LIVE: Off the Wall – Hip-Hop Photos by Mike Schreiber at the DCJCC

by Couch Sessions

This is Mike Schreiber. Mike takes photos of the people (and dogs) of Cuba, Louisiana’s Angola prisons, hip-hop artists, and anything that crosses his lens and moves him. He calls his new book of photographs and anecdotes True Hip-Hop. When I learned that book signing for “true hip-hop” found its Chocolate City home at the DC Jewish Community Center (DCJCC), I was worried. Don’t get me wrong, my dad’s side of the family is Jewish and we all know that Jews and hip-hop aren’t mutually exclusive, but the word “true” positions the “other” hip-hop as false or inauthentic: a no no as far as I’m concerned if you’re the white guy behind the camera claiming ownership over the culture because a handful of (admittedly famous A and B list) artists trusted you to “shoot” them. But, this self-taught photographer’s got chutzpah, I’ll give him that. And if you missed Schreiber’s DC artist talk, you can’t say The Couch Sessions didn’t give you a heads-up on our events calendar.

To my pleasant surprise, I entered the gallery to a room of about 40 people laughing loudly at Mike’s comedic explanations of why he’s got so many photos of rappers at the barbershop: they have to stop for a shape-up before they get their pictures taken, of course.

He had me charmed from the jump, this Mike Schreiber. I was intrigued by his anecdotes that brought to life a photo shoot where Method Man and Bobbito kicked it in a gentrified Harlem, while Meth insisted, “This ain’t Harlem” until a bona fide crackhead spontaneously joined the shoot as an uninvited body guard / production assistant. But then I was jolted back to the absurdity of Schreiber in this setting where he was constantly forced to translate his hip-hop vernacular for the elderly, white Jewish couples in the room. I couldn’t stop thinking whether or not this event would have had a greater impact if it was housed under a different roof. Would partnerships with hip-hop bloggers, hip-hop nonprofits and/or local hip-hop artists have helped to bring out a larger crowd? I’m certain that our own Couch Sessions readers would have enjoyed the event. But, if the only “true” hip-hop in the room is the slide show behind the photographer and the subjects of the photographs, do we have to believe the sad reality Schreiber admitted?:

I’ve gone from being a photographer to being a product.

Who’s buying, y’all?

Left: Book cover, True Hip-Hop by Mike Schreiber. Right: Photograph by Mike Schreiber.

Mike’s niche has been shooting second-tier artists such as Mos Def and Talib Kweli before anybody knew what a Black Star was. In photographing lesser known artists, Schreiber has found a level of freedom that sustains his lifestyle and keeps him amiable and humble. He started his career by shooting things like the Lyricist Lounge and other underground subjects. This is how he made his own inroads, and he advised other start-up photographers to follow suit. Schreiber says he’s always had a “hustler mentality” from his days photographing all the live stuff for SPIN in the early 2000s. That’s clear in his gorgeous, intimate black and white photographs, for which he rarely uses artificial lighting (“I don’t know how,” says the photographer) and offers little direction to his clients while on shoots. Schreiber says:

People don’t like being photographed. So, if you want a good shot, forget that you’re getting your picture taken.

It pained me to think that Schreiber was speaking a language most folks in the room didn’t understand. As a hip-hop scholar whose done extensive research in hip-hop history and culture, I know the nuances are ignored by many. The Q&A session with Schreiber gave way to yet another group’s amateur understanding of “true hip-hop,” revealing a great need for more sophisticated conversations about this 30-plus-year-old culture. Language matters. If you’re going to make a claim to “true hip-hop,” I’d like to see more thought go into the ways in which we present these events. The JCC’s sterile environment must be counterbalanced with greater efforts to extend a deliberate invitation to members of the DMV hip-hop community.

Like a fish out of water, if we take African artifacts and put them into cold, private Western museums or take hip-hop out of the communities in which it was born and/or lives today, what happens to these art forms and cultures? I’d love to hear our readers’ thoughts on this.

