Michael Miller and Paul Stewart had capped a successful Kickstarter project and planned a digital imprint of their book, a collection of photographs from the golden era of West Coast hip hop, called West Coast Hip Hop: A History In Photos. But the coffee table book garnered enough interest for a hard cover edition and fine art print show, opening this Saturday at Known Gallery.
“I started shooting in 1988, in Paris,” says Miller. “I was actually painting houses and I just happened to meet Peter Lindbergh, the world-renowned fashion photographer. He gave me my first professional camera. I helped him out on a few shoots.” Miller had his first big job with Cacharel, a huge French fashion brand. He shot Linda Evangelista, Karen Mulder, and Elaine Erwin, some of the era's biggest supermodels.
But getting access to supermodels would prove simple compared to the likes of Tupac Shakur, Cypress Hill and Ice Cube.
However, Miller, being an L.A. native and passionate hip hop fan paired with Stewart, then a street promoter who later would head Def Jam's west coast branch. The two connected the dots and forged a mutually beneficial working relationship. “The artists had to know you,” Miller explains. “I met DJ Muggs when he just got off the DMC World DJ Championship, the largest in the world. His roommate was DJ Aladdin. This was all before he started Cypress Hill.”
Miller scanned over 3000 images for the book, with only 70 making the cut. Admittedly he included a few photos that were less technically clean than close to his heart. West Coast Hip Hop: A History in Photos includes exclusive stories and images. Many times, he eschewed traditional studio settings for L.A. landscapes; perfect lighting for amazing, pre-Photoshop double exposures. Miller caught The Alkoholiks in a liquor store cooler on Sunset (the cover of 1993's 21 + Over), Dre and Snoop on the boards for The Chronic, and — wait for it — Eazy-E with a skateboard.
“That image is close to me, because I grew up skateboarding,” explains Miller. “It happens to be a Natas Kaupas deck. Natas gave me that board. I was waiting for Eazy, just skating around and he showed up and he hopped on it for a second. He didn't actually skate, but it was cool.”
Despite a packed schedule of advertising jobs, being able to work on the fly helped Miller assimilate to the artists and their crews. He shot covers for the likes of Priority, Death Row, Jive and EMI Records for 20 years, essentially documenting the careers of Coolio, Mack 10, Westside Connection, DJ Quik, Too Short, Ice T, Yo-Yo, Funk Dubious, King Tee, Suga Free, Supa Fly, House of Pain and Snoop Dogg, from demo to full rotation on KDAY.
“We'd have a game plan. So when I got down to doing the work, even though I'd take Tupac to East L.A. to Pasadena and back to downtown, it worked out great. You've got Tupac with the tombstones and the guns,” says Miller as he shows a particularly iconic portrait of Shakur against a graffiti wall. “I haven't really been showing people this book — 90% of these images have been in my archives and storage. Never been used.”
The print show and book signing at Known promises to bring out quite a few of the personalities in the book and plenty of their old and new fans. Even for those who grew up seeing Miller's images of N.W.A, Dub C, Warren G and Sir Mix A lot, it will be an introduction to the photographer himself as he's been behind the scenes until now. “Mike hasn't been bragging about having this huge body of work, so people don't really know, explains Stewart, now publisher at his own Over the Edge books. ” This was my dream book.”
For Miller, revisiting his archive has reconnected him with old friends and memories and has produced a volume of unprecedented West Coast music culture. “I got a gig painting houses in Paris and it ended up turning into a photography career,” he says. “I went to UCLA film school. Like everyone in Hollywood, I wanted to direct. The rest is history. “
West Coast Hip Hop: A History in Pictures opens Saturday, February 4 at Known Gallery, 441 N Fairfax, LA 90036, 8-11pm, through Sunday February 5. 310-860-6263 Ordering the book guarantees entry. firstname.lastname@example.org