Highlights from Raph Rashid’s new book exploring the cozy confines where hip-hop greats make their music
Starting in 2000, the Melbourne-based photographer and food-truck impresario Raph Rashid set out to document the living spaces of some of his favorite producers, pulling the curtain back on the humble environments that give rise to some of the best hip-hop around. 2005’s Behind the Beat featured 28 different musicians, including a shot of J Dilla on his MPC that went on to be acquired by the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, and Rashid recognized the evergreen appeal of these studios, where a given space could be as clear of a window into an artist’s mind as the actual music created there. From 2005 through 2016, Rashid continued to photograph home studios, eventually compiling enough material to create Back to the Lab, a sequel of sorts to Behind the Beat that visits a fresh set of producers and their intriguing set-ups. In this interview and photo essay, Rashid reflects on the project and shares highlights from the book, which includes the likes of Sa-Ra, Georgia Anne Muldrow, the Alchemist and many more.
Can you talk about your introduction to photography more generally, and hip-hop photography specifically?
I was always taking photos of skateboarding and I really loved the movement in skateboarding, so I used to document all my friends. At the same time, I had a lot of producer friends and I really loved the way that they would set up their home studios, so I was always just shooting photos around their places. I’m basically all self-taught. I had a lot of friends that were photographers, I’ve always had a lot of friends in the arts, so [I would just] pick up bits and pieces of how I would like to shoot things.
It wasn’t until I got my Hasselblad camera that I really felt like photography was something that I could really embrace. The Hasselblad is a square-format camera and it’s a medium-format film, so all this book is shot on film. Once I got that, I was really interested in shooting more and it really opened me up to the world of photography. I really loved the way that it formatted things.
Why do you think you were so attracted to home studios?
I just really love people and watching the way that people live and organize their things. In a studio, which is pretty utilitarian, if you’re a producer you just kind of get your stuff and plunk it down and then start working. I really love those spaces, but even those spaces, producers seem to make them beautiful in their own way. I really like the mix of it and I just think being at home adds a whole other level.
I really like the idea that people can create these amazing records – like Endtroducing, DJ Shadow’s album – half a million copies and it was made at home. I just think that those ideas come from a very special place, and I was really fascinated about documenting those places.
Of the people that you shot for Back to the Lab, what percentage do you think make all of their music in the studio that you shot, versus artists who might have another studio space? For Sa-Ra, it seems like they’re making everything there, but for others it seems like, “Oh, maybe Kenny Dope has another space.”
[With] Kenny Dope there’s actually two studios in there, so the start is his little pre-production where he gets going. I think a few pages through it switches to his studio at his mother’s house.
Kenny Dope still has his studio at his mom’s place!
This is the beautiful thing about it. It’s fantastic, and that was just a short drive from his other studio and it’s all there. It was amazing. I feel like most of the people, as far as the core ideas and everything were concerned, most of those studios is where they made all that. Potentially they might go on and do some mixing someplace else, but for the most part it was all done there.
Which artist’s studio were you most surprised by?
The size of Oddisee’s room was so small, and he’s not a short person, but his room was literally two meters by two meters. It was tiny. I was pretty surprised by that. I was also really surprised by Kenny’s set-up, which just kept going forever. Georgia Anne Muldrow, being in a kitchen... I wasn’t prepared for that.
When you began Back to the Lab, did you have a concrete list of names that you knew you wanted to approach?
I would make a short list, but it really was based on connections. I didn’t just say, “I want to shoot Scott Storch’s,” because I didn’t have any connections there. Not that I wouldn’t have liked to have done that, but it wasn’t the way that it went, so I would make a short list of friends that I had and friends of theirs and then I would see if I could get a connection.
My first list might have been about ten people. Producers know producers, and that would keep rolling. When I photographed Kenny Dope, it must have been about five o’ clock in the afternoon, and then he said, “Oh, I can drive you to Jazzy Jeff’s house.” That was four hours away, so we jumped in his car and he drove us there. That was amazing, but that wasn’t on the plan for the day.
Was there anyone that you really wanted to shoot but couldn’t for one reason or another?
I really wanted to shoot Dr. Dre’s house, ever since it had came out that he had five MPC’s linked up and all this sort of stuff. There’s always a lot of talk about his home studio, and I really wanted to get there. Hopefully one day, who knows.
Do you have any memorable stories to share from these shoots? I’m sure you had lots of very special moments with these artists.
When someone’s actually making music while I’m there, I feel very, very privileged. Flying Lotus made music the whole time I was there. It was like I wasn’t there, you know? And he didn’t warn me or anything, he just opened the door and he said, “You just do whatever you want, I’m just having a bit of a session.” Sa-Ra did the same – they just did their thing. Alchemist was making some music. A lot of the other guys had to just show me around, which was fantastic. Just Blaze was mixing a Nas song at the time, so that was really cool to hear.
Just Blaze has said that when he’s doing a final mix of something, he’ll listen to it outside of the studio – crank it up and then close the door so that he can simulate people standing outside of a club, hearing the final mix. Did he do that to you?
I think he did, because he turned it up, he came out, sat down next to his video games and started playing a video game. I was like, “Can I take your photo here?” And he was like, “Ah, no no no. I’m just listening.” I’m not sure whether it was a final mix, but he did turn it up and close the door. So maybe that was that, I don’t know.
Also, Jazzy Jeff on turntables... He’s just so good at it and so natural. It was really good that people didn’t feel too formal with these photoshoots. I’m not trying to be in their way and not trying to style them, and just trying to capture them from the style they give.
Did you manage to play chess against anyone in Sa-Ra?
No, I didn’t. That photo shoot went on for so long, mainly because there was three of them and they kept coming and going. I really love the music that those guys have made – I think it’s phenomenal. But no chess, and no painting, unfortunately.
It also looks like they have turntables set up over the oven, or next to the sink?
It was just phenomenonal that there was a kitchen. And I think Om’Mas actually made some food in here, and I couldn’t work out where, how you could do it. But he made some food while he was making music at the same time. It was crazy. I think the turntables are just on a bench, and then... I don’t even know where the cooking stuff happens.
They all lived in this one house. This is when they were signed to Kanye’s label... That portrait of them, I just can’t believe that photo. Om’Mas is holding his spear at me, and then Taz has just got his gear on, and Shafiq says to me, “Do you mind if I, like, do a squat like a drug dealer?” And I was like, “Yeah man, you just do whatever you want.” And it just happened, just a beautiful thing, you know? These little moments.
It feels like the Georgia Anne Muldrow shoot in particular was very special. What was that one like?
It was so nice. I think I had woken them up – it was around 9, 9:30 in the morning. And she’s just such a mellow person. It really was special, being in a kitchen and she would just play a few beats and her kids were just kind of running around. And her little guy... that photo of them together is just a nice moment. Everything she puts out there, she is, you know? Very spiritual, very calm.
Header image © Raph Rashid