Jamel Shabazz: When We Were Kings, A Time Before Crack

Crack. The name alone evokes a million thoughts. Many reading these words knows someone or is related to a person that has succumbed to the drug’s hypnotic grasp. Today Hip-Hop stands in the aftermath of one of the most deadly drug epidemics to ever hit the planet. In the new book A Time Before Crack, […]

Crack. The name alone evokes a million thoughts. Many reading these words knows someone or is related to a person that has succumbed to the drug’s hypnotic grasp. Today Hip-Hop stands in the aftermath of one of the most deadly drug epidemics to ever hit the planet.

In the new book A Time Before Crack, photojournalist Jamel Shabazz documents the early days of the New York Hip-Hop scene. While the core of the book has images of young b-boy crews, motorcycle cliques and barbershop moments, it also features iconic images of Iron Mike Tyson, poet/ activist Gil Scott Heron and jazz-soul-funk masters Earth Wind & Fire. The journal is a must have for any person in search of the organic roots of Hip-Hop culture.

In this interview Jamel Shabazz talks about how he began his journey into photography, the nature of fashion trends in Hip-Hop and how urban youth came to lose their smile.

AllHipHop.com: What made you being taking photographs of the young people immersed in the Hip-Hop sub-culture?

Jamel Shabazz: In 1980, I returned to the States, after spending three years overseas in the military. Upon my return to Brooklyn, I witness a lot of friction amongst the young brothers. Having developed my craft in photography, I decided to use my camera, as a tool to connect with the various youth in my community, and impart to them, a message of love and unity, in hopes that it would eradicate, some of the tension.

I started I started traveling to various locations in my neighborhood and taking pictures of young brothers. I talked to them about the essence of life, the importance of life and loving one another. That basically started it.

Many of the faces in my book, came from two high schools in particular, Samuel J Tilden and Erasmus. I would spend many hours at those  locations, building with the students about the importance of education, and proper planning for the future. I was motivated by love, and my presence was well received. I found that in communicating with these brothers and sisters a lot of them opened up to me and shared their thoughts with me. I ended up developing not only a passion for the craft- but for them as well.

AllHipHop.com: When you were doing these photos one of the most striking things is the high level of importance that fashion played a role. The women are out to look good. The men are out to look good. There was an emphasis on personal style. Today fashion has become a t-shirt and jeans for the men and the women seem to dress about as close as they can to naked and we call that fashion. What happened?

Jamel Shabazz: I think commercialization happened. I think the big companies saw a profit in it. In those days you made due with what you had. In those days, if you had a style, it would last for a minimum of five years. Today the style is changing every week. Back in those days standard Pumas and Adidas were worn from the mid 70’s into the mid 80’s. There was not a wide choice out there.

Today everyone is producing a sneaker right now. And there is peer pressure on young people if they do not have the new sneaker that’s out right now. It wasn’t like that back then.

The concept of the toothbrush [using a toothbrush to keep the sneakers clean- see Ice T’s "409"] was you wanted to maintain it. You wanted them to look spankin’ brand new. You wanted them to have longevity.

Today, it’s all about money. Even the jeans back then were in style for along time. We wore Lee jeans. That was a style was years. The Kangol hat was in style for years. Today you get a logo slap in a shirt- and you good to go. Back then it was about being unique.

AllHipHop.com: Another thing that is interesting is you see young poor Blacks and Latinos in the ghetto smiling. They seem to have lost their smile now. Talk tome about that.

Jamel Shabazz: The hardships that came in the mid 80’s brought about a lot of pain and suffering. Where I came from in Brooklyn, basically everybody had a mother and father. We were strivin’ and doing well for ourselves and there was not a lot of violence.

With the 80’s came crack, and a lot of gang wars. So many lives were lost. A lot of the parents became the first causalties of crack. Eventually, it started to manifest itself I the way the children would react. I started to notice the kids did not smile as much no more because they had witnessed so much death.

They lost parents, brothers, sister, uncles- loved ones. They became desensitized. In addition to the fact that with the introduction of cable television, everything became about being violent and hard. That produced a coldness in the young people. Crack brought about so much pain and death and self hate, I think it was one of the factors of why they don’t smile.

AllHipHop.com: One of the interesting things I love about this book is that there are very clean shots of the brothers and sisters of the 5% Nation of Gods and Earths as well as the Nation of Islam. Can you please talk for a moment about what the impact of the 5% and the Nation of Islam had on the early days of Hip-Hop?