To learn more about Mike Schreiber and to buy his book, visit his website here.

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  • Dafna Steinberg

    The actual title of the event was “Off The Wall: Mike Schreiber”. “True Hip-Hop” is the name of Schreiber’s book, not the event. “Off The Wall” is a series that promotes emerging Jewish artists. This was our first one and we promoted it to a wide range of people including the DMV Hip Hop community.

    A few things…

    The sign at our front door about showing ID is pretty standard in most Jewish Community Centers. And I know that when you walked in and said that you were there for the Mike Schreiber talk, they didn’t ask you for your ID, just point you in the direction of the community hall (which is where you were, not the gallery).

    The “elderly, Jewish couple” in the room happened to be my parents, who know more about Hip Hop than you are giving them credit for. But I wouldn’t expect you to know that. Also, from where I was sitting (at the front facing the audience), it felt like a really good diverse crowd, many of whom (like yourself) had never been to the DCJCC before.

    The questions I asked were questions Mike and I had gone over before hand. He specifically said he wanted to talk about topics other than Hip Hop, because he felt that if people wanted to know about his Hip Hop photography, they should check out his book.

    After the talk, a number of people approached me to ask when the next event was, so perhaps it was just you who felt unwelcome. And I’m sorry you feel that way. Especially seeing how your father’s side of the family is Jewish.

    It saddens me that you took up so much of your article to write about the things you found so negative about the event. This was the first time something like this had been done at the DCJCC and as the person who put the event together, I consider it a success. If you have any more concerns or questions, feel free to email me.

  • sim1ontharun

    @ Dafna – Thanks for commenting. I apologize if you took any of the comments personally. I aim to provoke discussion–not be an authority without contest–through my honest reviews of programs, projects and events in the DMV. My reviews are meant to stimulate conversations, both online and off. These reviews should be catalysts to give others the opportunity to chime in, share their own thoughts and feedback.

    More importantly, all writers are entitled to form opinions, myself included. Whether or not my dad is Jewish doesn’t affect my honesty or integrity. Like Steve Biko, “I write what I like.” I didn’t say anything about the event being a failure. I ask questions in order to invite a dialogue. Thank you for being the first to participate :)

    • Dafna Steinberg


      I appreciate that you were trying to start a dialogue. However, if you had questions about why the DCJCC was putting on the event, you could have approached me prior to or after the fact. You did not. But based on the parts that Stone edited, it was hard to see what kind of a dialogue you were trying to start.

      It is wonderful that you write what you like. And my comment about your father being Jewish was made more out of the fact that the JCC tries to be welcoming to Jews from all over. That being said, we are also a community center that tries to be welcoming to everyone. So for those two reasons, I am sorry you did not feel welcomed.

      Hopefully in the future, you will feel more comfortable coming to our arts events.

  • Stone


    For anyone reading, I removed the first couple of paragraphs because I thought they were offensive. There is a real reason why Jewish Community Centers have heightened security and it had nothing to do with the article.

    And on the flip-side, I understand that when we take hip-hop outside of its traditional realms then the true meaning can get misconstrued. HOWEVER, how are we not supposed to break down cultural barriers if we do not have events outside the traditional houses of the genre.

    I was not present at the event, so I can’t comment on what happened there. However, I know that Dafna, who curated and led the event, is a better representative of hip-hop than most “real hip-hop heads” claim to be. And yes, her parents are as well. Just because this event was curated by….let’s face it, a person of color, dosen’t mean that it should not exist. To say so would do disservice to hip-hop itself (which is hands down the most multi-ethnic musical form on the planet).

    Just my two cents….

  • Ashton Wingate

    Often people forget that doing your research doesn’t just stop when you’ve finished your piece or paper, you really have to do your due diligence. This is why I always stress collaboration btw artists, orgs. and others so that before you put yourself out there you have proper perspective. Great review Simone. Fair, accurate, even handed.

