I think the fact that you are so marketable is that you’re one of the few rappers to bridge the gap from being just a rapper to being a pop culture icon. Let’s put it this way: my mother knows who you are. You even became a meme. How’d that come to be?
It’s probably because I talked to Bill O’ Reilly and asked him if he was mad. It was nothing really. He was trying to come at me and I thought it was hilarious, so I made a joke out of it. It’s a lot of things. But the simple fact is that I’m living my lifestyle and people are capitalizing on it financially or intellectually. I don’t plan any of this, I just wake up in the morning being me.
Photographing the Backs of Sailors’ Heads
It’s 1982 and I’ve got a gig on a Navy aircraft carrier, the USS Ranger. I climb aboard at Coronado Island across the San Diego Bay and get off seven days later in Honolulu, Hawaii. Three or four layers below deck I set up a portable portrait studio: three strobes on stands with a battery pack—two with umbrellas and one to spot the painted backdrop. I have an adjustable posing stool and a Beattie Coleman Portronic camera with a 100-foot roll of 70-millimeter color negative film. The Portronic sits on a roller tripod and has a slot for cards to ID the negatives. Approximately 3,000 men, who for the most part are still just boys, are slated for their yearbook portraits. These lucky sailors will hopefully purchase prints for the proud parents and girls in waiting back home in Dudvillie. I’ve borrowed the equipment from the storeroom of a portrait studio where I worked for a while and somehow ended up with my own key. I’m hoping to make a bundle.
The USS Ranger is a bustling city of men, many of whom live like cave dwellers and go for weeks at a time without seeing natural light. I think they’re all a bunch of idiots, but I can be quick to judge and tend to bristle around people in uniform. Enclosed in gloppy gray gloom, everything is narrow and riveted together. Heavy metal clanks echo from the walls but voices remain stationary. I eat with the officers in the mess hall and I’ve gone exploring and been lost three times by the second day.
Back in 2008, VICE released Peter Beste’s photo book, True Norwegian Black Metal. Thanks to Satan, the book was a runaway success. So much so that we asked Peter to help us make a film of the same name about Norway’s “most hated man,” Gorgoroth frontman, Gaahl. Having documented the insular black metal scene with more honesty and access than anyone before or since, Peter started up another long-term project—the documentation of Houston’s similarly tight-knit hip-hop community.
After nine years of work, his project is now a book called Houston Rap. We called Peter to talk about Houston, the media misrepresentation of hip-hop culture, Black Power, and just how much the black metal scene has in common with the guns, sizzurp, and DIY ethics of the Texas rap world.
VICE: Hi, Peter. I remember seeing some of the photos from Houston Rap years ago. This must have been a really long-term project for you, right?
Peter Beste: It’s been really long. I started shooting in 2004 and have been planning it since about 2000. The book was originally going to come out a few years ago, but there were a variety of holdups with the publishing process. Having to wait allowed us more time to get deeper into the community, and in retrospect I’m really glad that we did have that extra time. The book would have been more surface level if we released it early, and I think this extra time allowed us to get much deeper into the topics and release a truly unique book.
Was it difficult to gain trust and get access? Did it contribute to how long the book took to make?
That was a small factor, but I was really fortunate because I was immediately introduced to the right folks back in 2004, like Dope E from the Terrorists, K-Rino, and members of Street Military. These guys have immense respect in the hood and were willing to bring me around, introduce me to people, and essentially vouch for me.
VICE: How did the series begin?
Lincoln Clarkes: Leah, a solid friend who died in 1999 of a heroin overdose, introduced me to that addicted subculture. We frequently ran into each other for near a decade, she was usually engulfed in bizarre, surreal situations. But it all started the summer morning of meeting Patricia Johnson, who eventually went missing, and her two girlfriends. When photographing the trio, it became a Film Noir episode of drama. The portrait of them strung out on the steps of the Evergreen Hotel on Columbia St. brought me to my knees and made friends cry. I willingly slid into the new obsession of documenting at that point, in the vein of Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis, portraying social injustice and calling attention to the plight of addicted women. Within a few months the whole country was welling up with tears, and the police finally noticed.
Was it difficult to gain access to these women in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside?
Everybody is suspicious in the heroin/crack ghetto, but it’s also a friendly place. When walking into those streets and alleys you’re really walking into their living room, dining room, and bedroom. During this series a female assistant usually accompanied me, someone the Heroines would find amusing and a joy to meet, and who really cared about their situation, giving them apples, applying band-aids, lighting their cigarettes, etc. We would always try to make them laugh, or they would tell us some sordid sad story. Getting the skinny of what was going down in the ‘hood or with them, they opened-up like butterflies to us and became very generous. We made a point of giving every one of them a picture of themselves, and promised that we would not divulge their identity, unless they died.
Andres Serrano’s Cuban Odyssey: The Creator of ‘Piss Christ’ Embarks on a Quest to Photograph Fidel Castro
Andres Serrano is perhaps best known for peeing on Jesus Christ, or rather submerging a plastic crucifix figurine in his own urine and photographing it. His 1987 work Piss Christtouched off one of the most famous controversies in contemporary art history. Christians were outraged at his blasphemy in the name of creativity—and the fact that the government had given him a National Endowment for the Arts grant for his work, including Piss Christ—which resulted in death threats and protests. Even today, the piece causes outrage whenever it is exhibited and is frequently the target of vandalism. Of course, Andres has made a lot of art since then, including images that have been used as album covers for Metallica, but it is his earlier work that is mostly taught in college art courses the world over.
We had no idea what Andres was up to until last summer when we got a call from Dahlia Heyman, a producer with whom we are working on a feature film. She asked if we’d be interested in accompanying Andres on a three-week trip to Cuba as he attempted to photograph the normally reclusive Fidel Castro. He was planning to leave in three days, Dahlia said, but we agreed before she could even finish her pitch.
The following day, we met Andres in his West Village home, which is decorated like a Gothic cathedral, complete with pews and a collection of taxidermied cats and bats. We were as giddy as schoolgirls when he used us as models for lighting setups that he was planning for portraits in Cuba. We were less enthused when, a few days later, we found ourselves carrying cameras through crowded Havana streets in 105-degree weather, wishing desperately for a sip of water. The trip had us piling into the backs of 1950s Chevrolets and rickshaws, venturing into morgues, underground gay bars, and reggaeton concerts. Alas, Andres did not end up shooting El Comandante himself, but he did manage to document what seemed like the entire country in a few weeks. We followed him into the homes of Cubans of all social classes—including some members of the Castro family.