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NahRight & UpNorthTrips Present: Picture Perfect with Ricky Powell


Words by Daniel Isenberg (@StanIpcus)

Ricky Powell aka The Rickster, for those who don’t already know, is the man behind some of the most iconic images in the history of hip-hop and NYC street photography. Whether it was the Beastie Boys or Run-D.M.C. or Public Enemy, he was always up in the mix, ready to take professional photos of the early Def Jam scene on what he describes as “a hangout tip.” And he was heavy in the culture beyond that, snapping timeless shots of everyone from Basquiat to Eazy E to Big L (RIP to all), and hosting his infamous public access television show Rappin’ with The Rickster (which is now available on DVD), which gave people an opportunity to become acquainted with his extremely fun-loving personality. Point blank, dude has taken some of the illest rap flicks of all-time and is a legendary character in the game, so it was only right that we tap him for our Picture Perfect series.

Along with our brother Ev Boogie at UpNorthTrips, who we insist be recognized as the kingpin of the throwback rap photo wave that every other Instagram account seems to be riding these days, we carefully compiled ten classic pictures of different hip-hop artists Ricky Powell has taken over the years to ask him about for our latest edition of Picture Perfect. And it was an honor to listen (and laugh) as he told the stories behind them while walking the NYC streets, pausing at times to say what’s up to friends of his on the block (and his building’s new super), take a photo of a cute dog for his Instagram account, curse out a group of Sex and the City wannabees, dodge getting hit by a delivery man on a bicycle, and collect a rack from a Manhattan restaurant who recently put his work on display. This is Picture Perfect with the guy who dicked your girl—Ricky Powell.


1. Beastie Boys

Ricky Powell: “This was ‘88. They just had a very abrupt change in everything. ‘87 was the whole Licensed to Ill tour, which I was privileged to be a part of as the unofficial/official photographer. Then, the shit went down with them and Def Jam, and Russell [Simmons] and Rick [Rubin], which, whatever happened, happened. I never ask them about their business.

“A year later, they’re on Capitol Records in Cali. Whole new recording and producing team. They were renting the G-Spot, this house up in the Hollywood Hills, from this old married couple the Grasshoffs. And they were really getting into this album, Paul’s Boutique. They had it all. They were celebrities in Cali. L.A. loved having them fuckin’ badass Beastie Boys. They were making all these friends, most of which were sons and daughters of celebrities. I got a kick out of it, being the quiet guy on the side.

“They used to fly me out while they were making the record. A week here and there, boom boom boom. I used to dip into the Grasshoffs’ closets and rock their wear. If you’ve seen my famous shot of Yauch wearing the big, furry hat—that’s the lady’s hat. [The Grasshoffs] made their wardrobe real funky.

“It was like camp for me. I would just hang out, roll joints, and make a lot of, what’s the word? Humor. Just be me, I guess. Goofy Goofenheimer. Make them laugh, and be productive. Because my thing is taking professional photos on a hangout tip. That’s the way it started from the jumpoff. I ain’t got time to sit in class all day and study photography, because I got ADD.

“Yauch and D lived in the house, but Horovitz had this dope room that was built into this hill, like, underground style, out of like [a] James Bond [movie] or some ill shit. And the window of his mini-apartment or whatever you want to call it looked into the middle of the swimming pool, underwater. We used to drive around, and I would take pictures of them here and there, at Hayden Planetarium or whatever that shit is. But this time, they wanted to have a shot underwater.

“So they put on some shit, and I shot a roll or two with them just being goofy underwater. And they came out good. That’s the one where Horovitz is pressing his face against the glass. There were a lot of good shots actually, of them rocking different gear. But this is the one they picked. Then they hired Haze, the legendary graphic artist who did a lot of shit for Def Jam—logos and what not—and he burned in the colors. And they decided to make that the sleeve for the album.”


