Contact High: The Shoot That Made Nas Illmatic
Lisa Leone takes us back to '94 with iconic shots of a young Nasir Jones recording his debut studio album.
In our series, Contact High: The Stories Behind Hip Hop’s Most Iconic Photographs, writer Vikki Tobak talks with those who have played critical roles in shaping hip hop imagery. They offer a rare glimpse of the creative process that went into the making of each photo.
Getting access to the original and unedited contact sheets, we see the ‘big picture’ being created can look look directly through the photographer’s lens. Photographers typically don’t show their contact sheets. They’re a visual diary. Film negatives on a roll of analog film allowed these photographers (and now us) to see the full range of images in order to develop the “money shot.”
For our latest installment, photographer Lisa Leone gives us the backstory of her shoot with Nas recording Illmatic in the studio…
If time, as Nas said, is illmatic, then photography, as a medium that captures a moment in time, is too. Bronx‐born photographer and filmmaker Lisa Leone was right next to Nas, DJ Premier and the league of production legends in the studio when they made Nas’ now mythic debut album Illmatic. The album was recorded at King Studios, D&D Recording, Battery Studios, and Unique Recording Studios in New York City. The recording sessions are by now legendary. For most photographers, capturing Nas in the studio that day would have been a defining moment in their career. Leone only remembered the images years later while digitizing her negatives — but more on that below.
Leone’s immersion in hip hop visual culture is by birthright. While attending New York’s High School of Art and Design, which back in the eighties was referred to by many as “the High School of Graffiti and Breakdancing,” she befriend the likes of MARE 139, KEL 1st, MIN ONE, Fabel and Debi Mazar.
Leone also became a keen observer. After making a name for herself photographing hip hop legends before they were famous (From Nas in the first studio recordings for Illmatic to Snoop on the set of his first video), Leone moved into cinematography, shooting music videos for artists TLC, Heavy D and D’Angelo and co-directed Just for Kicks, a documentary about hip hop’s infatuation with sneakers with Thibaut DeLongville. She also worked on Stanley Kubrick’s last film Eyes Wide Shut. Kubrick would go on to become her mentor. Leone is currently Vice President of Artistic Programs at the National YoungArts Foundation in Miami. Her monograph, Here I Am, is a photographic testament from hip hop’s golden era. Below, she recounts the day she found herself in the middle of the Nas Illmatic album recording, and the shoot that documented the legendary session.
Lisa Leone: I didn’t even remember I was at this shoot until I pulled out the contact sheet. I was at this young kid’s studio scanning some of my old negatives and he spots the shoot and I was like “Oooohh yeah, I forgot about this,” and he was like, “You were at the Illmatic recording session and you forgot!?” The scene was just really mellow. Nas was so zooted. It was a concentrated, focused energy in the studio that day. You could feel that something important was being created. People were more just like… woah. They were absorbing this thing and not really knowing what was happening. I had been to a lot of recording sessions before. They were mostly very loud and hype.
But the Illmatic session felt different. It felt like there was a lot of intention happening. There were a lot of people in the room: Q‐Tip, Large Professor, Premier. And they were all like, “This kid is sick.” You can see it in one of the pictures on the contact sheet of Premier’s face – there’s this feeling that they’re on the verge of something groundbreaking. There was also a sense of calm, it was serious. That’s what I was trying to capture. It was all about Nas. He was 18 or 19. I didn’t even shoot that many photos. I always tell young photographers today, don’t just go in and start shooting, hang for a while, try to vibe and be part of that energy and then you can be connected to the moment. You should first feel what’s happening in the room before you take any photos. Feel the energy. Don’t just click away; really see.
Don’t forget, back before digital, there were only thirty‐six frames in a roll. You had to be very discerning about when you snapped that photo because it was expensive and you don’t have four hundred rolls. It was a different way of doing things.
The one photo of Nas with his eyes closed at the mic. I mean, that just says it all. He is so focused, on a whole ‘nother level. That’s the shot right there. The other shots on this contact sheet are amazing too because they had all these hip hop icons in it. Preemo, Large Professor, Q‐Tip… if you look at Primo’s face, that says a lot. He is blown away by Nas. But the eyes closed shot, that photo captures the moment.
The Camera Nerd Out
I would always have two cameras..one black and white and one color ‐‐ my Leica M4P would always have back and white film and the Leica M6 always had color film in it.
How does this photo compare to some of the hip hop imagery being made today?
People weren’t as aware of their image back then. I was usually the only one in the room with a camera. It wasn’t like, “Let me see that image,” right after you took the photo. And the Leica I shot on was so quiet, it was the camera that photojournalists used. People weren’t that image conscious back then like they are now.
Tell us about your career at the time this photo was taken? What artists/photogs/culture inspired you early on?
I was inspired by photographers who shot artists like Arnold Newman and also Mary Ellen Mark was a big inspiration. I was also very into cinematographers and directors — Darius Khondji, Krzysztof Kieślowski, Christopher Doyle — and their lighting technique and what kind of processes they were using. And of course Stanley Kubrick, who later became my mentor. One day I was like ‘ok let me see what I got,’ and then I started scanning stuff. Discovering all of this iconic work, it brought me back to memories of doubting myself as a photographer, a lot of layers to these memories.
What do you shoot on now? Do you still make contact sheets?
Nowadays I shoot all digital. But I just sent all my Leica’s to be serviced… So we’ll see.