  • sim1ontharun

    @ Stone, I am a poet. Everything is relevant to me. The smells of a place, the signs, the tiny details that seem meaningless to others. All these things matter and contribute to the atmosphere–in a metaphoric and literal sense–of a place.

    You asked, “How are we [not] supposed to break down cultural barriers if we do not have events outside the traditional houses of the genre?” <– Hmmm. Interesting query. I'd like to know whether others prioritize an "open door policy" for expanding hip-hop or are more concerned with protecting against cultural voyeurism. Both arguments/battles have their merits.

    My critique (above) is not limited to the DCJCC. Hip-hop events after hip-hop events in the DMV stagnate at the Hip-Hop 101 level. These events are valuable for hip-hop novices, and it's not the JCC's responsibility to expand the dialogue alone. Still, it's our collective responsibility to demand a deeper level of inquiry and to be honest about what's "true" and "real" in hip-hop culture. Inviting a co-sponsor for this event with a more sophisticated knowledge of hip-hop culture could have allowed for some great dialogue with a hip-hop insider like Mike S. Some of his anecdotes could have been converted into hip-hop theatre vignettes (ex: partner with the DC Hip-Hop Theater Festival). The possibilities are endless.

    Having a non-Brown person curate is of no consequence to me. I do not, however, think that we have a responsibility as writers to always give glowing reviews. That is the antithesis of critique. There were many positive elements to this event, which I commended. Being defensive is merely rooted in Ego and does not change my personal opinions in the least.

  • mike schreiber

    first off, thank you for the review and the nice things you said about me.
    i appreciate it.
    i agree with dafna completely and i thought the beauty of the event was that it did bring a more diverse crowd out. i didn’t see “old jewish couples”. i saw a lot of different people and many young african americans.
    as long as people stay separate with pre-conceived notions about “the others”- which, miss simone, you most definitely seemed to come in with- nobody will ever understand anybody else.
    the reason why my work looks the way it looks is because i approach everybody with an open mind and heart. i seek the “Truth” in my subjects (with varying degrees of success). that’s why i called it “True Hip Hop”.
    it refers to the way i shoot people, not the artists themselves. TRUE refers to how the artists are represented not to how well they spit or how many records they sell.
    it’s a photo book, not a hip-hop encyclopedia.
    your sentence “a no no as far as I’m concerned if you’re the white guy behind the camera claiming ownership over the culture because a handful of (admittedly famous A and B list) artists trusted you to ‘shoot’ them” is ignorant and offensive at best.
    would i have more authority with you if i was the black guy behind the lens?
    and it’s not a “handful” of artists. it’s 12 years worth of work.
    recognize and respect that.
    and i’d be the last person to “claim ownership” over the culture of hip-hop. the notion is ridiculous.

    instead of being critical of the JCC for not being what you think a hip-hop venue should be, applaud them for being open-minded and inclusive to work that might be out of their comfort zone.

    with that said, i’d be more than happy to return to DC and speak in any venue to any group of people about anything in any language as long as it’s english!
    the most beautiful and AMAZING thing about hip-hip is that it is truly a worldwide cultural phenomenon that no one group can claim ownership of. hip-hop knows no boundaries, and race, nationality, eye color, hair length, income bracket make no difference whatsoever. anybody can spit, dance, write, spin or take pictures.
    it’s a beautiful thing, and events like the one at the JCC can only help to push things forward. maybe a “hip-hop” venue should have a “photos of famous jews” discussion.

    finally, “Black Star” is two words and there’s one “r” in Star.

    with love,

  • mike schreiber

    also, this wasn’t a “Hip Hop event”.
    it was a book event.
    (hip hop events usually have music)

  • K. G. Dargan

    Seems like there is a bit of artistic sensitivity on both sides here. I wasn’t at the event and have not seen the book, but the issue here seems to revolve around the semantics of “truth.”

