It’s relatively easy to visualize rappers recording their verses: their physical images tend to be ubiquitous, a vocal booth is essentially a person-sized box, and we all know what a microphone looks like. But the same can’t be said of the music they rap over, nor of the producers who compose it. The possible permutations of equipment are dizzying; the processes by which it’s all put to use, legion. Mental pictures of expansive mixing consoles in industrial recording studios can be conjured up from movies or music videos, but it seems unlikely that Flying Lotus made Cosmogramma with one of those, and if not in a studio like that, then where? What does DJ Shadow even look like?
Faced with these questions, it’s easier to imagine beats simply coalescing in some ethereal, digitized space—like what it looks like inside the program in Tron but covered in graffiti and cluttered with small, multicolored plastic canisters that once contained pharmaceutical grade marijuana. But this is, of course, silly. Beats don’t make themselves in hip-hop cyberspace; they come from corporeal places, from flesh-and-blood artists. 2005’s Behind the Beat, a book of images captured by Australian photographer Raph Rashid, showed us what both actually look like.
Rashid spent several years traveling the world, visiting and shooting the home studios of some of the most revered producers in hip-hop history. J Dilla, DJ Primer, and a pantheon of other renowned beatsmiths were placed in a visual context that not only told the story of their craft, but also provided evocative glimpses of their personalities. In addition to the ziggurats of vinyl, the many species and phyla of synths and pedals, Rashid’s camera sought out personal touches—the places were home and studio truly overlapped—and put them in direct conversation with the landscapes of mechanical gear they inhabit.
Even as Behind the Beat repeatedly sold out its editions and went back to the printer’s, and as and his now-iconic monochrome of Dilla was put on display in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, Rashid never stopped shooting. His second book, Back to the Lab, is a seamless continuation of what he started with Behind the Beat—more studios, more producers, further insight into how the creative limitations of budget and square footage give rise to singular greatness.
To be repeatedly invited into various musicians’ home studios is no small feat. As Rashid’s photographs show, these spaces are crucibles in which the intimacy of a bedroom, the facility of a workplace, and the freedom of creativity melt into a shape dictated by their unique personality. They are the sanctuaries of musicians less accustomed to public scrutiny than their lyrically inclined counterparts. But Raph is the kind of guy you’d be crazy to hesitate to invite anywhere. And it doesn’t seem far-fetched to imagine the producers he photographs sense a kindred spirit in him: another artist who allows creative pursuits to develop organically around and through him, informed by all the aspects of his life. —Ben Grenrock
Buy a signed copy of the book here, or from Rashid’s US publisher here.
What prompted you to start photographing home studios?
Raph Rashid:It was probably around 1995, I reckon. My friends who were producing at the time were mainly into techno, but they had a lot of outboard gear and I loved the way that this one particular studio looked. My friend lived with his father and he put all his studio equipment all over the house, mainly in his kitchen. I remember going into his kitchen, into his house. It was just a regular apartment, but it was set up in a way that was just all about his craft. I remember being blown away by that at the time, thinking I need to take a photo of this. But I wasn’t a photographer or anything. That was my earliest memory of a home studio. I’d always been interested in, and always known, producers. I guess I just started shooting once I felt like I had a good handle on the camera.
One of the first studios I shot was DJ Shadow’s. Whenever a touring artist would come to my town, I’d always try to meet them and say hi and thanks for all the great music. I just kicked it off with [DJ Shadow] and he was like, “Yeah, whenever you come out [we can do a shoot].” And I was like, “Cool, I have a mission now.”
I think traveling is really great like that. I do it now with food as well. I want to get somewhere because I want to try that cuisine. I need more meaning to travel, not just rolling around on holiday. So whenever I could work something in, it gave me a really good mission. It gave me purpose and I really enjoyed it. I was just photographing people I met and that would lead to another person. Shadow was like, “Come down to the studio where Dan the Automator is,” so he took me over there.
So you becoming a photographer was a result of this project?
Raph Rashid:A little bit. Before that I was photographing skateboarding. I’d had a few skateboarding pictures published, but that was only daytime and I just wanted to use the camera more. So I already had the fundamentals down. But then I was like, “Okay, what am I gonna focus on?” All of the first photo shoots [of home studios] weren’t for a publication or anything. They were just me and my friends, taking photos of them in their studios and their equipment. I really enjoyed doing it. That started around ’99, 2000. And that led to the first book, Behind the Beat, which was released in 2005.