2. Run-D.M.C.

“I ended up with them on a day in May of ‘87, on the historic Together Forever Tour, which was Run-D.M.C., the Beastie Boys, and Davey D featured opening. This was right in the middle of the year, because the Licensed to Ill Tour started in the beginning of ‘87. So they took off from the middle of Licensed to Ill, and started a new tour in the middle of the tour, which Run-D.M.C. jumped on. Both groups were managed by Lyor Cohen and Russell Simmons, and it seemed like the most obvious and interesting thing to do at the time. Together Forever, black and white, if I do have to spell that out. Interracial harmony. It was two of the coolest groups in the world, and I was very privileged to be a part of that and go along.

“Everything was going great. Ridiculous reception. In England at the airport, everyone was waiting there. It was a crazy month long in Europe. When we were in Paris, that show was crazy. One dude bum-rushed the stage and tried to get to Run-D.M.C., and one of Run-D.M.C.’s crew banged this dude out on stage. And then the crowd went nuts, and they bumrushed the stage. Both groups had to duck down into the dressing rooms and lock the doors. It was interesting people down there. Keith Haring was down there. We waited like an hour, locked in this dressing room. It was kind of like when they had the riot in Long Beach on the Raising Hell Tour a year earlier. We learned later that outside they were burning the buses. It turned into a riot.

“But before that show, I went walking around with Run-D.M.C. We started doing the tourist thing. I was actually looking for french fries. Then I said, ‘Yo yo yo, do me a favor and stand right here, let me get this picture.’ I took those on the casual, hangout tip. I didn’t really take too many pictures—I took a few. I just used an auto-jammy cam that fit in my pocket. That’s how I shot all my club pictures. At this point, May ‘87, it marks like two years that I was hustling as The Rickster the photographer. I started in May ‘85.

“Anyway, then me and Jay walked up the Champs-Elysees, checking out the shops. He was wearing the full length, leather Adidas outfit. And he was like this huge star, and I’m just walking with him. It was kind of like a blend of me being a photographer following this big star, but then again, you know, we’re boys.

“Again, I took that picture on the hangout tip. And it ended up being iconic. It wasn’t a professional photo shoot. Profile, they knew me, and they were in the Village, and inquired about some Run-D.M.C. pictures I had. And they chose that one for their Greatest Hits. I’m glad I got something from that.”


3. Eazy E

“That was from a gig. I was going to interview him for a magazine, Seconds. This is ‘93. He was at the Hilton, on 6th Avenue and 51st. At this point in my career, I’m like a journalist. I started writing in ‘91, actually through Grand Royal. And I’m also in the middle of my public access career, Rappin’ with the Rickster, my TV show. So, I brought a tape recorder, a pen and paper, my still camera for photography, and my video camera. I figured I’ll interview this dude, take some pictures of him, and get some video for my TV show. I was interviewing him because he had a new EP coming out, a diss against [Dr.] Dre.

“So I get there and knock on the door, and he gets the door, and he’s got a fuckin’ blunt the size of a cannon in his hands, presenting it to me the way Japanese people present business cards. So I’m like, to myself, ‘What?! This is gonna be a fun interview, boy.’ I come in, it’s just me and him. He’s got mad shit on the table—herbals, drinks poppin’. So we’re chilling out, doing the interview, getting mad zooted. I’m like, ‘Can I film while I do the interview?’ He’s like, ‘Sure.’ So I’m filming, picking up the camera here and there, filming me upside down. We were having a good time. He was cool and calm, I took some pictures, and the interview came off dope. It was published, and everyone was happy. Then twenty years later, this company put that full blown image on a t-shirt, and people went jumping out the window over it.

“That was my one and only experience with him, and he was really cool. Really nice. He was handling business calls while I’m interviewing him, telling them to step off because he was busy. He was funny, dude. He had a good sense of humor. I actually really liked that bond between me and him, because we were from way two different places in life. I like how he was with me, he was mad present. I like to keep his image and face alive when I post him up anywhere. It’s important. In hip-hop, he’s definitely a distinctive artist and person. Rest In Peace.”


4. LL Cool J

“I got flown out by management, Lyor Cohen flew me out. RUSH managed all the rap groups, even the ones that weren’t on Def Jam, like Run-D.M.C. who were on Profile, Stetsasonic who were on Jive, and Eric B. and Rakim who were on 4th & B’way. Def Jam and RUSH Productions shared an office on 298 Elizabeth Street, between Bleecker and Houston. I used to go just hang out over there, and you never knew who was gonna show up. I would—doink, doink—take casual pictures that now I throw up on Instagram and they get four, five, six hundred likes. People are like, ‘Oh my God, classic!!’ It’s just funny. I mean, I’m flattered, of course. I’m not gonna lie, it feels good. But it’s funny too.