    Mr. Schreiber has the right to call the book what he chooses. It’s no different than emcees whose freestyle preambles include phrases like “I spit that real ish, kid.” After the announcement of realness/truth, it’s up to the artist to sell it (and be judged). So, maybe there needs to be more discussion/critique of the photographs’ attempts at defining and rendering authenticity in hip-hop. And, yes, we do get into trouble when we start dictating or assuming who can and cannot have access to that authenticity. But I don’t think Ms. Jacobson is suggesting that Mr. Schreiber does not or should not have that access. There are some issues wrapped up in the matter, but, again, they may be better challenged through a critique of the art product (photographs) rather than a critique of the event promoting the art product.

    I understand the frustration with the Fisher-Price treatment of hip-hop in many outreach events. But such events — unsatisfying as they may be to entrenched (let’s not say “true”) hip-hop heads — still have a place. You have to begin speaking someone else’s language before you can begin to teach them your own. There appears to be an opportunity here. If Mr. Schreiber would be willing to come back and have a more in-depth conversation about authenticity and agency in hip-hop and other hip-hop centric art, someone should make that happen event. And on the civil tip. And I’ll peep the book.

  • [flahy][blak][chik]

    I’m still trying to figure out if you were at the same event, everyone else attended. As friends of both Mike & Dafna, and the catalyst that actually brought the two of them together, I was pretty excited to see the # of ppl that showed up.

    Mike beat me to the same points I was going to make, so I won’t even reinvent the wheel. Just as diverse the crowd was with the first installment of the Off The Wall series, it’s been diverse for other events I’ve attended there as well. If you take a seat in their lobby, you’ll see all types of people walking the hallways.

    Also, as Dafna stated, ““Off The Wall” is a series that promotes emerging Jewish artists”…guess what..Mike happens to be Jewish. His work happens to touch on Hip-hop, but his work is also more than that as well.

    You also forgot to point out the little asian girl who was in the audience as well, the old jewish couple, would be disappointed to have been singled out.

  • Peter

    LOL @ “Black Star” is two words and there’s one “r” in Star.

  • mike schreiber

    also, i never said that i went from being a photographer to a “product”.
    i said i went from being a photographer to being a bookseller.

  • Thomas

    As “uncensored” as this piece may be lol, I believe the assessment is correct. Entering this event as an outsider, Simone simply gave her perspective on it. To be honest, she simply echoes an all too familiar plea concerning issues of exploitation of Black culture by outsiders. It is what it is. *Kanye shrug*

  • IsAin’t

    It is interesting to see the reactions that people have when actual critique happens. What saddens me is how this writer’s work was clumsily butchered, at the behest, I’m sure, of a singular outcry of offence. I read this post earlier in the day and had to wait to revisit and comment, only to find the piece was no longer in its original form. It now starts abruptly and without proper context. As Marcus Dowling lamented in days passed, is this blogging or journalism? What is the relationship between the two? Is there one? A feather ruffled is by no means cause to so alter a writer’s work after it has gone to “print.” As a journalist of over 15 years it seems embarrassing, if not on the whole unprofessional for one’s work to be decimated after it has been published.

    If Stone, found it offensive, why were the first two paragraphs published at all? This “edit” wreaks of tucked-tail, reactionary backtracking.

    I will not even touch the better representative of hip-hop cosigning, whose place I can not find in this discussion. But if you are counting the beans of diversity, i.e, the “little” [A]sian girl in the audience, I doubt you met your quota.

    I know and understand the Jews are a powerful lot but did not expect blogs on culture urbane to be on the radar. Commenter Dafna, would have it appear that Ms. Jacobson owes some notion of deference because her father’s side of the family may share a religious bound with parties involved. Groupthink is dangerous. If a reviewer can not express how he or she has been made to feel, while on assignment what is the point of the review? Why necessitate critique? If the point is only to share what was dope or makes one feel good, why not a rigid form where the writer fills in the blanks? Or better, have facilitators write reviews of their own events. What is this, Fox news?

