If Lyor Cohen is the white godfather of hip-hop, Ricky Powell is hip-hopâ€™s grumpy old man. For the past 20 years, Ricky Powell has watched hip-hop grow from a New York niche culture to a worldwide phenomenon. He has been and continues to be in hip-hopâ€™s presence, armed with his Pentax and acerbic wit to document hip-hop every step of the way.
Ricky Powellâ€™s presence is in galleries, books, bootleg iron on T-shirts and most recently, ESPN 2’s, Itâ€™s The Shoes. Ricky Powell is hip-hop’s self-proclaimed resident curmudgeon. Format is lucky enough to catch a phoner with the Rickster, which says a lot for a man that doesn’t even own a computer. From kicks to the current state of hip-hop, Ricky Powell adds value to everything he says and says something about nearly everything!
“I am hoping things click this year. I am also a gigolo for older women on a moderate income. Whatever I got to do.”
Format: What was your first professional encounter with hip-hop?
Ricky Powell: Beasties was probably my first professional encounter. In 1986, in the spring of `86, the Beasties took me on some club dates to Boston and DC. That summer, I was selling Frozade on the streets. One day it was sweltering hot and I saw the Beasties in USA Today, and saw they were on tour with Run DMC on Raising Hell, and was like â€˜Damn, this shit is big!â€™ I rolled my cart in, bought a ticket to Tampa, rolled up to the Tampa Dome, knocked on the back door and the guards let me in. The Beasties saw me and were like â€˜What are you doing here?â€™ I was like, â€˜You know whatevs. I was in the neighborhood.â€™ So they took me into the arena where Run DMC was playing and they were doing â€œPeter Piper,â€ and the crowd was going nuts. I remember thinking, wow, this is big time. So they ended up giving me a bunk on the tour bus and I went on tour with them for a week in the southeast. Then I went on some spot dates on the Dope Jam Tour, Def Jam Tour, Runâ€™s House tour â€“ just me and my little Auto Jammy. Actually, I was using my Pentax 1000. And I had my bag with my one-hitter and it all worked out.
“A lot of this shit [street-wear] is made by kids. I wouldn’t wear a lot of this stuff. I still dress like a kid though.”
Format: In careers, successes can that appear pivotal, at the time, are overwhelming and almost surreal, did you experience any moments like that?
Ricky Powell: It was probably a little like that in Tampa, but in 1987 on the License To Ill tour â€“ that was the real age of Aquarius. They, [the Beastie Boys], brought me along as the unofficial, official photographer. I got to see that whole lifestyle with traveling, tour buses, hotels, freakazoids. Later that year, Run DMC joined for the Together Forever tour and it was great. All the artists felt comfortable with me. I liked the gig. I donâ€™t really like regular jobs.
Format: When was the last time you went on tour with someone?
Ricky Powell: Probably in 1995 for Beastieâ€™s Intergalactic [and] I went on a little tour of my own in Japan a few years ago. I also get to go on little dates, too, doing my world famous slide show. I like the little gigs where I do a few nights in a city and stay in a nice hotel.
Format: When you were doing some of you earlier work, did you think people would be studying it, referencing it or making T-shirts out of it 20 years later?
Ricky Powell: Hell no. I did it for the love and it just gave me something to do while I was figuring out what I was doing with my life. In late `85, early-`86, shit kind of clicked. Hip-hop, around then, was so fun. I was friends with the Beasties and they were doing cool shit. Through them I met Run DMC and then over at Rush Productions I met a lot of artists who would come through â€“ Stetsasonic, Eric B and Rakim, Public Enemy. I then got down with a photo agency and it took off from there.
Format: Your photography seems to be very organic. Today, images in pop culture are tainted by labels, politics, stylists and image consultants â€“ the images people see are what media gatekeepers want people to see. How can someone make an impact while still conforming to the media gatekeepers?
Ricky Powell: Iâ€™d like to start out by saying that I think everything today is fucking wack!. I have my inner convictions, but I have my Oscar Madison style; sophisticated but sloppy or vice-versa. Today, all artists are about fucking flash and the substance is not there. I am not trying to be an old fogey, but I really wish it was good. I really like this new singer Lily Allen. I am more attracted to understated than overstated. I am so amazed as to how the music industry functions. Itâ€™s none of my business, but it makes no sense. I donâ€™t even listen to the radio. I listen to Jazz88 and KCR which is Columbiaâ€™s radio station. WBAI plays some good hippie shit and on the weekends they have a good hip-hop show called Underground Railroad. I also do a show on public access called Rappinâ€™ With The Rickster â€“ off that, Itâ€™s The Shoes [and] I had the BBC approach me on some grumpy old man shit. I have some younger friends who take me out and try to show me there is still cool shit out there. Canada TV has also expressed interest in Rappinâ€™ With The Rickster. ESPN â€“ fingers crossed â€“has shown interest, too. Itâ€™s The Shoes has given me a lot of great exposure. I was in FedEx the other day and these random Japanese dudes recognized me. It was very rewarding.
