Photographs are a snapshot of a split second caught at one particular time. In music, hip-hop in particular, photographs play a big part in the promotion and growth of artists. In the ’90s, with no digital programs available, photographers studied their craft to perfection. Going to shows and shoots, this era was cut-throat, both musically and from behind the camera lens.
One photographer that rose to the top of his craft is T. Eric Monroe. He is responsible for some of the most iconic hip-hop pictures. Capturing the genre’s most intense moments and influential artists including, Tupac, Biggie and Snoop Dogg. He recently released his historic collection of 90’s photography in book form, Rare & Unseen Moments of 90’s Hiphop: Volume Two.
T. Eric Monroe spoke exclusively with O4L Online Network about coming up in hip-hop before digital photographs. He also tells of his career dedicated to hip-hop and shares his experiences with Tupac. Later, we discuss the 1995 Source Awards incident involving Suge Knight.
O4L Online: With a career that spans close to thirty years, can you speak about the beginnings and how you got your start in photography?
As a teen, I always dabbled in photography, taking pictures at events with friends. As I got more into skateboarding, I would take pictures at skate events. The photos of action shots weren’t always clear, but the shots of people together or peripheral moments would tell a story of what was going on.
As a Senior in High School, I had my first picture published in Thrasher MagazineJanuar y 1989 issue. It was a shot of the first girls to ever skate in an Eastern Skateboarding Association contest at the Brooklyn Banks (NYC). The photo was of the skater holding a trophy with a big smile. My next published picture wouldn’t be for another three years. It was also in Thrasher but this time it was photo and article on Ice Cube’s group, The Lynch Mob.
O4L Online: The photographs that you have taken have words like ‘iconic’ and ‘legendary’ attached to them. Your work, simply put, is phenomenal! Taking shots of some of the greatest hip-hop artists such as Tupac, Biggie Smalls, Nas, Wu-Tang Clan and Snoop Dogg to name but a few. Did you ever think that when you first started your career that you would take such iconic images that are now part of history?
Back in the ‘90’s there were no hip-hop icons, some people were legendary (LL Cool Jay, Rakim, Run DMC). We had legendary artists all from the mid-80’s. At the time, I began capturing in the early 90’s, guys like Biggie, Tupac, Wu-Tang. They for the most part were new artists. Tupac was the only one who had a few albums out and he was not a superstar (at that time).
When I began my career in professional photography, I knew I wanted to shoot musical artists. But my main concern was trying to get access to the artists because I was not on assignment by magazines to shoot for features. So, when I found opportunities to photograph artists, I made the most of them.
I did not have the foresight or vision to think about 20+ years from now. I was freelancing, just trying to take a good picture that would hopefully sell to a magazine or record label.
O4L Online: Your career started in the pre-internet era. How has the process of developing, editing and distributing your work changed over the years?
I started pre-internet and pre-digital, manual focus camera using black/white, color print film and slide film. Back then it was a completely different world, even to the point of taking and creating a picture. Because you were using film, there was no preview of the image to tell you if your image is out of focus, too bright or too dark. You had to have an understanding of all the variables that went into getting one image, and would not see the results until maybe 6-hours or a day later (for print film) after the roll of film was developed.
As for distribution of my images back then, I had to visit a lot of magazines, record labels, and even worked with an entertainment photo stock agency to help try and sell my work. A lot didn’t sell, but enough moved over time to keep me working as a photographer.
With the Internet and social media, it has become easier to market visual content, and easier to find material that has barely been seen by the general public. For me, I still have a lot of material that needs to be digitally scanned. I digitally processed a small portion of my work upfront, mainly the stuff I knew people would definitely want to see, to open eyes and start up the conversation. Now that I’m understanding what the people want to see and learn about, I can show and tell even more about the 90’s, and share the stories of what I experienced.
O4L Online: In 1994, you were invited to Harlem for a press event for Tupac Shakur. What are your memories of this event and what was the media’s attitude towards 2Pac?
That day was interesting because I had heard of Tupac, but I didn’t know Tupac or his music like I knew De La Soul or A Tribe Called Quest. Tupac was being filmed for a segment of The Box (music television show), and it was being filmed across from his old Elementary school. I had seen Tupac in magazines, and watched how the media reported on him, so I didn’t know what to expect.
When I arrived, the segment filming had already begun. It was wild sight to watch initially. There were so many different news TV shows, newspapers and photographers crowding him and egging him on to evoke his “Thug Life” persona. I just watched at first and eventually began focusing on him in between the chaos. I never yelled, look here, do this, I just followed and observed. Even after the segment was wrapped and all the camera crews left, I stuck around. When the moment felt right, I captured ‘Pac and his boys in his space.
O4L Online: It’s our understanding that when the media had left, you shared a connection with Tupac. Observing him preparing a blunt, you captured a very personal moment of ‘Pac away from the media. Can you talk us through this moment?
I was just slowly capturing, observing him. I think it was more out of curiosity but, at the same time, I was not trying to create a “picture of Tupac” but to capture the energy of the moment.
O4L Online: This was not the first time you took his picture. Just a year before, you attended a show with camera in hand, where Onyx and Public Enemy were performing. When by chance, somebody happened to see you with your camera and asked if you would take a picture. Little did you know, the picture you had just taken would capture both Tu[ac and Biggie in the same photograph. What are your memories of that show and when did you find out that both rappers were in the photograph?
The night I got the picture of Tupac and Biggie together, I was actually at the concert to photograph and interview Onyx for a piece that I wanted to submit to Thrasher Magazine. I went to the show early to meet and talk with Onyx. After I interviewed them in their dressing room, we went down to the stage and shot some frames on the stage near a brick wall.
