George Dubose

George Dubose

Some people may find it hard to believe that the same man who photographed the first album cover for The B-52s also created the covers for such influential hip-hop artists like Biz Markie, Big Daddy Kane, and the X-Clan. George Dubose has been working as a freelance photographer since 1975 and has always had a passion for music.

He started in the punk clubs of Manhattan and eventually became a pioneer in the hip-hop industry for his concepts on the covers of classic albums. The Moroccan-born photographer who now resides in Cologne, Germany, has become is a legend in both the music and art worlds. His work can be seen throughout your stacks of albums, tapes, and compact-discs.

The story of George Dubose is a funny and fascinating one. He is the man who takes what we all hear and creates that pictures that to many of us, are hip-hop.

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Format: When did you first realize you wanted to pursue a career in photography?
Dubose: I was in college and a friend of mine went to New York to buy a camera. I went with him to buy it and we took a walk around New York City. I took a picture of used garbage cans freshly painted red and yellow. I thought it was funny because I couldn’t imagine why anybody would paint old steel garbage cans with new paint. I found out that it was a method of identifying the cans with a certain building. I still identify with that picture. Then I went into the Navy and my interest in photography grew. I began to teach myself darkroom techniques and started to take pictures of bands at a local club. The bands would play two nights; I’d take the pictures that I developed from the first night back to the club and sell them for a dollar each.

Format: How did you meet Andy Warhol?
Dubose: When I first moved into Manhattan, I began working as an apprentice for two photographers on Broadway. Often times my bosses would be invited to parties and they wouldn’t go, they’d send me. One time at a party I met the assistant art director for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, his name was Richard Cramer. We became pals and Richard gave me darkroom work for Andy Warhol. Andy would take pictures at Studio 54 and I developed that work. Eventually I photographed The B-52s after a show one night and the magazine published it but one of the girls was missing from the line-up. A few months later, I called them back to the studio to do a shoot with the right line-up and that became my first album cover.

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Format: SPIN magazine still remains a fresh voice in the music industry. Do you have any interesting stories about your time there?
Dubose: I liked the idea that when SPIN started it was going to be the giant-killer that killed Rolling Stone. I used to really like Rolling Stone but it had become too mainstream and focused on movies too much which wasn’t really interesting to me as a person who likes music. The idea to work for SPIN was really appealing because it was going to focus on the music but I remember an argument that the editorial staff had as to what was going to be the first cover. I was pushing for REM because I felt they had much more of an underground reputation than Madonna did. In the end, the publisher used a Madonna photo for the cover.

“I talked to her and said ‘you’re very good, you look like you’re trying to be sexy but you seem kind of nervous.’ Her manager heard me and threw me out of the dressing room.”

Format: You met Madonna at one of early shows, right?
Dubose: Yes, her manager called me to come see a show at a place on Long Island called Uncle Sam’s Blues. She paid my train fare and would give me two-hundred and fifty dollars. When I got there she told me to just take pictures of the singer not the band. Madonna was dressed very sexy but she looked nervous on stage. After the set, I went backstage and asked her what her real name was and she said “Madonna” which struck me as odd but I talked to her and said ‘you’re very good, you look like you’re trying to be sexy but you seem kind of nervous.’ Her manager heard me and threw me out of the dressing room. I never hear from her again and was never paid for the photos. It wasn’t until ten years later that they started to sell.

Format: What drew you to the punk movement?
Dubose: I didn’t know what punk was. I moved to New York in 1975 around the time when punk first started. I went to discos; I had my disco clothes and went to discos where they were playing R&B music with extended mixes…I went to CBGB’S on a Friday night, paid my three dollars to get in and the band I saw was television. I remember seeing the guitarist, Tom Verlaine, playing so bad that I thought “he’s got some nerve up there playing so bad.” Later I figured out that he was probably trying to play like that. After that, I was invited to Max’s Kansas City to see The B-52’s and their opening act was Teenage Jesus and the Jerks…they could definitely play better but you could tell that they were trying to play bad. After the set I heard Lydia Lunch tell one of the guys in the band, “the song is forty seconds long, we need to make it shorter.” I gradually got the idea of punk was…if you were bad you tried to play the best you could, if you were good you didn’t want to show it.

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Format: How did you make the transition from shooting punk bands on their album covers to doing covers for hip-hop artists?
Dubose: I like all music as long as it’s good. I left SPIN magazine after two years because the pay was so low. I went to Island Records as art director and because of my capabilities as a photographer I got to shoot covers for Island and then I got to do the designs afterwards. Island had a distribution deal with Prism Records. I got a phone call from Prism saying they had a new artist named Biz Markie and they wanted me to shoot the cover for his first single. We didn’t have a concept for the cover but I remember Biz was dressed like a referee and he had a baseball cap with his name on it. When I showed the photos to Dee Joseph, the label manager, she liked them and I told her that I wanted to do the design work on the single. I found out where he got the lettering on the cap, got the letters from the shop, and photocopied them onto the “Make the Music With Your Mouth” cover. I believe that’s actually how that fractor font got into hip-hop. I did an album cover for Biz and a cover for MC Shan when Warner Bros. found out about this new music and it went from there.

