“I’ll Forego All that Shit if J Dilla Was Still with Us”: An Interview with B+

Lara Gamble chats with legendary rap photographer B+ about his many stories shooting rap's biggest names.
By    February 20, 2018

In early 2016, photographer Brian “B+” Cross had all of his gear stolen. Those tools, which captured every perfect moment, were estimated to have been worth around $10,000. Luckily, an online crowdfunding campaign created by artists he’d worked with and inspired over the years enabled him to replace everything. You know that photo of your favorite rapper? There’s a distinct possibility it’s a B+ original.

After moving from his hometown of Limerick, Ireland to Los Angeles in 1990, B+ became immersed in American culture. While studying photography at the California Institute of the Arts, he wrote It’s Not About A Salary: Rap, Race, and Resistance in Los Angeles. The book would earn him the respect of the hip-hop community and paved the road for what would become quite the illustrious career. That’s his iconic photo on the cover of DJ Shadow’s Entroducing. And B+ is also responsible for one of RapPages’ most recognizable covers with ODB’s reenactment of Janet Jackson’s unforgettable Rolling Stone appearance.

This would also serve as the impetus for his work with Mochilla partner, Eric Coleman. B+ and Coleman would collaborate to put out Keepintime: Talking Drums and Whispering Vinyl, a short film inspired by an idea to introduce well-respected L.A. session drummers to well-known hip-hop DJs and producers. The follow-up, Brasilintime: Batucada Com Discos, brought artists from L.A. like Cut Chemist, Madlib, and their drummers to Brazil and connected them with like-minded Brazilian musicians. These documentaries helped show a different side of hip-hop and highlighted its ability to defy stereotypes and break through borders.

I learned of his latest book Ghost Notes: Music of the Unplayed late last year on Stones Throw’s website and was able to snag a copy on pre-order. B+ has been asked about the meaning behind the enigmatic title on numerous occasions, and when speaking with The New Yorker at the end of 2017, he explained that “the term ghost note comes from musical composition…and refers to ‘the unplayed sounds that exist between hits in a rhythm.’”

I was able to schedule a phone call with B+ in between his lectures on film and photography at UCSD and him jetting off to finish shooting footage of Robert Glasper’s new supergroup (Glasper, Karriem Riggins, Common) August Greene. He has a discernible brogue but could definitely pass for a West Coast native with his chill tone and laidback lingo while recalling the stories that make up his latest offering. —Lara Gamble

What’s your earliest memory of hip-hop?

B+: Let me see. I think probably seeing Sugar Hill Gang on Top of the Pops. Something like that. Ireland ‘79. I remember seeing an Irish TV story about breakdancing in Ireland way back in the day, like ‘80 or ‘81. It’s all very far away and vague now, I have to be honest.

I read that you moved from Ireland to LA to attend the California Institute of the Arts. Can you remember who or what initially sparked your passion for photography?

B+: Yeah, I started making photographs in Ireland at the National College of Art and Design in the ’80s. And, to be honest, it was all photographers that were working out of New York in the art world in the ’80s like Cindy Sherman [and] people like Barbara Krueger who wasn’t really a photographer. Ideas folks, you know?

That’s really what drove me to photography. I liked the instantaneity of it. I liked the reproducibility of it. The non-preciousness of it. The sort of democratic nature of it, as an object. That’s really how it started for me. It didn’t really start as a kind of commitment to like, lens-based culture or anything. It was more about kinds of ideas, to be honest.

What is it about hip-hop and the culture that has inspired so many stunning images in your portfolio?

B+: I had many people, or at least I’d like to think many people, of my generation who had a kind of cultural epiphany sometime between ’85, ’86, and ’88, ’89. It was sort of in its infancy in the first ten or fifteen years [and] was clearly the most important thing that happened since punk rock. Of course, we were to realize afterwards, it was the most important thing that had happened, perhaps since World War II.

It was to do with a lot of things. It was the collision of a lot of things. You know, to do with appropriation and collage and montage through sampling. It was to do with history. It was to do with kind of nation building in some kind of abstract sense. The immediacy of it. The brutality and honesty of it. The criticality of it. Those were all things that were all kind of compelling and interesting to me.