After I had the shots I needed, I told Onyx we were good, and they could go back to the dressing room. As I was putting my camera equipment away, I heard someone yell, “Why don’t you take our picture.” I didn’t know who it was, I just replied something like, “Give me a minute.” I walked over to the guys were that had asked me to take their picture, set up my flash, looked at them, made sure everything looked good through the camera, told them ‘look here,’ took one picture, thanked them, got my equipment together, and went back to Onyx’s dressing room.
For a while, I always overlooked that image. I would just quickly skim over that slide because the composition of that photo was off and there was too much shadow on the face. It wasn’t until maybe 2010-ish, when I was organizing and sorting my photos to begin digitizing my work, I finally stopped and looked at that one frame of those guys that asked me to take their picture and realized who they were.
O4L Online: You were present at the 1995 Source Awards when the Death Row/Bad Boy beef ignited. We believe that you were at the soundcheck, witnessing the Death Row roster rehearsing their performance. From what you could see, was there any tension in the build-up to the show?
At the pre-show of the 1995 Source Awards there was no tension, I just remember Suge begin a very intimidating character, and how Dr. Dre’s body language was when Suge was around.
O4L Online: Suge Knight walked on stage to give his infamous speech about Death Row, taking aim at Puffy and Bad Boy. What were your initial thoughts on his speech and how did the crowd react?
I was in shock, to say the least. I remember realizing he was talking about Puffy, thinking that’s cold! And I didn’t see this moment coming. I just wondered how Puffy would respond or react. Thankfully Puffy handled the situation like a gentleman. And there was never beef between Puff and Dr. Dre because, a month or so later, Dre was at Puffy’s Birthday party.
O4L Online: When Dr Dre won Producer of the Year, he was met with a not-so enthusiastic crowd. Cue Snoop Dogg joining his Death Row labelmate addressing the audience, questioning the love for the artists. You captured this intense moment, which would build up to be a changing moment in hip-hop. Backstage, after the show, you interacted with Snoop, can you tell us more about this?
I did not interact with Snoop backstage at the Source Awards. The following August in Philadelphia, backstage at the filming of The Show, I had a moment with Snoop, and I knew it was going to happen. Snoop was walking towards me, and RunDMC was right in front of me, I naturally wanted a picture of Snoop and RunDMC. I asked Snoop if he would mind taking a picture with RunDMC. He stopped, looked at me and asked who I was shooting for. Even though I knew what his reaction was going to be, I had to be honest and saying I was shooting for The Source Magazine.
He then posed with RunDMC and at the same time yelled at me, “Fuck The Source”. I understood his anger, and didn’t take it personally.
O4L Online: We all know what happened with the two record labels shortly after the award show. Within two years, two of hip-hop’s brightest stars, whom you photographed, were dead. What was your view on the Death Row/Bad Boy beef and could this have been prevented?
I’m not an expert on this, I will only comment, people used this situation to try to further their career, and where are they now. I personally had an argument with an old Source Magazine editor after reading one of the original drafts of the 1996 feature. My argument was that there was too much negativity in the piece, but the editor felt it was ok and he wanted to let the people know. At that moment, I knew I was done working with the Source. I wanted to focus on a skateboard related project/idea I had considering. I kept shooting for another two years independently.
O4L Online: How did you feel the media portrayed Tupac and what were your thoughts on him?
The media always likes to create the villain, this way they can justify always talking bad about a person or a situation. But when that same villain also creates such beautiful and uplifting song to show he’s not just this one persona, he’s so much more – highly intelligent, making a difference, etc. that same media doesn’t want to highlight those traits.
I didn’t know Tupac personally like I knew other artists, but I learned about him over time like the rest. When I understood how much he did – acting, music, helping his community, all in such a short span of time, it is remarkable to fathom.
O4L Online: Even today, everywhere you go, people are still playing Pac’s music and wearing his clothing. What do you think of Tupac’s legacy and him being relevant over twenty years after his death?
Tupac is quality soulful music that relates to people, that is why it has lasting value.
O4L Online: When it comes to 90’s hip-hop, you have pretty much-taken pictures of all the greats! To put you on the spot, which would be your favorite shot and why?
Honestly I don’t have a favorite shot, some many great times and moments. Even last week I was looking at some contact sheets that I forgot about and saw some great shots of Redman & Keith Murray together. And not the traditional “YO” poses or shots. I also found other stuff of Will Smith and Jada from ‘97 that I didn’t know I had. So for me it’s a constant explanation of material and stories to share.
O4L Online: In the years taking photographs of hip-hop artists, you must have seen a side to them that few have seen. Have you got any untold stories from your time in hip-hop that you can share with us?
So many interesting stories had to pick one, maybe the photo of Guru and Ladybug Mecca. Digable Planets were working on their album Blowout Comb, I would frequently stop into their sessions, sometimes to watch, and other times I would take photos. One day I’m there hanging out and Guru from Gangstarr walks into the studio. He greets them first, then, as Digable is about to introduce me to Guru, we greeted each other because we knew each other, and had spent time in the past. Digable was shocked we already knew each other.
Fast forward, that afternoon hanging out in the artists lounge, as I was about to leave the studio, I noticed a moment developing between Ladybug Mecca & Guru. I quietly grabbed my camera, took one shot of their interactions and left the studio.
O4L Online: Finally, are you working on anything you want to tell your fans about?
Right now I’m finishing Volume Three of Rare & Unseen Moments of 90’s Hiphop due out mid-November, 2019. There are a number of opportunities in Europe to be a part of the art and culture scene, so exciting things ahead.
Head over to tdoteric.com for more iconic hip-hop photographs and stories.