Dec 16, 2015 5:06PM

Mel D. Cole Takes Photos Of Your Favourite Rappers For A Living

Hip-hop history.

Mel D. Cole is a NY-based hip-hop photographer whose portfolio includes in-the-moment, emotion-filled shots of cool people like Erykah Badu, Joey Bada$$, De La Soul, Jay Z, Drake and Kendrick LamarHe's putting on an exhibition at Sydney's Goodspace Gallery tonight, so we caught up with him ahead of the show to get to know him a little better.  

Naturally, we were very curious to find out more about how he goes about capturing such epic shots and whether he gets hella starstruck dealing with hip-hop heavyweights. Turns out, despite having heaps of chill when it comes to interacting with rappers, he admits to getting nervous around rando celebrities like Miley Cyrus. Get to know the complicated individual below. 

Madeleine Woon: Where did you grow up, and when did you start taking photos?
Mel D. Cole: I grew up in the Southside of Syracuse, New York. It's a mid-sized city about four and a half hours north-west of NYC. I started documenting stuff in college in the late 90s, but I guess when I really started was in 2002. 

What was your initial impetus?
Music is the love of my life! Music, music, music. I wanted to remember the Common concert I went to back in 2002 — that's pretty much how it all started for me. 

You started out using a disposable camera. Do you still shoot on film, and what's your favourite camera to use?
I still use disposables here and there, but they are getting harder to find and extremely difficult to get developed. I used to love dropping a roll off at my local pharmacy and coming back within an hour and having the photos ready for me; that is not the case anymore. Now I have to go out to Greenpoint in Brooklyn. There is this one guy who does one hour film processing. He might be the only guy in Brooklyn that does it these days. 

What is it about shooting on disposables that appeals to you?
The appeal to me is how raw it is, how you really have to take chances. You might go through 36 shots and get your film back and it's all shit. I get really pissed, but fuck it, that's part of the fun! Plus I have captured one of my most iconic images with disposables. They will always have a place within my work!

Which photo in the Australian exhibition means the most to you? What's the story behind it?
I guess I would have to say the photo I took of Common and Erykah Badu. I used a disposable camera to capture it. I guess I have always had a knack for capturing the moment, or I got lucky... who knows, but that one photo inspired my whole career.

You've shot some legendary people. Do you ever get star-struck? 
Yes, all the time. People make me nervous still and sometimes I fuck up shots because of it. Sometimes it's the most random celeb. One time I was hanging out at The Tonight Show and Miley [Cyrus] came into Black Thought's dressing room to say hello. I got nervous as fuck. I took the most fucked up blurry photo ever. She is kinda hot to me and hearing her talk I was like, "Oh man" at the time. Plus, things happened so fast backstage at that show so with that going on I didn't really focus right in many ways. 

How did the exhibition at Goodspace come about?
My most amazing wife Averie Cole! I mentioned that it would be nice to do something [in Australia] and she said, "Why not? I know the perfect space," and she emailed Paddy and Chris [from Goodspace]. The rest is history! 

Who are the most iconic hip-hop artists you've ever shot? 
That's a hard one! Geez, most iconic? Shit, let's see. I have photographed Jay Z, Slick Rick, Rakim, De La Soul, Public Enemy, Ice Cube, Wu-Tang, Puff Daddy, Drake, Nicki, The Roots, Nas, R. Kelly, A Tribe Called Quest, LL Cool J and the list goes on. We could debate all day long about who is the most iconic just based on that list alone...

What's been your most surreal moment as a photographer so far?
If you asked me two weeks ago, I would have said giving Common my sneakers and t-shirt that I made with Etnies, and having him love them. I got so nervous beforehand that I started crying on the way over and had to call Questlove to calm me down. It was a really big moment for me because without his music, I don't know what I would be doing these days. But since you are asking today, I think it is having my work take me to Angola in Africa with Trey Songz! That was fucking amazing! Mind-blowing experience! 

How did you come to be kind of the "house photographer" for The Roots? 
Easy — I have blackmail photos of Questlove! No honestly, I just never stopped coming to shows and somehow I became the guy. I think every music photographer should have a band or artist. 

How do you ensure your subjects feel at ease in front of the lens? 
Trust, and just being real. 

Much of your hip-hop photography is shot in black and white, what's the stylistic reasoning behind this?
Everyone looks better in black and white. But the main reason I started going B&W is because I wanted my photos to stand out amongst my peers — I became known as the guy who shot the B&W photographs. Now I like to add more colour into the mix, but I will always be mostly B&W. 

How did your homeless series come about?
It started back in 2002. When I was leaving the clubs and venues late at night drunk, I would see what was going on and I would just take the photo and keep moving. I think the series is up to about 19 right now. But five years ago, I stopped shooting for it. I was not inspired anymore, something was missing. At first, I would just take the photos just let the images speak. I never even spoke to the people I was documenting. I felt that was wrong! So this year I started the @homelessworld account on Instagram with the intentions of telling the stories of the people I documented, spending the word and helping out. What I want to do in the long run is accept submissions and curate it to the point where I have a bunch of different photographers from all over the world helping out and telling the stories of those in need. 

Whose work do you admire?
I really admire my wife's wedding photos, I really think she is amazing at it! But if I have to pick someone else, I would say right now I am really in love with Jimmy Chin! I want to be him when I grow up!

Big, Black And Bold American Hip Hop is showing for one night only at Goodspace on December 16, 2015. For more information, click here

Madeleine Woon