And what kind of sealed the deal then was that I came to San Francisco, at least I came to the U.S. for the first time, in the sort of late spring of ’88. I went to San Francisco and was living in the Mission District, and nothing I had seen on TV or in the movies or, you know, the sort of plethora of American popular culture, in terms of music, or anything had prepared me for the reality of the Mission District in San Francisco the way hip-hop did. It was the only thing that explained what was happening in the Mission at that time.

And I feel like West Coast hip-hop, at that time, was very different from what was happening on the East Coast.

B+: Yeah, I remember going to New York on that visit, and it was even more crazy actually. I remember being in Brooklyn and walking through Brooklyn one night and seeing a whole street of just cars with people just trying to make money for crack and doing all kinds of other shit, mostly sexual acts to get money together to smoke crack. It was shocking. I mean, Ireland was going through its own thing in the ’80s as well, but it was the sort of reality on the ground of American urban centers at the height of the crack epidemic.

I had a very close friend actually at art school in Ireland who went to New York and was working moving furniture, which is kind of the same thing that I was doing, who fell victim to the crack epidemic. His parents had to go get him, and he never really came home. It was horrible. And hip-hop spoke to that directly head-on.

So, people like Schoolly D and KRS-One and Chuck D and Ice Cube—those were all profoundly influential figures on my cultural life in that period. Of course, I didn’t think that the wall between my artwork and those figures was about to come crashing down. I didn’t anticipate that at all. So, that was another story.

Your new project Ghost Notes: Music of the Unplayed was released last month. Can you tell us a little about your process with its creation?

B+: Yeah, I mean, I’m from the analog school, so I spent the last sort of last twenty-five years of my life shooting film, and I never really looked back. I mean, I had boxes of prints, stuff that I printed for different things or extras or doubles or whatever. And I had prints that obviously were sitting here, but I had never digitized anything. And, basically, I have a long relationship with the street artist Banksy.

Yeah, I saw that you were involved with Exit Through the Gift Shop. Dope documentary.

B+: Yeah, I like it, too. I hated shooting it, but I like it as a film. But he stayed at my house when he first came to Los Angeles in 2002, and I had this painting that he gifted me.

Wait, Banksy stayed at your house? Very cool.

B+: Yeah, it was cool. And, it was through me and another woman that he ended up coming to LA the first time. This painting, anyway, was just increasing in value and increasing in value, and my father was getting more and more freaked out like, “Someone’s going to break in and steal it! You don’t fucking lock your windows! What the fuck are you doing with this thing?” And so I wrote to Banksy and said, “You know, I have this painting, and there’s a few things I need to fix in my life. Would you be mad if I sold it?” And he was like, “No, not at all. Just sort out the authentication thing.”

And then, whatever, I ended up selling it. I took a little bit of that money and went off and bought a really expensive scanner and put some money aside to pay for my assistant to help me and started. And that was in 2012. And then we scanned like 4,500 images.

Wow. How long did that take?

B+: Yeah, we went fucking crazy. A year and a half? Two years? Something like that. And then I started fucking around. I was kind of fucking around with it since we started. I just started mucking around putting images together, which is something I had always done, something I had been doing since the mid-‘90s, really.

I would always have these images that would never get used or that wouldn’t fit the story or something I noticed on the way to do the shoot or whatever. And I would always make these little books where I would cut up the proof sheets and make these little stories for myself. A few times, starting in ’97, I made exhibits, and around that time is when I came up with the name.

So, basically, about almost two years ago, I had a version of that book, which was around 400 pages. And the guy, David Hamrick from T Press, reached out with a cold email, actually, that just said, “Hey, I’ve taken over here. You should do a book.” And I wrote back, “Well, as it turns out…”

I’d been kind of fishing around for somebody to publish it and hadn’t been having too much luck. There were people interested, but they wanted me to…the way the photo books go now…they wanted me to pay for it.

Like self-publishing?

B+: I mean, not so much self-publish, but they do a deal with you where they’ll distribute for you, you put up half the money to make the thing, and then it’s kind of you take half the risk, and they take half the risk. And I was just like, man, I just did all this work buying the fucking scanner and paying for it and shit.

Anyway, David came along and saved the day, and I’m very happy in the end with a number of things that they contributed. There were a number of things, like the size of the book, which came from discussions with him. So, yeah, that’s what happened. There’s a number of things that I kind of, sort of protocol, that I put into place. I didn’t want it to be a greatest hits.

