Ever wonder what goes on behind the scenes of a shoot of your favorite artist? What the story behind the album cover you see might be? Every picture tells a story, just ask NYC photographer Robert Adam Mayer. He has been illustrating the story of NYC Hip-Hop for the last 11 years working with everyone from Large Professor to Q-Tip. In the same vein of other greats like Joe Conzo and Jamel Shabazz, Rob has been capturing wondrous moments in Hip-Hop that have garnered him awards, accolades and even a documentary feature. However, what’s most impressive about the New Jersey native is that much of his success can be directly attributed one simple factor: being a fan. He’s the guy you see at every independent showcase that supports up-and–coming artists and always feels honored to work with the talent he shoots. It’s this reason he is affectionately known as “Photo Rob” in the industry. With a catalog that’s consistently growing, it’s very likely the cover of the album you are listening to now was shot by Photo Rob. Culture Vault Radio sat with the luminary to discuss his album art over the last decade and the great moments in Hip-Hop it has captured. Hear what Photo Rob has to say about working with Mobb Deep, getting chased off location with Marco Polo and Torae and being on stage with legendary Rakim.
CVR: When was the first time you picked up the camera?
PR: One of my first cameras was the Kodak Tele-ektra 1 Camera. I might have been 8 or 10-years-old. It was one of Kodak’s first pocket cameras, it was like the size of a telephone, and it was pretty big (laughs). But I started shooting black and white film which I was developing myself in summer camp. So I was printing photographs as early as 12-years-old. I shot most of my early black and white street stuff on a Minolta X-570.
CVR: What made you want to be a photographer?
PR: I was just shooting the world around me. My dad started sending me to camp where I took classes in writing, art and photography. That’s where the street photography began because I started emulating the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson. I just thought it was really cool how he captured life and moments in time. I thought he was the bomb and I wanted to be like him.
CVR: Where did you study photography?
PR: Syracuse University. I started college in the school of business and was not enjoying it. I just felt like I was creatively self-destructing in business school so I switched over to photography and I never looked back.
CVR: Music, specifically Hip-Hop has become the cornerstone of your career as you document a lot of pivotal moments in the genre. How did you even start shooting anything hip-hop related?
PR: Well, I was first and foremost a Hip-Hop fan. I was introduced to Hip-Hop from by brother and some people at camp with Afrika Bambaataa records, Kurtis Blow cassettes and Run DMC albums. I started to look for Hip-Hop in a real way in the 80’s with Eric B. and Rakim, Kool Moe Dee and Boogie Down Productions. Then, after I came back to NYC from college I started seeking out magazines to shoot for but they already had their staff photographers. So, after not being able to open the door that way I just kind of went directly to shows and artists themselves and started to document them.
CVR: What was one of the first shows you ever shot?
PR: I started going to B-Boy battles. I always loved breakdancing so I went to some B-boy battles and started shooting the break dancers. Then I started going to magazine parties because I wanted to meet editors. Things really started to pick up for me around 2007.
CVR: But you shot the CD cover for Lil’ Dap before that right?
PR: The Lil’ Dap record was my first Hip-Hop cover and that was in 2000/ 2001. Shout out to Ryan of Lush Life, Group Home, and Jeru. It was on the Brooklyn Bridge in front of the World Trade Center, when the towers were still standing. The towers are in the shot which is really cool. But things didn’t really start picking up for me until 2007 when I started connecting with people at all the events and then eventually went on to the Knitting Factory and the Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival, that people really started to show interest in what I was doing. Shout out to Wes Jackson, Greg Trani, Brooklyn Bodega, Sucio Smash, Peter Oasis, DJ JS-1 and Johnny Walker.
CVR: You’ve gone on to do a slew of other CD covers including Large Professor, what was it like to shoot him? Anything memorable go on while on set?
PR: Yeah, it was really cool. I regard Large Professor very, very high. He’s the kind of person that really knows how to stick to his creative vision. And he is someone that has greatly and positively affected Hip-Hop. He also goes out of his way to help people; he has bought so many people up including myself so working with him was really a wonderful experience, a growing experience. That shoot just came together. There was an instance where we wanted Large Professor to wear a black hoodie but we weren’t able to get the hoodie before the shoot. When we arrived at our location for the shoot, there was a black hoodie there laying on the piano that actually fit Large Pro, so it was just weird. It felt kind of like divine intervention, I got chills. Pro and I looked at each other with raised eyebrows.
