In the UK, America is often seen as the standard for underground culture, the birthplace of Hip Hop brought some of the best known and most iconic ‘90’s music videos to worldwide audiences. Hype williams and Director X were the most sought after directors of the decade – commanding budgets hitherto unheard of – people would know their work by looking at only a few frames.
British photographers Eddie Otchere and Normski are often cited as pioneering Hip Hop archivists, Normski – “a leading authority on urban and contemporary culture” – is the owner of one of the most extensive portfolios in 80’s urban music – Big Daddy Kane, Chuck D & Flava Flav, Salt & Pepa and NWA are only a few of the names in his repertoire. While Eddie Otchere captured some of the most iconic Hip Hop 90’s imagery, it’s his documentation of the British underground Jungle scene during the heady days of Metalheadz that still endures today. Not confined to capturing only Hip Hop greats these two visual artists alongside visual creatives like Ewen Spencer and Simon Wheatley have been, and continue to, document facets of UK subcultures – from Jungle and UKG to the last 15 years of Grime up to it’s current state.
Today, we have more young professionals making a name for themselves as the eyes of a next generation of creative talent. In the digital age, visual artists – the ones curating and documenting the wealth of talent we have bubbling beneath the mainstream – are no longer mysterious or mythical; they’re suddenly being recognised as the tastemakers.
But not everyone is in agreement – last month director and film maker Quason Matthews spoke out on Twitter about the way he feels visual artists are often overlooked: “photographers and videographers are the core reason why artists have been visually presnted [sic] to the world yet they hardly get the respect.”
The UK music scene has never looked healthier, boasting ever changing alternative UK Rap talent, an outpouring of Grime artists and a multitude of House and R’n’B vocalists. Ours is a scene that continues to step out of the long shadow cast by American culture.
So what is it about the aesthetic of these visual artists that draws in audiences? “To this day I actually don’t know because about 10 months ago no one cared if I’d done a video for Section Boyz, Stormzy or whoever. It’s only recently in the last about eight, nine months where ‘Visuals By Kaylum’ has literally been in every grime fan’s mouth. It’s so mad I can be walking through Brixton and people will come up to me and be gassed that they’ve met me and I’ll just be looking at them mad baffled. Or even the other day, I typed in “Visuals by Kaylum” and “Kaylum” on Twitter and there’s literally hundreds of people talking about me. But it’s mad baffling because my work is nowhere near the greatest in the scene, there are way better Directors like Chas Appeti, Toxic, Frost, B Dot, Mornix and so on.” Kaylum Dennis explained his perspective to me, as long time video director for Stormzy and Section Boyz, he seemed slightly bemused that anyone would want to talk to him about the way he crafts Grime videos.
These contemporary names are treading the ground first paved by the Otchere’s and Wheatley’s that came before – ‘Visuals By Kaylum’ is fast becoming an essential Grime video hallmark, Vicky Grout had her first solo exhibition of Grime scene photography at the Hoxton Gallery, entitled AAA this month. Courtney Francis is well known and often called upon for his focal perspective, so how does he choose where to focus attention; what dictates how you begin to tell a story of music and an ever changing cultural landscape that is almost out of date as soon as it’s published? “Visual artists have the ability to focus on what they want to show the world. Some choose to show the root of the scene. Pictures of young MCs on their estates, surrounded by friends or in a crowded radio set shows the foundation of the scene. I chose to show what happens after that.” Francis breaks it down for me, his portfolio; showcasing the likes of Ghetts, J Hus, Bonkaz and Manga St. Hilare is awash in drama, colour and texture.
Francis’ work affords Grime artists to tell a story which is different to the archetypal grainy black and white aesthetic, “When they have gained a fanbase and are selling out shows. When they need professional shots for publications and websites. There are enough creatives in the scene to cover the whole spectrum. At the same time, it’s also great to be the creative artist that we are striving to be and create images that may take the artists out of their comfort zone. The underground scene is growing and artists are becoming more open to ideas.” This is a statement that rings true for me, having recently worked with Radar Radio’s Taz Psaras and Grime MC Jammin’ to bring to life a concept that had lived only in my mind for three or four years; finding new ways to tell a story is often what keeps creators searching.
Storytelling is always the starting point for the North London collective CrookdLense, having recently wrapped their third project with R’n’B vocalist Olivia Louise, these are visual artists driven both by that familiarity and an insatiable need for exploration. Their previous project with Olivia, “Roll It”, featuring Manga St. Hilare came to life with echoes of Nelly Furtardo. The affinity a key part of their dynamic approach and collaborative success, Creative Producer and Director at CrookdLense, Martina, explained the working relationship “this is the third visualiser we have done for Olivia so the rapport is very natural. She understands how we work as creatives and has trust in our work, which is very important. Once we have the concept the CrookdLense team sit down and discuss shot ideas, and the narrative of the video, a script is then curated and the shot list planned. In order for us to be creative with the edit we are looking for particular things – preparation is key for us to be free.” CrookdLense choose to focus on building this bond with musical talent, establishing the kind of intimacy that is so sought after in music photography; theirs is the journey of capturing feeling and emotion at it’s most candid and their collaboration with producer Etched Hackney and Henny Knightz entitled ‘Wires’ is yet another example of the variety on offer in both the UK Rap and Grime scenes; a further illustration of the multitude of real stories still waiting to be told.
