Through the lens of hip-hop

Pub date June 2, 2011

Photographer/filmmaker Brian Cross charts a musical map of the African diaspora in the Americas — and opens new Summit Peek Gallery show tonight (6/2), “If It Fits in the Backpack: 10 Years on the Road with Mochilla”

Last year, Los Angeles-based production group Mochilla released Timeless,a trilogy film series documenting three concerts performed in L.A., early 2009. For these concerts, the photographer/filmmaker/DJ duo behind Mochilla, Brian Cross and Eric Coleman, shined light on three composers who have helped influence and shape hip-hop in different ways: the originator of Ethio-jazz, Mulatu Astatke; leftfield Brazilian arranger, Arthur Verocai; and a gutsy rendition of J Dilla’s beats crafted by Miguel Atwood-Ferguson with 60-piece orchestra. The films paint intimate portraits of musical exchange and live performance while paying tribute to some of the overlooked giants of the sprawling African musical diaspora.

In many ways Timeless is a culmination of themes explored in Mochilla’s films from the past decade. Their first project, Keepintime: Talking Drums and Whispering Vinyl (2001), and the follow-up live recording and DVD release in 2004, captured improvisational collaboration between L.A. hiphop producers and DJs, such as Madlib and J.Rocc, among others, with some of the powerhouse session drummers who inspired their sample-based work. Brasilintime: Batucada Com Discos (2007) also navigated the dynamic tension between an older generation of drummers, this time including legendary Brazilian percussionists, and the new school of analog producer/turntablists.


But not only did Mochilla depict creative partnership between these two forms of percussionists, they also translated the cut-up aesthetic of the DJ and rhythmic momentum of the drummer to the inner workings of the films themselves. A pastiche of words, music, and imagery composed of still shots and footage drive forward the fragmented stories, and striking moments of reconciliation, which unfold on screen.

More recently, Cross (known more familiarly as B+) set off to Columbia to document the Petronio Alvarez music festival as well as collaborative work between Will Holland (a.k.a. Quantic) and Ernesto “Fruko” Estrada, who could be credited with forging the rootsy, Afro-Columbian take on salsa. Mochilla also shot a good deal of the footage for Banksy’s street art disaster film from last year, Exit Through the Gift Shop, caught wayward rapper Jay Electronica at the Pyramids in Egypt and recording in South Africa, and documented Nas and Damian Marley on tour. To put it short, the dudes put in work.

“I look more for the off-handed moments that can be sustained as photos in themselves,” Cross tells me over the phone, while working in the dark room basement of his home in Los Angeles. He says that he’s excited to see how the large hand-printed photos will look in the upcoming Mochilla showcase at the new Peek Gallery in the Mission, this Thursday. “I’m trying to be iconic, but at the same time I don’t want to make publicity photos for record companies,” Cross says. “The videos, in a way, can be much more interesting because the fluidity allows for a certain kind of candidness.”

Cross, 44, has quite a history with such candidness in his work. Born in Limerick, Ireland, Cross moved to San Francisco’s Mission district in 1990 before attending CalArts in Southern California to study photography. While still completing his degree, Cross started writing what would become a landmark book on the emergence and socio-political implications of hiphop in L.A., It’s Not About a Salary: Rap, Race, and Resistance in Los Angeles (Verso Books, 1993). He is responsible for a number of iconic album covers of underground hiphop acts, from Freestyle Fellowship to Ras Kass and Mos Def. And Cross also made headway with more than a few magazine photo spreads and music videos throughout the past couple decades, notably including an arresting multi-textured piece for DJ Shadow’s “Midnight in a Perfect World” off Entroducing….. (Mo’ Wax Records, 1996).


Looking over Cross’ ever-growing body of work, some primary themes consistently arise: Through the lens of hiphop, Cross orients a number of conversations, multi-generational interchanges, rhythmic confluences, and resistant divergences that weave through the diaspora of African musical traditions in the Americas. “There’s an anthropological side as well as an ethnomusicologist side to it—an attempt to make a map of the diaspora in terms of the music set by the present,” Cross explains. “The goal is ultimately to document in a way that is not strictly historical, but to let the past speak to now rather than the other way round.”

SFBG I find an interesting dynamic in your film work and the documented live performances. On the one hand, you’ll take hiphop producers and DJs and pair them with percussionists, so as to put the contemporary in tension with the recent past that informed those contemporaries. On the other hand, there’s another element of featuring the music of those composers themselves. In what way do you think the past speaks to the present, as you put it, in both those approaches?

