In Photos

Project Portraits: Shooting LA’s Elite at Project Blowed XXII

If, back in 2009, while I waited in a Best Buy checkout line, Abstract Rude’s newly released “Rejuvenation” album in one hand and my wallet in the other, you told me a day would come when I’d actually call Abstract Rude on his personal cell, I would’ve said: Of course that will happen; I’m going to be fucking famous. Well, it’s 2017 now, and I’m still not famous. The good news for you, however, is that, had that actually happened, you’d be a fortune teller, and everyone knows fortune tellers get wicked laid. In any case, when I got word that Project Blowed’s 22nd anniversary show was to be held at Los Globos in Silverlake, I immediately contacted my friend Blake who works as the venue’s booking manager. I asked if he’d be so kind as to score me a media pass for the event and he came through for me the way he always does, but with one caveat: I’d have to call Abstract Rude personally.

I don’t know what kind of brain you have, but I have the kind that frantically searches for reasons I shouldn’t do things I really want to do whenever I’m presented with the opportunity to do them. Reasons I should be afraid of all the many things that could potentially go wrong. I win most of the arguments, but it’s an exhausting battle just the same. “You can’t call Abstract Rude, you’re awkward on the phone. And what’s he gonna ask you? What if you can’t answer? What then? This is too much work. Fuck it, you tried. Let’s just stay home that night. You still haven’t finished the 2nd season of Narcos and there’s that bottle of whiskey you got for Christmas but haven’t opened yet. You love whiskey.” I’ve always imagined a small switch of sorts sticking out from my brain. It’s more of a knob, really. Like a dial. I see several words on the dial but the only one I’m able to make out clearly is “off,” so I visualize myself forcing the knob around until it’s in the “off” position as indicated by the big red arrow. I try to do this without hesitation because I know hesitation only leads to my trying to make out the other words on the dial, desperate to find some that say “give up” or “you can have everything you want without working for it.” Both the best and worst decisions I’ve ever made can all be attributed to my imaginary brain-dial and my increasing ability to turn it off. So that’s just what I did. I powered down my brain and stepped outside to call Abstract Rude.

It’s always a weird thing to hear a voice on the other end of a phone call that you’ve heard countless times on various songs throughout the years. You can tell it’s the same voice but it’s more relaxed, the inflections not as pronounced. I introduced myself and he did the same, unaware that I already knew his name, not to mention his life story. “The only issue is that we already have three event photographers and I don’t want the pictures to be redundant,” he explained. It was a reasonable concern. “What I don’t have is a photographer for backstage. I’d like to have a portrait taken of each performer on the bill in front of the same background. You can hang out in the green room and grab the artists as they come in. Is that something you can do?” I felt my heart sink as the voices started up again. “You’re awkward in crowds. These people don’t want you bugging them for pictures. You’re not very experienced. What if the lighting is terrible?” The truth is that I’m sick to death of concert photography and have recently fallen in love with shooting portraits, so much so that I really don’t care to do anything else. People I’d love to shoot but would probably never have the opportunity to do so, not even once, would be there in mass, all in the same room. Again I reached for my brain-dial. I accepted the offer and thought about nothing else for the rest of the day.

The venue security guards all had the usual stick visibly protruding from deep within their collective ass, the same stick from last week and the week before. I always make it a point to be extra friendly to bouncers hell bent on being shitheads. Not to submit to them and not necessarily to mock them, but as not to allow my combative nature to get me punched in the face, or worse, forced to leave. I ask how their night’s going and not only do they say nothing, they do that thing where you keep your eyes locked with someone else’s eyes as you slowly turn your head away, and then at the last second, once the suspense has peaked, you break eye contact with them, adding a slight eye-roll for extra points. That’s master level shitheadism, a skill not easily obtained. It goes on this way for 10 minutes. I cheerfully comply with their hostile demands to search my bags, all three times. I make small talk (to myself) about the weather as they use their flashlights to prod through my camera bag, banging around my equipment they’d have to spend 10 years standing in front of this shitty club on Sunset Blvd to afford. I laugh, I smile, I mind my manners, all the while full-on fantasizing about the shit I can’t wait to talk on my blog, all the laughs to be had at their expense. A lesser man would bring their mothers into this, but lord knows those women have been through enough, the dusty crack whores that they are.

