Radio DJ, presenter and music photographer Normski digs through his archives and takes us back to the beginning, telling the stories behind some of his rarest and best shots of hip-hop’s early icons.
Norman Anderson, better known as Normski, is a towering figure in the British music scene. Known to many as the presenter of BBC “youth TV” shows Dance Energy and Def2, he’s also a DJ and a prolific music photographer, and in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s he was documenting the rise of hip-hop, traveling around the US and the UK to snap pictures of a genre on the brink of world domination. From Big Daddy Kane and Flava Flav to Run-D.M.C. and Ice Cube, Normski was freezing frames from the first beat and building an archive that’s a treasure trove for hip-hop lovers. He also captured Detroit’s young techno innovators right at the beginning of their careers.
“Photography happened the same way as me coming into this world – you can blame my mum for that,” he jokes. “I’d stayed home from school one day at the age of about 12 because I wasn’t very well, and my mother thought it would be quite a good idea to spoil her son and cheer me up by taking me to this auction she’d seen in the newspaper. By the time we got there, the amazing shiny bike I had wanted was gone, all the toys were gone. One of the last items up for auction was a Kodak 126 Instamatic camera, which came with the flash bulb and one roll of film. I got the camera, but I went home fucking disappointed.”
The disappointment didn’t last long. Normski developed a talent that would eventually put him in high demand, gaining a reputation as one of the hardest working and most likeable professionals in the business. His photographs have appeared in i-D, Hip Hop Connection and The Face, and his subjects are as A-list as they come: Whitney Houston, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Gil Scott Heron, Public Enemy, Soul II Soul, LL Cool J, Rakim, Carl Craig, De La Soul and more.
Despite his reputation, he’s remarkably humble and has a gift for storytelling, as I found out when I asked him about some of his classic shots. Look out for Normski’s photographs in Hip-Hop Raised Me, DJ Semtex’s forthcoming book looking back on 40 years of hip-hop, due for publication in November.
“This is the first big hip-hop gig that I ever went to, UK Fresh at Wembley Arena, and these are all UK b-boy breakdancers from the scene. There’s a couple familiar faces in there. That’s Scottie in the middle, giving it large! He still breaks to this day up there on the stage. People always say to me, ‘What’s with the ski pants and stuff?!’ But that was just something that was the style at the time.”
“I met Chris Parker aka KRS-One back in the ‘80s a few times, but I think this was the first time up close after his Boogie Down Productions show at the Forum in Kentish Town. The afterparty was held in the West End at the legendary WAG club on Wardour Street. We were actually standing on the club’s staircase taking this photo, and as ever I had my portable flash light box with me to bring the light.”
Run-D.M.C. backstage at the Royal Albert Hall
“I got the chance to shoot Run-D.M.C. for the second time when I was presenting Dance Energy. Back then we would film two half-hour shows in one day, which would mean we would have the bands in two separate studios all day. So Run-D.M.C. were in one, and Pet Shop Boys were in the other.
“Pet Shop Boys came up to me and said they were such super fans of Run-D.M.C. and would it be possible to get a photo together, and I said, ‘Man, I’m sure they wouldn’t mind – and look, I have my camera with me. I’ll go over and ask them.’ So I ran over between takes and Run-D.M.C. were like, ‘Hell yeah, man, we love Pet Shop Boys!’ And like that, boom, I got that photo of the super-powerful hip-hop group Run-D.M.C. and the super-camp hit-making duo the Pet Shop Boys.”
“This is out in Detroit, in very early 1988. I went out there in a really amazing trip to take some photographs of the pioneers of Detroit techno. Again I’m flashing around. Hip-hop, techno, garage, it’s all happening now at once, you know.
“This one’s an early one, a shot of Carl Craig, one of the most famous producers and DJs from Detroit. He didn’t even have a table to put his decks on but he was on the floor in his little studio space and just cutting up some tunes.”
“This is going back to Derrick May, one of the main pioneers and guys from the whole Detroit techno sound. I took that a shot in my room at the Renaissance Hotel in Detroit using this really dodgy, really fine Polaroid slide film. I’ve just got a little desk lamp here and I’ve got him to hold it above his head and we’ve shot it as it was in natural light, moody as fuck.