Brian Cross The idea is that somehow you don’t want to frame it off. In other words, for Keepintime, we didn’t want to get Paul Humphrey or Earl Palmer involved in something and frame off the dialogue in terms of, ‘Ok Paul, we want you to play the classic break on “One Man Band (Plays all Alone),” and now we’re going to layer something on top of it and develop a routine.’ But that’s not what’s interesting about Paul Humphrey. Yeah, it’s amazing he did that, and that’s why we’re choosing to work with him. But Paul Humphrey is somebody living and breathing; he’s our past, but he’s also our present. We want to open up a space of dialogue that is open to this series of works but isn’t limited to it.

For the Brasilintime project, we could have gone to Brazil and found obscure musicians who made amazing recordings and complete the narrative in the way that normal Eurocentric or Western versions of the story go: We bring them to Carnegie Hall, we do a concert, venerate them, and show them that Carnegie Hall is in fact the best venue in the world and is the most important place to see music. Whoa whoa whoa, back it up, we’re not going to do that. We’re going to go to there and engage, and try to actually build a bridge to the music. Let’s not have this as a one-sided sentence that leads in a single direction. Generally, what we try to do is to de-center, to find ways in which we can open up, because, invariably, when you do these things, that’s when you make discoveries. Oh, Mamao and Wilson das Neves played on the Jose Mauro record, he died before the record came out, and then Dilla sampled it … that’s when you make these discoveries.

You know I don’t mind the Buena Vista Social Club [1997] record. Ry Cooder is a great producer and a great musician, but the film is fucking awful. It’s so fucking wrongheaded. And that director, Wim Wenders, is smarter than that, man. We’re people of the left, he knows better than that. Of course, everybody got involved and was super happy that these guys were finally discovered, and we can fully appreciate how beautiful their music is and the contributions they’ve made. But then Carnegie Hall is put into the equation; we don’t need to reaffirm the same set of cultural values. We don’t need that. Maybe that’s kind of a trite example, but I’m interested in trying to forge ways to talk about music, or to explore possibilities of music, that don’t fall into the same set of traps that most writing and television and documentaries about music fall into.

SFBG Yeah, there are standard methods for placing outsider music, or the marginal narratives of musical traditions and musicianship, into the mainstream narrative, one of validation internal to our own frameworks of understanding. As a photography and filmmaker, how do you approach a sense of the outsider, or the musician who is resistant, or peripheral to the grand narratives? What techniques do you take up in order to engage these musicians and traditions and make them visible for a broader audience?

BC Well, when it comes to Brazilian music, I’m pretty serious about my shit. I do my research thoroughly. I try to put my best foot into it. But other than that, it’s pure human relationships, man. For me, here’s my pet peeve: Too much of the stuff happening right now is done without real social engagement. It’s through the Internet, whether it’s digital digging, or people paying 800 dollars for an obscure record from Ethiopia or Angola, when you could buy a ticket to go there for the same amount. You should be going. That’s the responsibility. The responsibility is to go there, actually experience it, and see what works on the ground.

To go back to Ry Cooder, when he went to Cuba to make Buena Vista, that wasn’t the music people were listening to in Cuba. People were listening to Timba, and Timba is a completely different thing. I just think there’s a lot more to be gained from actually going to say, Baranquilla, and spending time there in the town—meeting people, buying records, meeting musicians—than there is from surfing the Internet and finding the latest hot cumbia re-groove from Argentina or whatever. If you’re serious about your shit you have to go there, engage on the ground, and see what makes sense. You like Wu-Tang? Go to Staten Island. Go for a walk around the projects. Go visit P.L.O. Liquors where all those songs came from. That’s the kind of compliment you need to be paying people. And there’s ways to do this that aren’t touristic. You can go and feel the vibe there. It might seem obvious, but it gets lost in these discussions.

SFBG Do you see that as your primary motivational force? That your projects are prefaced on this desire to travel, meet these musicians that inspire you where they live and make music; find out what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and be a part of it?

BC Well, the two things are kind of contingent. It’s cyclical somehow. I’m there, experiencing, helping to build bridges as best as I can, and I’m also thinking about photographs because that’s what I do.

SFBG How do you think this approach fits back into your earlier photo work in Los Angeles and your book, ‘It’s Not about a Salary?’

BC It’s an extension of it, really. You know the book is a very primitive thing, if you actually sit there and read it from cover to cover, which I did for a project a couple years ago, and I was highly embarrassed (laughs). But there was no model. It’s not like Can’t Stop Won’t Stop [Picador, 2005] existed, and someone had put that work down. I was 26, I had been into hiphop since I was 17, and I gave it a stab. And, of course, I put myself into a cultural debate that I didn’t know much about, for my own peril.

