Raymond Boyd shot history again and again and again. Hip hop came to dominate the musical landscape in the early ’90s, and by the end of the decade, it was the most popular type of music being made. But when he started photographing rappers in the ’80s for magazines like Right On, Black Beat, Word Up, and more, there was no guarantee that he wasn’t just capturing the cresting wave of a fad.
That makes the images he caught–released as prints from Sonic Editions earlier this month–all the more meaningful. Now, of course, members of NWA are entertainment moguls: Ice Cube is a Hollywood player who’s written, directed, or produced more than a dozen films, and Dr. Dre is the genre’s first billionaire, with a hand in the success of artists from his original crew to Snoop Dogg, Eminem, 50 Cent, and Kendrick Lamar. But when Boyd first captured them with his camera, they were just some young guys making music.
“It was good being there at the beginning of a lot of artists’ careers,” he recalls. “When NWA first came out, I was there on the scene with them. I got to see Ice Cube (become) a solo artist. It was interesting to see how people parlayed things from the beginning of their careers.”
Boyd was based out of Chicago, but used his central location to document the rise of hip hop in the ’80s and early ’90s throughout the midwest. It helped him build a rapport with artists that was essential to his ability to properly document the rap scene as it evolved from a niche to the dominant form. “I was from Chicago, but I would go to Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Detroit, St. Louis, and sometimes seeing those artists three or four times a year, they get used to seeing your face,” he says. “They would come to Chicago to do promotional tours, do radio stations, retail stores, do meet-and-greets at the high school to talk to the kids. Them seeing me three or four times a year, you can’t help but build up a rapport.”
Boyd shot not just the heroes of the ’80s, but also young artists who wouldn’t break through the mainstream until much later–his photos captured a very young Cee-Lo Green during his time with Goodie Mob, and fellow Atlanta residents Outkast, well before any of them had gotten famous. And looking at photos from back in those days, you might struggle to recognize them. “When Outkast came out, Andre 3000 had a lot of different looks,” Boyd says. “Even when I was shooting Goodie Mob, Cee-Lo wasn’t dressing flamboyant like he does now. It was just blue jeans and khaki shirts.”
Still, while the list of artists in Boyd’s portfolio reads like a who’s who of rap music during its formative years, the act whose visual style stands out the most is a one-hit-wonder who had a unique approach to how they dressed. “Kriss Kross,” Boyd says when asked who was most interesting to shoot. “They had their clothes turned around backwards. I had to get used to seeing them. I would say stuff like, ‘Your glasses are on backwards,’ and they’d say, ‘Well, they’re supposed to be.’ That was their persona–pants on backwards, shirts on backwards. When I would have them hold up a magazine, they would hold the magazines upside down.”
Click through the slide show for a look at a number of the artists that Boyd captured with his lens.