is definitely male dominated. That's just the way of society. But these women broke out of that and spoke up. Hype Williams directed it and Malik Sayeed, his DP [Director of Photography], was a good friend of mine. I knew he was shooting this video and was like, 'I wanna come down'."
While these images and the other 80 on Here I Am document the era of hip-hop, the book also includes excerpts from some of the artists featured on it.
"I asked a couple of the artists to reflect on what that time was like," she explains. "I think it's a good way for the younger generation to get into their heads. I feel very fortunate I grew up in that time in New York City. I look back, and it's like wow."
Here I Am needs to sell 500 pre-sold copies before July 31 in order to be fully published. Get your copy via minormattersbooks.com.
Lisa Leone's Here I Am After Party. Hosted by Fab 5 Freddy. With the Jungle Brothers and Maseo de la Soul. Thursday, July 10, 11 p.m. Rec Room, 1690 Collins Ave., Miami Beach. Call 305-673-0199 or visit galehotel.com/nightlife.
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