Interview: George Dubose on his iconic Hip Hop album covers and Photo-shoots

Often dubbed the Godfather of Hip hop photography George "The Sailor" Dubose has held down a legacy in photography and graphic design. Since 1978 he has been a champion of concepts and a purveyor of collaboration. Dubose is widely regarded for his output of album covers, particularly with the legendary and trailblazing Cold Chillin' Records. With roots as a photographer of inner city nightlife, Dubose has basked in unpredictable energy and flirted with its edge. In turn, his night-time adventures curated a love of collaborating with rappers in particular.  As history would have it, many of these emcees ran Hip Hop’s golden age at the time.

Creating album covers for artists such as Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie, Roxanne Shante, Masta Ace, Kool G Rap and DJ Polo, and The Genius (GZA), would fuel an equally unique and era defying marriage with Cold Chillin' distributor Warner Bros. He has also worked with The Notorious BIG, Mobb Deep, Run DMC and Kanye West just to name a few. On the heels of a vacation with his wife, I spoke to Dubose about working with Afrika Bambaataa and The  Soul Sonic Forces, Big Daddy Kane, The Notorious B.I.G, Mobb Deep, Kool G Rap and DJ Polo and more.

Your earliest experience of Hip hop starts with Afrika Bambaataa and The Soul Sonic Forces "Planet Rock"; a game changing tune that is so influential it’s almost impossible to imagine genres of music without it. What was it like shooting The Soul Sonic Force for its publicity and did you foresee the impact it would later have as one of New York's most quintessential records ever made? 
The first time I heard 'Planet Rock' was when I was trying to walk through a massive gridlock in Herald Square, Manhattan. I heard the music 'Trans Europe Express' by Kraftwerk blasting out of a car radio. As the car was stuck in traffic, I could clearly hear the popular New Wave hit but there were different words! This was one of the reasons that I thought early Hip Hop was just another variation of New Wave. Hearing Blondie's 'Rhapsody' and Grandmaster Flash's 'White Lines' at my favourite club, The Mudd Club only, confirmed that false opinion.
There's a lot to be said for the way rappers back then, particularly The Soul Sonic Force would dress and in just a few decades, influence styles to evolve from a fringe subculture to one of the most prominent and dominant forces in popular culture. Did you have any influence or direction on the style and intricate costuming of them during your shoot together?
Black R&B groups from the 50's and 60's were known to wear uniforms like the big bands of an earlier era. Early Hip-Hop groups would also wear identical outfits that reinforced the group image. Soul Sonic Force dressed in specific character styles, not identical to each other but giving the group a look. Bizarre as it was.
The famous Dapper Dan of Harlem who made custom clothing, dressed black athletes and other wealthy blacks that could afford his prices. Biz Markie had a set of leather shorts and a short sleeve leather shirt with the Louis Vuitton logo all over them. I told Biz he looked like a walking suitcase but at least he had a look.  Later Carhartt and Tommy Hilfiger became popular with the Hip-Hop crowd and then a flood of start-up fashion companies, like Karl Kani, South Pole and other companies jumped on the bandwagon.
I never pretended to know what the latest Hip-Hop label was hitting the streets, I would only tell an artist that I had photographed another artist wearing clothing that was too similar and to try something else.