CVR: How did you get involved with the Double Barrel shoot featuring Marco Polo and Torae?
PR: I had met Torae at the Knitting Factory, so many relationships began at the Knitting Factory. Shout out to Peter Agoston, he made all those shows happen (was the hip hop show promoter and creator) and got me in there. I can’t really pinpoint the moment right now, but Torae asked me to shoot his Daily Conversation Mixtape. So, I photographed that in the early days of my shoots at the Knitting Factory. But I think Marco actually pulled me into shooting Double Barrel. What was great about those guys is number one – that’s a great record. I remember first hearing DJ Premier’s track “Click” with Torae and Skyzoo and thinking man, that’s a great track. So, then when I met Torae and Skyzoo was like oh man, those are those guys from that joint I love. Double Barrel was a great project to work on, with the unbelievable talent of Marco Polo and Torae, I am just really grateful to be a part of it. And we really collaborated on a creative idea for the cover. It was also a cool shoot because we were going through all these really tough areas in Brooklyn. You know it’s a tough record, so we wanted the cover to match the rawness and the hardness of the music and also pay homage to the great producer/ emcee duos of the past. The actual cover came from a location where we jumped out of car we started shooting, got about six frames and then like the people that owned the property started chasing us off the property. They were yelling at us. We got chased out of a couple of places that day by some pretty tough dudes. It was a really fun memory. I am super grateful to have worked on that project it’s a great record. If people reading this don’t have it you better pick that up immediately.
CVR: I see you at the best underground Hip-Hop events, like the Halftime Anniversary shows. I know Eclipse personally invites you to cover. How did you meet Eclipse and build that relationship?
PR: I think Eclipse approached me and saw what I was doing at a Knitting Factory show.A lot of people would go to the shows on the main level, but also when you go downstairs there would be an independent new guy having a show in the second level or in the basement. There was some really good music happening on some of the lower levels and so I would go down there. I think Eclipse just saw me listening to good independent Hip-Hop down there and that’s how we bonded. He saw my set up (I had my backdrop and lights) and he was like okay this guy is taking some good pictures. So he grabbed me and said hey, do you want to shoot my 10th Anniversary? And I said, definitely, please I’ll be there. I think that 10th anniversary was some of the most awesome, random pictures that I’ve taken.
CVR: You mention the 10th Anniversary Halftime show, where Statik Selektah was a guest. You ‘ve also shot a cover for him as well, right?
PR: Yeah, I shot the cover for 1982 The EP and some publicity images. Statik is the man. I think we connected while I was photographing an actor named Guillermo Diaz for Beyond Race magazine. Big up Dave Terra. In one of the pictures Guillermo is being lifted up by a bunch of balloons. So it happened to be Statik Selektah’s birthday that night and he was having a party. I didn’t really know him that well then but I bought the balloons over from the shoot and wished him a happy birthday, told them where they were from [laughs]. So, from that we started connecting. Then, he pulled me in for the first 1982 project. I came by the studio and took some pictures of him and Termanology. I had been paying attention to what Statik is doing for awhile- he’s a super talented producer. He is a consistent producer of great Hip-Hop. Shooting the picture of the sneaker that was Statik’s concept. I had lost some light, there was a time limitation because they had somewhere else to be right after, so sometimes, you make the best pictures where you are, with what you have. So that’s what a lot of my pictures are. I have some great portraits of Satik and Term in the basement lab.
CVR: You shot Mobb Deep recently, how was that?
PR: It was a wonderful experience to meet legendary dudes like them and hang out with them. When I photograph people like that I just generally feel it’s an honor and a privilege. I generally go in there and tell people how much I appreciate their music and how much it has been a part of my Hip-Hop experience. Then I go in there and try to do the best job I can. At the time of that shoot they were in the lab and they were focusing on making music. Also, one of their joints was being played on Hot 97 for the very first time so they were listening to that happen. So, my shoot is really garnish to what’s going on in their lives. They are really cool dudes.
CVR: You’ve not only shot many great moments but witnessed some too, like when groups break up or get back together. Any memorable moments you can share?
