From Kool Herc to Kendrick Lamar, Hip Hop History Unfolds Through the Lens of B+
Though not everyone will be familiar with the name, there’s barely a soul left in hip hop who hasn’t encountered his work at some point. Photographer Brian Cross, better known as B+, has been a staple of L.A. hip hop for decades, as evidenced by his new book Ghostnotes. The 336-page tome has been years in the making, and offers a mesmerizing look at the music that drives its author, with photos of everyone from Kool Herc to Kendrick Lamar.
B+ was born in Limerick, Ireland, which he calls “a quite rural, quite inward-looking community at that time” in the book’s foreword. That actually fostered his love for music and arts, as those were “a way to imagine the rest of the world somehow.” In 1990, B+ moved to Los Angeles to study at CalArts. Three years later he published his first book of photography: It’s Not about a Salary: Rap Race and Resistance in Los Angeles, which portrayed his adopted hometown’s rap scene and the unrest therein, following the Rodney King riots.
Most music fans however, will know his work from the countless album covers he has shot for artists like Mos Def, Company Flow, Blackalicious, Damian Marley, Madlib and many, many others. Especially important to his career was his cover to DJ Shadow’s classic debut album Endtroducing…, a shot that wasn’t staged but perfectly conveyed the feeling of digging in a record store. “As soon as I shot it, I knew this was it,” B+ says in his amicable Irish lilt, which almost three decades of life in Los Angeles hasn’t managed to subdue.
Those kind of snapshot moments, which convey the emotions connected to music, became a hallmark of his work in the following years. They can be found throughout the book, but not in chronological order, as one might expect. Rather than plainly cataloguing his work, B+ laid out hundreds of photos he made over the past 25 years, and arranged them into a narrative structure.
“It’s really good to hear people are picking up on that,” he says, explaining the absence of captions on the pages themselves. “They’d be too distracting from the narrative. I want people to form most of those connections first.” If they feel lost, however, the back pages do contain the photos again in miniature, with accompanying text stating who or what is portrayed, and where.
The book is divided into an A-side and B-side, but the idea of a narrative already becomes apparent in a prologue of sorts. A portrait of the Incredible Bongo Band’s King Errisson sits next to a photo of the insides of his hands; the same hands that provided the Caribbean conga-flavor on “Apache,” which would become a cornerstone of hip hop when a new generation of artists started sampling the record.
On the next page, one spread shows a sound system crew fixing equipment somewhere amongst the lush greens of the Jamaican jungle. Following the Jamaican scenes is a photo similar to his famous DJ Shadow cover shoot: various people digging through boxes and crates of vinyl at a vinyl market. But the digger in the left corner isn’t just any connoisseur of records; it’s none other than the Jamaican-born DJ who would father the hip hop genre after moving to New York: DJ Kool Herc. Recognizing the connective tissue between the images as you leaf through the book lifts the whole experience up.
“With a gap of maybe a year or two years, I’ve pretty much been working on Ghostnotes,” the author says. “I’ve been shooting it since 1991 but I’ve been working on it as a book since 2012.”
Besides his work as a photographer, B+ is also a co-founder of the record label Mochilla, which organized the Timeless concert series highlighting the work of J.Dilla, Muluta Astatke and Artur Verocai. Once those were wrapped up, he finally had time to work on the book that had been forming in the back of his head for years. But first he needed a costly, high-end scanner to get his pictures scanned in properly.
“I’m a friend of Banksy and had a painting here in my house that shouldn’t really have been in my house. This painting was something that he gave to me when he first came to L.A. in 2002. Something that expensive — I don’t live in that kind of house,” he says. “I asked if it was OK, sold the painting, bought a really high-end scanner, and started, basically — 4.500 scans later, I put the book together. I was editing it right until the very last minute.”
In musical theory, ghost notes are muted notes with no pitch and only rhythmic value — the spaces in between the melody that are as essential to a song as the notes itself. They actually make a surprisingly apt metaphor to describe B+’s style: devoid of gloss, but full of stories. The book’s A-side mostly focuses on the history of rap in Los Angeles, through the ’90s up until the early 2000s. The A-side is bookended by a photo of Dilla’s funeral, his friends and family standing atop the hill by his grave. In the sky, clouds in the shape of a heart can be seen.
“Dilla was buried on February 14th, Valentine’s Day. Somebody chartered a plane to write that heart in the sky for a lover,” he reveals. Another bit of unscripted magic, perfectly captured by one of Dilla’s own friends: the spellbinding photo became the sleeve for Carlos Niño and Miguel Atwood Ferguson’s Suite for Ma Dukes EP, a classical rendition of Dilla compositions that came out of the Timeless project, and for which B+ was one of the producers. “That project is a very close, very special project.”
The following B-side features photographs from a wide variety of locations, showing how global music culture has formed hip hop by providing it with samples, and how hip hop has grown well beyond its roots, becoming a global phenomenon itself. “Dilla’s funeral really felt like an ending for that era. But I also wanted to show that even though a specific story ends, it lives on through a new generation.”
A good example of that is a photo of graffiti in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, bearing 2Pac’s name. “It was amazing to me, to come across something like that, someone who became an icon in Los Angeles, and seeing his name so far from home.” The photo is from 2005, so chronologically it precedes Dilla’s passing. In terms of the tale the book tells, though, it makes perfect sense placed where it is. “I’m also really glad Kendrick Lamar is in there,” says B+. “To show a new generation of artists taking those influences, and continuing the story.”
Another artist from that vein is Thundercat, whose The Beyond / Where the Giants Roam EP cover is pictured in the B-side as well. “Those are the hits!” the photographer says with a hearty laugh. “In the weird world where hits are counted by things that make sense aesthetically, as opposed to things that sell lots of copies. I’m very proud of that record.”
Whittling over 4,000 images down to the few hundred photos in the (still quite hefty) book wasn’t a simple task. But the end result is an astounding series of images that’s impossible to put down. A sort of hip hop Koyaanisqatsi caught on paper, Ghost Notes creates a rhythm of its own by the turning of pages. Its creator maintains a humble tone though, grateful for the opportunity to weave his tale: “There’s obviously a lot more, but there’ll be other opportunities. I had to start somewhere.”