Jamel Shabazz: In 1975, there was an abundance of gangs. In 1976, the movie "Roots" came out and pushed everybody into a sense of consciousness. At that time the 5% Nation and the Nation of Islam were basically addressing issues in our community.

The 5% Nation was speaking more to the needs of young people. A lot of young former gang bangers became members of the 5% Nation. They stated to learn more about themselves and their history. In “dropping science” as it was called then, it started to manifest itself in the music. They came very articulate. Because the 5% stressed studying. The importance of knowing yourself, the times and actual facts. You had brothers who came very gifted with that. [In fact,] one of the greatest MC’S I remember, from the 5% nation was a young brother from Flatbush, Brooklyn, called Bless Allah, not only did the brother have, a unique voice, but he dropped science in all of his lyrics. Back then, we all knew that with the proper direction, he would of went to the top, it never happened.

AllHipHop.com: I see more and more articles about the so-called multicultural roots of Hip-Hop. I see debates all the time about how many young Whites contributed to the culture. Yet, when I look in your book I see photos of only Black and Latino brothers and sisters. Could you talk for a moment about multiculturalism as it relates to race in Hip Hop? Especially as it relates to young Whites being involved with the culture.

Jamel Shabazz: Yes. Back in the 70’s there was a divide in America and in our community. For the most part, White people at that time listened to Rock music. There was a lot of racism goin’ on. Segregation was still in place here in New York. You never saw Blacks and Whites together. There was in a sense- a war going on.

We knew we could not go in their neighborhoods. They knew they could not come into our neighborhoods. So, Hip-Hop at that time was predominantly Black and Latino. It was VERY rare that you saw someone White involved in the circle. It might be a graffiti artist who because of his talent was accepted into the circle. But basically back then it was Black and Brown.

Today, it is different. Hip-Hop has become a universal language. I am shocked to this day to see White people buyin’ Hip-Hop at the rate that they are. Im’ stunned. But hopefully, with them listening to Hip-Hop, they will begin to have a different appreciation for our people and maybe that can hopefully eradicate a lot of racism.

The multicultural movement in Hip-Hop could be beneficial. But only if the essence of Hip-Hop, it’s roots- are understood. Because we cannot have it where Eminem becomes the greatest rapper of all times- that’s a disgrace.

AllHipHop.com: Tell me a story about one of the photos in the book?

Jamel Shabazz: Theres a brother in shades on the dedication page. He has a sister with her arms wrapped around him. When I first came home from the military, he was a young brother I was tyring to spend time with. His name was Brian Davis. I was trying to help him get his life in order. I started to notice he was starting to deveop this thung type of mentality. I tried to save Brian.

When crack came out, Brian fell victim to crack. He died under mysterious conditions after trying to rob a crack house. He was left to die in a police precinct. He ended up getting shot in the process of the robbery. In the police station they allowed him to die, refusing him medical treatment. I had such a great interest in trying to save that young brother. But regardless of my efforts, he fell to the wayside.

AllHipHop.com: One of my favorites is the brother with the pitbull. Talk about that.

Jamel Shabazz: That was taken in the 1980’s on Delancy Street. That was our shoppin’ area. I saw this brother training his dog and I felt I had to capture it. That’s one of my top ten images of all time. It hung on my wall for many years and I was happy that I could be able to share it.

AllHipHop.com: Kanye West has a new song, "Crack Music" with Game about the impact of crack on the Black community. Why do you think the horrific epidemic of that time has become such a new focus?

Jamel Shabazz: I believe that they are doing so, because their generation was directly infected by it. many grew up in communities , where the results of crack, were everywhere, countless,  lost family members and love ones due to it. So it’s only natural that they use their talent to address this very important issue. I applauded Kanye West for taking the steps, he has a powerful voice, that the people will listen to.


AllHipHop.com: After someone goes through A Time Before Crack, and puts it down for the first time, what do you want them to walk away understanding?

Jamel Shabazz: I want those that look through my book, to walk away with a better understanding on how life was in the early 80’s. I hope that they notice the numerous smiles radiating in the book, along with the pride and integrity that is seen throughout the pages. But mainly I want them to understand that the crack, epidemic, destroyed so many lives, and created a lot of the negativity that we are experiencing today.

Selected images from A Time Before Crack, Jamel Shabazz, published by powerHouse Books, ©.

Adisa Banjoko is author to the upcoming book Lyrical Swords Vol.2: Westside Rebellion. For more information visit www.lyricalswords.com.