Pin It
Mary J Blige
Mary J BligeCourtesy of Jamil GS

Photographing hip hop before it went pop with Jamil GS

The New York photographer lensed the 90s scene, capturing everyone from A Tribe Called Quest and D’Angelo to Mary J Blige and Usher. Here, he takes us on a tour through his archive

As the son of jazz saxophonist Sahib Shihab, who played with no less than John Coltrane, Quincy Jones, and Thelonious Monk, the connection between visual art and music was imprinted upon photographer Jamil GS as a child, while playing his father’s records and studying album covers in his hometown of Copenhagen.

“I believe input determines output,” he says. “I grew up in a very creative environment. My mother was talented at drawing and her mother was a famous illustrator working for fashion magazines and catalogues. There was a big American expat community in Copenhagen, and I was surrounded by musicians, artists, painters, poets, journalists, writers, directors, both American and Danish.”

Jamil GS got into hip hop in the 1980s at the age of 13 when he was a certified B-Boy, dancing in the clubs and bombing trains as a graffiti writer. “My dad started teaching me to play the saxophone,” he remembers. “He told me, ‘If you really want to do this and become good at it you have to practice six hours a day.’ As a teenager, I was out running the streets so I was like, I don’t know about that. I really wanted to be a professional graffiti artist, to be the next LEE or FUTURA.’”

After members of his crew got busted Jamil GS changed course, channeling his creative energy into photography, using the camera his father had given him at the age of 16. “For me, the connection with visuals and music is very close. When I hear the music, I see pictures,” he says. “I felt like photography hadn’t been explored that much by my generation. When something would come out in magazines or album art, there was a disconnect for me. I was like, this is not the experience I am having listening to this music. The music was so advanced and sophisticated: the production, compositions, poetry, slang. I wanted to make visuals that represented that.”

When Jamil GS was 18, his father died and everything changed once again. “Once he passed away I felt like somehow I had to fill a void he had left behind in New York,” he says. After moving to New York in 1990, Jamil GS quickly got in with the still underground hip hop scene, helping to advance the style known as “ghetto fabulous” with his first pictorial the September 1994 issue of i-D, then under the leadership of Edward Enninful.

“New York was the Mecca,” he says. “Going out almost every single night, hearing live acts like Gang Starr and Boogie Down Productions or jams in Tompkins Square Park every Sunday afternoon – it was heaven for me.” In conjunction with the recent launch of The Dope Hip Hop Shop, which offers merchandise featuring his iconic shots, Jamil GS takes us on a tour through his archive of 90s hip hop before it went pop.