What was the reception for that first book like?
Raph Rashid:That was crazy. It really took my by surprise. The book is now in its sixth printing. I don’t know how to explain it [laughs]. We published it with a publisher out of the Bay Area called Ginko Press. They just let me do whatever I wanted, so I just gave them a book, basically, and they printed it and they gave it great support. From there I just kept shooting because I loved the subject so much.
What drove you to do it again and make Back to the Lab?
Raph Rashid:I just kept shooting. I was meeting more people. It’s very natural for me—the shoots are very natural. It’s all about meeting the person and just letting them relax in their space. The photos are fairly unstyled. I was just interested in keeping going.
Walk me through what the process of one of the shoots is like. You ring Flying Lotus’ doorbell and then what happens?
Raph Rashid:So Flying Lotus, I remember he’d just gotten back from being on tour. He was still at his little apartment in L.A. I came in and he was like, “Dude, I’m just gonna be making some music,” and I was like “Cool. I’m just gonna be in the background, shooting some pictures,” and that’s about it. That usually takes an hour or so and I just try and work around the space. I don’t change anything. The studio is just how the studio is. So the photos of El-P, he’s got his socks on the floor and stuff [laughs]. And that’s how it is. That’s what I love about it. Some people might get dressed up or get their hair done, I don’t know. But it’s pretty natural. That’s the idea.
That’s what really stands out to me in the shots, how lived in the spaces look and all the mundane bits of life surrounding the music. The one where you can see the shelves in Oddisee’s kitchen, or all of Flylo’s little toys above his equipment.
Raph Rashid:It’s where these guys live, you know? I always tell them, “Don’t clean up,” or “Just clean up to what you want.”
My greatest goal for the book is that it inspires someone to grab something and make something. Grab whatever it is…a Nintendo, and make a beat on it. That’s the biggest aim. One of the initial impetuses was Shadow’s Endtroducing was made at home and sold half a million copies or whatever it was. It was made in his basement. I think that a lot of big hip-hop records were started at home. We get so caught up with new equipment and new technology, and it’s generally really, really good, but it’s more about the ideas. [These producers] found some synths, they found this sampler—better samplers have come out, but this is the one that worked for their brain or their pattern.
What were some common elements across the studios?
Raph Rashid:They all pretty much had turntables. They all really respected the vinyl, even if the DJ’s had gone on to use Serato or whatever. I think that was more of a convenience thing. They still loved that [vinyl] format. Everyone’s kinda computer based now. No one was that romantic about gear. They were more just like what I said, just trying to use what works for them. Most people were just set up in the most convenient location in their house. Whatever their spare room was, or even right there in the kitchen. I feel like the common thread was always, “This is where I was gonna put it. This is the space we had available so this is where it’s going.” Just unplanned. Spontaneous.
How about anything you saw in one studio that was particularly unique?
Raph Rashid:That guy Dabrye had a really old computer, which I thought was really interesting and it worked for his sound. I had never seen that thing before, this Sterling computer system thing.
What was the most memorable day of shooting?
Raph Rashid:When we went to Jazzy Jeff’s house. Just his hospitality. The way the day went—we hooked up with Kenny Dope and he was like, “Come to my apartment,” and he showed me all the gear. Then he was like, “Everything else is at my mom’s house,” so he took us to his mom’s house and we shot that. Then he was said, “You really gotta see Jazzy Jeff.” And I was like, “Yeah, but he lives three and a half hours from here.” He’s like, “Well, let’s just jump in the car.” I’d never met him before! [laughs] So him and DJ Spinner they just start driving.
Eventually, they call Jeff and tell him we’re an hour away and Jeff asks, “Are you gonna be hungry?” He cooked us this big fried chicken dinner and then we were photographing. That was a great experience. They’re all special. Just seeing Lord Finesse in his natural habitat. It’s all cool. Cool stuff.
What are some elements of your natural habitat that inform your own artistic practice?
Raph Rashid:Just my kids hanging around. My wife’s design studio is right where I work. A lot of food. And a lot of people just always around. A lot of food. A lot of reading and a lot of stories. I like to read.
Speaking of food, you started one of the first food trucks in Australia—a hip-hop themed burger-shack-on-wheels called Beatbox Kitchen. How’d it get started and how do hip-hop and food intersect for you?
