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.
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 couldnâ€™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; Iâ€™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 wouldnâ€™t go, theyâ€™d send me. One time at a party I met the assistant art director for Andy Warholâ€™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.
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 wasnâ€™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.
â€œI talked to her and said â€˜youâ€™re very good, you look like youâ€™re trying to be sexy but you seem kind of nervous.â€™ 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 Samâ€™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 â€œMadonnaâ€ which struck me as odd but I talked to her and said â€˜youâ€™re very good, you look like youâ€™re trying to be sexy but you seem kind of nervous.â€™ 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 wasnâ€™t until ten years later that they started to sell.
Format: What drew you to the punk movement?
Dubose: I didnâ€™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 mixesâ€¦I went to CBGBâ€™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 â€œheâ€™s got some nerve up there playing so bad.â€ Later I figured out that he was probably trying to play like that. After that, I was invited to Maxâ€™s Kansas City to see The B-52â€™s and their opening act was Teenage Jesus and the Jerksâ€¦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, â€œthe song is forty seconds long, we need to make it shorter.â€ I gradually got the idea of punk wasâ€¦if you were bad you tried to play the best you could, if you were good you didnâ€™t want to show it.
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 itâ€™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 didnâ€™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 â€œMake the Music With Your Mouthâ€ cover. I believe thatâ€™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 didnâ€™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 bullshittinâ€™ with somebody so I told him he had a house full of people waiting for him. He was like, â€œOh really, oh yeah? Iâ€™ll go.â€ Heâ€™s a funny dude man, but heâ€™s just gotta get his head out of his ass sometimes. I heard a few shows werenâ€™t as good as that one because he didnâ€™t do any encores. Iâ€™ve seen Kool G, Marley Marl, Big Daddy Kane, all my homies come to Germany and see me.
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 recordsâ€¦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 donâ€™t like album covers that are just pure design because to me, itâ€™s more the designers showing his skills not saying anything about the kind of music thatâ€™s inside. The photographer might win an award for his design but heâ€™s not servicing the musician.
Format: What current artists would you like to work with?
Dubose: I really enjoy Queens of the Stone Age. Iâ€™d love to work with Madonna. Itâ€™s a really tough question. I enjoy working with an unknown group as much as I enjoy working with a superstar. Itâ€™s about making the musician happy with what heâ€™s got as a cover and showing on the cover what kind of music is inside the package.
Format: Do you have any plans to create album covers in the future?
Dubose: Iâ€™m working on a project right now. Iâ€™m not retired. Iâ€™m doing a project for Kukoo Dabaggabonez, an American rapper from New York whoâ€™s living in Switzerland at the moment. Heâ€™s doing an album with European producers and heâ€™s giving it a whole new flavor thatâ€™s different from whatâ€™s going on in the States today. I just did a cover for him and itâ€™s one of the best covers I ever did. I think heâ€™s recording some more songs but itâ€™ll be out there soon.
Format: What is your Wonderland exhibit all about?
Dubose: Alright, Iâ€™ve got a couple things going on here. Iâ€™m showing some exhibits that are just The Ramones — thatâ€™s touring Germany right now. I have another exhibit thatâ€™s just hip-hop, itâ€™s got all the hip-hop artists Iâ€™ve worked with but thatâ€™s not touring right now. Iâ€™ve got an exhibit thatâ€™s a mix of hip-hop and rock. Donâ€™t get confused, Wonderland isnâ€™t an exhibit, itâ€™s an art gallery that Iâ€™m opening in my studio. I donâ€™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, thatâ€™s a hip-hop magazine Iâ€™ve done work for and Uncle Sallyâ€™s Magazine which is a rock magazine. Iâ€™m exhibiting works of three painters in January; Iâ€™ll be showing realism, surrealism and photography.
Format: Youâ€™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 arenâ€™t buying music like they used too, Tower Records is closing. However, bands will always need photos. The problem that Iâ€™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 budgetâ€™s not there unless youâ€™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 doesnâ€™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, Iâ€™ll do a photo for a hundred bucks if itâ€™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 â€˜em.
More Info: http://www.george-dubose.com/