Capturing the golden age of '90s hip-hop

Photographer Sue Kwon and Kool G Rap on a couch.
The photographer Sue Kwon and Kool G Rap sit together on a couch.Photo copyright Sue Kwon, from her book, "Rap is Risen: New York Photographs 1988-2008" (Testify Books, 2021)
  • Sue Kwon has captured intimate moments of some of the biggest names in hip-hop.

  • Her immersion into hip-hop was a result of her passion for photography and desire to freeze moments in time.

  • Her book, "Rap is Risen: New York Photographs 1988-2008," is a compilation of some of her greatest photos.

I'm grateful to have documented the emerging hip-hop culture in the '90s. I never thought it would land me a career as a professional photographer.

This is an as-told-to essay based on a conversation with Sue Kwon, a photographer who was immersed in the world of hip-hop during its golden era. She has photographed some of the biggest names in hip-hop and captured intimate photos of behind-the-scenes moments as seen in her book, "Rap is Risen: New York Photographs 1988-2008." The essay has been edited for length and clarity.

I'm a photographer. I didn't know I'd be a photographer for this long, and I wasn't hell-bent on being a photographer now that I look back on it. I never thought I could be a photographer as a career. It wasn't my goal. It was something that really made me happy, and I loved doing it.

I'm like anybody from the '90s. I was just very lucky to be, by chance, immersed in that emerging hip-hop culture just because I liked the music. But being able to document that era, I'm very happy and grateful that actually happened.

I would leave the house every day with my Rolleiflex camera and the light meter and be like, "I might capture something cool." It wasn't always music or people on the street. And that really inspired me and kept me a part of it.

Kevin Bray dressed as Eazy E in a car surrounded by men with bats.
The director Kevin Bray dresses as Eazy-E for the "Fuck Compton" music video.Photo copyright Sue Kwon, from her book, "Rap is Risen: New York Photographs 1988-2008" (Testify Books, 2021)

Capturing a moment

My dad was an amateur photographer. I remember seeing him photographing family events or outings and looking back at his photos, and I loved that. He didn't talk about it, but he always had a Super 8, a point-and-shoot, or other cameras that he used to document our family events. When I was in middle school or high school, I remember asking to borrow his camera.

I suddenly got hooked on the idea of, "Wow, this photo stops time."  I was obsessed with time changing, people passing. Maybe morbid, but I realized, "Oh, this captures a moment and stops it." And I loved that idea.

I wouldn't say my parents were discouraging or encouraging. I think a lot of immigrant families are just working day to day, making money, wishing their daughter was a doctor, a lawyer, and they were very patient with me.

I assisted a fashion photographer for a few years right after graduating college. But I found that I really disliked it. It just struck me in a different way.

I was like, "What does this all matter?" We're shooting a dress, like 30 rolls for one dress, and I'm not trying to put down fashion, of course, or stylists, but at that time, it didn't matter to me. My interests were always documentary, behind-the-scenes, or capturing life.

A photo of Fat Joe holding a bat, getting ready to swing at a softball
Fat Joe at bat playing softball with Big Pun in the South Bronx.Photo copyright Sue Kwon, from her book, "Rap is Risen: New York Photographs 1988-2008" (Testify Books, 2021)


I'd grown up obsessed with the Vietnam War. That was always of interest to me: the daily life, the difficulties of war, and the discomfort of war.

I just remember thinking that photographs, without words, can change or break a situation. So, I thought I could speak with my photos, and speaking on social climates at that time was more important.

I think there are definitely parallels between conflict photography and hip-hop photography in the sense of unpredictability, but, obviously, without the danger.

I worked with a little company called Hex Films, which produced a lot of hip-hop videos back in the day. I would go up there and shoot photos. It wasn't a paid gig, but it was fun to see what was going on and document behind-the-scenes. That's where I first met Fat Joe.

When I first met Fat Joe in the Bronx, he was like, "What are you doing? You're taking pictures? Take a picture of me. I'm gonna be a big rapper." He appreciated that I had a camera and I was documenting it. But at that time, I wasn't taking these photos professionally.

A photo of Method Man and his son Sha.
Method Man and his son, Sha, at their home in Staten Island.Photo copyright Sue Kwon, from her book, "Rap is Risen: New York Photographs 1988-2008" (Testify Books, 2021)

Getting assignments

I attended a new music seminar event, which was a DJ battle. There I met a gentleman named David Funken Klein, who worked with Red Alert. Because I had a camera, I remember him being like, "Oh, you're a photographer." He gave me his card and told me he would be working on a project I might be interested in. I remember thinking, "Yeah, right."