“It was a real privilege to be around these guys at the beginning of the scene, their careers and mine, and Derrick May always makes sure to tell anyone that’s around, ‘You don’t know this guy Normski, this guy was the first black man we saw with a camera in Detroit! Because if anybody else in Detroit had a camera they’d get that shit stolen!’
“Back in 2012, Derrick told me he’s been taking pictures as well. He was like, ‘Yeah man, ever since I saw you taking pictures I was like, I wanna do what he does.’ I mean, who would’ve thought that I would’ve inspired a guy like that to start taking photos? That’s pretty fucking incredible.”
Chuck D & Flava Flav
“This is that American invasion moment. The first UK tour. Public Enemy were the underdog, playing support to LL Cool J and Eric B & Rakim, and they quickly became the best part of the tour and to this day have outlived all those rappers as artists.
“Chuck D and Flava Flav are dropping some ‘Fight the Power!’ and clocking time and stuff. It’s really early on and I love this live shot because it really captures the whole thing that they’re about. Chuck’s always shouting and Flav’s always got his back, and they’re rocking the whole tracksuit look.”
“Here’s one of Flava Flav leaning on this shitty old car with Tim Westwood sitting inside it, but I wasn’t interested in Tim!
“I love this photograph because I didn’t realise until years later that Flava Flav always had a plastic carrier bag with him. We found out that in that carrier bag he would have his weed, his toothbrush, toothpaste and some underarm deodorant and possibly a spare T-shirt, and he would never put it down! Flava Flav was always like this little kid off the street that Chuck took in under his arm.”
Kool Moe Dee
“This is one is from early ‘86, Kool Moe Dee at Battery Studios. I had people in the music industry now as friends. My mate Chuck Norman was sound engineer and there was another guy he knew that was doing a lot of great albums and stuff over at Battery Studios in Willesden. He was like, ‘You need to go up to the studio because there’s this rapper up there, Kool Moe Dee, and I reckon you should go try to get some pictures of him.’ I knew who Kool Moe Dee was so I jumped straight on the Underground.
“Straight away up there, straight away got on the ins and got five minutes with him, and that’s the shot I came out with. Again, five minutes is pretty average for me for a quick photo shoot. I don’t like to take up people’s time so I just get in there, use what’s around me, find shapes that work, and take the shot.”
“I always liked to get involved with the people and make them feel really big! This one’s at a festival, I just so happened to be hosting the stage, and it’s after I got on telly. It’s about 1993 and I basically just wanted to act like a spliff butt, because Cypress Hill was all about ‘smoking blunts, gettin’ high’ or whatever!
“So I said, ‘Stomp me out like a blunt,’ and I’m lying on my back underneath them. I’m like, ‘Bend at the waist,’ hoping that fat boy doesn’t bend forward because his belly would come out! He was like, ‘Fuck bending at my waist, I’m gonna look down.’ That actually got turned into a limited edition T-shirt that got sold.”
De La Soul
“Here’s De La in another one of those five minute sessions. First time they were playing a big gig, playing Brixton Academy in South London. I had a girlfriend at the time named Bliss, she was a DJ working at one of the pirate radio stations. She said to me, ‘De La Soul, we gotta go up there. I have an idea, you should get some daisies and take em up there, you know for D.A.I.S.Y. Age.’
“So I went up to Camden market and spent £1.50 on these really dry daisies, went up there, blagged some time, said I wanted to take some quick photos with the band. They told me they were just about to go on stage, and I said, ‘Don’t worry it will only take five minutes.’
“We’re actually in the back street area behind [the venue]. This is nighttime as well, so I’ve got my little soft box flash out, which is a difficult one as you have one bulb to light three faces. I did some shots with them and I go, ‘Guys, would you mind holding these,’ and I pull out the daisies and they’re like, ‘Not really! Why the fuck would we be holding daisies?’ And I was like, ‘You’re the D.A.I.S.Y. Age.’ They said cool, but you can see from their picture they’re not quite sure still.
“The second shot is literally a little tiny gap between the garage where we were standing in the first shot and the other building. Mate! Little did I know until they went in there that that’s where people would piss and shit!”
“I was sent to do a cover shot with Salt-N-Pepa, which I did on the stairs. I really love these shots. I only had a small contact sheet and only a couple of minutes with the girls but I somehow persuaded them to do something a bit different and said, ‘How about we get a shot in reverse, of you doing your makeup in the mirror?’