There are a number of photos that aren’t in there that are important images that I think that I’ve made over the years. And I wanted it to make sense from end to end, so that if you didn’t know who all the people were, which I dare say, most people that have seen the book don’t know who all the people are, it would still, in its own way, make sense in the eye, you know? So, I really struggled to make sure that that happened. I mean, that was something that was really important. And then I also wanted it to make sense [like] a crate of records does in some weird way.

There are over two hundred shots that made the cut. What about those that didn’t? Were there any notable last-minute replacements?

B+: There’s a photograph of Questlove that didn’t make it. There’s a photograph of Quantic that didn’t make it. There’s a photograph of ODB that didn’t make it. There are a fucking ton of photographs that are photographs I really love.

There’s a great photograph of all the Soul Assassins crew in the building, you know, in the Peterson Museum the week before Biggie was assassinated outside it, which didn’t make it. You know, it was five hundred fucking photos, so there were a lot of things that had to eat it.

And there were things that went away and then came back. Like, the Timmy Thomas photo went away for a while, and then it came back because of Drake. I’m gonna say it. To me, that was just goofy. It was like, “Oh, I just have to put it in there.”

Kendrick kind of gave me the ending. Like, I didn’t have an ending for a long time. And then, To Pimp A Butterfly really informed how the ending came about. [It] kind of circled back to Thundercat and to Kendrick and feeling like in some fucking weird historical way kind of vindicated that it was absolutely okay to have photos from Good Life and Fellowship. Even though you may be outside of LA, not that many people would know who that was but that was important. It was important to me. But there was, yeah, I mean, fuck, there were a lot of photos that didn’t make it that I, yeah, bellyache over.

Your first book, It’s Not About A Salary, was nominated as Best Book of Year by Rolling Stone and NME and Vibe both have it listed as one of the top-ten hip-hop books of all time. How do you feel about the attention Ghost Notes has already received?

B+: It’s such a different world. It’s twenty-five years this year. I was making a joke that I’m slower at making records than Cut Chemist, and that’s pretty bad. I did his Bay Area show two weeks ago, and I was just like, “Dude, what’s up with your record? Why is it taking so long?” But, you know, it’s an entirely different world.

I think at that time, the sort of cultural politics were different. It was kind of a shock for me at the time. The kind of attention that it got. There were a lot of folks not trying to hear what the book was about, really. It was a kind of an antagonistic moment in hip-hop, really. It was a kind of culture-defining period, I think, the early ’90s.

A little controversial.

B+: Yeah, I think there was a lot of cultural-nationalism involved. Shadow talks a little bit about this as well, which is that The Source at that time was busy trying to sort of say, “Well, hip-hop is this, and hip-hop isn’t this.” That kind of stuff. And I certainly was very engaged in those kinds of arguments as well at the time, and the book kind of fell into that category.

It’s a weird book, too. It’s part kind of academic, it’s part photo story, and then part oral history. There’s not that many books like that, you know? Or, at least, there certainly weren’t at that time. And so, it was different. And Ghost Notes, I have to be honest, I didn’t know what was going to happen. I try not to think too hard about that kind of stuff ‘cause it kind of paints the way you think about the project. And I didn’t want to kind of, “Oh, well if I have the photo of ‘so and so’ in there, that means I’ll be able to be on this blog.” Or some bullshit.

I wasn’t trying to think in those terms. And to be honest, the response has been pretty fucking great. Obviously, a lot of the fucking veterans really came out hard and supported. Even today, Danny Hastings is like, “Buy the fucking book. It’s going to be in my bio for the next two weeks. Pick one up.”

I love the shot of Mos Def/Yasiin Bey with the Brooklyn Bridge in ’99. My husband was commenting about the twin towers.

B+: Yeah, well, I shot the photos for Black on Both Sides, but I didn’t shoot the cover. It was me waiting outside. He lived inside the building that’s behind us. He lived right there in Dumbo, and I was waiting for him for hours to come out, and he wouldn’t come out. He was doing some shit. And then, when he came out, it had just rained, and there was just this fucking stunning sunset. And I was like, “Duuuuude, let’s just walk down here really quick.”

