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Snoop Dogg, Lisa Leone
Snoop Dogg on thet set of his first video "What's My Name?"Photography Lisa Leone

The woman who photographed hip hop history

Getting shot at with a young Snoop Dogg, on-set for Biggie’s ‘Big Poppa’ and witnessing the rise of Nas as the king of NYC’s rap ranks – plus her advice for budding photographers

A New York B-girl turned photographer, Lisa Leone was privy to the rise of hip hop’s biggest names in the 90s as she watched the wave of hip hop swell from the streets of LA and NYC and crash onto the world stage. From Nas’ now-legendary Illmatic recording sessions, Snoop Dogg’s “What’s My Name?”, Biggie’s “Big Poppa” and TLC’s “Creep”, Leone cut her teeth photographing music videos and studio sessions before moving onto Stanley Kubrick’s set for Eyes Wide Shut and eventually to directing her own films. As her historic images go on show in both Dubai (in collaboration with Sole DXB) and Los Angeles, we look back on getting shot at with Snoop, being a woman in a heavily male-dominated scene and her advice to budding music photographers today.

How did you get involved with hip hop and rap?

Lisa Leone: I grew up in New York and I was basically a B-girl and my (then) boyfriend was a graffiti artist, my best friend was a dancer (and) it was just at a time when the rest of the world didn’t know about hip hop yet, but things were shifting. We were dancing, lighting grass and MCing, and then it started to break out into the world in 1983. Style Wars and Flashdance came out (and) all of a sudden an explosion of these films around the world exposed everybody and my friends were in the films and they started touring.

I was a major in photography in high school so they would ask me to take pictures for them (for) publicity photos. So it was kind of a natural way, being there and photographing what you loved and in front of your face every day, you know just your friends. At the time, I would never have imagined that it (would) become what it was because we were kids. (It was the right place, right time I guess?) Yeah... it was, exactly.

Have these images been seen before or have you recently come across them again?

Lisa Leone: The Snoop ones were seen before because they were in Vibe magazine, but a lot of them weren’t. Some of them were just friends saying ‘hey, come on down’ or I might have at the time gave a print to somebody, I don’t even remember it was so long ago. Some of the things I was like ‘why was I even there?’ I don’t even know. It was a different time, it was really a community so everybody kind of knew everybody. There was so much creative flow happening, people would just visit each other’s sets and studio sessions and you’d be hanging out and you’d get a phone call, like ‘come down, we’re shooting ‘Big Poppa’ over at Nell’s’, and I live down the block so I would just walk over.

I feel like you can’t have the same level of access in music now like you had back then.

Lisa Leone: No, you can’t. I mean things are different also because I think it was particularly young and new, the early 90s, but also there was no digital, there were no cell phones or camera phones. I mean people like Russell Simmons had cell phones but the rest of us didn’t have cell phones so people weren’t as aware of image, sometimes on set I’d be the only photographer, so you have to really think back to what that time was. I had to go to the payphone and check my answering machine just to see if anyone had called. We weren’t emailing each other, there was no email you just left a message. It was a slower time, it was also like there weren’t ten people in the studio trying to get the picture and again, because it was film, nobody could be like ‘ok, let me get the picture’, you had to wait a few days. So I think it’s just the mentality has changed now, everything is so image-driven, anyone can take pictures, everybody takes pictures, so it’s just different.

I read that when you were on set for Snoop Dogg’s “Whats My Name?” a gunfight broke out?

Lisa Leone: Yeah, there was a little bit of a gang discrepancy. It was Snoop’s first video and I guess it was the first time anything was really being shot exterior in Long Beach. Maybe N.W.A. shot Long Beach… I don’t know but I think they were more Compton. It was my first time going out to Long Beach, basically, (Fat 5) Freddy who I used to travel around with a lot, we were close friends, (and he) was like ‘come out to Long Beach I’m going to shoot Snoop’s new video’, and I was so in love with when Chronic came out so I had to get myself out there. So I got onto the set and was kind of quite shocked because I had never experienced real LA gangs before, even the fashion, like how just they even looked back then, now I think it’s kind of out in the mainstream, but the first time you see guys wearing shower caps and curlers in their hair and socks and slippers, and with tattoos and looking so mean I was like in shock. Being from the Bronx I was always ‘like what is it with LA gangs, they have houses and backyards, what’s the big deal?’ and then I got out there and I was like ‘oh my god Fred, these guys are scary’. And then when we switched to the next location, all of a sudden we started to hear helicopters and police cars and everybody started scattering and you heard gunshots, and I started running to the car but I kept shooting and Fred was like ‘come on you’re gonna get us killed’,  you know I would stop and shoot and run, so yeah it was pretty much an adventure.

It was quite glorified in the press, this gang violence in hip hop, especially 90s hip hop...

Lisa Leone: In the 90s it was, but now I think everyone’s gotten over it. Since Biggie and Tupac were killed everyone really kind of chilled out, but before that it was pretty intense like that idea of East Coast vs West Coast. It was pretty stupid, some people thought it was pretty stupid but then there was that other faction of people who were igniting it. But yeah, it was a real thing.

You photographed Biggie, how was that?

Lisa Leone: The thing is that I shot a lot before Biggie came out. Bad Boy (Records) – and Puffy was the head (of it) – so we used to shoot a lot of stuff for them. When Biggie came out they were like ‘oh here’s a new artist’, my friend was shooting the videos (for them) so they were asking me to photograph the videos so I guess the first time was maybe for the “Big Poppa” video at Club Nell’s.

Being a woman in a mostly male-dominated environment, rapping about women, sex and violence against women and men, did you ever feel uncomfortable or alienated from the people you shot?

