Hip Hop Portraits by Kingsley Davis

Following his inclusion in the Universal Zulu Nation: Hip Hop Culture exhibition, Kingsley Davis speaks to Jocks&Nerds about the collection of hip hop portraits that he took over the last 25 years

Growing up in London in the late 1970s and 1980s, Kingsley Davis indulged a variety of interests.

“I was always a creative person, whether drawing, printing or even trying to write poetry,” says Davis. “I come from a musical family and have always listened to a wide range of music; film and motion pictures have always been an interest. I also rented a stall in Spitalfields market selling drawings for a short period.”

Chuck D and Grandmaster Flash said England was one of the first to embrace hip hop

Davis took up illustration at Central Saint Martins, but a seed of where his future lay had already been planted in his teens when he discovered hip hop, an event that contributed to his later decision to pursue a career in music photography.

In November 2015, a London-based exhibition celebrated the 42nd anniversary of Universal Zulu Nation, a hip hop movement founded by DJ Afrika Bambaataa (featured in Jocks&Nerds issue 9). Universal Zulu Nation: Hip Hop Culture Exhibition explored four individuals’ approaches to documenting hip hop culture. Davis’s photographs from 1990 to the present were amongst those included.

How did you get into hip hop?

I was always interested in the music that inspired the genre, before it even had a name. This included soul, funk, Latin, disco, reggae, jazz, gospel and many others.

It all started with hearing DJ mixtapes, pirate radio and experiencing the visual element of graffiti. I had friends involved in all these areas [of hip hop culture], so the interest just kept growing.

I then started buying vinyl around the early 1980s when the DMC [Disco Mixing Championships] were probably at their most influential, attracting the likes of James Brown, Public Enemy and Run DMC, but also giving exposure to home-grown talent like Cutmaster Swift, MC Mello, DJ Pogo and Hijack.

The art of sampling and sourcing a record heard on an album was a great way to discover original music and diverse bands. This is what attracted me to the genre. Like many others, the seminal record that stood out for me was Afrika Bambaataa's Planet Rock with the Soulsonic Force – particularly that 808 drum machine sound.

What was the scene like in those days?

The scene felt like it was at a fever pitch, as so many new groups, sounds and raw fashion statements were being created. The main thing is that it was about the culture rather than the commercial force it has now become.

It really felt like London and the UK had created its own energy, inspired by the scene in New York. One of hip hop’s pioneers KRS-One has stated that rap is what you do; hip hop is what you live.
What was so special about hip hop during that time?

There was an urgency about creating and being part of what was perceived to be a passing fad at the time. There were many iconic concerts happening [in London] around this time including Eric B & Rakim, Public Enemy and LL Cool J, all on the same bill.

I think the fact that Chuck D and Grandmaster Flash have said that England was one of the first to embrace hip hop cannot be underestimated.

In many examples, Public Enemy were acknowledged and celebrated by the British press before the US media really woke up. The other thing that was, and still is, special was the four elements: the MC, DJ, b-boy and b-girl, and the art of graffiti. I don't think there are many other scenes that have all this to offer and unify so many people on an international level.

What myself and others are doing is preserving
the culture and its true essence

One of the main pioneers I have photographed a couple of times is a true innovator and inventor. Grandmaster Flash's turntabilism had made him a star throughout Harlem and the Bronx. By 1979, it made him and his peers recording artists. By 1981, his skills had resulted in Flash getting name-checked in Blondie's US No 1 hit Rapture and by 1982 it made him the first DJ to achieve global fame.

This fusing of genres was a big attraction and was the beginning of my vinyl collecting and desire to keep documenting this scene.
Did you ever go to the US to discover hip hop’s roots?

I have been to New York and spent time around some of the iconic places where the movement began. I would really like to travel more, especially after contributing to the Universal Zulu Nation exhibition.

I still have a hunger to keep documenting – whether in the UK, US or other countries. There are some great movies being produced such as Fresh Dressed (featured in Jocks&Nerds issue 16) Stretch & Bobbito (featured online) and Shake the Dust, which are all high quality releases for those who want to explore the authenticity of hip hop's roots.

When did you start photographing hip hop?

In a way, I started photographing before even realising the process had begun – probably around the early 1990s. Even at that time we realised we were witnessing something fresh and exciting and I wanted to record it in some way. This included the fashion element.

This was the same when going to gigs or jams. I used to record some epic shows on a portable cassette, some of which have been digitised and are now on my Sound Cloud page.

I am also very aware of the male-dominated element to this scene and so in the Universal Zulu Nation exhibition I was proud to include a portrait of the graffiti artist Lady Pink.

Photography is a way of educating those about forgotten history and bringing value to the present

Pink painted subway trains from the years 1979-1985. In 1982, she had a starring role in the motion picture Wild Style. That role and her other significant contributions to graffiti have made her a cult figure in hip hop subculture.

Who was your first hip hop portrait of?

The first portrait I think I took was of MC Duke at an all-dayer park jam in west London [1990]. This was taken with my first 35mm film camera.

Having gained recognition as a Covent Garden street dancer in the early 1980s, MC Duke is widely acknowledged as one of the first influential British rappers.

What have you learned from photographing hip hop over the years?

The culture has now become mainstream, from the fashion, slang or street terminology, and use of graffiti in many corporate environments.

The journey from analogue to digital is also one that fascinates me, as the genre has gone from being rough and ready to marketing a polished product.

There are positive and negative aspects to this but the reality is that there is a generation who are not aware of the roots of the culture.

There is no clearer example than the the jump from vinyl to Serato and Traktor for DJs. However, for many DJs, carrying large amounts of records on flights abroad proved challenging and too much to bare at one stage. So things evolve. Photography is a great way of educating those about forgotten history and bringing value to the present scenes.

What myself and others are doing is preserving the culture and its true essence.