And then, that night, him and Talib were playing in Virginia, opening up for Outkast, and I said, “Look, I’ll just fucking go to Virginia with you. We’ll figure it out.” So, we went to Richmond, Virginia, and we got lost on the way. They ended up closing the show for Outkast, as opposed to opening for Outkast.

That’s amazing.

B+: Yeah, it was too crazy. And the following day, we did a bunch of photos around Richmond, which ended up being the photos used for press and inside the record. But he had this idea for the record. You know, Black On Both Sides was meant to be the inside of his hands and the outside of his hands, which were very different colors. And he had seen these photographs I had made of The Pharcyde’s hands, and he was like, “Dude, this is what I want.” And I was like, “Dude, those are my photos.” And he was like, “Oh, shit! Well, then, you’re the right guy to work with.”

And so, we did the photos, and then the folks at the label were like, “Dude, we wanted photos of the front of his face and the back of his head. That’s what we want.” And by then I was already back in LA, and they didn’t want to pay for me to come back out. So, somebody else shot it.

Can I bother you for a Dilla story as well? I only recently learned that you’ve taken most of my favorite photos of him.

B+: That’s very sweet. Raph has some really great ones as well. For some reason, I didn’t feel that compelled to photograph him when he got very sick, and it was because I kind of got burnt a little bit by photographing him for the Jaylib cover. And then they ended up pushing back the record because they were so disturbed by the photos when they saw them.

And, of course, now those are the photos that everybody knows of Dilla. But at the time, for those who knew him, those photos were disturbing in that he looked different, you know, he looked sickly. So, it’s a very strange one. It was a very physically challenging disease that he was suffering from. It really affected his look. I don’t know. I have loads of stories.

What was the first encounter you had with him?

B+: The first encounter I had with Dilla is an interesting one, and it’s a photo that he wouldn’t be in. I was asked by the people at Delicious Vinyl to go photograph The Pharcyde in the studio making Labcabincalifornia because Diamond D was coming out to make a beat with them. So, I went to the studio. I remember where it was. I don’t remember the name of the studio, but it was in Hollywood.

Of course, you know The Pharcyde were like LA’s favorite sons. Them and the Freestyle Fellowship. The rumors were that the new record was going to be with The Ummah, meaning A Tribe Called Quest. Of course, in the end, it ended up being with this dude that none of us had heard of from Detroit.

So, I went to the studio and was hanging out and taking photographs of Diamond D and made some photos with him outside. I remember there was this other kid there who fucking didn’t say shit all day and didn’t want to be in the photos and was just a kid. He was a very young guy, and nobody really introduced me to him.

And, yeah. I found out afterwards, and I went back and looked at my photos to see if I caught him even in the background of any of those photos, but I didn’t. Yeah, that was Dilla.

Can I ask about the photo of him digging with Madlib?

B+: That’s in São Paolo. That’s a good story. Basically, we had made Keepintime, and we had gotten invited to this film festival in São Paolo, and they wanted Madlib to play to close the festival. And so, of course, Otis, as always, was fucking up for it. If there’s digging in Brazil involved, those are totally the magic words for him. So, he was super down.

But then we were like, “Yo, dude. If you’re gonna fucking rap, you can have somebody come with you and DJ.” And he was like, “Oh, yeah. That’s true.” And in the back of our minds, of course, me and Eric [Coleman], we were like, “Oh, dude. He should invite Dilla. It’d be so dope.”

We were still in the process of making Brasilintime, and Dilla was the first one to properly sample a Brazilian record, which is for “Runnin” by The Pharcyde, which is a João Gilberto record with Stan Getz. But it’s a Brazilian song. The lyrics are in Portuguese. The song is called “Saudade Vem Correndo.”

So, in the back of our minds, we were like, “Dude, let’s get him.” So, we said it to [Madlib], and he was like, “Okay, I’ll call him.” So, he called him, and then, of course, Dilla was like, “Fuck yeah. I wanna go.” And so, yeah, two weeks later we were on a Copa Airlines flight to Brazil.

And, you know, I have to be honest, when we saw Dilla come out to the van on the way to the airport, we were all kind of like, “Oh, fuck.” He looked really emaciated, and his clothes looked way too big on him, and he was in that part of the cycle of the illness.