“This one came from a really unorganized situation. I don’t even think he knew I was coming. He was in the middle of tour, kicking arse with all his shit. This is ‘88. We ended up driving around for hours, I don’t know why. I was in a crowded car. And I’m frustrated and disgruntled, it’s getting to be nighttime, and I’m like, ‘Yo, what the fuck! Stop the car right here.’ We were in the middle of the mountains or something. We were lost, I don’t know. I said, ‘We’re taking the fucking picture on the side of the road right here, I don’t give a fuck. I don’t need a fancy background.’ LL said, ‘Yeah, definitely. He’s right.’ He liked me, and he trusted me. He’d seen me around Def Jam, and he knew how I did. My work spoke for itself, put it like that. And I’m not an arrogant, jerkoff photographer. Most photographers are cornballs who put cameras in their hands. They’re repulsive, desperate, foul, uncool, chumps, who deserved to be lined up and bitch-slapped in public.

“So I’m like, ‘Stand right here.’ The guy on the left is Cut Creator, and the guy on the right is E Love, his hypeman. It was his boy from his neighborhood who stood on stage with him and bobbed his head, with his arms crossed at certain parts. I had a camera, it was manual, where you had to wrap your hand around the lens and kinda go clockwise or counterclockwise [to focus]. And I had a Vivitar flash on top.

“We take some pictures, I see the roll. If I know what I’m doing, I don’t need to take a million shots. Sometimes people are surprised when I’m like, ‘I got it.’ They’re like, ‘That’s it?’ If I gotta keep shooting the same thing, it kills it for me. It’s a waste of time. I got it. If I didn’t get it, I’m in the wrong profession.

“I got the roll back, and they came out good. The red really pops out nicely with the black background. It’s actually nighttime in the middle of nowhere, on the side of a car. Nothing glamorous, but he came off in it. He rocked it. He made me look good as a photographer, because of who and what and how he does. But I don’t call myself a photographer, I never did. I anoint myself an individualist. I just clicked the picture, easy breezy. There’s no magic formula to how I got my beautifulness in my shot. It was him. And I don’t think it ever even came out for Troop, so it just became one of my gems in my treasury.”


5. Erick Sermon and KRS-One

“This is ‘88. I was at some rap party, I don’t remember [where] exactly. And I would go to these joints, and if I saw one person on one side of the club or event, and then I saw another one [on the other side], I’d pull them together and be like, ‘Yo, can you come together for a photo?’ So I put them together, and said, ‘Right here, this is a cool ass duo.’ And they obliged me, because they knew I was around, and they knew who I was, even though I didn’t act like I was all that, of course. They blessed me with a quick moment of two all-stars chilling together. Those were two heavy hitters at the time, and I had to get that, both professionally, and as a fan.”


6. Fresh Prince and Daddy-O

“I know Daddy-O because I’m in [the Stetsasonic] video ‘Talkin’ All That Jazz,’ filmed up in Harlem. I played this corny, white lawyer dude who gets thrown out of court after they win a decision. We did a few takes, and the first time they threw me out, I got a little roughed up. I was like, ‘Yo fellas, take it easy! Don’t make me make a phone call!’

“So Daddy-O sees me hanging in front of RUSH, and he’s like, ‘Yo Ricky!’ We’re chillin’, and this light-skinned black kid walks up. A lot of new jacks used to always be rolling up there looking for record deals. So he’s jockin’ Daddy-O, and he’s like, ‘Yo, could you take a picture of me and Daddy-O?’ He said that to me. I said, ‘Sure.’ So he sat next to Daddy-O, all hyped. And I took it, and I never saw him again until later on tour. That kid happened to be Will Smith. He got a deal very soon after that. This was early ‘88. You look at it now, and you say, ‘Where are they now, today?’

