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

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.