    To echo Mr. Wingate’s sentiments, this appears to be a fair, honest and even-handed review, not to be tainted by the pettifoggery of the sensitive and ego driven.

    Right on to the real and death to the fakers.

  • IsAin’t

    A note on offence: @[flahy][blak][chik] and to the editors of this lovely blog, what exactly is a “little asian girl”? Perhaps the Asians do not garner enough respect, or wield enough power to have what they find offencive removed from a blog.


  • IsAin’t

    Pandora’s Box open: @MrSchreiber, What exactly do you mean by the following:

    “the most beautiful and AMAZING thing about hip-hip is that it is truly a worldwide cultural phenomenon that no one group can claim ownership of. hip-hop knows no boundaries, and race, nationality, eye color, hair length, income bracket make no difference whatsoever.”

    How easy from the mouth of a white man, seemingly of the Jewish faith. How easy to to say of the cultural production of Blacks, “this is for everyone.” Is this not historically the case? We own nothing. Especially our culture and its artifacts. Our speech, purposefully coded to exclude those who ain’t “down.” Then purposefully “DECODED” and sold so you can fix up and look sharp, and own it again.

    So while hip-hop may know none of the boundaries you speak of, the PEOPLE behind its creation most certainly do. As you pointed out, this was 12 years worth of your work. Hip-hop, not “hip-hip,” is the work of 500+ years of: oppression, repression, renaissance, reinvention and re-imagination of Afrikans on the American continent.

    Recognise and Respect THAT.

  • IsAin’t

    Last thing, Mr. Schreiber, Jay Smooth hosted a guy on his vlog a while back, Dan Charnas, who used the term ‘racial humility.’

    Google it. Learn it. Employ it.

  • Akoto

    Simone: your intent, as stated in an earlier comment, to stimulate and facilitate a useful dialogue, was accomplished. The debate you sparked was a nutritive one. One that, without the intervention of the site’s editor, seemed to offer up some valuable insights.

    Couch Sessions: shame on you for omitting valuable observations from a review. I don’t visit this site to read hard news pieces, guised in fake cloaks of objectivity. I come here curious about the opinions and perspectives of the writers and reviewers you trust to provide your content. I do this, more often than not, seeking to unearth opinions that differ from mine, so that I may challenge my own thoughts. I would bet that most of your readers, already in search of alternative news spaces, would agree. And quite frankly, deleting entire chunks of a review, after it had been published, is amateur editing.

    Reviews are about perspective. As we grapple with the ideas of “truth” in hip-hop, it’s seems a bit counter productive and contradictory and childish and hegemonic to silence those who are simply telling their own.

  • Renina

    #Lawdjesus there is a lot going on in this post. Okay.

    Culture like sexuality, race and gender is fluid.

    However, I come from the Leroi Jones school of Black music which argues that Black music exists because of the conditions under which Black people have lived in this country.

    Sim1ontharun touched on few things in this post.

    The first thing is the power to name. This post appears to be bumping up against blogging vs mainstream media and how in many ways blogging is a collaborative process, ie look at the editors (Stone’s) elimination of the two paragraphs and the feedback in the comments section.

    As a blogger, I know that I will have to (and I have had to) answer for the things that I say. This post exemplifies this. This is healthy. It forces us to keep it even. However when the tone takes on a combative, the opportunity to teach and learn gets lost. When blogging about highly charged issues sex, race, culture, class, I know that I have to be mindful of my intentions.

    The question is do we want to argue or do we want to learn from each other?

    The second thing is that sim1ontharun is talking about notions of ownership of Hip Hop. I have always contended that what amazes me about Hip Hop is that it is rooted in the experiences of some of the most poorest youth (from the South Bronx) in the one of the most richest cities in the world (NYC). The fact that there is a contradiction between a cultural product (a book on photography) and the ways in which it is showcased (at the JCC) makes sense.