Can you talk about some of the creative differences working with artists who made Punk music and believed in anti-fashion ideals and stood in contrast to consumption and capitalism and working with rappers who fully embraced it, seeing dressing up as its own competition and every rapper boasting they dressed better than the next?
Punks didn't and don't have any money to spend on custom clothing. Thrift shops are where it's at. Their clothing style advertised their low income lifestyle. On the other hand, rappers styled themselves to be wealthy and to wear more gold chains and the newest styles by the trendy Hip-Hop clothing designers. They certainly weren't afraid to look rich, even if they weren't.
Right! You're somebody who has gone through the nascent days of Hip Hop fashion and has witnessed pivotal changes within it, for example, after the 70's sportswear companies were common place for most rappers in New York, most notably those signed to Cold Chillin'.  Having worked with stylists during shoots, were you ever asked to design any clothing for Cold Chillin' Records yourself?
No. I am a photographer not a fashion designer. I often would work with professional fashion stylists, like Dorian Lipman, who had the ability to create new and cool looks for the clothing that the artists would wear for their cover shoots.
You did the cover for Big Daddy Kanes's "Long Live The Kane" during a time by where fashion in hip hop was becoming entwined with a growing interest of celebrating African heritage and Afro-centricity. What was the process behind that shoot and how much did his song 'Word to The Motherland' help you to tap into and understand those themes?
For 'Long Live The Kane', Big Daddy's first LP, Kane wanted to be carried on a litter by four large black men. In front of this would be four black women throwing flowers and four black women behind this parade throwing flowers. I told Kane that by the time we arranged 12 people plus himself, his face would be quite small, even on the LP cover and much smaller on the cassette packaging. I distilled his 'Black Caesar' concept down to where I had him sitting on a throne surrounded by three Black girls. I colour coordinated all the props and the whole set to be white, gold and purple, gold apples, purple grapes and everyone wearing white Roman togas.
It's an amazing piece of work.
Thank you. It filled the needs of Kane's concept and gave everyone a clear view of what a handsome man Kane was.
What was the process shooting for Kool G Rap and Polos Live and Let Live?
I met with G. Rap and Polo at the Cold Chillin’ office. They had discussed their concept with the label manager, Dee Joseph. They told me that they wanted the front cover to be a photo that would be taken through a B&W video surveillance camera, looking down from the ceiling in a bank. G. Rap and Polo would be robbing the bank. I don’t know if this concept was specifically linked to one song or if, as I suspected, they just wanted to project a really hard image of themselves. After scouting banks for locations and discussing the particulars of the shooting and concept with several bank officers, it became clear that no bank wanted any part of this project. I found an abandoned bank in Staten Island, but it would have required a major clean up job to make the bank look “real” and the landlord wanted $10,000 to let us shoot there. I thought the price was prohibitive on purpose. I went back to G. Rap and Cold Chillin’ with the bad news, but the good news was I had a different and less expensive concept that would have the same impact. 
We would rent a van, place large laundry bags with dollar signs on them by the back door. Both of the back doors of the van would be opened. G. Rap and Polo would be standing outside the back of the van, armed with the most modern high tech automatic hand- guns that could be rented from Center Firearms, the Manhattan company that specialized in renting guns; operable and inoperable, to films and still photographers. We discussed the state of the art handguns and gatling guns and I went over to Center Firearms to discuss rental fees and the necessary permits. The thing was; I would be inside the van with the camera pointed out the back of the van at G. Rap and Polo, who would be standing there firing point blank into the van. Since we wanted to catch the smoke and flames coming out of the gun barrels, the guns would have to be operable and firing blank cartridges. The weapons wrangler at Center Firearms told me that even firing blanks could be dangerous as pieces of wadding and plastic could be sprayed out of the barrel and while there was no lead flying, someone could still be injured. I would be shooting from behind a partition of 1/2-inch clear plexiglass. Back to Cold Chillin’, I went with the weapons budget and rental details, only to be told by Ms. Joseph that, due to a “new” label decision, guns were out. It seems that Wal-Mart and a major Texas record distributor had decided that due to the current and rising popularity of gangster rap, combined with the white population’s fear, no rap records would be stocked or sold if there were any guns on the cover. Although Roxanne Shanté would have two covers with guns featured, male rappers would be “censored”. It was back to the drawing board. 
Most young people today are not familiar with Rube Goldberg or his inventions, but in the early part of the 20th century, Rube Goldberg would draw and manufacture elaborate contraptions involving rolling balls on tracks, mouse traps, springs and other mechanical devices. When one began an action, a chain reaction or sort of domino effect would occur and this fantastical invention would make noise and movements and be quite humorous to watch. I turned this Rube concept into something else. Keeping in mind the hard, violent, death-dealing concept that G. Rap was looking for; I came up with a scheme that I thought would fill the bill. G. Rap and Polo would be dressed as black ninjas. They would be holding raw meat; Porterhouse steaks. They would be tantalising two rottweiler’s that were chained to the legs of two chairs. Standing on the chairs would be two white narcotics police in plain- clothes. There would be hangman’s nooses around the necks of the narcs. The theory being that the dogs would leap at the steaks, pulling the chains that were attached to the chair legs, pulling the chairs out from under the narcs, hanging them by their necks. G. Rap loved it! I had the additional concept of placing the narcs in pine wood coffins with silver dollars on their eyes surrounded by G. Rap, Polo and their posse. Originally my concept of the silver dollars on the eyes of the dead men came from Western films I had seen as a child but I have learned that placing coins on the eyes of the deceased was for payment to Hades, the ferryman across the River Styx, where the dead in Greek and Roman mythology went for their final resting place. 
The cover remains one of my most powerful photos but the Rube Goldberg concept is often lost on the viewer. Warner’s made us airbrush out the “TNT” (Tactical Narcotics Taskforce) logo on the back of one of the undercover police’s jackets. There is another ironical twist to this cover. Since Warner was now funding the packaging and promotion costs for the Cold Chillin’ roster, someone decided to place billboards promoting this G. Rap record on major thoroughfares in Manhattan. The name of the album was 'Live and Let Die', after a James Bond film. One day I decided to look for these billboards and drove into Brooklyn over the Manhattan Bridge. When I came off of the bridge onto Flatbush Avenue, there larger than life, was the 'Live and Let Die' billboard. I was proud. When I asked Cold Chillin’ where the second billboard was, I was told it was on 125th Street in Harlem. A couple of evenings later, I took a drive up to 125th Street and started from the Westside, heading to the East-side. Keeping my eyes peeled for the billboard, I first saw a billboard advertising 'Cop Shot', a program instituted by the NYC police, offering a $10,000 reward for any information leading to the arrest of anyone assaulting a police officer. Big $10,000 numbers, big red blood splatter. Directly across 125th Street was the billboard for 'Live and Let Die', featuring two cops about to be hung.