Ostensibly, the work isn’t much different. In that book, yeah, it’s about hiphop in Los Angeles, but I also managed to talk to Roy Porter, The Watts Prophets, Kamau Daaoood, Horace Tapscott, and a whole slew of other people who didn’t straightforwardly have anything to do with hiphop in Los Angeles. But in another way, they had everything to do with it. What has always been interesting for me with hiphop is that it has this historical reach. That’s what I tried to bring into the book. There’s definitely things which I don’t agree with now, and suppositions that I made or thought what would happen which didn’t. But it was a critical moment, right before The Chronic [Death Row, 1992], which I think was really a world changer.

The amazing thing about the golden era of hiphop, as they call it now, that era up to ‘95 or ’96, is that it was incredibly inclusive music. There was Japanese Koto, all sorts of rhythms from the Caribbean, rock, jazz, funk, you name it. That sourced people into record stores in different ways. The categories didn’t make sense as they did previously. That’s the magnetic lure of it. Somehow, hiphop allowed this extraordinary ability to look at previously recorded things and make them work in the present. For me, that was a critical modernist moment, or as the prevailing discourse has it a post-modernist moment—the collage and montage.

SFBG That brings up another interesting point in your work in the idea that when listening to hiphop not only is the origin of the break or the sample concealed, but also the artist’s background is concealed. The identity of the artist is mystified. Would you say that your projects aim towards making visible the musician as a person rooted in an environment or social setting?

BC The two-sided sword of the invention of youth culture is that it posits a kind of energy and dynamism to what we call youth. The problem is that the way it’s commodified is made contingent on the exclusion of anything outside youthful values or youthful thinking. I don’t agree with that. And if you look at the music of the diaspora, it’s not there. These kind of generational fishers don’t exist in other traditions of music: not in Latin, not in African-oriented music, and in my understanding of European folk traditions, they’re not there either.

While I find aspects of youth admirable, it shouldn’t ever be considered an exclusive category. For instance, David Axelrod is in his late 70s, and he has as much to contribute, and as many interesting things to say now as he did when he was 30. The thing is we’ve consigned him off to a category as if he doesn’t exist. And that seems ridiculous to me. I mean James Gadson still has fire now as a drummer just as he did when he played with Bill Withers. Why would we decide that he no longer has importance? It’s not like people have stopped listening to Bill Withers. But that’s how our music culture works. We fetishize the appearance of youth, but we’re not entirely clear on the implications of that. So, I like the idea of putting the person in the room if I can. For inclusivity, it has to be that.

And we have to get past the old ways of thinking, too. When I was first doing this, it was all super secretive. No one was supposed to know what your samples were or where your drums came from, because that was your tool kit, and if everyone had the same tool kit, it wouldn’t be interesting anymore. But I don’t buy that. In the end, there’s a deluge of information out there, it’s what you do with it that’s important. Your understanding and ability to manipulate the history is what’s important.

SFBG Even when you put out ‘Keepintime,’ I imagine that people worried that you would unveil the alchemic creative process, otherwise covered up, behind a hiphop record.

BC It goes back even before that. Take the video I did for DJ Shadow’s “Midnight In A Perfect World.” It plots out a series of concerns that I’m still interested in. You know, Earl Palmer is in there, and the sample is from a David Axelrod record. And they didn’t clear the sample. Shadow was terrified that Earl was going to recognize the song. But Earl didn’t even remember David Axelrod the person, let alone the record (laughs). They weren’t hits! Earl wasn’t sitting around listening to Axelrod records. But if you’re going to be too scared to talk to him, we’ll never learn anything from the guy. And then he shows up, and we’re transported to a whole different world: New Orleans before World War II.

You could say rock n’ roll came from the soles of Earl Palmer’s shoes. He was a child vaudeville performer, a tap dancer, and he battled against Sammy Davis Junior, and a lot of cats from that era. But he was never the best dude, and he was always interested in drums, so he taught himself how to play drums. So, that shuffle beat, that swamp beat as they call it, which became the foundation of rock n’ roll drumming, came from a guy who’s a tap dancer in black vaudeville as a child, who figured out a way to transform his tap dancing onto a drum kit. Think of the multi-billion dollar industry that rock n’ roll has become, and we still don’t know these things. We have to sit down and talk to these guys to find out these stories.

If It Fits in the Backpack: 10 Years on the Road with Mochilla
Opening photo exhibition w/ film screenings and Q&A
With Brian Cross and Eric Coleman
Thurs./02, 7p.m.-11p.m., free (thru 06/30)
Peek Gallery (Summit SF)
780 Valencia Ave. @19th St., SF
(415) 861-5330