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Ghostnotes lead image

Beautiful photos from two decades of hip hop history

Brian ‘B+’ Cross photographed the likes of Erykah Badu, Eazy-E and DJ Shadow over the decades – and a new book Ghostnotes documents his evocative style

Life moves in circles, though we may not notice until the revolution is complete. In 1996, DJ Shadow released Endtroducing…, his debut studio album on Mo’ Wax Recordings, with curious photo on the cover. It showed two guys inside a record store: one in profile, the other’s face blurred – neither were DJ Shadow.

It was a scene from everyday life, the very thing you’d recognize as a fellow hip hop head. It stood out for it unpretentiousness, it’s lack of glamour and glitz. Just as hip hop was going pop, Endtroducing… was taking it back to the earliest days of the art form when the DJ was king and crate digging was everything.

Five years later, an editor at C Photography in Spain reached out to Brian “B+” Cross, the photographer who created this seminal image. They wanted to feature it in their annual. Cross agreed – then sent along more images turning their request into a 15-page spread. When it was published, David Hamrick put a Post-It note on the page. Then, in 2015, when he was the director of the University of Texas Press, he reached out to Cross to see if he had more work, thinking it could make an excellent book.

The inevitable does not need a plan; it simply arrives. Cross had been working on Ghostnotes, a collection of photographs made throughout his career, for nearly two decades. The book was conceived as a mixtape, a visual corollary to the sounds of the African diaspora that flow through hip hop, uniting generations of people from all walks of life in the rhythms of the drums, the heartbeat of the art form.

Weaving together threads the combine documentary and portrait photography, Cross guides us through a musical landscape, crafting a composition as brilliantly conceived as a work by Miles Davis. Conceptualized with “A” and “B” sides, Ghostnotes takes us on a journey around the world, brilliantly synthesizing hip hop, Jamaican dub, Brazilian samba, Ethiopian jazz, Cuban timba, and Colombian cumbia. The book features portraits of everyone from The Notorious B.I.G., Eazy-E, and Kendrick Lamar to George Clinton, Brian Wilson, and the Watts Prophets, among so many more. Cross speaks with us about his journey bringing Ghostnotes to life.

There have always been a lot of music photographers, but very few of them photograph music. Your work reminds me of someone like Herman Leonard, whose work didn’t just capture the artists, but captured the spirit of the sound — no small challenge in a format that is silent by nature.

Brian Cross: I designed this as a community project, then ran with it and it became a life’s work. Whenever I have the opportunity to do things with people, whether it’s for commercial or editorial ends, it’s always been this bigger thing that I’ve thought of as an art project. That’s what kept this going all these years.

The difficulty of the commercial thing for someone with my sensibilities is that it’s like giving blood. When you work for a corporation, they want every drop they can get and it’s not about what your ideas, a lot of the time. Some of my best work never made it to the cover or the inside sleeve and I always understood that was part of the deal. I had my own thing going on and that was the real goal. This is the first opportunity I’ve had to show what that art is.

Please tell me about the title Ghostnotes – it’s so evocative.

Brian Cross: I’ve had this title since 1997 or 98. It came from an instructional video that I saw of Bernard Purdie talking about his drumming. He talks about ‘ghostnotes’. For me, at first, it was the notion of an ancestral presence in the work. I was always investigating the continuities that exist from previous generations be it the Black Arts movement, bebop, jazz, and other forms: this notion of rupture and appropriation. Hip hop was a naming of technologies that already existed. The notion of ‘ghostnotes’ was the presence of folks through the ghosting of what sampling does, the presence of folks that only existed as recordings.

When it came time to put the book together, the notion of things existing between the frames… I’ve always been interested in sequencing. That’s Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Araki, Nick Waplington – people I’ve been inspired by over the years. The sequencing of photographs is like Walter Benjamin: it’s writing a history where the details are in the margins and between the frames in ways you wouldn’t anticipate.

That a photograph of King Errisson, a Bahamian guy who becomes the central figure in the song ‘Apache’ would sit next to a photograph of Kool Herc, the guy who built hip hop by playing that break, makes sense to me – especially when you see how the photos work against each other. That speaks to something in the culture that wouldn’t necessarily be obvious. ‘Ghostnotes’ spoke to that, too.