Photography is great when it sends out a message but it’s up to us to paint that message for you within a picture – Ashley Verse
“From my experiences of London and the industry, I feel like we thrive on realness,” Ashley Verse, a London based photographer who is featured in various 30 under 30 lists in recent months, explains his perspective. “Especially in Grime music, which is something I’m known for capturing a lot of. It always felt to me like Grime came from a relatable background, using colloquial language and as a genre it wasn’t apologetic to those who didn’t understand it. I feel like it’s my responsibility to mirror that when I shoot grime. However there are many forms of photography and within those, there are areas where you can create stories and add many filters. Photography is great when it sends out a message but it’s up to us to paint that message for you within a picture.” Verse’s website is a parade of stand out imagery, Novelist, Katy B and Shakka are a few among many that demonstrate his depth. His plays on colour and saturation make his photo of Stormzy and Chip so enticing; the image is a projection of confidence and calm, the former a result of the subject’s ability to relax.
Building rapport between visual artists and musical talent to better facilitate storytelling is a theme that crops up again and again. In the early days of Kaylum Dennis’ career he told me, “My school friends always used to rap in the playground before & after school, then one day they decided to do a cypher and upload it to YouTube…So I ended up filming it on my blackberry and making a YouTube channel called IMT Media.”
You have to prove yourself, prove your value. If you’re trying to get into the photo pit to take a picture of Stormzy and get rich, sorry, it’s not going to happen – Courtney Francis
So what is the real truth of the times we now find ourselves in? Is there just the same chronic underrepresentation of visual artists that has always existed? Or are we witnessing a saturation of photographers and videographers in a Digital Age in which everyone has access to a camera? I put this question of underrepresentation to those I spoke with, “I feel that sometimes, visual artists are not given the props they deserve. They are the people that are standing for hours in the packed crowd of a small venue to capture an artist performance, only to have the pictures screenshot and posted on Instagram without a tag.” This comes from Courtney Francis and it’s no surprise the issues around social media are raised almost immediately, “But, it’s the nature of the job. Most people don’t know who Luke Biggins is, but the people that do are the ones that are really looking for someone good to hire. I stopped looking for validation from artists a while ago. It’s about working hard and proving yourself so the people in positions to help you take notice. As far as being undervalued, this may be the case because most of the artists that we are shooting aren’t making that much money. New artists aren’t going to give up 50% of their booking fee for photos. Especially when there’s about 50 people snapping every single song. This is why the good visual artists do it for the love of the scene because they understand this. You have to prove yourself, prove your value. If you’re trying to get into the photo pit to take a picture of Stormzy and get rich, sorry, it’s not going to happen.”
Ashley Verse also offered a pragmatic answer, “As a photographer there are definitely times I’ve felt that my art has been undervalued but I also feel that it’s something that happens in any and every industry. For me, I had to understand that being a musician for instance, is actually a limelight position within the industry. There are many positions within the industry that aren’t as celebrated but this shouldn’t dampen their value or credibility. You also have to understand the reasons behind your art. This can’t be something you do to seek approval or validation from others. You have to be quite content in yourself to keep pursuing this. You need to put your heart in your art.”
Putting your heart in your art is often the only approach for many creatives. A driving need for expression is what binds these visual artists and what makes the work of Simon Wheatley so compelling, “Good visual artists are undervalued, but how many people who call themselves visual artists are really good in this digital age where everyone has access to some kind of camera? A camera is unnecessary in the first moment where ‘photography’ happens. In fact a camera can indeed get in the way. Of course it is needed very soon after to translate that feeling that must arise somewhere on the axis of heart and mind and reflect the artist’s sensitivity.”
Grime photography these days, as it largely exists, reminds me of paparazzi – Simon Wheatley
Wheatley, ever ready to discuss a subject so close to his heart, sends his response from India, “I have met some of the young photographers who shoot around grime these days but only Marco Grey stands out as having depth in his approach. He is a very sensitive person and has the patience to go deeply into the subject matter rather than being obsessed with the ‘approvals’ of social media – which itself is more concerned with who is in the picture than with it’s artistic merits. Grime photography these days, as it largely exists, reminds me of paparazzi – which I’ve always seen as an exploitation of photography.”
Naturally, I got in touch with Marco Grey to find out whether or not this perception of underrepresentation is an accurate one, he had this to say: “Simon’s words are really touching. Simon Wheatley has set the benchmark and has consistently pushed me to delve deeper. In regards to the underrepresentation of visual artists working today I personally believe that the visual art world is over saturated, many want the title of artist or photographer but not many want to actually experiment and discover themselves as an artist. I’m not sure if I would agree that there is underrepresentation.”
Olivia Jankowska is studying Photographic Arts at university while striving for the come up and relishing the chance to live and learn among artists and photographers in London “What’s going on in the music scene right now is incredible and seeing crowds of young people supporting artists that they are currently listening to at every event they’re performing at and always fully ‘turning’ up in the crowd to their songs is something that I like to be part of.” Jankowska cites Mohammed Abdulle and Ciesay among those she considers stand out visual artists, as well as an honourable mention for Vicky Grout’s rise to prominence; I ask Olivia about her start in the industry, “I would just post it on Instagram and I’d have the artists hitting me up so I can send them the photos or they would just repost my shots after seeing them. I’ve met a lot of people through going to events including music artists and some of them would give me opportunities to shoot at the events they were performing at. This is how I ended up shooting at SBTV Summer Cookout because one of the guys performing gave me a stage pass and told me to do me and shoot everyone performing. The same thing happened in regards to Neverland Clan’s Boiler Room set, it’s most likely the maddest event I’ve been to. Everyone was turning up and moshing with the artists. I’m glad I had the chance to capture it all.”
With so much diversity in UK music at the moment, new artists seemingly breaking through each month, it’s possible that the impact of these cultural curators won’t be fully realised for years to come as listeners shift and change from Grime to UK Rap to Afrobeats and beyond. Our culture as Brits can only truly be told through the eyes of those that love and live among the artists of our day. As Wheatley put it for me, “The journey is always the destination. If a photographer’s focus is on enjoying the experience rather than on an over-determination to ‘get the picture’ then I believe good pictures will happen along the way.”