“That was quite something actually. Just me on my own with these three hot, horny American girls in the bathroom taking pictures.”
“Here we are with the Demon Boyz. These guys were the epitome of raggamuffin style, totally on the reggae tip. They got a record deal and they wanted me to shoot the album cover up north at their end. I didn’t know the location until I got there, but it was Broadwater Farm Estate in Tottenham, about three weeks after the riots. Despite the importance of that, it didn’t have too much to do with the photograph, but there was definitely a feeling that things were still a bit tense and on edge.
“The thing I find hilarious about this shot is that when they were asked if they wanted any props for the shoot, they just wanted a car. I was thinking it would be some bad boy American car or a BMW or something, but at that time the car to have was the Ford Cosworth, the reason being that the police used Ford Cosworths. So the only way you could outrun the police was in a car that they had. It was an RS [rally sport] as well!
“The fact that my mate who looked like a policeman and was a white brother was driving it – because he had the right insurance – was a tricky one, because they didn’t like the look of him. But we got through it!”
“Derek B one of the biggest rappers from early on. He established a lot for the UK hip-hop scene by being the first person to be signed on an international deal.
“I’m in rock photographer Jill Furmanovsky’s studio here. She took a real shine to me and I used to often hire her studio when I needed a space. Funnily enough, in that shot he’s wearing my puffer jacket because he didn’t have one, and also he’s wearing a baseball cap that looked so bad when he wore it that I had to turn it around. He’s unfortunately passed away now.”
“This is Dr. Dre the moment before his gig kicked off and he started playing. He pulled everyone out that was a press photographer or a press person and shouted them down, because they got a lot of bad press when N.W.A. came out. So he pointed at everyone and gave them a really hard time.
“Then he stopped and pointed at me and said, ‘You, who the fuck are you man?’ And I said really loud, ‘My name’s Normski, I work for Hip-Hop Connection,’ and everyone in Brixton Academy just went ‘Boom! Boom!’ and that was such a proud moment! He said, ‘Ah, you alright then,’ and I got the thumbs up from Dr. Dre.”
“This is a contact strip of Ice Cube. It was taken outside his mother’s house in Los Angeles after he’d left N.W.A., on the promise that we’d interview him and we wouldn’t talk to the band, because he didn’t want to badmouth the band and the band was badmouthing him. Someone took a shot at him, and there was all this internal politics bullshit.
“Saying that, right after we took the shots of Ice Cube, we took off across town and were with the rest of the band, where I then proceeded to take photographs of them and even said, ‘Of course we’re not talking to Ice Cube, we wouldn’t do that to you guys and the band.’ So the camera never lies, but sometimes the photographer does!”
“I love this picture because here’s Roxanne Shante, renowned for her bad mouth and her heavy lyrics, and there are two beautiful sides to this shot. Number one, she’s 14 in that picture – she’d never left Queens, where she’s from in New York, and all of a sudden she’s in England.
“Number two, the only reason they let her come on the tour was if she did three hours of school studies a day. This is in 1988, and today she’s a fully qualified prosecution lawyer.”
Big Daddy Kane
“1988. It’s the Cold Chillin Tour. Juice Crew Allstars had come over and at the time Daddy Kane was a huge, huge rapper, like one of the baddest rappers that ever existed and come from America, and this was the first time they were over here in the UK.
“My hustle game was on point, and I stayed around after one of their shows and the guys wound up inviting me to come along and hang out and take pictures at their next gig.”
“Here’s a shot of MC Lyte, it’s the ‘80s and this is at the Astoria on Charing Cross Road. There was a lot of girls back on the scene back then, but sadly not that many on the stage. You had She Rockers busting out the dance moves and Cookie Crew here in the UK, then you had Monie Love, Queen Latifah, Roxanne Shante from America.”
“One more from the sleepy train I guess you could call it. Here’s Biz Markie fast asleep. He’s snoring with these giant headphones on. You know he even snored like a beatboxer! If you look you see in front of him this pile of CDs. He had Elton John in there, Billy Joel.
“Of course I’ve got other shots of them rapping and doing their thing, but I just loved the idea of being in the right place and seeing these guys, who always play it so hard and cool when they’re on stage, showing this human side, that they do sleep and they are normal people.”