I See Music: George DuBose Interview

FRANK first spoke to the OG photographer for Chapter 14: Futura. After all these years, we check in with him again about his new hip-hop photo book series.

Big Daddy Kane “had the shit,” and photographer George DuBose knew it.

Kane met with DuBose to shoot his first solo album cover, and he brought his own plan. Two big guys in the front and back would carry Kane on a litter. Four girls, front and back, would throw flowers along his path. The entrance of the “Black Caesar.” DuBose shot Kane’s original idea down.

“This looks great, but so far you’ve got about 16 people in this picture with you in the middle in this chair. Where am I going to shoot this thing, Central Park?” DuBose asked Kane at the time. “You’re a good looking guy, and by the time I get all of you guys into a 12-inch cover, your head’s going to be about half an inch big.”

The pair settled on a new idea. Kane kept the girls and the Caesar look. DuBose designed a shoot using only white, gold, and purple. Kane sat in a chair, treated by three lovely ladies that fed him apples and grapes from a platter. Long Live The Kane had a cover photo.

DuBose planned and shot some of early hip-hop’s iconic covers, but he never intended to work in music. He brought his camera to snap a few shots of Joe Jackson’s first American show at the Mudd Club on White Street, and a publicist asked him to grab some pictures of the empty stage. He did, then stayed up all night developing the film to deliver to A&M Records the next day.

He had found a niche, and he never got out.

DuBose shot musicians for years, originally working with rock groups like the B-52’s and the Ramones. As a photographer for Cold Chillin’ Records, he took pictures of Biz Markie, Kane, Kool G Rap, Masta Ace, and Roxanne Shanté. His popularity in the genre grew, and he eventually worked with Run DMC and Mobb Deep, among others. He took the first professional photos of a 19-year-old Biggie.

People asked him about working with these artists all the time, so he decided to write a book about it in 2007. First, he penned one about his work with the Ramones and another about his experiences in hip-hop. He followed these with two more hip-hop volumes in the I Speak Music series this past March.

DuBose is now 62, living in Cologne, Germany. He relocated there nine years ago after falling for a German woman. The German record companies have slowly moved to Berlin, and cover work has come less frequently in recent years.

That’s when plans to produce the books took shape. DuBose executed every step from looking through photo archives to writing the text, designing the covers, and paying for the production.

“The biggest problem is digging through my archives, finding the pictures I like the most and scanning them, cleaning the dust off. It’s a pretty monumental task,” DuBose said. “The writing part just kind of flows out.”

DuBose has a fifth book in the works, covering his time in European hip-hop. He writes that and prepares exhibition projects when he’s not driving his two sons to soccer practice in his 1966 Volvo, or taking his sailboat for a spin.

Look no further than the header typeface on his hip-hop books to see the impact he’s made on the genre. That Gothic style, so prevalent in hip-hop over the years, started out as an iron-on print at a shop in Times Square.

Biz Markie showed up to the shoot for his single “Make The Music With Your Mouth, Biz” wearing a black and white striped shirt with a Coca-Cola logo with black shorts. He sported a black hat with white lettering, Biz Markie spelled out in an iron on variation of the Gothic typeface Fraktur. Think of a flashier NFL referee.

DuBose took the photo for the single and ended up designing the packaging. He went to the shop in Times Square to match the package typeface to Biz’s hat, and it went on to become the most popular font in hip-hop. Tupac even used it in some of his tattoos.

“A German asked me, ‘Why’d you use Nazi fonts for covers?’” DuBose said, referencing Fraktur’s heavy use in Nazi Germany. “It wasn’t Nazi fonts, it was just what was Biz was wearing on his hat that day.”

The artists’ ideas didn’t always fall into place so easily. Artists fluctuated between a desire to be high class or street, and the street images didn’t always cut it with the record labels. DuBose points to the shoot for Kool G Rap’s Live And Let Die.

Kool G wanted the cover image to show him robbing a bank from a closed circuit camera. Location scouting didn’t work out, so the next plan involved a money truck robbery. But Warner Bros., Cold Chillin’s distributor, nixed that because Wal-Mart wouldn’t distribute covers with guns. They settled on rottweilers pulling chairs out from under hanging narcs. Kool G was pleased.

“I listen to the artist’s music. I think about where they’re coming from, where they want to go, and how they want to position themselves,” DuBose said. “Sometimes their idea was directly what we did, sometimes it had to be twisted a little bit.”

DuBose originally saw hip-hop as a smaller part of new wave music in the ’70s and ’80s. Gradually, it established a foothold as a unique genre. He first noticed the popular transition in a deli as he waited for a sandwich. A White guy in line in front of him hummed Biz Markie’s “Just A Friend,” and he knew hip-hop had crossed over.

“The cat was out of the bag,” DuBose said. “I’m not saying White people weren’t into the music before that, but it was getting to be mainstream.”

Hip-hop’s influence has only grown since DuBose moved to Germany. He can’t give much insight on the industry’s current state, but he tries to take pictures of artists whenever he can, especially when his Cold Chillin’ clients make an appearance in Europe.

He’s embraced the change from film to digital photography, but his tactics remain old school—lock your eyes on the artist and mark sure the scene is right so retouching isn’t necessary. DuBose recalls a show at the Ritz when he saw photographers shooting digitally, looking at each photo between shots and losing focus on the artist.

It struck him as a strange part of digital photography, and he sticks to what made him successful as an analog photographer.

“It was my mindset with the analog to get it right,” DuBose said. “To do all my creativity in the camera and wait three days to see how they looked when they got back from the lab.”

DuBose sees a lot of room for creative expansion in music photography because of technological advances. Conceptually, though, he thinks there isn’t much left to do. Still, it’s an appealing field, and many people have turned to DuBose for advice on how to break through.

But DuBose never had a master plan. His best advice?

“Be at the right place at the right time with film in the camera.”

All captions and photos ©

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Chapter 14: Futura - George Dubose Interview

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