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Photosynthesis With D-Nice: A History of Hip-Hop Photography

Derrick Jones has never lost his appreciation for the music he has been a part of since he was a teen. Known to most as D-Nice, he’s parlayed his trusted status as a lifelong member of the hip-hop community into a flourishing career in photography, finding exclusive opportunities to capture his subjects — mainly fellow rappers and R&B stars — at their most candid, and most at ease.

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Courtesy of D-Nice

Like many lensmen before him, the Bronx, N.Y. native shoots to stay close to the music he loves, but unlike the majority of his peers, he has also enjoyed a lengthy career of his own, rapping, producing and DJing as part of legendary hip-hop group Boogie Down Productions.

D-Nice was introduced to BDP via his cousin, who worked with Scott La Rock at the homeless shelter where KRS-One stayed in the mid-1980′s, and went on to produce BDP’s Stop the Violence anthem ‘Self Destruction,’ before launching a solo career at 19, with his 1990 hit single ‘Call Me D-Nice.’

Though he grew dissatisfied with the music industry and ended his career as a recording artist after his second album, his next opportunity quickly presented itself, and it was music related once again — designing websites and managing the web presence for fellow artists Aaliyah, Alicia Keys and Wyclef Jean, among others.

D-Nice returned to the turntables in 2003, and began DJing major events with the help of his close friend, Violator Management CEO Chris Lighty, but turned to photography when he realized that he had no record of his life’s exploits to show his newborn daughter. Due to his profile in the music industry, the former rapper was quickly offered campaigns for Reebok and Major League Baseball, and has since captured a wide range of artists from 50 Cent and Jay-Z to Samantha Ronson and Kid Rock.

Though his industry contacts gained him an entrance, his eye and ability to shoot candid stills that appear naturally posed, combined with the strength of his enthusiasm for his subjects and craft, have allowed D-Nice opportunities a once Bronx teen could never have foreseen.

Branching out into film with his True Hip Hop Stories, with artists like Dana Dane and Masta Ace, D-Nice is always on the scene, always shooting, always slightly ahead of the herd.

“I prefer to shoot candid images. For me, that’s what means the most. It’s my reason for even taking out the camera in the first place, just to document my life.”

Mary J. Blige, October 2007: We were in South Africa, I was touring with Mary. That particular image was captured in Capetown, at the concert. Before every show, Mary says a prayer. I had my head down and I started to pray, but then the photographer side of me kind of caught on, “Wait a minute, when has anyone ever seen Mary pray?” So I just kind of like held my head up, released one hand and ended up capturing that image of her.

Mary J. Blige & crowd, October 2007: That is in South Africa again. That one was taken in Durbin and there’s a story behind that one, too. The very first show was in Johannesburg, and my boy, who is Mary’s Pro Tools engineer, said, “Dude, you’re about to see the most amazing moment, you need your camera.” And when Mary performed that song ‘Be Without You,’ there’s a part of that song where she’s like, “Now everybody throw your hands up!” All the lights were on, just for that moment and she was reaching out to her fans, and her fans were all reaching out to her, and I thought “Man that would be such a cool shot taken from the stage.” So when we went to Durbin, I opened up for her. I waited maybe two songs before that song, and I went out on stage and I was laying on the stage, just waiting for that moment. And that was the shot.

Ice-T, Summer 1988: The Ice-T one was 1988 as well. We were doing a show. You can tell that we were in the van headed back to the hotel. That was definitely one of those after show moments. I was from BDP and we were already hot as hell, so they had that kind of respect for me. And you know, no one else is pulling out cameras back then except for me. I found that image in one of my boxes a few years back. It was just one of those moments.

KRS-One, Summer 1988: I shot that in ’88. I was 17 years old. We were on this tour, the Dope Jam Tour. So that tour featured Eric B. & Rakim, of course BDP. Ice-T was on that tour, Doug E. Fresh, Kool Moe Dee. That was fun. I can tell from KRS’ face that we had just finished performing. I was the DJ, of course, and I was like the young kid running around with a camera. Back then, I was such a fan of everyone that was on the tour. Even though these guys were my friends, I was a 17-year-old kid, you know? I had no ego. I didn’t have any problem telling everyone how much I loved their music and enjoyed being around them. With KRS, even though I was in the group with him, he was such an incredible lyricist. It was just all good vibes back then. Even though we don’t talk much these days. But for a 17-year-old kid to be able to see the world with his friends is such an amazing thing and that’s why I took the pictures. Honestly, I wish I knew where the rest of my images were. I was kinda careless, just takin’ pictures and not really knowing the value of them. When you’re young, you don’t really know, man. I just wanted to take pictures. That’s it. I actually became a photographer because of that. My recording career was over. I look back and I didn’t have anything, like, tangible to really show my kids.

50 Cent, January 2007: That was around 2007. We were at the G-Unit offices, I was hanging out with Chris Lighty. Any time I’m around these guys, I can just pull cameras out and start shooting. They know I’m not trying to exploit anyone. When Chris Lighty and 50 are together, there’s always a lot of money talk. Always big money talk. A lot of jokes. I’m sure that’s a rare picture, to see Fif’ laughing like that, especially back then. Now he’s full of smiles. He’s acting, he’s doing all that cool stuff. But then, when he still had his original teeth… It was definitely just one of those cool moments. I’m glad I captured that. It’s actually one of my favorite pictures of him. He was just… Natural.

