August 19, 1999 was supposed to be a showcase of the power of just how far Hip-Hop had come.
The power of West Coast Hip-Hop was to be on full display: Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, MC Ren, E-40, Xzibit, Snoop Dogg, and hundreds of other Golden State artists who had built upon the traditions that first started in the Bronx in 1973. The plan was to assemble at a nondescript parking lot in Downtown Los Angeles to take a photograph to show the world that skill was the only prerequisite for making it to the big time. But like anything having to do with Hip-Hop, there's much more to the story than good intentions.
It's rather apropos that on the same day as the planned photoshoot, Pee Wee Reese, the star shortstop for the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers, was being laid to rest. Reese was one of the few players who believed that baseball wasn't only for white men. As such, he supported Jackie Robinson when he broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball in April, 1947. The majority of players and fans believed Robinson was ruining the game, and that inclusiveness was somehow anti-American. Reese only saw Dodger blue. In way, Reese laid the ground work for how competition and rivalry in sport led to an overall better product.
There's no arguing New York's Hip-Hop dominance during the early '80s. Groups/artists like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, the Fearless Four, The Sequence, and Silver Fox all contributed to the notion that if you weren't from one of the five boroughs, there was no use picking up the mic. But as Hip-Hop culture grew, Los Angeles definitely had something to say.
The origins of what was internally referred to as the "A Day In The West" photoshoot can be traced back to two different cultural moments built around Black excellence. The first, "A Great Day in Harlem," was an Art Kane photograph for Esquire Magazine that featured 57 of the most important jazz musicians at the time.
The lluminaries in Harlem between Fifth and Madison Avenues included Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Thelonius Monk, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Charles Mingus, Gerry Mulligan, and Count Basie.
"The fact that all 57 musicians agreed to show up for a 10am photoshoot is a true testament to how dedicated they were. These musicians did not gather together on this early morning because they thought they would be paid or instantly be made an international superstar. Rather, they did it to celebrate the golden age of jazz and all that it stood for. Jazz was never just a genre, it was a way of life. And it still is.’"
- Quincy Jones
Forty years later, in 1998, Sheena Lester, the editor-in-chief ofXXL magazine had the idea to recreate “A Great Day in Harlem" with important Hip-Hop artists from every region. As Lester later recalled, she sent out “an open call for every artist or figure—old school and new, indie soldiers and major-label chart-dwellers alike — who’d made an unquestionably noteworthy impact on Hip-Hop music and its progress or had ever recorded a rap album.”
She managed to secure 177 different artists/groups to step in front of Gordon Parks' camera. At that point, Parks, a cultural icon, had shot photos ranging from Malcolm X to Grace Kelly, but this was seemingly something bigger — both in literal size – and in its attempt to document a 25-year-old art form that some cultural critics thought would eventually go the way of disco music.
The 1998 shoot was Parks’s second visit to the Harlem brownstone number 17. In 1995, Life magazine assembled 10 of the 12 surviving musicians from Kane’s picture, and Parks photographed them.
While a sense of "homage" permeates the connective tissue between Kane's photograph and Parks', the locale speaks to greater issues involving racial inequality during the 19th century in New York City. The stoop became a place for communal meetings for Black residents which provided a respite from sweltering conditions during the summer months. As the socio-economic divide increased amongst New York City residents, the stoop came to represent a lower class subsistence.
Whether planned — or simply fortuitous timing — 1998 proved to be a pivotal time in Hip-Hop. Brand Nubian was reuniting, A Tribe Called Quest was planning what at the time was their final album, Black Star was uniting two of the most important lyricists, and OutKast and JAY-Z were preparing Aquemini and Hard Knock Life Volume 2, respectively. However, many who had the good fortune of attending that day, were left to just relish in how far everyone had come.
“For like the first time, five years into our career, they’re like, ‘Meet Rakim, meet Wu-Tang, meet Jermaine Dupri’—all these greats, Kool Herc and the Cold Crush Brothers, like we’re meeting them all for the first time. That was a really, really special day for us and to see him [Parks] there in the eye of the storm, just cool, calm, and collected and not panicking. Such an innocent moment was something to behold; it was so surreal and beautiful that I’m really proud to be part of this photo.”
While "A Great Day in Hip-Hop" didn't use a regional organizing principal when selecting acts, those with strong, regional ties to the West Coast scene felt they couldn't let the East Coast's show of strength go unanswered. '
Ultimately, three women were tasked with bringing "A Day In The West" to fruition.
Felicia Morris, aka The Poetess, was already a thirty year veteran in the music industry when the seedlings of "A Day In The West" were being forged.. She got her start in radio in 1989 on Lee Bailey's Hip Hop Countdown & Report, and also had a record deal at Interscope where she holds the distinction of being the first female signed to the label before Death Row was created. She counted the likes of Tupac, Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch, and Gerardo, as label mates.
"I had a single out called 'Love Hurts,' she recalls. "It was about domestic violence, [and] it was inspired by the Dr.Dre/Dee Barnes incident. Ultimately, Morris only released one project before choosing to focus on radio at 92.3 The Beat in LA for 13 years.
