Mobb Deep. Queensbridge Houses, NYC. 1994  © Chi Modu

Mobb Deep. Queensbridge Houses, NYC. 1994 © Chi Modu

Tupac. Atlanta. 1994  © Chi Modu

Tupac. Atlanta. 1994 © Chi Modu

MC Eiht. Compton. 1994 © Chi Modu

Nas. Queensbridge Houses, NYC. 1993 © Chi Modu

Nate Dogg, Daz Dillinger & Kurupt. Los Angeles. 1996  © Chi Modu

Nate Dogg, Daz Dillinger & Kurupt. Los Angeles. 1996 © Chi Modu

Wu-Tang Clan. NYC. 1992 © Chi Modu

Snoop Dogg. Los Angeles. 1993 © Chi Modu

Eazy-E. Los Angeles. 1994 © Chi Modu

Bone Thugs N Harmony. Cleveland. 1995 © Chi Modu

The Notorious B.I.G. NYC. 1996 © Chi Modu

Gang Starr. NYC. 1994 © Chi Modu

By seeing things through foreign eyes, photojournalist & culture observer Chi Modu not only chronicled and defined the most important phase of the hip hop movement, now a global force, he also was able to define the artists and show them as real people, rather than one-dimensional celebrities. We got in touch with the photographer to talk about the golden era of hip hop, its current state and his projects outside of hip hop.  

Born in Nigeria and raised in New Jersey. On a young age you decided to stay behind while your parents moved back to Nigeria. Has your background influenced the way you photograph? How?

It's always nice to look at things from a different perspective. Being a foreigner, or seeing things through foreign eyes, you tend to have a different perspective on the local cultures and things. I came here at a very young age. I think at some core level, looking at the world through a different set of eyes has helped my photography

Your photo’s defined the artists and show them as real people, how did you achieve this natural and distinctive element in your photo’s? 

I knew hip hop was a force to be dealt with from the minute I heard it and then brought my camera to impact on it. I felt the responsibility to show the subjects with honesty and realness because my images were helping to shape and define the movement as much as their lyrics were. 

I believe the best way to bring the realness out of ones subjects is to get close to them. Now that's a very easy thing to say, but not quite as easy to do. My approach to photographing people is to come in with my guard down. I like approaching my subjects with open arms. When people see you coming with open arms, they tend to open their arms and their world for you to enter. Just being genuine, true and respectful of my subjects has always made my job a little bit easier when it’s time to take out the camera.

What was the relation between photographer and artist in the golden era of hip hop / the rise of Gangsta rap? 

The relationship between photographers and artists was quite different back then. In order to get the access necessary to create good work, you had to befriend the subjects and be respected as one of them, and not an outsider in order to truly be welcomed. It was a lot tougher to get into the mix if you were an outsider. You didn’t want to be viewed as someone who just came there to take photographs. If you're there to respect the culture and appreciate what they're doing, folks take you in whether you have a camera or not. My approach is always to look at the artists as people first. I had a high level of respect for my subjects and felt that they were very smart people so for me it was an honor to get to photograph them and hang out with them.

I think it's a little bit different these days. Today people come into the category because they hear it's something cool to do, or someone at the magazine or record label hired them to come in and take the pictures. The photographers don’t have to bring their own street credibility to the room which changes the relationship and respect level between subject and photographer. I think it's a little bit different, the content you get when the people that are photographing artists come from outside of their world. Of course everything expands and evolves but it’s the previous standards that allowed for the closeness that you see throughout most of my images from that era..

How did you manage to work with rappers who had beef with each other? Did you have to justify your work? 

I'm a photographer. I think people sometimes confuse a photographer that worked around hip hop with a "hip hop artist” Yes, I'm a fan of the music but I'm a photographer first; so if someone had beef with another rapper, that has nothing to do with the job I do. I was cool with Biggie and I was cool with Tupac. They were both my friends and I liked them. I think that a lot of the hype that we've heard about East Coast/West Coast, has almost become more myth then fact. When I was in the middle of it, I never really believed in any of that. I just thought some people had some beef with each other. Things got a little out of hand but I didn't necessarily attach their deaths to an East Coast West Coast beef.

How was the atmosphere at work during the dark period in hip hop? after Pac died, followed by Biggie. 

Hip hop back then got real dark and somber. One good thing is that everything calmed down because we lost two of our greats in the middle of their prime, so I think at that point it let everyone know that things were very serious. Not that different from the reckless living of Rock and Roll artists in the sixties. Drugs and alcohol ended the lives of the greats like Hendrix, Joplin and Jim Morrison early in their careers. These losses wake up those left behind to adjust their lifestyle or run the risk of also dying early. Reckless living comes with youth. Once we get a little bit older, we become more aware of our own mortality and tend to calm down and avoid the things that put our lives at unnecessary risk. 