Once I’d successfully pushed past the gatekeepers and brushed off any fuckboy particles I might have gotten on my jacket in doing so, I set up shop in the green room, fired off some test shots, and waited. It wasn’t long before the room started to fill up, and from that moment forward it was a chaotic scene the 21-year-old-me would have readily donated his/my heart, lungs, and balls to witness, let alone be a part of. Everyone was there. People whose careers I’ve followed for well over a decade, some of whom I’ve come to think of as my personal friends until I remember that they have no idea I’m alive. People who weren’t even scheduled to perform were there just to hang out. It was a constantly revolving door of LA hip hop’s elite with little to no ego or arrogance to be observed, at least no more than can be considered customary in a room full of rappers.

Through all the commotion, through all the laughing and the rapping and the thick pillow of weed smoke that had seemingly taken on a consciousness of its own, engulfing all who entered the room as if welcoming them to the party, I shifted my focus from fighting the oncoming panic attack just long enough to realize that I was the only one in the room who was more fan than artist. Upstairs, in the main room of the venue, these people would be in work mode. They’d be signing CDs, taking pictures with fans, shaking hands and thanking people for compliments, humoring drunken rants about how long this person’s been a fan or the time that person met them at a festival or a party. Down here they weren’t entertainers but friends. Their guards were visibly let down at the green room door like a coat being hung up until needed again, needed before going back out into the storm. Impromptu cyphers would break out between Dumbfoundead and Otherwize and Sahtyre and VerBs and anyone else who felt inclined to jump in, not to entertain anyone but simply because they’re all professional rappers and this is what rappers do. Everyone was genuinely happy to see one another. 2Mex entered the room, his prosthetic leg protruding proudly from his shorts, with a certain glow about him that expressed his happiness more than any words could. It was the look of someone who’d come close enough to death to now feel an unadulterated sense of gratitude for the life he lives and the culture he loves, the only one he knows, the one he nearly left behind. The glow proved to be contagious, instantly spreading through the room to be reciprocated in the form of respect. Busdriver stood quietly, the way Busdriver always stands, his signature demeanor suggesting there’s far more going on inside than out, while Medusa casually strolled around the room with the elegance of an esteemed mother figure, a wise Wendy bird in a lair of lost boys.

I talked with Nocando briefly about the interview we did back in December and I tried to hide my elation when he told me that he enjoys this blog. I shot the shit with Sahtyre about photography and Stranger Things. I stood next to Otherwize as he freestyled about every concert-goer who passed us in the hallway. They’d stop to comment or ask him a question and he’d just throw out a rhyme for every word they said until they’d finally give up and walk away. Overall, I was able to keep my composure and act like I’d been there before. That is, until I met Open Mike Eagle. I’ve stood next to Mike at least 3 times over the years but couldn’t ever bring myself to say anything to him, partly out of respect, but mostly because I’m a pussy. If you’ve read one fourth of the bullshit I spew on this blog, you can imagine how geeked I was for the opportunity to shoot his portrait. Even Mike knew I was geeked, because I fanned the fuck out and told him so. Once we had the shot, I nodded and thanked him all cool and collected-like, fully prepared to leave it at that. But Mike, the gentlemen that he is, blew my cover all to shit by reaching out to shake my hand. I felt a snap in my consciousness and before I knew what was happening, I actually heard myself telling him what a huge fan I am of his music and his podcast and how long I’ve been following his career and how happy I am for him and his well-deserved success, so on and so forth. There’s much more I could’ve said, and the only reason I didn’t say it is because I happened to look down mid-sentence, which is when I realized that, to my horror, I was still shaking his fucking hand. I let go of it faster than I would’ve had it been made of fire. He just smiled humbly and thanked me, putting his hand to his chest and making a face that said, “don’t sweat it, dude, I get it all the time.”

The dilemma for fans of underground hip hop is that people who have no idea what it is really can’t be expected to take it seriously. It isn’t likely that they’ll share or even understand your enthusiasm toward it, and that’s always been a source of frustration for me. Nocando told me that I do good job making underground rappers sound like a big deal, and all I could tell him was, “You’re all a big deal to me.” I hung out with some of the heroes of our scene that night, the veterans, the ones who are really doing it. I entered the green room at 8pm and didn’t leave it once, not even to take a piss, until 1:30am because I didn’t want to miss a moment of it. I exchanged phone numbers with people I never even expected to see in person and I got some of my favorite photos I’ve shot since first picking up a camera. I did all of this despite constant protests from my comfort zone. Your comfort zone is a dungeon of lies and it wants you to die alone in it, unhappy and unfulfilled. The next time you feel your brain preventing you from doing something you really want to do, try visualizing a dial on it and, just for fun, see what happens if you turn it off. But don’t blame me if someone dies.

Thank you to Abstract Rude for the opportunity, to my friend Blake for the assist, and to everyone who let me take their picture. 


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