“You can actually see my shadow. They’re standing against the back of the car, but the shadow of me with my camera is in there. That was a good moment, it came out dope. It’s nice and clear, and the colors are dope. I like that one.”


7. Big L

“That one is melancholy. That young man was unfortunately a victim of the harsher parts of the street life, and street politics. That’s a tragedy, because Big L had a quiet demeanor, was very proper, very respectful to me, very stand-up, humble, and a regular dude, even when he was coming up and seeing people going bananas over him.

“I met him through the Fat Beats people. They had the store on 6th Avenue over Bagel Buffet, and I became good friends with most of the people at Fat Beats. And their main office slash warehouse was down on Desbrosses Street, down near the Hudson River below Canal Street. I used to go down there and have smoking cipher sessions. And I met Big L going in there.

“This is like ‘98, and I wasn’t really into shooting hip-hop. I had my run with the Def Jam scene and RUSH until like ‘89ish, and then I kind of shot whatever came my way. But this whole scene of Fat Beats and Diggin’ In The Crates, this was the new wave for me at that point, and I liked it. I embraced it.

“So one day, I shot a roll for one of his records. They asked me to take some pictures of him right on the street. That’s him standing in front of their warehouse. It wasn’t a big deal. I shot a bunch of pictures that day. It was him and his crew standing outside. I remember those pictures. I took pictures of him in the studio, with the microphone in front of him. That was another nice one, that was in midtown.

“I went to his wake in Harlem. It was sad, dude. I heard it was really some retribute—his brother had some beef, and they couldn’t get to him, so they took it out on [L]. He was just about to hit the big time. If you see an image of Big L on [social] media, the love he gets is just overwhelming. I’m happy for him to get his props. There’s a little part inside of me that feels privileged that I pushed the button on that picture, and had that moment with him. I miss him. Shooting him was definitely one of the highlights in my photography career. He was a good one.”


8. Public Enemy

“Yo, that picture?! I love that picture to death! That’s like ‘88. Public Enemy is fucking, oh my God, forget about it. Public Enemy was like the Oakland Raiders of hip-hop. You know, outlaw-ish, hard-hitting, stupid cool, black and silver. I like to use sports and life analogies. [It made perfect sense when] Chuck D rocked that Raiders jacket, and made it a look.

“I took that on Bleecker Street, around the corner from Def Jam. I was hanging out there, and I left, and got myself a knish. So I’m eating a knish from like Katz’s or Schimmel’s, with some dank mustard on it. And I see Pubic Enemy on Bleecker Street between Elizabeth and Mott. It was dark, off the beaten path. And they were lined up being photographed by a little photography crew. So I’m walking by, observing quietly, not interrupting the dude’s flow, showing some courtesy for the photographer, unlike other wack motherfuckers.

“So I notice the photographer is the bitch ass photo editor of SPIN magazine, Chris something. Dude was such a douchebag, he wouldn’t give anybody shoots. He took all the shoots for himself. He was known for that. And [Public Enemy sees] me standing behind, kind of watching. They’re like, ‘Yo Rick, what up!’ And I’m eating my knish, looking at this jerkoff be like, ‘Yeah, do this, and do that.’ I was like, ‘Oh my God. You know what? Fuck it. I’m gonna shoot over this goof, ‘cause he’s a fuckin’ bitch ass cornball who’s killing it, not in a good way.’

“I put my hand behind him, and I kind of wave to the group. And I’m eating my knish in my mouth, with mustard all over my shirt, and I snap one picture, and I nod like, ‘Thanks,’ and I kept it moving. And that shot has become my classic Public Enemy shot, especially of that period.

“One shot. And this dude’s shooting like hundreds of shots. They looked worn out, already. I normally would ask a photographer, like, ‘Yo, can I get one shot?’ But that jerkoff, fuck it. Stole his shot. And that’s my style. Taking professional photos on a hangout tip. I just take a snap of what is relevant to me. It adds intrigue to the image.

“Public Enemy, they weren’t just fuckin’ dope and famous. They were really good people. I really loved each one of those dudes individually as well as collectively.”


