Authentic Street Photography of 1980s New York Reveals the Rise of Hip-Hop Culture


Breakdancing, rapping, street style—1980s New York was fertile ground for a developing hip-hop culture, and Brooklyn-born photographer Jamel Shabazz was there to capture it all. Thanks to this legendary street photographer, we're able to take a trip to the past and see the style, camaraderie, and swagger that pulsed through the city during this electric time. With a resurgence of interest in the era—due in part to Baz Luhrmann's The Get Downthese refreshingly authentic images document a magic moment prior to the crack cocaine and AIDS epidemics that would later invade the city.

After spending time abroad in the military, Shabazz returned to New York in 1980, armed with a camera and determined to immortalize his New York. Inspired by LIFE and National Geographic, his work is in the style of a true documentarian—leaving a visual diary that is almost like flipping through the photo album of an old friend. For Shabazz, photography was also an important tool for communicating with his community. While he began by photographing his friends, he later turned his lens in a different direction, capturing young men and women that may have been in need of help, or shooting local leaders who provided strength and influence. The camera opened a dialogue that enabled him to connect with his subjects, something clearly evident in the final images.

Shabazz's work has been heralded for capturing the culture and style of this pivotal moment in New York's history. And just how did this style evolve? “During the era of conscious rap and hip-hop, artists like KRS-One or Queen Latifah, Public Enemy, it was about culture, so I saw a lot of racial pride, I saw people wearing traditional African garments, kente cloth—celebrating their history and culture,” Shabazz shared with Vogue. “I thought that was a very interesting time. It wasn’t about a lot of the bling that would take place later on in the 1990s.” People wore clothes to represent themselves, taking pride and care with their appearance, regardless of economic status.

More of Shabazz's work can be found in his books Back in the Days and A Time Before CrackHe was also the subject of Charlie Ahern's 2013 documentary, Jamel Shabazz Street Photographerwhich features interviews with Fab 5 Freddy and KRS-One.

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Jamel Shabazz: Website | Facebook | Instagram
via [Timeline, Vogue]

All images via Jamel Shabazz.

Jessica Stewart

Jessica Stewart is a Contributing Writer and Digital Media Specialist for My Modern Met, as well as a curator and art historian. Since 2020, she is also one of the co-hosts of the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast. She earned her MA in Renaissance Studies from University College London and now lives in Rome, Italy. She cultivated expertise in street art which led to the purchase of her photographic archive by the Treccani Italian Encyclopedia in 2014. When she’s not spending time with her three dogs, she also manages the studio of a successful street artist. In 2013, she authored the book 'Street Art Stories Roma' and most recently contributed to 'Crossroads: A Glimpse Into the Life of Alice Pasquini'. You can follow her adventures online at @romephotoblog.
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