    The third thing is that artists are sensitive about they shit. Peace to #Erykah. When we start talking about how and when people get money, they historically get defensive. This conversation is one about power. Power to earn money, how resources are allocated, to whom and why. This appears to be happening in this blog post and it makes sense.

    My question for sim1ontharun is what were your intentions in writing this piece?

    My question for Mike Schreiber is who benefits from reasoning that “hip-hop… truly a worldwide cultural phenomenon that no one group can claim ownership of?” If a group does or doesn’t benefit then why?

    ~Renina (Feminist Scholar, Doctoral Student and Boom Bap Head. #yerp.)

  • Fred

    Good piece and good discussion…first of all I am glad that this forum exists to have such a discussion. I am also glad the DCJCC has someone like Dafna to bring events like this to DCJCC and their audience might not get otherwise.
    As a the son of jazz man and young jazzhead/hip hop head myself, I am extremely sensitive to how writers, critics, photographers, presenting venues and organizations present, represent AND profit from the culture(s) of others. i am also sensitive and hyper-aware of who gets touted as an “expert”, “authentic” ,”real” voice or eye and at whose expense.
    I think the questions Simone raises are valid and timely, as artists and presenters whose aesthetic come out of a hip hop perspective, we should be mindful of, question and critique anyone (or organization) who seeks to present on a subject matter that our work is informed by. If we look at what has happened to a lot of jazz musicians, writers, photographers, presenters, many of them get left behind or never get a chance to profit from the strange fruit of their labor.

    @simone: It may have made interesting riff in the piece to find out not only the “elderly, white Jewish couples in the room” were, but who of the some of the other folks were as well to add another layer to the piece.

    @ mike schreiber firstly thank you for your work. i think any significant and serious constructive critical “eyes” that hip hop gets in the “fine art” world is good. my concern is that particularly for Black and African Am. folks we are too often object and not expert or critical mouthpiece for our own work. For some reason the publishing, art and media industries do not allow for many of us to control our own narrative that way.

    which leads me to your comment, which i believe may have been tongue in cheek (or at least that is the way I received it) to the effect that “hip-hop” venues should hold a “photos of famous jews” discussion. their are many language layers (racial, ethnic, class, privilege, etc) to that discussion, but even using the terms that you used i can still address my concerns with such a statement. I think we can all honestly agree that a “photos of famous jews” discussion put on by a “hip hop” venue (featuring non-Jewish writers, critics or artsits) without any Jewish involvement not only would not happen, but would not be considered authentic or an authoritative voice on the subject. Non-Jewish critics, wirters, artsits, etc would not be given that kind of leash to present and represent any Jewish narrative the same way that anyone and everyone can claim and has claimed to be authentic or authoritative voices on African American narratives. I am not questioning your work’s authenticity here, i believe the images speak truth for themselves, but i do think the position that you are in does speak to a privileged eye, lens, and view. A view that some of my friends who are non-white, Non-Jewish photorgaphers who might want to do a book or project on “photos of famous jews” don’t have the reciprocal privilege of when it comes to images of any Jewish narrative. Furthermore, those same photographers (non-white, Non-Jewish) probably would not have the same access or support to get that product to market and would be under a greater level of scrutiny than most white artists undergo when presenting other people’s (non-white) narratives.

    @stone: I like this website ..i visit, support and promote it to like-minded folks. As someone who has been running similiar types of websites since 97-98..I think as producers, documenters and publishers of culture we really should be mindful the slippery slope of censorship. I do understand the pressures that a webmaster is under when trying to not offend anyone and create a welcoming and thriving online community, but i still think we should be vigilant when it comes to free speech and trying to take the opportunity to create bridges of understanding and dialogue, rather than more walls. i did not see Simone’s comments in the redacted paragraphs, but knowing that she is Jewish, I am pretty sure it was not anti-Jewish or offensive to the extent that it required censorship.


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