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Photography Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images

Raymond Boyd on lensing the 90s artists who ripped up the hip hop rulebook

Armed with his camera, Boyd had a front row seat to Chicago’s hip hop scene – here, he reflects on the rappers and musicians that would go on to become stars, from Eazy-E to Queen Latifah

When Notorious B.I.G. dropped “Juicy” in 1995, he took a generation back to their roots with the iconic bars: “It was all a dream / I used to read Word Up! magazine / Salt ‘N’ Pepa and Heavy D up in the limousine”. Long before hip hop went pop, it was an underground scene shaped by local artists like Chicago photographer Raymond Boyd

Growing up, Boyd used to page through Black-owned magazines like Ebony and Jet, marveling at pictures of the Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, and Diana Ross – whose songs were sampled by hip hop artists he would later photograph. Reading their stories, Boyd was enthralled by tales of struggle and triumph against the odds. “It wasn’t so much gossip,” Boyd recalls. “You read about how they grew up, built their careers, artists who inspired them, how they set up their rehearsals and stage performances. That helped me to learn about them.”

Boyd took up photography after his mother gave him a Kodak pocket camera when he graduated high school. Drawn to the local music scene, Boyd frequented local clubs and concerts, making photographs. His enthusiasm caught the eye of Earl Calloway, fine art editor of the Chicago Defender newspaper, who gave Boyd a shot, and helped nurture the young talent into a photojournalist. 

“Seeing the live shows just blew me away. Being in the pit in front of the stage that close the artists could look right down at you, point, and pose – that was real cool,” says Boyd.  “I also got a chance to sit in front of the artists, listen to them tell their story, get a better understanding of what they went through, and watch how their facial features would change when they talked about how far they’ve come from where they first started. But once the red light goes off on the recorder, the best part of the interview comes.”

Between 1983 and 1996, Boyd photographed and interviewed a new generation of hip hop and R&B acts including Whitney Houston, Sade, New Edition, Outkast, Tupac Shakur, and TLC. He began publishing his work in magazines including Fresh!, YO!, Black Beat, M!, Right On!, Sister 2 Sister, and of course, Word Up!. But nothing could top the thrill of being published in Ebony and Jet, then owned by Chicago-based Johnson Publishing, which set the gold standard for Black American photo magazines.

Recently Boyd teamed up with Black Archives to present Stories Untold: The Raymond Boyd Collection, a collection of iconic hip hop photographs from the late 1980s and early 90s. Founded in 2015 by Renata Cherlise, Black Archives is a multimedia platform celebrating Black life and focusing on what Cherlise describes as “found memories” – intimate scenes from weddings, parties, streets, parks, homes, churches, and schools that that reveal, uplift, and affirm the extraordinary beauty and creativity of the Black American experience. After getting its start on Instagram, Black Archives continues to expand into new realms, seeking new ways to engage with archives, community, and storytelling. The Raymond Boyd Collection is the first project produced by Black Archives in partnership with Getty Images

Culling through Getty’s trove of more than 11 million images, Cherlise is curating a series of stories that define Black life on its own terms. “We’re here to do this for the long haul,” Cherlise says. “A lot of stories are buried because the archives are massive. What I like to do is take my time and delve deeper into those stories and who is behind the images. These are lives’ works.”

Here Boyd reflects on some of the people he photographed along the way, sharing insights into the character of artists who have gone on to become global stars and those who are longer with us, may they rest in peace.