What are your memories of working with The Notorious BIG?
The Notorious B.I.G. didn’t exist when I met him. Christopher Wallace did and I suppose Biggie did. You’re probably thinking what is this guy talking about? Mr. Cee, Big Daddy Kane’s DJ, called me one day and told me he needed a favour. Uh oh! Mr. Cee told me that he had produced a single for a young guy from Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. The single was going to be released on a compilation album that was being sponsored by a New York radio station. I believe it was WKTU. He said he needed a photo of this kid for the back of the vinyl package and if I would go to Bed-Stuy and take a photo. I said "Sure, I'll go to Bed-Stuy if you come with me. No way am I going there with my photo equipment without a bodyguard”. You may or may not know it but Bed-Stuy was probably the roughest neighbourhood in the five boroughs. Gang warfare and riots, combined with a reputation for heavy drug trafficking meant that this neighbourhood was pretty much off-limits to me. Since I had made so many photo sessions and album cover designs for Big Daddy Kane, I felt that I could or should give something back. I told Mr. Cee that I would be happy to do this shoot for free but he would have to come with me. It had occurred to me that losing my cameras was a distinct possibility. I met Cee in Manhattan and we took the subway to Brooklyn. 
Evidently, Biggie wanted to be photographed in front of the street signs over his corner: Bedford Avenue and Quincy Street. We arrived safely enough, Cee called Biggie on the phone and a few minutes later, Biggie and his cohort, DJ Fifty Grand, showed up. I don’t recall Biggie being particularly friendly but he cooperated with my directions and I focused on getting shots of him and Fifty Grand with the street signs over their heads. Biggie had a pretty good scowl. I didn’t know him well enough to think of joking with him and was quite used to being scowled at. The Ramones were good at that. As this was an extremely low budget, more like a “no budget” shoot, I only shot one roll of 36 expo- sure 35mm B&W film. I knew that I had the shot that Biggie had asked for, so after only five minutes or so, I said I was finished. 
Biggie then asked me if I would take a photo of his posse. Only using about thirty-four of my thirty-six exposures, I was looking around but didn’t see any posse. I told Biggie that I had a couple of shots left, so "sure". It was like somebody blew a whistle and in thirty seconds there were about twenty guys surrounding us. I looked around for a background for 20 guys and saw a freshly painted wall without too much graffiti. I saw the sun was shining on the wall, so that would help the photo. I asked Biggie and the posse to stand over across the street and indicated where I meant. As I was getting this posse a bit organised, I had to tell them to stand unusually close together. “No. Closer still.” I looked down at my camera to check the settings then raised the camera to my eye to focus and what did I see? Biggie was holding an uzi pointed directly at me. I had no idea where the uzi came from.  I had no idea if the gun was loaded or not but I always assume that a gun is loaded until I check it personally. In my politest voice, I asked Biggie not to point the gun at the camera. He obliged and I took two shots before I realised the roll of film was finished. I thanked Biggie for his time and Mr. Cee and I took the subway back to Manhattan. Mr. Cee chose a photo, I had a print made and that was the end of it, or so I thought. B.I.G. died just a few years later. I think he was 19 when I made this first professional photo session of him. I should have shot more than one roll, maybe even a colour roll. If I had a crystal ball, maybe even if I had heard a few tracks of his raps, I might have realised just how big B.I.G. was going to get.