Format: Do you still talk to Biz?
Dubose: I saw Biz in Amsterdam three months ago and took a few photos of him. I had no contact with him but I asked his management company if he would be on tour in Europe. They e-mailed me back and said they didn’t know who I was. I finally got to the show at a place called the Milky Way and it was really good. He did a set with Roxanne Shante for about 45 minutes and then he left the stage. After about ten or fifteen minutes, these people started going crazy and I went backstage and Biz is just bullshittin’ with somebody so I told him he had a house full of people waiting for him. He was like, “Oh really, oh yeah? I’ll go.” He’s a funny dude man, but he’s just gotta get his head out of his ass sometimes. I heard a few shows weren’t as good as that one because he didn’t do any encores. I’ve seen Kool G, Marley Marl, Big Daddy Kane, all my homies come to Germany and see me.

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Format: What do you feel is the importance of having an album cover that stands out above the rest?
Dubose: There are a couple sides to that. In the beginning there were only twelve inch records…when you went into a record store a lot of the albums were in bins and the ones being featured were on a rack on the wall. I believed that using bright colors would draw someone to the record and if there was a cool picture to go along with it, that person would probably buy the album. I don’t like album covers that are just pure design because to me, it’s more the designers showing his skills not saying anything about the kind of music that’s inside. The photographer might win an award for his design but he’s not servicing the musician.

Format: What current artists would you like to work with?
Dubose: I really enjoy Queens of the Stone Age. I’d love to work with Madonna. It’s a really tough question. I enjoy working with an unknown group as much as I enjoy working with a superstar. It’s about making the musician happy with what he’s got as a cover and showing on the cover what kind of music is inside the package.

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Format: Do you have any plans to create album covers in the future?
Dubose: I’m working on a project right now. I’m not retired. I’m doing a project for Kukoo Dabaggabonez, an American rapper from New York who’s living in Switzerland at the moment. He’s doing an album with European producers and he’s giving it a whole new flavor that’s different from what’s going on in the States today. I just did a cover for him and it’s one of the best covers I ever did. I think he’s recording some more songs but it’ll be out there soon.

Format: What is your Wonderland exhibit all about?
Dubose: Alright, I’ve got a couple things going on here. I’m showing some exhibits that are just The Ramones — that’s touring Germany right now. I have another exhibit that’s just hip-hop, it’s got all the hip-hop artists I’ve worked with but that’s not touring right now. I’ve got an exhibit that’s a mix of hip-hop and rock. Don’t get confused, Wonderland isn’t an exhibit, it’s an art gallery that I’m opening in my studio. I don’t do a lot of studio shows because the economy in Cologne where I live is so bad right now. Most of the work I do is for magazines. Juice, that’s a hip-hop magazine I’ve done work for and Uncle Sally’s Magazine which is a rock magazine. I’m exhibiting works of three painters in January; I’ll be showing realism, surrealism and photography.

Format: You’ve met so many influential artists in the industry and you yourself have become influential. Can you give any advice to young photographers who have a passion for music?
Dubose: Get a good day job. The downloading of songs for free has put the record companies in a very stressful situation; people aren’t buying music like they used too, Tower Records is closing. However, bands will always need photos. The problem that I’m facing, as well as many other photographers, is that the days of record companies paying photographers to work with unknown bands are gone. There was a time when Warner Bros. would give 15,000 dollars to do a project. Today that budget’s not there unless you’re a major artist. Now, record execs are telling bands to bring in their own recordings along with a package so they can save money. A lot of times, an artist doesn’t have the money to pay for a photo shoot because he spent his money on the recording, and my photo fees have plummeted. I mean, I’ll do a photo for a hundred bucks if it’s for an independent artist. I hate to sound like a naysayer, but to get into the business as a photographer, 1.) he has to be really good and 2.) he has to have contacts with the bands directly. And then, God bless ‘em.

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More Info: http://www.george-dubose.com/

Steven Ziegler

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2 comments

  1. I met DuBose out here in Berlin, Germany in Summer 06 when Ase One was on Tour. He was exhibiting some of his pictures and sold some copies of them. I told him I didn’t even know he shot that controversial Kool G. Rap cover and he told he the whole story behind that picture and what they wanted to do originally and stuff like that. That was pretty cool PS: On the original phot these dogs don’t have red eyes.

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