Morris was approached by a photographer, Arnold Turner, who had heard about the XXL shoot and wanted to recreate a West Coast version. Turner had shot The Poetess album cover, as well as key projects like Ice T's The Iceberg, TLC'S Diggin on You, and JAY Z's Feeling It.
She knew it was a large undertaking, so she put the word out to her colleagues.
Jasmine Vega started promoting clubs in LA and eventually transitioned to the artist side with acts like Tone Loc and Young MC. This led her to become the head of PR for Delicious Vinyl.
"We just hit the ground running because that's just how we did everything back in the day, super guerrilla style," she says. "And it's really how I did my whole career in the industry. I just believe that that's the best way to do it. It was super guerrilla style. The pitch was really about just documenting us together. New York did it, let's document it as well. That's a great thing that they're going to have forever. We need something too, and that's pretty much what it was. Let's document it, put aside all the beefs and let's come together and get this done.."
Betsy Bolte was working double duty at the time; splitting her time between No Limit Records (distributed through Priority) and as a waitress at the The Ivy on Roberstson Blvd. She was also nine months pregnant at the time.
She recalls that the date of the "A Day In The West" shoot was chosen to coincide with the Source Awards which was taking place at the Pantages Theater. Hosted by Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes and Naughty by Nature's Treach, the show would ultimately mark the first time two major network television hours were devoted exclusively to Hip-Hop. Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash, and DJ Kool Herc all received special recognition for their contributions, and it marked the television debuts of both Eminem and Lil Wayne.
The way the three women describe it, it had the feeling of a family reunion. There was a semblance of organization, but everyone wasn't quite sure the ordersof events. Bolte sheepishly admits that they probably didn't secure a permit because they regularly shot photos under bridges in Downtown without any official documentation from the city.
As more and more people began showing up, the energy became more palpable — punctuated by the smell of "bud in the air," and the sound of lowriders bouncing up and down on Dayton tires and rims.
"It was like a Hip-Hop family picnic," Vega says. "And it was because of that environment, it was really hard to actually wrangle them when it came to time to get the picture done, it was like, okay, come on, come on, come on. Because everybody was getting high and doing what they do."
Snoop Dogg spoke to the MTV Radio Network about the event’s importance: “A lot of love being spread, a lot of people connecting, shaking hands, touching bases with people they never thought that they could meet. ’Cause the West Coast was based on cliques and labels and different segments, and now, it’s like, we tired of all that, man. Let’s come together and be one…. We don’t need to be sectioned off no more. Because when we in sections and cliques, we don’t go nowhere.”
Dr. Dre was arguably the biggest Hip-Hop act on the West Coast at the time. All three women had used their sway and influence to invite him to the event. But, he still hadn't showed. Perhaps sensing that timing is everything when it comes to making an entrance, Dre was among the last to show up.
"The fact that he showed up and saw the importance of having this documented, I thought was just, to this day, why I have the utmost respect for him," Vega says of Dr. Dre.
Among the artists who appeared in the photo were Dr. Dre, Yo-Yo, Black Eyed Peas, Warren G, Cypress Hill, E-40, J.J. Fad, Raphael Saadiq, W.C., Ant Banks, and Tone Loc. The official roster — most of whom actually showed up — were commemorated on a shirt from the clothing brand DADA Supreme.
"I don't even think we were compensated for that project," Morris says. "I think we all just did it out of the love for West Coast — or just Hip-Hop – period."
According to Morris, Vega, and Bolte, the iconic photo does exist. There was no case of a lens cap being left on, or a digital file being corrupted. According to them, Arnold Turner simply refuses to release the photo because Ice Cube wasn't in attendance that day. In their estimation, Turner feels that the photo is incomplete.
While the very nature of photography suggests a truth captured on that day, they believe Turner wants to photoshop Ice Cube in so it is a more thorough representation of West Coast Hip-Hop at the time.
"Every now and then, I'll get somebody who asks me, 'What happened to that picture that Arnold took?' And I'm just like, 'I don't know.'"
- Felicia Morris
Jasmine Vega takes a bit more of a frustrated tone when I bring up the photograph. She has since left the music business and became an estitician. Still, even twenty years later, she doesn't understand Turner's end game.
"Never in a million years, would I ever think, and it's not like I hate Arnold at all, I love the guy. I love the man, but never in a million years, would I have ever thought that he would have just housed it and did absolutely nothing with it," she says. "He could have sold it to a magazine or something. To me it's just like, 'Let's get it out there. Let's put it in a museum.' Every time — and I haven't seen him in like a few years — but every time it's brought up, it's just kind of swept under the rug by him. I mean, it wouldn't take long to superimpose Cube into this photo, and I think I know a few of the girls have brought it up to him because they probably see him more often than I do. So yeah, it's super frustrating. I don't know if he's waiting for a perfect storm or something, but to me you create that."
Editor's note: Arnold Turner didn't acknowledge repeated attempts to comment on this story.