THE LEGACY OF CHI MODU: A PIONEER IN THE WORLD OF HIP-HOP

THE LEGACY OF CHI MODU: A PIONEER IN THE WORLD OF HIP-HOP

by Christopher Kelly
6 min
Chi Modu ©

In the early 90’s, Chi Modu was the only man with a camera present at some of the most pivotal moments in the formation of hip-hop. To introduce him as the sum of his accolades and artistic achievements would in many ways undersell the impact that this Nigerian-American photographer had on a global movement. Especially as, following his recent passing to cancer on the 19th of May 2021, his presence can be felt across all sectors of contemporary hip-hop and photojournalism. 

To the casual observer, he was the lead photojournalist for The Source magazine and the creative powerhouse responsible for the most iconic and intimate imagery of Tupac, Biggie, Wu-Tang and NWA. To those that were inspired by him, he is better remembered for pushing the boundaries of what was expected of underground artists, challenging the cultural notion that hip-hop of the early 90’s wasn’t an art form worthy of quality documentation. He did so by capturing familiar characters and settings in otherwise unfamiliar ways, drawing attention to a new aspect of his subject’s character that had otherwise gone unnoticed. 

At the time, much of mainstream media was still scornfully glaring at the rising east coast hip-hop scene as a boisterous adolescent troublemaker in an otherwise picture-perfect and highly polished entertainment industry. The Source, therefore, became a crucial voice for young people in an era when larger music outlets only validated expressions of youth culture if the messengers came in the shape of an all-white skinny jean wearing punk band. 

The fear and disdain for hip-hop culture that pervaded mainstream news during the early NWA era resulted in many other networks running from the epicentre of the most important shift in modern music since the birth of rock & roll. Like so many other trailblazers before him, Mr Modu knew that mainstream vindication signalled that something special was happening in the bustling streets of Compton. So The Source sent Chi Modu running toward the centre of the storm to document the genesis of a genre. 

 

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His partnership with The Source resulted in over 30 covers spanning over two decades. Between commissions, he would come to create album covers for both Mobb Deep’s debut 1995 album The Infamous and Snoop Dogg’s 2017 album Neva Left. In a 2013 touring exhibition entitled “Uncategorized”, Mr Modu and Snoop Dogg unveiled a treasure trove of never before seen imagery from his photographic archive by projecting them on the side of buildings in an attempt to make his work accessible to everyone. Just like hip-hop, Chi Modu wanted his creations to stay rooted and accessible to the communities that inspired them. One in many ways in which the stories of Chi Modu and that of hip-hop itself are intertwined.

His creative collaborations with the late great Tupac Shakur evolved as a result of an intimate understanding between photographer and subject. It is well documented that Tupac was wary to let his guard down around the media except for only a handful of photographers he knew would capture Tupac the person, not Tupac the sensation. Mr Modu’s skill as an astute yet compassionate documentarian allowed Tupac to show strength in vulnerability, capturing what later became one of the most iconic images of the enigmatic superstar ever taken. 

 

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This shoot alone would have been enough to stitch Chi Modu’s name into the ever-expanding tapestry of hip-hop history. Nonetheless, on a twilight night in Brooklyn, he photographed a young Christopher Wallace (The Notorious B.I.G) across the bay from The World Trade Center. Biggie and Chi Modu quickly became fond of one another and began working together often to refine the contemporary image of The Notorious B.I.G. Coincidently, it was at a shoot with Chi Modu that Biggie was first introduced to Faith Evans, a young up-and-coming singer who later fell in love and married Biggie in the summer of 1994. Yet another way Mr Modu made an indelible imprint on the formation of the 90’s hip-hop ecosystem. 

The beautiful duality of Chi Modu’s work was that while running around capturing so many ‘firsts’, he was more often than not the first professional photojournalist that these young hip-hop titans had ever met. As a result, the imagery that would emerge from even the most spontaneous and challenging shoots would grant a level of sophistication and respect to a culture that was rarely taken seriously by photographers of Mr Modu’s calibre.

 

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Before him, very few photojournalists would give hip-hop artists the time and artistic dedication that they deserved. Shortly before his passing, he commented on his motivation to bring high-quality photojournalism to the hip-hop community in an interview with the Nigerian publication, Pulse. He said, “When you bring that high level of skill to an arena that didn’t have a high level of skill, you can actually create really important work”. 

It was evident in the end product that he treated every shoot as if it was the most important opportunity he had been given, using every trick in the photographer’s arsenal to capture an image that would frame his subject in a different and more truthful light. His most potent weapon was his gregarious and charming character that enabled him to finesse his way into rooms often closed to anyone with a camera. 

His long-term colleague and fellow hip-hop documentarian Jonathan Shecter told a famed story of Mr Modu’s quick wit and dogmatic approach to photography. One year, whilst away on a family vacation in Jamaica, Mr Modu received a message that Mike Tyson was available to be photographed. After leaving his family and flying back to the US, he arrived to the news that Mike no longer wanted to be photographed at all. Nonetheless, after a whole day of hanging around the calm and collected photographer, Mike left with a smile on his face and Mr Modu left with the shots he needed.

 

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Chi Modu’s contribution to hip-hop was just as important as those of the MC’s he captured. For those of us that didn’t grow up in LA or NYC, his imagery and The Source were the only windows through which we could catch a glimpse of the greats in action. In a decade devoid of social media, the photography of Mr Modu helped to shape and cement the legacy of artists like Tupac, Snoop Dog, Biggie and Mobb Deep across the world. His work and that of his contemporary transcended his neighbourhood and inspired multiple generations to pick up a mic or a camera and create freely in the face of prejudice and public pressure. 

Mr Modu formed the aesthetic template for an era of MC’s who followed in the footsteps of the greats he documented. If there was a Hall of Fame for photojournalists, Chi Modu would be an unequivocal first-ballot inductee, being welcomed alongside contemporaries like Ricky Powell, B+ and Joe Conzo. There is no classic photograph without an all-time classic photographer. Chi Modu was and forever will be the textbook definition of a classic photographer.

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