Raph Rashid:When I was shooting this book I was always traveling and eating the whole time. I kept trying to find new places to eat and because the internet was just barely getting kicking, most of the recommendations I was getting were coming from friends and from the producers themselves. I’d always ask the guy, “Where’s your local burger spot? Where do you like to eat? Where do we go?” That always put me up on good spots and I got really obsessed with American comfort food.
But more so with the people. I’d always go to the more mom-and-pop style places. And some of the honesty in those places is fantastic. So I kind of got obsessed by burgers and tacos and I’d come back to Australia and be like, “Man I gotta do this burger shop. Because there’s not a burger shop [in Australia] like those.” But I’d just started my family. I had a small son. I needed something that I could pull out maybe once a week, you know? And a food truck works for that. You can run it when you want.
So I was like, “We gotta do this truck! I can see it and it looks like a big ghetto blaster!” [laughs] Beci [Rashid’s wife] did the artwork and we just stared the food truck. My idea was to just park at big music festivals because all my contacts are in music. So I just started parking at some of the major festivals and that just kept kicking. Now we have four food trucks and two little restaurants. The first Beatbox Kitchen restaurant opened at the start of this year. 2017. It grew out of the book project. These books, there’s no monetary gain really. It’s just trying to show something. And past inspiring someone, I hope these books will just be these timepieces from the era.
Everything’s kind of interweaved. It’s been pretty natural. It takes time, but if you’re happy with things happening organically—which can be frustrating; things change, seasons change, and time goes by—but I’ve always sort of said it’ll just happen as it happens, and that’s what I’ve tried to stick to.
Which is the hobby, photography or food?
Raph Rashid:I guess there’s parts of both that are both hobby and job. The job part of the book would be getting it published and making sure it comes out. Just seeing it through, you know? But the photography part is just pure. It’s a hobby. I just love it. Same with cooking. I’ll cook all day in the truck and then I’ll still come home and cook dinner. I just really enjoy that. But then there’s parts of that, that’s just like, “Aw shit this is really hard work,” [laughs]. The administration can just get next level. It’s not all fun. It can’t be. There’s gotta be a balance to any hobby.
Do you make playlists for the restaurants?
Raph Rashid:Yeah. They’ve all got a slightly different vibe. I like to do them with the guys who are working. Because my taste in hip-hop is different from the guys who are 22. I like if you can come in potentially as a forty-year-old guy and hear some things that you and I might like. But for the most part I want the guys who are working to be able to express themselves. I think that’s really important. A lot of these things can get a little contrived if it’s just one guy, like, controlling the music. I like to work with the guys.
Tell me a little about what Australian hip-hop culture is like.
Raph Rashid:It started off really, really pure because there was no audience. Then once there was an audience, a lot of people started making music for that audience, which started to get a bit questionable [laughs]. Then those guys who made that sort of style became a bit more commercial and didn’t really represent a hip-hop core anymore.
I think that the Australian scene is good in it’s purity. Everyone has great intentions and for the most part those who make the music now are pretty grounded by it. They’re not looking for commercial successes anymore if they’re not making it for the radio. The commercial guys will keep rolling and doing their festivals or whatever, but the guys who have always been there and new artists getting involved, it’s kind of just been for the heads. It’s cool like that.
What Australian artists would you recommend?
Raph Rashid:I really like this producer called Sensible J. And I featured one artist [in Back to the Lab] called Plutonic Lab. Just a really great producer. Probably my favorite [Australian] rapper is a guy called Remi. Great live show and great subjects. We’re very multi-cultural in Australia and a lot of cultures are starting to find their voice with rap music, which is good.
Do you think there’s a more inherently international perspective and an awareness of rap as a global movement in countries outside of the U.S.?
Raph Rashid:The thing with Australia is we always got music from everywhere. We got Japanese records. We got American records. U.K., Europe. People were always bringing them in because we didn’t have such a big scene, so we always needed more. So it was no thing to be playing a U.K. record.
But I was out in the U.K. finding people for the book. That’s how I found those guys and then I tried to just make the shoots happen. I think that more and more it’s becoming about your own backyard. And if you want to find out more you’re going to have to go and have a look for it. As people open up closer to you, you’ll probably gravitate towards them because they’re in your hood. I really like that, that idea of community. But yeah, if you want to find more you’re going to have to dig for it.
What’s next for you?
Raph Rashid:I’ll just keep rolling. Hopefully I just get to shoot some more guys, some more studios. I’ll keep rolling and see what happens. I think I definitely will continue to shoot studios and we’ll see. Something will click, something will happen and I’ll pour all my energy into it.