And so anyways, we get halfway to Brazil, and he tells us he has an ounce of weed taped to his fucking crotch. And we’re just like, “Oh my God, dude.” So bad. So, for the first couple of days, Dilla didn’t leave the room. And then on the third day, I think, we had him out of the room, and we got him down to a place very close to where we were staying. Actually, to this record store, a kind of famous one, Discomania. And he went digging. He and Otis went digging. Took those photos. Took that photo.

We went back to the room, and then that’s where he told us, “Yo, I got the Hulk hand.” One of his hands was completely fucking swollen, like to the point where it was huge. It was fucking massive. He was supposed to go digging that afternoon. He didn’t go. And then the following day, which was the day before the show, a producer for the show arrived. And for whatever reason, he felt more comfortable telling her about this problem than he felt telling us.

So, I was with Otis doing some kind of TV show. I remember promoting the festival and the show. And my phone started blowing up, and they were like, “We took Dilla to the hospital. You need to get here. This is really serious.” So, we went to the hospital, and there was a doctor there who spoke perfect English who was just like, “What the fuck are you guys doing? This guy should not be out of the country. He could have died on the way here. This is really serious.”

And that’s when they told us that he had TTP. We all knew about Lupus, but we didn’t really know about Lupus. We knew that he had it. We didn’t really know what it was. The doctor said, “He has Lupus, of course. But he also has TTP.” And TTP is like an immune disorder.

Right, it’s a blood disorder.

B+: Right, but it’s foodborne, so you get it from food poisoning. He had gotten really bad food poisoning in Europe on tour with Slum Village. And it’s the opposite of AIDS in the sense that AIDS makes your white blood cell count drop dramatically, and then your immune system goes into failure, whereas TTP makes your kidneys overproduce white platelets, and it basically fucking destroys your kidneys.

And so, the interesting thing was for all his fucking madness, Dilla just wasn’t having this at all. And then the doctor kind of stood firm and said, “Listen, James. I don’t think you’re taking this seriously enough. I’m not going to release you from the hospital. I’m not comfortable with the idea of you out wandering around São Paolo, and I’m not comfortable with the idea that you’re not getting care. So, here’s the deal. I can check you into this hospital.” It was a very good hospital, Clinicas. It’s a very famous hospital in São Paolo. “I can check you into this hospital. My friend runs the TTP department. We have TTP here. He is one of the fucking best doctors in all of South America. He will heal you. Get your mom.”

And me and Otis were like, “Dude, we’ll fucking fly down Madukes! We can just fuckin’ chill.” Dilla just was like, “Nuh uh. I need my weed. I need to get the fuck out.” So, the doctor said, “The only way I’m going to release you from this hospital is if you get on an ambulance flight back to the US.” And Dilla was like, “Well, that’s it then. I’m getting an ambulance flight back to the US.”

So, me and Otis ended up having to pay for the ambulance flight, which was a lot of money. Whatever money I was getting paid, it was pretty much, that was it. Otis, I think, still had some money left to buy records, but it was a proper dent. We all got in the van. We went off and got him his weed. We all went in the van. We all drove with him to the airport.

I remember Eric, my partner in Mochilla, he was in the hospital since the day before because he had this kind of weird stomach thing that had been going on for years and had a recurrence the day before, so he was gone as well. So, me and Otis brought Dilla to the airport, put his ass in a wheelchair, and then they wheeled him onto the American Airlines flight back to the fucking US where he was gonna be met at LAX by an ambulance.

And, I don’t know, man. It was the last time I saw Dilla alive, actually. And that’s the fucking God’s honest truth. After that, I talked to him a bunch of times on the phone, but I never actually saw him. And, I have to be honest, I don’t like saying this, but I did carry a kind of fucking anger towards him because I felt like he wasn’t taking it seriously enough.

So, after I went back, I tried a few things to make the intervention. I tried to get people to be like, “Listen, dude. This is fucking really serious. This doctor in Brazil told us you could die.” You know, it was just another level of seriousness. You know what I mean? The guy’s 32. You don’t think about people who are 32…he wasn’t even 32. He was 31. You don’t think of people that are 31 years old as people that are gonna die. At least I didn’t, at that time.

