T. ERIC MONROE, HIDDEN IMAGES OF ICONIC MUSICIANS FROM THE NINETIES

Tupac

This photographer started taking pictures of events he would go to, as a way to capture fleeting moments, what he didn’t know is that he was in the right place and in the right time. T. Eric Monroe’s career started in the ‘90s in the New York and New Jersey area, attending skate shows and hip hop concerts. What once started as a hobby would eventually become his job, which would lead him to be featured in such iconic publications like Thrasher Magazine, The Source or XXL.

Not only that, he managed to take pictures of such iconic musicians, in their early careers, like Tupac, Biggie, Ghostface Killah and Raekwon from the Wu Tang Clan, Lauryn Hill during The Fugees era and Erykah Badu, among so many others.Nowadays, he’s spending his time compiling unreleased photographs from his archive, and so many hidden gems are now seeing the light of day over 20 years later in his books titled Rare & Unseen Moments of 90's Hiphop, released in three volumes. We talk to him about his truly extraordinary career and how he now feels about those days, before he ever knew he had struck gold.

Mighty Mos & Talib Kweli

First things first Eric, how did you first get into photography?

As a teen I would always take pictures, not so much to become a photographer, but just to capture moments or events of family and friends.

How did you eventually manage to turn this hobby into a job by having your work published in magazines like Thrasher, The Source or XXL?

While I was in high school, I would send my pictures from local (New York and New Jersey) skateboard contests to publish alongside contest results in Thrasher Magazine and Transworld Skateboard. Then, in the summer of 1992, I photographed my first hip hop concert. I was fortunate to parlay that opportunity into more opportunities to shoot hip hop acts. As more opportunities presented themselves, I realized I needed a magazine to back me, so I could say I was shooting in their name. At the time, I only had a good relationship with Thrasher and so they allowed me to use their name to gain access to more artists and, in return, I wrote articles and submitted photos for their music section. Within my first year of shooting artists, I managed to get my images into other publications like the Source Magazine, XXL and more. My first images in the hip hop-specific magazines were party or industry pictures (artists with music executives or other artists). Getting these first pictures into the magazines helped get my foot in the door of the music industry.

You started out photographing the skate scene, was it just a natural progression to then start photographing hip-hop musicians? Knowing how this subculture is so closely linked to the genre.

I grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey, about an hour’s drive from NYC. There, skating and music were blended together. There weren’t many hip hop shows in my area, but when something came up, some friends and I would go. We listened to every type of music – hip hop, hardcore/punk, classic, jazz, rock, soul…  My worlds of skateboard and hip hop collided at a big skateboarding demo event that featured a hip hop concert. I went to hang out with my friends who were skateboarding, and got one of them  to get me a photo pass so I could watch the concert without having to deal with the crowd. After the show, a professional photographer who had also shot the concert explained to me that there was an opportunity to sell my photos. I listened to what he told me and followed through on his advice, and a brand new world was opened up to me.

The Roots

You’ve published two books called Rare & Unseen Moments of 90's Hiphop Volume One and Volume Two. When and why did you decide to compile your archive into two books?

Actually, Volume Three has already been released on November 19. The trilogy of Rare & Unseen Moments of 90’s Hiphop began as an idea to showcase some of my work and to begin sharing the stories around these moments. My career during the 90’s was unconventional. I was not a big name photographer, nor was I on staff at a magazine to be given opportunities and assignments to photograph artists. The majority of my work happened because I found out about things going on. I would set up opportunities to shoot on spec or gain access to the artists. I sold what I could to publications or record labels. A lot of what I photographed did not make it into publications during the 90’s, but the content and history was still preserved in pictures (slides, negatives, and prints). As I began showing my images on social media, people’s responses and questions let me know over time how best to share what I had been a part of in the 90’s. The trilogy is just an introduction to my work and my unique relationships with artists.

Throughout the ’90s you managed to immortalise huge musicians like Tupac, Biggie or The Fugees in their early careers, did you know they would become as big as they did?

During the 90’s I honestly had no idea how big an artist could become, and, in the hip hop of that time, the biggest stars were people like LL Cool Jay or Run-D.M.C., who had commercial success. With newer artists, you could sense true talent, but there was no formula to making an icon. This was a world before cell phones, the internet, and social media. You really had to work hard to be noticed as an artist. We can now look back and see why certain artists are now considered icons some 20 years later, but, at the time, no one knew how hip hop would develop.

Did you ever stop and realise at the time that your pictures would eventually become so iconic? If it had ever ever crossed your mind, do you think you would have done anything differently?

During the 90’s, I never thought much about my work. After I moved on from music photography, I concentrated on other projects. If I did have a sense of what would have had value, of course I would have done things differently. I would have shot certain people and moments in a more traditional/safe manner. I would not have experimented with film and processing as much. I would have been more conservative in the moment and treated it more like a job. Perhaps I would not have allowed myself to be as immersive in observing and capturing the moment.

Jeru de Damaja and his father

Do you still keep in touch with any musician or group? If so, what do they think of your work?

For almost 20 years, I was out of the music industry loop as far as photography. Over the last year or so, I have been reconnecting with a number of the artists I had spent so much time around in the 90’s. Sharing my pictures with the artists has brought these photos full circle. The artists have been grateful to see how I captured imagery not only of them, but also of their contemporaries of that time. One amazing thing that has been happening is that artists are sharing amazing stories with me about the pictures I captured, along with stories about their fellow artists during the 90’s. The books and pictures show and tell a story from an unguarded, personal perspective of 90’s that is not often seen.

Would you say you have an all-time favourite shot or shots? Could you tell us the story behind these?

I don’t have a favorite picture. Scanning and digitizing what I captured is an on-going process. Like my early photo career, it is all financed by me as I work a job along and sometimes get hired to manage and produce events in NYC. The digitizing process takes time, and I am enjoying it. Pulling out slides, looking over negatives without the pressure of “will this sell” or setting myself a deadline allows me to really look into my body of work and share it in batches as new material. The essays that appear on my website offer the stories behind some of the photos. This writing and creativity is becoming a sort of therapy for me, to remember everything that happened.

Cypress Hill
Fat Joe & Big Pun
Ol' Dirty Bastard
The Notorious BIG
Tupac
Wyclef Jean