He did contact me. He said, "I'm going to shoot the Lifers Group at Rahway State Prison in New Jersey, and we're gonna do a record through Hollywood Basic."

Of course, I said yes. Eventually, The Source magazine used some of my photos.

That's how I started to really get immersed into getting assignments for all that amazing '90s music that was coming out.

A photo of the Wu-Tang Clan
Wu-Tang backstage at The Source Awards.Photo copyright Sue Kwon, from her book, "Rap is Risen: New York Photographs 1988-2008" (Testify Books, 2021)

Working with the Wu-Tang Clan

I'm most comfortable doing a shoot where the subject can just forget about me being there. I feel like a background story or behind-the-scenes photos tell so much more. Like U-God washing dishes, I remember him laughing at me, like, "Why are you taking pictures of me doing this?"

But to me, that was so amazing. It's U-God washing dishes! That was the end of the shoot, and I just happened to wander there where he was doing it.

I met the Wu-Tang Clan one by one through Loud Records. I was friends with Gerard Marinacio and Mojo Nicosia, who worked at Loud Records, and while hanging out at Loud Records they asked, "Can you come by the label today and take some pictures? Raekwon might be showing up."

Method Man, of course, is near and dear to my heart. He was always great and always stayed for the photos.

When I first met him, he was open to the camera. I think he understood. He wasn't hamming it up for the camera, but he always just gave to it. Whenever I asked for a photo, he'd always say yes.

Notorious B.I.G with his arms raised, singing along to a song.
Biggie Smalls at a private listening party at Puff Daddy's House.Photo copyright Sue Kwon, from her book, "Rap is Risen: New York Photographs 1988-2008" (Testify Books, 2021)

A decisive moment with Biggie

That moment with Biggie Smalls is still so clear to me. Everything leading up to that shoot and the days after is so vivid for me because of his talent and his unfortunate death soon after.

Back then, I don't think I even had a pager yet. I remember being at home, answering the phone, and Dream Hampton, who was the editor of Rap Pages, said, "Biggie's doing a new album. Go up to the studio tonight at 7 o'clock."

Dream gave me the address of Puff Daddy's house. It was a sunny afternoon, I remember going up there by myself, with just a few rolls of film, photographing it, and then leaving. I remember walking in and hearing "Hypnotize." That was the first song I heard blasting, and I remember I got goosebumps because it was so good.

I went up to Biggie, introduced myself, and said, I'm just here to document behind the scenes, and he just nodded. And that was it. Because the music was so loud, I didn't really have many words with him. I just got to walk around, do what I wanted, and be a fly on the wall.

I think it was 11 days after that shoot that I found out Biggie had died. I remember getting called about how the film had to be rushed. My film was still sitting in my apartment. I hadn't even brought it into the lab yet, so I had to run to the lab and get it rushed. It was all so crazy.

A photo of Ol' Dirty Bastard laughing with a bottle in his hand
Ol' Dirty Bastard laughs while on the set of the video shoot for "Brooklyn Zoo."Photo copyright Sue Kwon, from her book, "Rap is Risen: New York Photographs 1988-2008" (Testify Books, 2021)

The shot of Biggie with the champagne, I didn't know that was a decisive moment back when I took the photo. It was more so when I got the film back that I was like, "Wow, that's the moment." I like to look at the room or the situation, and I think everything is possible because a lot of it is always so interesting to me, every moment.

My photo of Ol' Dirty Bastard where he is drinking the 40, that was just on a roll of 36, and the first part of the roll is me when I was doing laundry in a Chinese laundromat with my son.

A photo of Jay-Z with his head in his hands.
Jay-Z during his photo shoot in the basement of Supreme on Lafayette Street in the late 90s.Photo copyright Sue Kwon, from her book, "Rap is Risen: New York Photographs 1988-2008" (Testify Books, 2021)

I hope with my book "Rap is Risen," people see hip-hop for what it is or was with no pretense. Photos, like U-God washing dishes or early Wu-Tang stuff, just show that it was not always glossy and perfect. It was just going in, shooting them, and photographing them as is. It's not just about me. It's about those artists. They allowed me in.

Read the original article on Insider