Armen Djerrahian has too many slashes in his name: photographer, slash; director, slash; b-boy, slash; graffiti writer. He is like Harry Allen, capturing candid photographs of hip-hop pioneers in their early years and continuing to work in the hip-hop media realm as the culture became more commercial and diluted.
Fortunately, for France, hip-hop is more or less 20 years young and has plenty of time before an Oprah-esque ethics crusade and the word police take Europe by storm and Parisian artists call for a resurrection. Armen documented hip-hopâ€™s claim to fame in France while working with various music magazines and later moved on to the American market. While many can claim working with 50 Cent, Busta Rhymes and French heavyweight Booba, few can truthfully say theyâ€™ve dodged bullets and thievery in British ghettos all the while shooting a video for the Senegalese sensation Akon who wore one too many flashy chains.
Nevertheless, he chooses to keep shooting and keep working one photo at a time, because according to Armen, itâ€™s worth it.
“…they wanted to rob Akon. They came back two or three minutes after that and starting to shoot at me.”
Format: How did you first get involved with hip-hop?
Armen Djerrahian: That was back then, like `83. Iâ€™m French so back in `83 I became involved in Paris with the Rock Steady Crew, thatâ€™s when I got involved in hip-hop. I was a B-boy like `83 to `89 or early `90s and from that I was writing graffiti and taking photos â€“ thatâ€™s how I go involved with photography. I was big part of the whole hip-hop history in France, because it started off there â€“ first country in Europe that ever got touched by a hip-hop artist.
Format: When did breaking and writing graffiti turn into taking pictures and making videos?
Armen Djerrahian: Everything, everything takes a long time. I started doing photos for BMX for every magazine and stuff like that worldwide starting in `91 and `92. And at a certain time I need to start earning money out of my photography and everything and French hip-hop start blowing up real quick. Most of my friends that used to be big artists used to be the guys that I used to dance with or that I used to do graffiti so they all ask me if I could do their pictures and that was around `94 and `95. So I really started doing photography for the music industry around `95.
Format: What was it like being one of the few to document the rise of hip-hop in France?
Armen Djerrahian: We were the first country to have a hip-hop show on TV. Not even Yo! MTV Raps was existing when we had a show about hip-hop and that show was on the main channel; not even cable it was on the main national channel every Sunday you can watch TV and have Tom Perry teaching you how to break dance. That was France. The story is pretty much the same. From the beginning of like the `80s like you have the movies came out like Beatstreet and Breakinâ€™, the Rock Steady Crew came in Paris to do the promotion and the New York City Breakers came in Paris for the promotion of the movies so everybody really get involved and the story in the ghetto is the same, because ghetto is the same thing everywhere in the world. In Paris you live in the project and grow up in the project life is the same as in the American ghettos itâ€™s no different. When the people in Paris got a look on hip-hop they felt the same stuff that the people here felt.
Format: When did you first get published?
Armen Djerrahian: Straight away. I started doing photography and year after that I had publication in the BMX magazines and then I started working for French music magazines, because I had the people that everybody wanted to see, because of my previous relationships with rappers. I first started taking pictures for the French magazines specializing in hip-hop and stuff like that and I got published right away and after that I start doing record cover, because Iâ€™ve done a lot of record covers for French artists. Every big French artist, I shot their record and even in different areas, everybody. From `95 to `98, I was mainly photographer and in `98 I got into shooting videos.
Format: When did working for French magazines turn into a crossover to working with American artists?
Armen Djerrahian: Because what American artists does, promotion does. They send international press everywhere. All the music magazines are going to review artist albums in house so they used to have me do the photos because they wanted exclusive photos for the cover of the magazine. So they used to send me all the time and from 94 until I moved here this year, I was coming to the States often to do photography. So I ended up meeting artists, developing relationships with them or with the record company or with their managers that would ask me to do their photos for them. The music I listen to is mostly American. Even if I listen to French, itâ€™s mostly American.
Format: How did photography turn into making videos?
Armen Djerrahian:I was a shooting a group in Paris and the group was getting pretty big and they needed to shoot their first video and they asked me to, and I was doing their photos, and they asked me to do their video I didnâ€™t want to, but I looked at the people of mentors in photography and most of them were photographers and videographers so I thought I just take the chance to do it and did it.
Format: What goes into the process of developing a concept for a photo or video?
Armen Djerrahian: To me itâ€™s really important to know the artist and to know a little bit of his history, to see if anything is fake, if its right or wrong is it true or not. What does the person think of himself as an artist and from that listen to his CD. For a record album I really need to listen to the album to make sure that the photo we going to take goes with the album concept.
Format: Was it hard to get shots from all over Europe?
Armen Djerrahian: What? If I got shot?
Format: No, was it hard to get shots from all over Europe?
Armen Djerrahian: For example, like in Paris I knew that neighborhood and that neighborhood is really dangerous. Even the artists that come to that neighborhood can never film a video there. I shot two videos over there. One which was my first video and one was Akon. Itâ€™s just that I had the right connections in the neighborhood and the guy was with me all the time and we had the right people around us to make sure everything was done well. Unfortunately, in London that was a different story because we went to different locations to have some people in London too that was helping me out but it was really cold because it was winter and for five minutes the guys went to some heat or whatever and I was shooting in those projects and there was some guys that came in on motorcycle and they wanted to rob Akon. They came back two or three minutes after that and starting to shoot at me. Fortunately, nothing happened because there was these guys that heard them and took care of it. But nobody got hurt. Thatâ€™s just part of being in the ghetto.
Format: How much of the rap videos would you say are bright lights and smoke?
Armen Djerrahian: First of all most of the videos Iâ€™ve shot were for French markets. French market is very different from American marketâ€¦In France the maximum you may have when its a huge artist its going to be $150,000 so imagine that for most of the artists they have maybe $50,000, $60,000 and everybody like the record companies, everybody around them. They want to have the same video as Puff Daddy or 50 but you canâ€™t afford that because you donâ€™t have the budget so thatâ€™s the problem. We have to deal with creativity.