I was just coming out of the hip hop space soon after Biggie died. The majority of my hip hop career goes from 1990 and kind of came to a close in the later '90s. I still photograph things here and there but when I was doing it all day, every day, that run ended with Biggie's death. I look at Biggie’s passing as a turning point in my career.

You said in a conversation with another publication that you rarely got hired by labels, but artists bring you in. You were their first preference when it came to image, how did you develop this relationship and trust? 

Well I think magazines like Complex, along with art directors at record labels and gallery and museum curators tend to go to the people they're “comfortable” with or the people they know. The beauty is when you are friends with artists.  They can put your name in the hat and get you in the mix when others won't. If you can establish a relationship with a subject when they're coming up they’ll allow you the access needed to build a relationship that will spawn images that will live for years. I don’t think it’s a good thing that the public only gets to see what a few art directors decide is worthy of their pages.  Social media has changed that dynamic completely. Now if you have the work,  you can take the art directly to the people via Instagram, Twitter, etc. My Instagram account is proof of the power of going directly to the people. I set out about 18months ago to grow it by posting a picture a day from the nineties era. The public response has been overwhelmingly positive to go from 2000 to almost 70 thousand followers. People always ask me if the ease of folks acquiring cameras these days and many folks calling themselves photographers has impacted on the category. My response always puts things in perspective. Everyone can access a pen but not everyone is Hemingway or Dickens. Having the tools doesn’t make you a story teller so talent still has an opportunity to shine even brighter today if they can tell a good visual story and separate themselves from all the visual noise.

What do you think of the current state of hip hop and how artists are being portrayed? 

Hip hop is hip hop. I don't have an opinion on the current state. It's an art form. Art forms evolve. I actually don't like when people look at present day through old eyes. I think you have to let art evolve; that's the nature of art. If you're not a fan of it because it's not what you're familiar with, well that's more your issue; if the kids of today like it, let them do their thing.

Would you be interested being involved in future biopic movies? Like the one they're making about Tupac. 

Not really. I'm not a movie maker like that, I'm a still photographer. I have some stories to tell that could make a very interesting movie but I don't really know where I would be involved in any of the current biopics beyond a bit of consulting since I was there.  I'm not an actor, I'm behind the camera. I do license pictures to these movies and documentaries periodically. The original "Tupac: Resurrection" movie had my image on the outside of the box, of the DVD jacket. I work around the space and license things, but involved in the movies? No. If someone wants to write me into a script, I'll decide if I want to play a role or not as myself.

You worked with Eazy-E in 1992 and 1994. What are your thoughts on his portrayal in ''Straight Outta Compton'' ? 

I thought "Straight Outta Compton" was a pretty good movie. It was entertaining. I’m not passing judgement on the actor that portrayed him. I thought they did a fine job considering the circumstances. Whenever you try to portray an iconic figure that's no longer here it's always a little bit tricky. I thought the movie was entertaining.

Can you tell us more about the Tupac book you are releasing later this year? 

I'm currently working on a photo book on Tupac Shakur. It's been twenty years since he passed and now is a good time to put my entire collection of images of him into one book. He has a lot of fans around the world and it will be a gift to many of them to make these images available many of which have never been released in the twenty years since he passed. I have some other book projects in the works that cover the broader scope of my hip hop imagery but I felt strongly that it's time to release the Tupac Shakur : UNCATEGORIZED book first in 2016.

I look forward to marketing and promoting the book in a non-traditional way. Pulling in support and resources from outside of the hip hop industries from brands and people that want to be associated with the Tupac brand and our movement. Looking forward to bringing the exhibition to Europe soon.

Please tell me about your new work under the Instagram name ‘’Mrleicam’' 

Well it's actually not new work. I've always been a photojournalist /documentarian. I've always photographed people from all over the world. When I was photographing hip hop I was documenting a movement which is what attracted me to it. The work that you see @mrleicam are just the things that I see as I wander the world that don't really fit into my @chimodu stream. It’s important to have a visual strategy. The @chimodu Instagram has become pretty much a place for the hip hop fans to go to look at my photographs from the '90s. The stuff that I do around the world, be it in Yemen, Syria,Bangladesh, or in Borneo doesn't quite fit my @chimodu stream but it's very much who I am with a camera. It's nice to have another place that's a little lower profile than my main page, where I get to share photography with people that appreciate a global perspective. I think the world is a beautiful place and we all have to travel to be reminded of that fact. 

Keep the focus!

Interview by James Cheng Tan & Pouria Khojastehpay | S/TUDIO