Chi Modu is a photojournalist who's responsible for producing some of the most iconic images of the Hip Hop movement. Throughout his career he has worked with legends including Tupac, Biggie and Snoop Dogg and his photos helped to define Hip Hop culture. He has recently released Tupac Shakur Uncategorized, a book featuring 200 pages of previously unseen photos of the rapper 20 years after his death. In Part I of our interview, Chi talks about how he began shooting with Hip Hop's biggest stars and why an empty billboard inspired one of the most important turning points of his career.
Tell us about your earliest experiences and how you first got involved with photography…
I was born in Nigeria, but raised in New Jersey. There was a civil war in Nigeria, the Biafran War, and my Dad was working on his PhD, at the University of Chicago, in America at the time so the whole family moved here to join my Dad. I moved here when I was three, went to high school here, went to college in New Jersey at Rutgers and then after college I moved up closer to New York City, where I started working small jobs and got in to the International Center of Photography (ICP). Photography was always a passion of mine and when I was in college my girlfriend at the time and I put the money together to buy my first camera in 1987 – and she’s now my wife today, so she saw the whole ride!
As I got a little older, post-college, I knew that I really wanted to do this and that’s where ICP came into play. It was kind of like the photojournalism training ground, a very traditional photo world and they’d train you for New York Times, Time Magazine - photojournalism stuff. But, for me at the time, I saw Hip Hop coming up and thought if I can take these skills and apply them to this burgeoning art form, it’s gonna make a difference. I brought a high level of photo skills into an arena that had been traditionally photographed a little bit more ‘Teen Magazine’, Fanzine style, and I brought 4x5 portraiture into it in 1993. That really jumped up the whole space a lot. I think in retrospect, when people look at my career, they understand that that’s why I became so well-known because I was so technical and serious back then, even when people didn’t really know what I was doing. But now 20 years later, they realize how important it was, but that’s the nature of the medium.