But being an artist is a struggle, because I stick strictly to street photography. I am hoping things click this year. I am also a gigolo for older women on a moderate income. Whatever I got to do. I woke up yesterday owing two monthsâ€™ rent and by the afternoon I had two gigs that paid the rent. I was reading Wax Poetics, yesterday, and there was this interview with Minnie Ripertonâ€™s husband and he was talking about how he met her. He said, â€˜It was all accidental. The way life normally is.â€™ I was like wow. A lot of shit I work on just blows up and falls apart and then I have these miracles that come out of the blue. I canâ€™t explain it.
“K-Swiss â€“ I hate those commercials, I want to fucking shoot those people.”
Format: Concerning the current state of street-wear and the explosion of sneaker culture on a widespread scale â€“ is 2007 the new 1992?
Ricky Powell: 1992, was that benchmark year? I mean, the shit these days is so overloaded with the sneakers and the shirts. Itâ€™s so much, I donâ€™t really pay attention. I was talking to this girl, Clara, last night. I gave her a late night call. I told her, â€˜I like you `cause you are understated. I am really attracted to understated.â€™ I dabbled in and out of the clothing thing, but I donâ€™t really like that industry. Any industry you go to is going to be crowded with agendas and thatâ€™s one of the reasons I am a lone wolf. I just do my street photography and I donâ€™t have to answer to anybody. I call my own shots. This clothing shit, though, is hard. You might have some good ideas and your shit looks good, but you need luck and you need the economy to be good. Iâ€™m 45, now. A lot of this shit is made by kids. I wouldnâ€™t wear a lot of this stuff. I still dress like a kid though.
Format: The breakdown of skippies on Itâ€™s The Shoes is classic, memorable, even. What are your top five skippies and top five sneakers?
Ricky Powell: They let me smoke weed before each shoot. OK, so my top five: Puma Clydes; Pistol Pete Pro Keds, both low and hi; .these high top suede, Pumas they did custom for me; and Chuck Taylors â€“ I have my own Converse coming out made from hemp with some photos on the bottom, that star on the inner angle visually stimulated me so much as a kid; and Nike Blazers in the late `70s and early `80s. I am wearing some high top leather Pumas right now. Worst: LA Gear; Troop; K-Swiss â€“ I hate those commercials, I want to fucking shoot those people; Skechers â€“ those are real skips; [and] modern Nikes â€“ they are so wack. I would never wear that shit. They look like irregular astronaut shoes. The taste of these people, including the NBA players, what are they thinking!? Bill Bradley looked like such a doofus in his uniform, but he came off wearing the Chucks and was a great finisher on the fast break. I wish someone would wear canvas Chucks today. I got to give Stephon Marbury props for wearing sneakers that are affordable for kids. They are ugly, but I give him props. They are still skips, though.
“License To Ill tour â€“ that was the real age of Aquarius.”
Format: What is your take on the boom in sneaker culture, are companies ruining it for sneaker connoisseurs or is their participation for the greater good?
Ricky Powell: They had this Sneaker Pimps thing in NYC a few months ago and I thought about going, but then I was like no. Itâ€™s just a convention of people checking out other peopleâ€™s sneakers and checking out each otherâ€™s feet. I canâ€™t stand the dudes who tuck their jeans into their sneakers. I canâ€™t stand dudes like that. They look so toy. I think itâ€™s better when itâ€™s understated. If you catch someoneâ€™s feet and they are wearing some dope shoes with jeans over, thatâ€™s dope.
Format: You will never stop rocking sneakers, but given sneaker developmentsâ€™ current state, would you move on to not wearing sneakers?
Ricky Powell: I often wonder how I will be dressing as an old man. I think I will be wearing hoodies and sneakers. I have a pair of dress shoes I bought in Italy like 10 years ago that I never wear. I will stick with Cons and Pumas as long as I can.
“So they took me into the arena where Run DMC was playing and they were doing “Peter Piper,” and the crowd was going nuts.”
Format: Many photographers have made the leap into videos and motion pictures. Have you done any videos, is that something you want to do?
Ricky Powell: A couple of people have asked me to do videos. I like to take my pictures and keep moving. I donâ€™t have patience to sit around on a set all day. Russell Simins from Jon Spencer Blues Explosion asked me, but I said no. I am a lazy bum and I only work when I feel like it. If you came to my house, you will see what I mean. My house is a mess and Iâ€™ve been meaning to clean it for years. I am lying in the midst of newspapers, food videotapes, books, records, magazines. Seriously, I have just enough space on my bed to lay down. When I do do things, I do them in little bursts. I will go out and shoot stuff for my show and then not shoot again for a while.
Format: As someone who has historically been ahead of the curve, whatâ€™s next?
Ricky Powell: Iâ€™d like to get paid. I would like to paid.
Format: Is that paid with all caps and an exclamation point?
Ricky Powell: Exactly! Yo man, you are on my team. I just wrote an e-mail to this gallery owner who owns this hip-hop photo gallery. I was saying to him thank you for buying my pictures. And then I put a P.S. â€“ I am trying to get PAID!
More Info: http://www.rickypowell.com/