Photographing the birth of hip-hop

Sophie Bramley’s shots of the scene’s early days have been gathered together in a new book, Yo! The Early Days of Hip Hop 1982-84

It’s hard to overestimate the impact of hip hop on everything from language to fashion, photography, fonts, TV shows, and, of course, music. Someone who was there right at the start, but who also had a sense that this Bronx-based scene was going to be something pretty important, was French photographer Sophie Bramly.

Having studied graphic arts at Parisian art school Penninghen, Bramly started working as a freelance photographer, shooting for the likes of Paris Match and Elle. Her introduction to hip-hop came in 1981 during a trip to New York, where she saw b-boy group the New York City Breakers at a party downtown. “Then a friend introduced me to some rappers, and after that I felt like Joan of Arc on a mission,” Bramly told Dazed. “I dropped everything else I was doing and I followed them everywhere they went for four years.”

Slick Rick
Muhammad at Bronx River Center, 1983
Afrika Bambaataa and DJ Kool Herc
Fab 5 Freddy

Now her early 80s snaps of the naissance of hip-hop have been gathered together in a book titled Yo! The Early Days of Hip Hop 1982–84, published by Soul Jazz Books. The book features more than 150 rarely seen images of hip-hop’s pioneers, fans and the people behind the scenes, and shots of the often unglamorous environs that birthed it. Yo! also includes a bonus section documenting the rise of hip hop in Europe: Bramly returned to her native France in 1984 and is credited with helping bring the first US hip hop artists to Europe, including Fab Five Freddy, Futura 2000, Rocksteady Crew and many more. 

While hip-hop is still huge, surprisingly little photography exists to show the people and places that launched it. “One of the curious facts about hip-hop’s history is how little photographic documentation exists of the culture’s early years,” writes Bill Adler in the introduction to Yo!. “Sophie Bramly … managed between 1982 and 1984 to put her arms around all four of the hip-hop elements: the emcees, deejays, graffiti artists, and breakdancers.

Bramly’s work takes a holistic approach to capturing the hip-hop scene just as things were taking off, expanding from its roots in the Bronx and into the mainstream charts. She documented everything hip-hop related, shooting the scene’s DJs such as Afrika Bambaataa and Jazzy Jay; its MCs, including Kurtis Blow, Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys; breakdancers like the Rock Steady Crew; and graffiti artists, from stellar names like Keith Haring to cult favourites such as Dondi, Phase One, Zephyr and Lady Pink.

As well as photographing hip-hop’s creators, Bramly also turned her lens on the broader impact of the burgeoning scene. She photographed both the fans of hip-hop and “the older authority figures who disdained it”, as the publisher puts it. The book shows just how embedded in the hip-hop scene the photographer was in presenting images of key figures who worked behind the scenes such as record producers like Bill Laswell, Bernard Zekri, and Rick Rubin.

Another key figure Bramly shot was New York underground film actress Patti Astor, who co-founded the Fun Gallery. The space made a huge impact in formalising the links between hip-hop, graffiti and the fine art world, despite only running from 1981 until 1985. Fun Gallery hosted solo shows from artists including hip-hop staples Fab 5 Freddy and Futura 2000, who’d painted a mural for Astor in her apartment, alongside now-stellar art world names like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Haring.

“All these photos speak for a time that is so special, is never coming back and changed the world,” writes hip-hop DJ Grand Mixer D St of the book. “It’s pretty much this experience that changed everything forever. What makes it amazing, is that you hear stories about superheroes that changed the world, and that was us.”  

Beastie Boys
Grandmaster Flash
Crazy Legs
Yo! The Early Days of Hip Hop 1982-84, cover

Yo! The Early Days of Hip Hop 1982–84 by Sophie Bramly is published by Soul Jazz Books;