Do you ever regret not being able to work with or work as much with any artists who aren’t with us anymore?
No. I have no regrets about anything. I have a great life.
What was it like working with Mobb Deep for their debut album Juvenile Hell and working particularly with the late great Prodigy, who had gone to Art school not long before this?
Mobb Deep was also signed to Island Records. However, these two youngsters were about as far as you could get philosophically from X-Clan. Prodigy and Havoc were 14 years old when I met them at the Island Records office. They were the next generation coming out of Queensbridge, the home of MC Shan and Marley Marl. I asked them if they had any ideas for their cover photo. They produced a small scythe or sickle that I learned was a Japanese rice cutter. A pretty evil looking little chopper. This was a time when some of the rappers were using weapons as stage devices. Obviously guns were out but baseball bats, chain saws and other no firing lethal weapons were being used as stage props. I looked at the little chopper and saw that it had Japanese writing on the label and I surmised that it was probably a rice cutter. I asked Prodigy and Havoc if they had another one like the one they were showing me. They said “No.” I said “Well, there are two of you. What are you going to do, share this?” I told them I would try and find another rice cutter. One of my assistants was planning to return home to Japan for a visit and I asked him if he could find me a rice cutter like the one that Prodigy and Havoc had. A week later, I got the bad news that a rice cutter wasn’t going to be found in Japan. At least not where my assistant was visiting. The only other solution was to make two identical rice cutters. I am a pretty handy guy and had recently made a spear for Shelley Thunder. She needed a new spear for her cover and all I could find in Manhattan were antique spears. So, I got some 1/4” thick pieces of aluminium and cut two blades from the metal. Then I got two wooden dowels about 1-1/2” in diameter and mounted the blades into the dowels and I had two rice cutters. 
Prodigy and Havoc came to my studio on 14th Street in a limousine. Well, they were too young to drive. They came to my office as we were going to do some shots in the stairwell and on the roof. We shot in the stairwell with a girl that had a distinctive booty. Prodigy and Havoc wanted to feature the booty in this picture. When I realised that it was raining heavily outside, that put a kibosh on the roof shot for the time being, so I called my mentor Lane Pederson and asked if his studio was being used at the moment. He said it was not and it was free for the afternoon. I went back into my design studio to tell them my new plan and found them smoking a big blunt and drinking beer from a 40. I would have gotten angry at these two 14 year olds but that wouldn’t have helped the day go any smoother. I would have spanked them but they had those rice cutters. I went with Prodigy and Havoc in their limo the few blocks to Lane’s studio and started to set up for my first shot on a white background. While I was doing this, my assistants were moving the mountain of broken TVs, fans and other junk that we had been collecting the past few days for one of the shots. 
After the shot on the set with the white background, we assembled all the trash that we had collected into a big pile in the middle of Lane’s largest studio room. I had rented a smoke machine to block out the rest of the studio in the background but one of my assistants told me that the smoke machine wasn’t working. When I went to inspect the problem it was clear that the smoke machine had a leak! It had pee’d all the smoke liquid all over the floor. It was already too late in the day to get an exchange or more liquid smoke. I found on a storage shelf in Lane’s studio, a large pile of tissue paper used for repacking merchandise after a fashion shooting. I told my assistants to begin wadding up the sheets of paper and putting them into the large pile of junk in the middle of the studio. My assistants then started to light the paper. We got our smoke along with unplanned flames. I knew I had to shoot quickly as I didn’t want to set off the sprinklers on the ceiling. All went well, Prodigy and Havoc did their part of playing bad boys perfectly and made some quite dramatic poses. 
Later we all went back to my studio and now that the rain had stopped, we were able to go on the roof, where now Prodigy and Havoc had two girls. Shooting them sitting on the roof top of the elevator control room with the girls and the Manhattan skyline featuring the Empire State Building was the image that they chose for their cover of 'Juvenile Hell'. What a great name for the debut album by Prodigy and Havoc.
It's such an overlooked album, especially when put against 'The Infamous'. How important is it for you to forge relationships with artists as well as hear their music in advance of shoots?