PR: Well being on stage with my favorite emcee Rakim at the last show at the Knitting Factory (Manhattan) was a great moment for me. I just remember going to bed that night feeling like it was a dream – for me to be on stage hearing my fave joints with my favorite emcee – it was dope! So many people were there that night too. Like Black Thought also rocked that crowd and at that time it wasn’t a huge venue, so it had this small venue vibe that was awesome. Talking about seeing people get back together, another great moment was seeing Pete Rock and CL Smooth at the 2010 Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival before De La Soul hit the stage. Then, I got to be on stage with De La Soul, too. They are another one of my favorite groups from that era. I just remember 3 Feet High and Rising in ’89 when that dropped. Some other moments that stand out: hanging out in Jazzy Jay’s basement with Pete Rock – I have an amazing portrait of that, hanging out backstage of Digging in the Crates Show with Jazzy Jay and Psycho Les, hanging out with the Duck Down family for record cover shoots to their anniversary show. Just learning so much from Buck and the family – Dru-Ha and NoHa, I learned a lot from them. There are so many moments I can’t even go into it. But I see the loyalty and kindness that they live by and I aspire to that.
CVR: You mention learning a lot from Buckshot and he also shouts you out in the documentary you are featured in called, Don’t Get Too Close Cause You Might Get Shot! How did you build a relationship with him?
PR: First off I want to give a shout out to Michael Quigley of Science Projects, for doing that wonderful documentary and his hard work. I met the Duckdown fellas though a Sean Price cover shoot for Pound Magazine then saw them at Rock Steady, The Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival, Rock Steady and a Canal Room Show. Big up to the Duckdown Fam. Respect.
CVR: You’ve shot Q-Tip for Wax Poetics cover  before which is amazing. What can you share about that shoot? How was Q-Tip in person?
PR: Q-Tip’s music was a huge part of my life growing up – you know A Tribe Called Quest. It was 1990 when “Can I kick it” played on the radio. That was big for Hip-Hop and big for me because I really loved Tribe. So to meet Q-Tip was similar to the Large Professor scenario where you tell them how much their music meant to you and then you shut up and do the best job you can. But he is a genius, he really is. And the magic of A Tribe Called Quest and Native Tongues era is a really important historical part of this movement. Shout out to Andre Torres of Wax Poetics.
CVR: What have you learned about Hip-Hop over the last 11 years?
PR: Well technology has really caused there to be a Hip-Hop boom. Meaning with technology and music making programs it’s more accessible to produce Hip-Hop music. So technology has totally blown up the creative side of it because today there is so much good Hip-Hop being made, it’s almost overwhelming. Not even talking about the commercial aspect of it. And while certain aspects have changed, some are still the same. For instance, the really good independent music I like is still not on pop radio, it’s still an underground movement. Even with all the technology – it’s more accessible and easy to get. You had to buy albums and CDs. But now you can get it online and via satellite radio, but it’s still an underground movement in that it’s not featured on popular radio or television for that matter.
CVR: Other photographers you are inspired by?
PR: My biggest influences are Irving Penn, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Herman Leonard. I think in terms of scenic portraiture Irving Penn’s pictures were just the most tranquil and most technically composed portraits ever done. In terms of street photography Cartier Bresson was the master at capturing moments within brilliant compositions. And Herman Leonard just has the best Jazz photographs of Jazz in the late 60’s, that golden period. I think the continuity of all three of these artists is technical mastery, composition and great moments of great subjects.
CVR: Anyone that you haven’t shot yet that you would like to?
PR: Yeah, there are a lot of A-list people I haven’t shot yet that I’d like to. I’d like to do a portrait of Nas. I wouldn’t mind shooting Barack Obama. I think I am going to move into more celebrity work. I just like meeting exceptional people, they don’t have to necessarily have to be Hip-Hop artists.
CVR: I know you’ve been busy editing this week. Can you talk about what you are working on next?
PR: I’m editing a music video I shot for YC the Cynic. This is going to be a really well filmed video for the song “More and More” featuring Soul Khan, Von Pea and Sene produced by J57. Shouts to Move Forward Music. I Shot The cover of DJ JS-1′s No One Cares, have some new pictures of Rasheed Chapell in the next issue of Hip-Hop Weekly, new work with Maffew Ragazino, Skyzoo, and Homeboy Sandman. Also keep an eye out for The Solution record cover with Buckshot and 9th Wonder dropping soon. I took pictures of Mac Miller for the present story in Beyond Race Magazine, and keep an eye out for Maya Azucena and Das Racist flicks coming soon. Also, check out the Revivalist on Okay Player’s site and Wax Poetics online for some new portraiture.
CVR: At the end of the day, how do you describe yourself?
PR: I’m really just a spiritual Hip-Hop Head that takes pretty darn good pictures. [Laughs]
For more info on Photo Rob visit www.robertadammayer.com.