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Normski, UK hip hop in the 80s
Demon BoyzPhotography Normski, courtesy Youth Club

Photographs from the UK’s golden age of hip hop

Normski immersed himself within both the UK and US hip hop scenes – photographing names like London’s Cookie Crew and Demon Boyz, as well as Dr Dre and LL Cool J

From the early 80s, photographer Norman Anderson – better known as Normski – was at the height of the hip hop scene, documenting the rise of the cultural movement that dominated both New York and London. 

Building his own empire from a young age, Normski dabbled in a variety of artistic platforms, finding success as the face of BBC's Dance Energy and as a DJ. But, his most notable credit of all, being his treasured photographic archive of UK hip hop culture of the 80s. “'What was quite apparent was that I really related to a lot of the dance music and hip hop that was going on as it was my people – it was my time,” he reflects.

A statement like this makes it clear that Normski photographed for personal enjoyment, but he also found that his brave and charismatic personality got him the insider knowledge that privileged him to a vivid insight of the notorious era. Confident yet humble with his success, Normski grew to photograph artists such as Def Jam, Dr Dre, Fat Boys and LL Cool J, to name but a few, quipping “people always seemed to like me, they were like ‘oh who's this cool black guy?’”. 

His work follows the progression of some of the world's most iconic artists, as well as his own ambitions – summarising, “I think if your life has no sentimental value, then just hurry up and go to the box because what is the point?” 

Ahead of his talk at Doomed Gallery tonight, we tune in with Normski who talks us through his mesmerising creativity and his limited edition zine “Darker Shades of White” which he will be presenting at the event.

“It wasn’t so much that it was important as much as it was that was my time” – Normski

You were in the heart of London whilst Hip Hop culture was growing, can you tell me about the atmosphere at this time?

Normski: Mid 80s, between 1986-87, is when it all kicked off. I think it was a really great time because there was an awful lot of things that were happening and it was at the back end of quite a lot of different popular things such as BMXing and skateboarding. There was lots of street stuff going on, and you had different music scenes that were happening like electronic, reggae and pop. I would say that it was the full stop and whole other beginning of a whole new chapter.At the time I was in my late teens/ early '20s and we were beginning to establish what we were all about. When the hip hop scene exploded, and what I would regard as early contemporary urban scene (the street style scene), it was coming of age. It was really vibrant and really positive and, politically, it was averse to have something that a lot of people could affiliate with. So to cut a long story short, it was a fantastic high energy, raw time.You had the UK culture forming and we also had American creativity too such as films, music, dance etc. It was really exciting!

At the time I was in my late teens/early 20s and we were beginning to establish what we were all about. When the hip hop scene exploded, and what I would regard as early contemporary urban scene (the street style scene), it was coming of age. It was really vibrant and really positive and, politically, it was averse to have something that a lot of people could affiliate with. So, to cut a long story short, it was a fantastic, high energy, raw time.

Can you tell us why it was important for you to capture UK hip hop? What inspired you to do so? 

Normski: It wasn't so much that it was important as much as it was that was my time. My life as a photographer did not start as a photographer for hip hop because I was taking photos before hip hop was a big thing. At the same time, I was also taking photographs of a lot of things in regards to the music scene. I did a lot of work across different boards. What I found was quite apparent, was that I related to a lot of the dance music and hip hop that was going on as it was my people - it was my time.

For example, we were talking about the 60s and the mods and rockers because that was what youth culture was at the time. So at the bulk of my photography, it really went into street and hip hop because I understood it and it's kind of that boy next door thing. I do remember one thing at the beginning of hip hop in, say, 1985, where I was studying photography at college and it kicked off in Covent Garden with graffiti and break dancers. I wasn't very good compared to other people at break dancing, and I certainly wasn't going to be a smash DJ! But what I was good at was visualising and capturing some of it on camera. That was the position I took. Some people are editors, some people are the writers. I've always been an observer and I feel it's about being involved in it, and asking what do you bring to the table? My meal ticket to hang out with lots of different people in lots of different places was through this – that's how it all came around.

What are the main differences between hip hop culture in the US and UK?

Normski: If you were to say there was a difference between America's hip hop culture and UK hip hop culture, the only real difference is that one is in the United States of America and the other is in Great Britain. They're all approaching the same subjects. I can't speak for everyone but it's all about the hip hop. Now if you're talking about the differences in artists and dress sense, what anyone brings to anything is the individual's own style and that's one thing that we have to remember about anything - it's all about having something extra. In America, they wear their baseball caps backwards and in Britain we wear them forwards but I wouldn't say that was a key difference. I always felt that the biggest difference, and the one thing I really love about the UK, is that we have this non-American way about us. It's got a Caribbean influence, an English influence, an Irish influence. It's the most multicultural place in the world as far as I'm concerned. And I don't mean London, I mean Great Britain.