And this guy was really serious. The medical system down there is no joke. It was very good, and I took the guy seriously. I was worried. I was kind of shook. I felt responsible. And if there was a real danger in this man traveling, why the fuck didn’t we know? God forbid something would have happened to him on our watch. That’s what I was thinking.

I did a few things. I had some ideas of things that could be done to help heal his kidneys. That was the other thing. He’d get discharged from fucking Cedars, and then he’d come home and start drinking Hennessy and eating pizza. And, I was kind of like, “Dude, you ain’t gonna fucking heal this drinking Hennessy and eating pizza. This is like some real life shit. You’ve gotta change your fucking diet. You’ve gotta heal yourself.”

Anyway, after I had an opportunity to listen to Donuts in depth and to really think about it…it was called Dill Withers first. I don’t know if you know that.

I do.

B+: That’s what it was called first. And so, I remember seeing it and being like, “What the fuck? Is he tripping, dude? Why is he calling it Dill Withers? He’s telling us what’s gonna happen!” I think there weren’t too many of us that were thinking in those terms, but after the Brazil experience, I really felt like this was really serious, and I was worried. Anyway, you know what happened. You know, then he fucking died.

And, it’s funny ‘cause he had that message on his machine forever, like, “I’m out…to Brazil.” Some shit like that. And it said that shit forever. Madukes told us it was one of those things that he had wished for his entire life, to have the opportunity to go to Brazil. And we made that happen. She was super thankful for that, and she knows that we looked after him when we were there.

I was talking at City Lights bookstore with Jeff Jank a few weeks ago, and I was saying to people, “I don’t know. Dilla. Fuck, man. I’ll forego Donuts. I’ll forego all the damn photos. I don’t give a fuck. I’ll forego The Shining. I’ll forego all that shit if the muthafucka was still with us.” I miss the dude. You know what I’m saying?

I hate February for that reason. Because it gives me a reason to remember somebody that, just as a person, was a fucking compelling and amazing fucking person. To speak of the talent, of course, for a lot of us, man, that was hip-hop. For a lot of years, for those of us that were into beats, for a good ten years there, he was the dude to watch. Obviously, we all were checking for [Madlib] or Premo or Pete Rock or Just Blaze, you know, whatever, all the other dudes.

But Dilla was his own thing. There was a kind lyricism in his music and a kind of emotional power in his music that other folks would reach on certain things, but not everything they did had it. And for him, it seemed like almost everything he did had it. And so, I miss that. I miss that in the music. I miss him as a person. He was a very unique, funny dude. Complicated guy, really complicated. The talent didn’t come easy. It was complicated, you know.

But yeah, in the end, one of the great tragedies of our generation, really, that we lost Dilla. In the end, with something that ultimately was curable. Ultimately, I don’t believe he should have died from that shit. In the end, I think he chose to die. I think that 33 1/3 is right. So, yeah. There’s my five cents.

Wow, well, thanks for sharing that. What’s next for you? The book’s out. What’s 2018 looking like for B+?

B+: The book’s out. 2018, I’m working on this August Greene project.

Oh, shit. I’m so into that. I actually interviewed Karriem last year and got to meet him at the Common album release party, and he’s the dude.

B+: Dope. He’s great. Riggins is a great guy. So, I’m working on that right now. I did the photos for it, and then I’m doing the video and possibly will do the next video. I’m kind of in shock a bit ‘cause it’s kind of come out of nowhere.

I was working on the new Kamasi Washington record, and we were shooting in central California. And on the job, Karriem called me, and I just thought it was a social call ‘cause me and Karriem are homies, too. So I was just like, “Wassup, Karriem? What’s going on, man?” And he was like, “Aw, man. There’s this new project, man, and I want you to do the photos.” And I was all, “Oh, dope.” And he said, “Nah, it’s with Glasper and Common.” And I was like, “Oh, okay.” He was like, “Common’s gonna call you in a minute.” And I kind of was like, “Yeah right.” I was like, “Yeah, sure, dude. Okay, yeah. No problem.” So, what’s up? Common called me like ten minutes later.

Had you ever worked with him before?

B+: You know, I must have met him probably a hundred times. He came up to us at Dilla’s removal services. He came up to me, and he said, “You did that photo with the young fellow jumping into the ocean in Cuba?” And I was like, “Yup.” And he was like, “You know, he kept that behind his drum machine the last few months before he died. It was right in front of his drum machine. He would look at that every day when he would make beats.”

