A Great Day in Hip-Hop

Seven months ago, when the staff of XXL magazine first thought of redoing the “Great Day in Harlem” shoot, they had no idea how successful it would be. The first “Great Day in Harlem” photo, taken in 1958, brought together 57 jazz legends on the front stoop of 17 E. 126th St., a brownstone between Fifth and Madison Avenues, for an Esquire magazine piece. (The picture appeared in the January 1959 issue.) At XXL’s historic recreation, 200 plus hip-hop greats flowed over three stoops – a new generation of cultural icons captured for posterity.

The shoot on Sept. 29 commemorated the 40th anniversary of Art Kane’s famous photo of jazz greats such as Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Count Basie, Thelonious Monk and Lester Young. It also honored the innovators of rap – a musical genre that has impacted popular culture as jazz did in its heyday.

“I’m just thrilled that so many artists found the time to come out and be a part of this special event,” said Sheena Lester, editor-in-chief of the year-old magazine. “It was a glorious sunny day where there were East Coast, West Coast, Southern and Midwestern rappers acknowledging each other.”

Artists came from near and far, representing the past, present and future of rap music. A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Jermaine Dupri, Canibus, Fat Joe, Da Brat, Wyclef, Pras, Kool Herc, Grand Master Flash, Onyx, E-40, Mack 10, Crucial Conflict, Run-DMC, Slick Rick, Goodie MOB, Luke, Kool Moe Dee, Heather B, Paula Perry and members of Wu Tang Clan and Goodie Mob were all present. Laughter permeated the air on this tree-lined street, just west of the Metropolitan Community Methodist Church that served as the meeting place of all the stars. Icons met icons who turned out to also be fans.

Organizing a photo of this magnitude was a great feat in and of itself. The icing on the top was getting a renowned photographer to capture the moment. Though many could have taken the shot, only one had the historical significance which would add an exclamation point to the event: Gordon Parks, the legendary, 84-year-old photojournalist who directed the films Shaft and The Learning Tree.

In the ’40s, Parks shot for Vogue and Life, among others, breaking through the racism which permeated the magazine business and society.

Philadelphia was well represented in the photo: The Roots, King Britt, Kurupt, Jazzy Jeff and Schoolly D were among the legends in the photo. Ahmir Thompson of Philly group The Roots, who was documenting the event with a hand-held video camera, called the gathering incredible.

“I’ve been doing this for six years, and I never met Wu [Tang Clan]; I never met the essential people of hip-hop.” Thompson admitted he hadn’t met 60 percent of the artists there. Britt, a Central High School grad, was overwhelmed and honored to be a part of it.

“First, Gordon Parks taking the picture – in Harlem,” mused Britt. “This is where the soul is, from jazz to now.”

Other artists were also thrilled. Cee-Lo, from the Atlanta-based Goodie Mob, foamed: “I just met Greg Nice. I just met Daddy-O, from Stetsasonic, who I love! DJ Hollywood. All these people. I’d heard their names when I was young. These are my heroes. I feel blessed. And for them to tell me that they like what I’m doing? It’s a trip.”

Heather B suggested that the spirits of many of hip-hop’s fallen stars were present: “It was something in the air. You felt the presence of Biggie, you felt the presence Tupac, you felt Eazy E, Scott La Rock. They represented hip-hop.”

When the time came for this moment to be captured, there was so much to absorb. Sticky Fingaz of Onyx, striking a pose with no shirt, a camouflage jacket draping his body. Fat Joe standing erect, with the pride of the boricuas on his shoulders. Ahmir with the classic pick in his afro. Gordon Parks standing behind two cameras on tripods, eyeing his subjects as he has done for more than 50 years, hands shaking ever so slightly as he clicked the first and subsequent shots: the artists with their fists in the air, some looking away from the camera.

When the shoot was over, the crowd of rappers burst into applause, accompanied by yells of pride. The disassembled crowd continued to talk with their peers, their heroes, their fans.

Not unlike the jazz shoot, there were some key artists that were not present. But with so many that were there, it was hard to be distraught about those who weren’t there. A disappointed Lauryn Hill arrived 10 minutes after the shot was taken in a red Range Rover driven by her beau Rohan Marley with her son Zion in the back seat. A dejected Ras Kass from Los Angeles, who showed up too late, asked if there was some way he could be superimposed into the shot.

Things may have changed a lot in 40 years, but a magic moment is still a magic moment.

The rap elite recreates a Great Day in Harlem.

by Ogbonna Hagins

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