When I used to go to America, I noticed that we spoke really good English and people used to say "Oh my god, I love your voice!" so I realised we had something really special and I came back feeling really proud to be English.

How do you want people to react to your photography?

Normski: I just want to share experiences. I really don't care how anyone reacts, I'm actually more interested in being given an opportunity for a handful of people who might actually be interested in photography, not necessarily just interested in me, but of a time, and to actually be able to go back or be somewhere where that was their first time. I just love sharing and sharing life. Things like what has happened, what does happen. I think photography is beautiful because you can leave a picture on a wall and let people make their own mind up. And some people go "oh my god! I remember having a pair of those trainers!" and other people go "I used to like that place" or "I love that, I don't really know why, but I like it". I just want people to have an experience. 

“One thing I really love about the UK, is that we have this non-American way about us. It’s got a Caribbean influence, an English influence, an Irish influence” – Normski

Can you talk us through some of the photographs featured in the limited edition zine “Darker shades of White”?

Normski: I am going to be showing people images from that time where people couldn't get any ear space. There was no coverage for a lot of these people. It's going to be a small collection of some of my incredibly large archives of images and I'm going to show from when I first started taking photographs as a young black kid, in black and white photography. One of the reasons is because I absolutely love black and white, it's timeless. And also, if you haven't got a lot of money it was easier. As a hobby, instead of spending my money on fags and sweets, I used to buy photo magazines from the shop once a month, and then buy film and develop photographs, that was my thing. I just want to show other things I did when I first started taking photographs and show my interest in music, particularly live music. Some of the people I have taken photographs of are quite iconic, but they are also just nice photographs. 

You'll also see reflections of myself in all of these characters, which are mostly all young black males. You'll also see how diverse the scene and inner city street style was in London. I've also got things from Bristol and even things like Ice Cube in LA! But it doesn't matter where they were shot because all of the photographs are going to be in black and white, and they are showing young multi-cultural youths of the day. In 20 years time, someone will be doing a talk about their photographs and it will be all of the kids of their time.

Throughout your career you have photographed a range of artists and gave a strong insight into urban street life, were you ever exposed to anything that shocked you during this time?

Normski: I always wanted to celebrate things. One of the most amazing moments was at a gig at a dance hall. It was the Ultramagnetic MCs performing so it was amazing. And I had only been there once while they were doing a quick tour and a few gigs. It was a really magical moment and everyone who was into hip hop was going to be at that show. I lived down the road so I went along in the afternoon to check them out while they were sound checking. Which, again, was this whole thing of getting an inside story, and people always seemed to like me, they were like "oh who's this cool black guy?". And a few minutes later, I'd ask "Do you mind if I just take a quick photograph?" and they were like "yeah sure, no problem... We're bored of doing soundcheck, we've been here all day". A great shot I got was where the back door had basically been kicked in, and people had rushed in (during the gig). And you could see so many people coming in from outside, and so many people already in there, that when the band actually came on you could see people outside the venue, looking over the heads watching the hip hop group. That was a scary moment because as they all rushed in, I was at that side of the stage and I remember thinking “what the f*ck!”. It was mayhem! And I got that moment which I call the “Bumrush shot”. 

Hip hop culture essentially derived from societal dissatisfaction. Having lived through this time, was there an obvious divide in people? Is it still apparent today?

Norsmki: I think it's the same. You're always going to have hierarchy, and you're going to have people looking down at other people. Bad has always been bad, and good has always been good. Laughing has always been laughing. These things are always going to exist, what might be a bit sad now is how maybe in today's society it's very possible that people choose to try not to accept it, which makes it even more apparent. In other words, speaking up and being honest and truthful is much better straight away than holding it in.

I listen sometimes to what the lyrics are to some of the artists' lyrics nowadays and I'm thinking "What the fuck are you talking about?". Like "there are people dying you know in Syria, bruv?" I mean, "I've got my Nike shoes and I'm rocking those twos" and I'm like "Bruv, come on and gimme some lyrics!". Listen to what they were saying in hip hop in the olden days, those guys didn't even use to swear.

Normski will present “Darker Shades of White” tonight at London‘s Doomed Gallery in conjunction with YOUTH CLUB. Click here for more