9. Rakim

“That was at a concert at the Apollo Theater in ‘88. I was going up there a lot, because I really loved the music. I used to go to a lot of shows at the Apollo, even by myself. That one, it was packed. I was right there, with my elbows on the stage, front and center, with my bag on.

“I got some good shots that night. I got the classic one where he’s got his back turned to me and you see ‘Rakim’ on the back, and you see the big backdrop in the foreground. To me, at the time, he was like Mickey Rivers from the Yankees. He was the Mickey Rivers of hip-hop. Mad cool, hard. That was a good one for my collection, to get Rakim. Loved Rakim. He was mad cool. Gangster.

“I call that one ‘Rakim Moves the Crowd.’ And then in parenthesis, ‘(White People Do Not Attempt to Rock this Look. It’s a Black Thing. Trust Me).’ That’s my caption to that. You’d see white dudes—wiggers—try to wear LL Cool J Troop suits. That’s a black thing. Please. You don’t see hardcore hip-hop legends wearing Crocs, do you?”


10. Method Man

“That one is very important, socially and some other ways. That was shot in 1997, around the corner from me. I was working—supposedly shooting Method Man for the cover of ego trip magazine, but it never materialized. But we did the shoot. He came, and he was mad cool.

“Actually my back was fucked up. My lower back was for some reason thrown out of alignment. So we didn’t stray far from my house. We went around the corner to West 4th, and there was a little stoop there. And this local, we’ll call him ‘bum’ for lack of a better word, [was sitting there]. And I said to Meth, ‘Yo, would you sit there with him? I think it would be a little different than just a shot of you by yourself doing whatever.’ So they sat, and they actually kind of vibed.

“My back was so fucked up that I had to lie down on the sidewalk on my back, and shoot over my head, putting the camera over my head backwards and shooting it with the image upside down. And luckily they came out nice. And I got a classic shot out of that.

“It’s important to me too because I like my pictures that have different nationalities and different colored people in them. I like interracial harmony. I like to show different cultures blending in a shot, and getting along. It’s the interracial harmonious shot. They had a nice five minute, ten minute interlude together, and we all got some chuckles out of it. I think my man Chairman Mao was with me. He came along as a representative [of ego trip].

“I was actually slinging weed at the time, on a short term basis. And Meth came back to my apartment, and he got a half ounce from me. I thought I’d see him again, I thought he’d be a regular custy. But it was good. It was a precious moment. We puffed a little bit in my apartment, and then he dipped.”


*UpNorthTrips Sports Meets Hip-Hop Bonus* Mike Tyson and Ad-Rock

“Rewind to 1986, after Mike Tyson became the youngest heavyweight champion of all-time. That was in like the middle of the year, June or something. I went to this function at Roxy’s, which really made a name for itself as the spot to go for Hip-Hop Night on Friday nights the previous couple years. It was on 18th Street and 10th Avenue. It was actually a roller rink that got converted into a club. Anyway, I went to this thing that had Big Audio Dynamite, The Junkyard Band, and I’m not sure of the other group, maybe Bad Brains. It was an eclectic event.

“So I’m up in the VIP room, and it’s crowded in there. I’m walking around, having a drinky-wink, taking professional photos on a hangout tip, you know. So, through this crowd, in between big butts, I see Horovitz and Tyson sitting, having a chat. And I just said to myself, in a quick instant, ‘Oh, that’s a good one right there.’ Two dudes who are rocking in their respective fields, they’re both 20-years-old. One’s a white kid kicking arse in the hip-hop game, one is black and killing it in the boxing game. And they’re fans of each other, and they’re kicking it. And I just wanted to capture that combination of them together. Two 20-year-olds from different worlds, kicking it together delightfully. And that’s basically it. I took my shot and kept it moving. I didn’t want to break their thing.

“People love that one. I actually just unearthed that image two years ago.”



Follow Ricky Powell on Instagram, and cop his books on Amazon.

Previously: Picture Perfect with Alexander Richter  | Picture Perfect with Retch

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2 Responses to “NahRight & UpNorthTrips Present: Picture Perfect with Ricky Powell”

  1. jabbar Says:

    great job! greetings from poland

  2. French Kevin Says:


    first one after a year long break

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