My goal in working with artist to create their covers is to make the cover look like the music sounds. I listen to ideas the artists have and sometimes make suggestions to better realise their vision. Sometimes the artist doesn't have a cover concept, so I consider where the artist comes from, his background, how they consider their self-image and after listening to their music, I provide concepts that I think reflect this. If the artist doesn't like my first concept, I can suggest another one and another and another. The more the artist rejects my first ideas, the closer my ideas are formed and in the end, we come to an agreement and make it happen for the camera.
Is there a shoot in particular whereby an artist has been able to magnify your vision to better affect than the original idea you had in mind for a shoot? 
Sure. Artist like Biz, Kane, Kool G. Rap often would really get into the scenario that I have created either in the studio or on location. They would get into their role for the camera and often the results were better than my original idea. Biz in particular would give me a concept. I would organise the location and the props for the photo and Biz would run with it.
How have streaming platforms changed your relationship with the consumer experience today and appreciation of your work, knowing that for many of the projects you create art work for will often be reduced to pictures on a screen, more so than physical tangible copies?
Many artists no longer have cover concepts at all. What's the point when your cover is reduced to a 25 x 25mm image for someone's iPhone? I don't use social media very much. I don't have an Instagram account, although someone created an Instagram page for me.
What inspires you to take pictures today versus when you first started taking pictures?
My motivation has remained consistent since I first started shooting musicians when I was 20 years old. Make them look their best, capture the mood or the action, communicate to an audience what the artist is trying to say. Again, make the cover look like the music sounds. I also shoot on the beat because that's where the action is.
Tell us about your role as Spin Magazines first photo editor and the necessity of connecting with an audience by way of a publication at that time?

The early staffers who started SPIN wanted to kill Rolling Stone magazine, which by the 80's had become irrelevant to us. I had to leave after two years as the salary was too low.
Do you still buy magazines?
Yes. Mojo and sailing magazines.
What does the future hold for George DuBose?
I still have my photo equipment and will work for artists who request my services. I am not expensive and produce work guaranteed to please. I have books in several languages. My most recent book is a monograph titled 'My Best Shot', which I am following with the release of 'My Best Shot - Reloaded' and books about Tom Waits, the B52s and others.  If you place an order with me directly, I will sign the book for you. Written by Luke 'Menace' Bailey
Photo credit: George Dubose

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