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Hip Hop Files: Photographs, 1979 - 1984

Hip Hop Files book cover By Martha Cooper
From Here to Fame Publishing, 240 pp, £30.00, $39.95, €39.99

Rating: 7/10
Reviewer: Perspicacious Critic (November 10, 2004)

Graffiti art has seen a revival of late. In Melbourne, Nike commissioned several graffiti artists to illustrate cartoony characters in an ambient media tie-in to its "You're Faster Than You Think" TV campaign. In October of 2004, Spiewalk streetwear hosted a gallery exhibition in which a dozen artists - many of them clearly inspired by graffiti or graffiti artists themselves - designed one-of-a-kind parka jackets that were subsequently posted on eBay for a charity auction. That same month, The New York Times Magazine wrote an article about the Web site woostercollective.com, which is a showcase for street art. So what better time than for Martha Cooper, the pioneer (along with Henry Chalfant) of graffiti photojournalism, to throw in her two cents, or subway tokens for that matter. But rather than simply come out with outtakes of her and Chalfant's seminal book "Subway Art" (Thames & Hudson, London), Cooper was clever enough to expand on the graffiti scene in the aptly titled "Hip Hop Files: Photographs 1979 - 1984."

In it, Cooper (along with interviews by Akim Walta) entertainingly chronicles the course of the hip hop movement of the late seventies and early eighties: the graffiti artists; break dancers; hip hop DJs and MCs; the influence of graffiti on the downtown Manhattan art scene; graffiti's transition onto canvas; main media coverage of hip hop; and hip hop's influence on fashion and culture. The photographs are accompanied by interviews, mostly with the participants themselves, which are spoken in a dialect as colourful as the graffiti that dominated the New York City trains of that era.

A large portion of the book is devoted to break dancers, MCs and DJs, which is difficult to capture, in spirit, on paper. Cooper acknowledges this in one chapter ("You have to hear rapping and you have to listen to somebody spinning records") but, even so, the photographs in question don't have the photojournalistic dynamism and artistic merit of a Mary Ellen Mark, Eugene Richards or Larry Fink, which would have helped enliven the acrobatic skills and spinning turntables. Still, "Hip Hop Files" manages to achieve what no other hip hop based book has done to date: to unite the whole of the movement into one coherent package. And that alone makes "Hip Hop Files" worth the fare.

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