And I was kind of in shock because, I don’t know if you know, it’s the beginning of Chapter 2 or Side B of Ghost Notes, but that photo is a very strange photo because it’s one of these things where I absolutely caught the kid in between—

In midair…

B+: Yeah, there’s no way for him to go back. He’s clearly headed to the water, but he’s not in the water. He’s in midair. He’s in the air. And so, he’s in transition between states, if you want to say. And I printed the photo originally for a benefit. There was a huge tsunami in Indonesia, I think, I’m talking like the late ’90s, early 2000s. And it ended up being the flyer for that benefit, and then they ended up selling a large print of it at the show.

So, I had a couple of extras, and when Dilla was recovering in the hospital, Egon asked me, he was like, “That fucking hospital is so grim, dude. Do you have any photos that we can put up on the wall?” And I was like, ‘Yeah, like what?” And he was like, “I don’t know. Like photos of Lalo Schiffrin and David Axelrod. Stuff like that will cheer Dilla up. He’ll wake up and look at them dudes and get cheered up.” So, I was like, “Yeah, I do.” I was trying to think of things that would kind of get him out a little, get him out of his [head] altogether. And I was like, “I have this, you know. It’s a really big print.” And he was all, “That’s beautiful, man. I’ll bring it to him.”

I remember going to visit him in the hospital and seeing it on the wall. I didn’t realize, because I never went by the house. Me and Eric, we didn’t even go by the house after the fucking removal, to be honest, when everyone was there like Questlove and Chappelle and all of them. I’m a fucking Irish man, and unless I’m directly invited, I’m not one of these guys that just shows up like, “Yeah, I knew him! Yeah, what’s up?” I’m not that person. I respect the family.

So, we went home. We didn’t go there. Common came up to me at the [removal services] and said, “That photo meant a lot to him.” And then I asked Common, “What’d you make of that photo?” And he was like, “You know what that photo’s about?” And I was like, “I do.” I was kind of scared to give him the photo to be honest with you ‘cause I didn’t want him to think…

And this was way before the whole Brazil thing. This was when he had come out of the coma a year before we went to Brazil. And I was actually scared to give him the photo because in some weird respect, the photo’s about death. You know, it was one of those things where you kind of pause a little bit, and you be like, “He’s not gonna take it like that. He ain’t that deep. He’s just gonna appreciate the photo of the young fella diving. It’ll be fine.”

So, I was like, “Fuck it.” I gave it to him. He knew exactly what the fucking photo was about. That’s what he was looking at when he was making fucking Donuts, man.

And so, you know, for me, there’s a crazy irony to a lot of this stuff. It’s funny too ‘cause at the time, I remember in the Facebook or Myspace days, I remember posting that photo, and I was like, “Dilla loved this.” And people thought it was Dilla in the fucking photo. It’s so not Dilla, dude. It’s this kid in Cuba diving off The Malecón. It’s got nothing to do with Dilla at all, but he liked the photo.

So, yeah, August Greene, working on that. There are a few things I’m working on as far as just projects that artists I’ve been associated with over the years have coming out like Kamasi and people like this. Quantic stuff.

But the bigger project really is that sometime between now and the summer when it’s quieted down a bit, I want to start assembling a lot of the footage that I’ve been shooting. This [book] is made up of outtakes, if you will, of the photos over the last sort of twenty-five years. Well, I’ve been shooting video for almost fifteen years.

I have this sort of dream to make Ghost Notes as a feature-length kind of experience, basically. It’ll be different in a sense. You know, obviously there are lots of places I went to that we didn’t shoot. There are lots of places that I went and took photos that we didn’t shoot. But then there are also places that I shot video that I didn’t shoot photos. So, I want to make that happen.

It could be one of those classic [cases] where you interviewed me in like 2001, and I was talking about Ghost Notes, and it took until 2017 for it to come out. But, I don’t think it’s going to take that long. I have more access to resources here. As a tenured professor, it’s easier to make things happen a little bit.

I’m sure you have to find a team to put that together.

B+: I have a team. It’s just a matter of making sure that the team doesn’t go hungry.

Buy the book here.

We rely on your support to keep POW alive. Please take a second to donate on Patreon!