Lisa Leone: I didn’t feel uncomfortable but there was definitely those times where you had to kind of like put someone in check, but I just used to use them to my advantage to shoot them, and be like ‘okay, whatever, stay right there, let me take a picture’. But I never felt threatened, sometimes I would feel more... disgusted is too big a word, more like kind of pissed off. More like some of the words (they used) or I would see the treatment of some of the girls who’d do the videos, the dancers. For that kind of stuff, I’d be like ‘oh c’mon’ and try and tell the girls ‘you don’t have to do that’. You know there was one video where they were trying to tell the girls to take their tops off, and I would tell the girls they didn’t have to do that, they’re still going to get paid, but sometimes the girls would snap back at me and tell me to mind my business and they were going to do what they wanted to do, and I was like ‘alright’. So I just learned to keep my mouth shut, let the girls handle it. You know some girls wanted to be down like that. And again, when I grew up, I was a B-girl, so if somebody had an issue or wanted to come to me in a certain way, I knew how to come back and set it straight. And I guess they could read that I was part of the culture, I wasn’t an outsider, I grew up in the culture so you feel that. When I saw Snoop for the first time (in ages, three years ago) and showed him the pictures, he kept looking at me and smiling and shaking his head, and I was like ‘why do you keep looking and shaking you head, why are you looking at me like that? ‘and he just said ‘you know, I was so shy at this time and kind of guarded because if you see any pictures of me at that time I’m kind of guarded, but I’m so open in this shot and it is so intimate, you must have hip hop running in your blood or something that I felt so comfortable’.

His friends didn’t even believe it because I was in the studio with (his) big posse, and they started laughing when I said he was shy, and I was like ‘no he was’, he was really low key and (had a) low voice. I didn’t spend a lot of time with Snoop afterwards because he was West Coast and I lived in New York, so it was just kind of that moment. He’s definitely not shy anymore. (laughs)

How did you get involved with TLC?

Lisa Leone: I was just hired as a photographer and the director Craig Henry and I worked very close together, he was hired as the director to direct the video (for “Creep”) and he hired me as the cinematographer. It was the first version of “Creep”. So what happened was when all that drama was going down with Lisa Left Eye Lopez (when she burnt the house down?) yeah... they basically didn't want to feature too much of her. So we were like alright, that was their decision, but when we did the video they realised marketing-wise that was not the right decision to hide her, and it was more of a kind of gritty, dark video, and they realised marketing-wise that was not the right idea, so they decided to do something really pretty, makes them soft and shows them off. So then they (made another) version everybody knows of.

We didn’t even know they were re-doing it. They approved it and were like great and then a couple months later, we were like 'what the hell is this video?' I guess they re-shot it, that was disappointing because they were great and I really liked working with them, but as it goes, that’s the business.

How did you get involved with working for Stanley Kubrick for Eyes Wide Shut?

Lisa Leone: His daughter Vivien and I were close friends and he needed research photos of New York so she had asked me to help her do some of the shooting because she was moving to the West Coast, and I said ‘sure’ thinking nothing was going to come out of it because I was helping Vivien, and then like six weeks later she was like ‘my dad loved the pictures and wants to know if you want a couple of weeks of work’, so the next thing I know Stanley calls me and that was it, that was four years – a couple of weeks was four years. We were on the phone four times a day for a year and then he was like ‘why don’t you come for the shoot and be the set decorator?’ Working with him was like being in a small student film with a very small crew, and the more you just say ‘yeah I can do that’ he'll just give you more and more work, so I thought what an opportunity and went for it.

What did you take away from that relationship?

Lisa Leone: So much. I learnt so much from him. He was very open, any question or (about) sharing technical information... he was an amazing producer, I learned so much about producing. Also, something really important was that it was ok to say 'I don't know'. He would be on set and he’d be like 'I don't know know what to do. You’ll figure it out, it’ll just happen'. So I went back after he passed away and I started doing cinematography for independent films, and I remember being on set and people would be like 'what are we going to do?' and I’d say 'I don't know,' and they’d look at my like horrified because no one would say 'I don’t know', everyone was so afraid. It was so freeing to be like 'I don't know', to have that freedom to explore. It was kind of like this more open and relaxed way of exploring, and not feeling like you need all the answers every second of the moment.

“It was a different time, it was really a community so everybody kind of knew everybody. There was so much creative flow happening, people would just visit each other’s sets and studio sessions and you’d be hanging out and you’d get a phone call, like ‘come down, we’re shooting ‘Big Poppa’’” – Lisa Leone

Was that a natural progression from photography to directing?

Lisa Leone: Yes, I’ve had every job on set, from set decorator to cinematographer to electrician, so it’s kind of like you really understand everything, what it takes, so it feels like home to me to be on set.

Do you have any advice for young photographers shooting in that scene?

Lisa Leone: The thing is the most important thing to do is when you go into an environment, instead of just picking up the camera and shooting off a million pictures and figuring it out when you get home, is to go in and really try and feel the atmosphere that’s happening and trying to really capture the feeling. I see a lot of people just going in and shooting and shooting and shooting, but when we were younger and we had only two rolls of film you had to be very decisive in the image you were going to capture, and what was going to be the story in that picture. So I would try and just meld into the environment and kind of really feel like what was going on and what was happening with the people and what was the image that summarises it. So even though you have endless shots you can take now, I would advise to go in with that kind of openness and being open to the energies that are happening in that space. Also to just whatever you love, to follow it and just photograph it, even if it’s just your next door neighbour, his little band. You know? You’ll still get amazing images and convey a story or some feeling.

Presented by Sole DXB, Leone’s images are on show in the Dubai Design District until 5 April

From 2 April 6-9pm, Leica Gallery in LA will host Leone’s images

Leone’s book Here I Am is available now from here. See more work from her here