‘The notion of ‘ghostnotes’ was the presence of folks through the ghosting of what sampling does, the presence of folks that only existed as recordings’ – Brian Cross

Wow. I love how the book can speak to people on different levels at the same time.

Brian Cross: The ambition of making work like this is that it can do that. If you’re only interested in portraits of artists like Shuggie Otis, Pharoah Saunders, David Hutchinson, Flying Lotus, Bill Withers, David Axelrod – it’s all there. But there are two or three other levels you can go to with this that can inform the way you listen to music and the connections you could make, if you want to take the extra step. Hip hop is that to me. You listen to A Tribe Called Quest and find out who Roy Ayers is and buy all his records because he’s clearly fucking amazing. I was that guy and those are the kinds of artworks I am interested in.

I totally get that. The square format of the book brings me back to the time where you’d stare at an album cover and go into a trance while the music was playing. How did the album format inspire you?

Brian Cross: Since the early 2000s, the notion was to make this a square book that would live on your record shelves next to your records. It was designed as a 12x12 (inch), but in the end one of the contributions of the publisher was to think of this as a 7x7 (inch), so it’s like a 45 rather than an album: a more democratic object that you could afford to buy.

But the notion of the squared circle has always been at the centre of music appreciation. If you put a crate of records in front of people and watch how they leaf through it, they’re making incredibly fast judgments based on the quality of the card stock, the color reproduction, the font – all the visual cues, which is the way I want people to read the book. That’s why there’s Side A and Side B to the essay. I want you to think about this the way you would think about a mixtape or fingering through a crate of records.

In the introduction, Jeff Chang quotes you as saying, ‘I realized I could photograph whatever the fuck I want, and it can be hip hop.’ That just jumped off the page.

Brian Cross: It’s inspired by Yasiin Bey, on ‘Fear Not of Man,’ where he says, ‘So the next time you ask yourself where hip hop is going / Ask yourself: where am I going? How am I doing?’ We embody this. We decide where it’s going to go. The reach of this culture is immeasurable. It’s important that we allow ourselves to break through boundaries. I have my moments of doubt but when Kendrick Lamar put out To Pimp a Butterfly, it helped me to finish this book. He joined a bunch of dots that I felt I might be forcing, but then he did it in an original way and it allowed me to finish in a way I wanted.

Your vision speaks to the hip hop isn’t just four elements: it is a state of mind and a way of life. I’m interested in how you decided to edit the book so it’s about that, not just the celebrities.

Brian Cross: Nick Waplington always used to say, ‘Make works that don’t rely on who’s in the picture. Make work that relies on the strength of the picture.’ That’s a challenge, but the book had to be that first. It has to work as an essay. It has to have an internal integrity. You have to be absolutely brutal with it and that’s difficult. People need to have a reason to be there, and that’s the difficulty of doing a project like this. Politically it might have been more expedient to do that but then what’s the point? I might as well have done a greatest hits.

I would like to talk about Endtroducing because that is one of the icons chose to put in the book.

Brian Cross: It was a breakthrough photograph. It was weird and mysterious but from the minute we saw it on the proof sheets, we were like, ‘Well, that’s the cover anyway.’ That’s the kind of fearlessness that James Lavelle and Josh (Davis aka DJ Shadow) were working off. Lavelle was a proper visionary. His idea was, everyone else is spending money making music videos to sell these objects and spending very little making the objects pristine and beautiful. His idea was like, let’s just save the money on the music videos and make amazing objects.

That record is a very special record for people. It put a lot of people up on that music and expanded what was possible in hip hop. That photo has really stood the test of time – a really bizarre, technically incompetent photograph.

But that makes it relatable. It looked like my experience as a fan.

Brian Cross: That photo was a recalibration in terms of my photography practice. Evaluating what was important about that image and why it works allowed me to reconsider my ideas and philosophy. Up until that point, those photographs would be considered in the margins and then suddenly it was like, ‘Well, how do I make those kinds of moments the center?’

That’s one of the amazing things about art. You can break every rule and still get it right.

Brian Cross: This is music, too. This is the kind of music I respond to whether it’s Madlib, Lee Scratch Perry, or Sun Ra. These are people where the mistake, that sense of discovery, and the experiment are central to the kind of practices they have. I aspire to that.

Ghostnotes: Music of the Unplayed launches at Eastern Projects Gallery, Los Angeles on November 4. Pre-order the book here.