Manhattan, Spring 1994
I initially met the group Digable Planets when they performed at Rutgers University’s Deiner Park Festival (New Brunswick, NJ) during the autumn of 1993. Two days later, they played at City Gardens in Trenton. City Gardens was traditionally a punk music venue but also booked hip hop acts that would not invite problems. I joined the group at City Gardens pre-show and convinced them to let me take some groups shots in the private upstairs area of the venue.
Fast forward. January 1994, The Grammy Awards were being hosted in New York City. Somehow, I received a press pass that allowed me access to a number of after-parties. Back then I was shooting with film. That meant only 36 frames per roll. Every shot mattered (especially as a freelancer with no budget for film and processing). To maximize my resources, I would go into a party, look around, find famous faces that I knew would sell, then pursue shots of two musicians or celebrities together.
By the third party, I was over it. I was ready to head back to Jersey. As I was walking out of whatever party it was, it seemed liked the Hip Hop bus just dropped people off. Among the crowd at the door I saw: RZA and a few people from Wu-Tang Clan, Sen Dog and B-Real of Cypress Hill, and the guys from Digable Planets.
I walked up to Butterfly and Doodlebug of Digable Planets and said hello. When I asked what they were up to, Butterfly said they were about to start working on their next album. Before he could say another word, I blurted out in the calmest fashion that I could come by and take pictures of them as they worked on the album. "Would it be cool?" I asked.” Butterfly said, “Yeah, cool!”
A few months later I began showing up at Manhattan's Bass Hit Studio, where they were working on their album Blowout Comb.
There were no specific things that I had expected to photograph. Some days I would show up and just hang out, listen and watch for anywhere from one to five hours, balancing this opportunity with my life as a freelance photographer in New York City. Most of the time I did not take photographs.
The Photo Moment
I was at the studio, observing Butterfly and their engineer as they worked to fix something on the soundboard. Guru (Gang Starr) opened the studio door and everyone lit up to greet him. Guru hugged Ladybug, gave a pound and hug to Doodlebug, and then to Butterfly. Butterfly then turned and pointed to me over in the corner; he started to introduce me to Guru. Guru, who I had photographed a few times prior, cut-off the introduction, “Yo! That’s my man, what!”
Guru asked what I was doing there. “Just hanging,” I said, watching Digable as they work, taking a few pictures. The afternoon went on. Guru worked in the studio writing his part for the song Borough Check, then worked with Ladybug to perfect her verses.
Watching Guru, Ladybug, Butterfly, and Doodlebug create a song in the moment was an fascinating process to watch. Where do they come up with the main hook or chorus? How do you poetically tell a story and make it make sense, then add three more people to the song? Not to mention the music that makes the bed of the song.
As enchanted as I was, I didn't stay for the recording of the song. I must have had somewhere to be. Before I left the studio, I was in the lounge, preparing to leave. Ladybug Mecca and Guru were seated on the couch across from me — not songwriting — just vibing, having a good moment.
I quietly took out my camera, waited a moment. Mecca looked into Guru. Guru looked into me.
I took one picture, packed up my camera, and left for the afternoon.