Wu-Tang Clan: Portraits of the Young Emcees
Eddie Otchere’s new book takes you back to the beginning
He’s has never been afraid to rush a stage to get that iconic shot. Eddie Otchere has snapped Nas, Biggie, and a 27-year-old Jay-Z, but he’s well known for his portraits of Wu-Tang from back when they were entering the scene. He first met the Wu-Tang in 1994, the year Method Man’s debut solo album “Tical” was released. Over the course of five years, he followed the emcees and photographed them in private — resulting in a collection of surprising and powerful film portraits for any fan of the genre or period.
Emily von Hoffmann: The first time you met your subjects in 1994, they were meant to be in sound check, and were instead throwing rocks at passing trains. Was this indicative of your later experiences with them in shoots? (As in, maybe it was sheer whim that they ended up meeting with you so many times?)
Eddie Otchere: Absolutely. It was a hallmark of every encounter, except my meeting with The Rza. The concert was scheduled for the Kentish Town Forum and word had gone around they where in London. In my hunt for them I went to the record company and my first encounter with the Wu Tang began as they were coming out of the building on their way to Kentish Town to do their soundcheck. I heard them before I saw them, so my camera was ready.
I managed to get on the coach and rolled with them while they argued and listened to deep soul music. Their passion for the life of Hip Hop is undeniable and our hook ups were built on the premise that I was documenting Hip Hop through my photography. It my mind, The Wu Tang are myth manifested into legend; in their earlier incarnations they were monks in temples, in the Hong Kong cinematic redux they were martial artists and in New York the myth is crystallized into legend and living form as 9 + 1 emcees bringing to life entities that had existed in Chinese folklore for a millennia.
EvH: Even in 1994, the Wu-Tang were regarded as somewhat mythical— what was that like for you to shoot them? How were you able to get access, and how did they regard you?
EO: I got access through research, contacts and connections. I knew where they’d be and I had made it clear to every publishing house in London and New York during the 90s that I would capture any emcee who was free, and that I would in turn offer access to my archive. I’ve never had any qualms bum rushing a stage to get that portrait I felt symbolized any Hip Hop artist and their integrity, and so I had already crafted a portfolio of rappers, singers and Dj’s.
On one occasion I was working for MixMag and the shoot was scheduled in a photographic studio. I would share the time slot with Time Out who were running a cover story. On that occasion, there was very little reverence, and that came across in the images but it added another layer to the narrative — although I had hoped on that day to complete my Wu collection, I didn’t. The Rza didn’t appear. So the one time I shoot in a formal setting it’s difficult and far removed from young out on a jolly across Europe for the first time. In fact, if it wasn’t because I was making demos in the Gee Street Studio (which the Rza used), I wouldn’t have shot him. Oddly, when I did, he was out of character and arrived as Bobby Digital. In those encounters we exchanged ideas, with the ODB I gave him a tape. He needed it.
EvH: What were some challenges for you as a portrait photographer, when you’re also presumably a fan of your subjects, and trying to get a unique or personal angle of these famous individuals?
EO: The only challenge is getting access — as the years have gone by, I’ve slowly moved out of the stream. Many of my contacts have moved on, I shoot fundamentally on film and many former clients equate that to redundancy. As I sought to get my work seen, my portfolio looks as much like an archive as it does a body of work. There are subjects that I need to shoot but sometimes no paper outlets for them in the contemporary world, so exhibiting my work is the natural way to put it in context.
EvH: If you had to choose a favorite portrait from among them, which would it be?
EO: My favorite goes to the Method Man, a great subject. But, when Danny Pope agreed to print my exhibition and asked for the negatives, I had to be very specific about the collection. To curate the 9 + 1 Wu-Tang edition, I had to gather together all the shoots, all the formats, all the diverse types of films and re-contact them. In this process I had started to develop miss-givings about the project because the negatives were not perfect. Exposures were haphazard, and in revisiting the contacts I was forced to look for relationships as the hang, and conversation between the images became now crucial.
There where many nights when myself and Danny would speak on the phone about the film I’d shot and what was the best film to cross-process at the time, as we would discuss the color casts cross-processed film created and our preferences. I wanted a 90’s approach to print-making, and to create a narrative that was true to the sessions with the hindsight of 23 years. But it’s when Danny said, “I can make the U-God portrait look like a David Bailey print,” I knew I had the right printer and the one man who is a living photoshop profile. He created a feel I never knew the negative had, and comparing the contact sheets to the poster is the living proof. U-god’s portrait is the best example of a printer and print delivering to a photographer his exact desire in one word. Bailey.
EvH: Are there any interactions or anecdotes from the shoots that particularly stand out in your mind?
EO: Ol’ dirty bastard, asking me to destroy the negatives, that stuck in my claw. Meth showing me his new trick with eye and cap. U-god with a plaster on his face. The Rza in a bath tub at the Met hotel. Watching the entire Wu-Tang Clan getting passport pictures at Earl Court station. The shows. The distinct smell of blunts and weed that hung in the air.
EvH: Can you share any plans for future work that you’re particularly excited about right now?
EO: Books. I feel compelled to put my photographs on paper.
EvH: You’re currently planning a new gallery to display these portraits together — what do you envision for this space and how did the idea come about?
EO: My current project will be on show at Brixton East, an art space located in south London. It’s a former furniture warehouse, built in 1871, it’s only had 3 owners. So the soul of the building is very much intact and on display, and unlike any white cube space the character of the building forces itself upon you. To manage that I wanted to build a room within the room, and in my conception for this show I began experimenting with building large boxes within spaces as a practical and aesthetically pleasing way to hang photographs.
Modeled on the dimensions of the Ka’aba in Mecca, my first experiment with type of ‘room within a room’ was in Sassoon Gallery, Peckham. It was interesting to watch people interacting with the space, the photography and to circulate around the box. It made me think about Chris Offili’s ‘Upper Room’ installation because of how its architecture and lighting dominated how you saw the art. Moreover, I saw that work when it was originally installed at Victoria Miro and was equally fascinated with it when it was acquired by Tate Britain and re-installed there. I realized that the future of such housings for art or photography should be evolutionary; as spaces appear and disappear, they evolve and grow.
During my travels to Italy to deliver negatives and view proofs, I would always come across chapels, some unconsecrated but mostly open. In them were both iconography and holy objects but there was also a consistency of dimension. One particular chapel struck me because it had evolved from being a humble home to a chapel, to a cathedral in only 1000 years. The holy house of Loreto taught me that mythology, legend and religion are the same. The Wu-Tang’s references to chambers and their belief in numerology is not lost upon me. The number 10 or rather 9 + 1 rappers are crafted within the manifestations of the project, but fundamentally these religious vehicles are there to frame and narrate portrait photography.