Sean “Diddy” Combs, November 2006: I shot that at Chris Lighty’s wedding. Chris and I have been friends for over 20 years, and I was trying to figure out what to get Chris as a gift. I didn’t even have a career then. I was just running around with a camera at this dude’s wedding, taking all of these candid pictures. It all stems from this series of images, with Puff and the wedding. I’ve been friends with Puff since ’88. We were “friend” friends, I have the cameo in the ‘One More Chance‘ video. So we’ve known each other for quite a long time. It’s nothing for me to just pull a camera out and take a picture. Like I said, they know I’m not trying to do anything that will compromise them. Puff will jump in front of the camera and be as silly as he wants.

Talib Kweli, November 2005: That was just one of the pictures where I was still trying to figure him out, because we weren’t friends. We knew each other, but we weren’t as cool as we are now. It was just one of those pictures, you know how you just look at someone… I mean, everything to me is like a picture. I just saw him pulling his hood over his head and I snapped it. The Talib Kweli shoot was for me one of the first ones where I started to feel comfortable enough to call myself a photographer. So yeah, that’s definitely one of my favorite shots as well. Just because it reminded me of when I was still young. My knowledge of photography wasn’t that vast. It’s just about loving pictures and appreciating the artist. The people that I photograph, they want to see me do well with this and that’s a great feeling.

Slick Rick and Dana Dane, September 2006: It kinda looks like it was a photo shoot but it wasn’t. Literally, it was Dana Dane‘s birthday party. And I walked into the club, it was in Manhattan, a spot called M15. When Slick Rick walked in, he was wearing that shirt. So I was like, “This is kinda crazy.” He was standing there talking to Dana, and I just asked them if they could sit down for a minute. I pulled the flash off my camera, and just had it handheld and captured that image. Afterwards, Dana told me that’s one of the few images they ever had together. You don’t really see any images of Slick Rick and Dana Dane, and they were in the same crew. It’s kinda nice to have that picture.

Jay-Z, November 2005: That’s Lyor [Cohen], Jay, Chris Lighty… and Paul Simon. That was 2005. Lyor Cohen is a friend of mine from back in the day, and Lyor asked me if I would DJ for his charity event for his daughter. The event was being held at Lincoln Center, Jon Bon Jovi performed and I DJ’d. Afterwards we were all just kinda standing there talking, and then Paul Simon walked up. Of course I had my camera in my hand. I kinda removed myself from that conversation, and just started snapping pictures. I didn’t realize it was Paul Simon until the other day. I just thought it was some little old dude.

DJ Jazzy Jeff, April 2009: That shot of Jazzy Jeff was captured around 4:30 in the morning. I believe I shot that in 2009. We were both DJing at a casino in Atlantic City. I was headlining one club, he was headlining the other. We decided that after our sets were over, we would meet downstairs just to get a bite to eat. And while we were sitting there eating I just captured that image of him.

Taboo, February 2011: That was this year [2011], the day after the Superbowl performance. We were on the same flight from Dallas to New York. He was promoting a book that day. Taboo and I have been friends for a few years, and he’s that guy that will call to say, “Merry Christmas!” We’re at JFK, standing at baggage claim, and I was like, let me just get this shot of him right now.

Heavy D, January 2010: So I think that picture was taken like sometime last year. He was at Puffy’s studio recording his new album, I think it may come out sometime this summer. The thing that I loved about it, Hev would always invite me down to the studio to listen to a track — you know, he valued my opinion, and he wanted to play a track for me. He didn’t have one lyric written, just working on beats. He was sitting there, he just started to write one of the verses for one of the tracks he was writing and he was just kind of hittin’ the vibe, and the beat picked up, and of course I pulled the camera out and started snapping away. That’s the way I see Hev — Hev is always laid back… very comfortable.

Big Daddy Kane, August 2009: That was maybe around two or three years ago. Kane was performing at Celebrate Brooklyn, headlining it in Prospect Park. That image was captured before the concert, he was just about to head to the stage. Chris Lighty and I were hanging out and anytime we hear that Kane’s performing, we started to make our way over to the show and that was one of those situations.

Naughty By Nature, May 2006: That’s a great moment. That show Naughty was performing with Black Sheep at BB King’s. That was one of those moments that Treach was in the zone. He started thinking about Tupac, and then that’s when he pulled the Henny out and started to pour the Henny on his arm, all over his Tupac tat. Treach, I love Treach, man. I love photographing Naughty.

Melle Mel, DJ Red Alert & Scorpio, May 2006: Taken in Times Square. It was an old school concert, and afterwards we were walking down the street, talking and standing on the corner waiting for a taxi to get back uptown. Red Alert, Scorpio, like you know I’ve known these guys for years. I’ve know Red since 1986, Mel since ’87. And standing there with those guys I’m still in awe, 25 years later. And I still love them the same way. But I kind of removed myself from that conversation just to become a photographer.

Samantha Ronson, March 2011: That was captured earlier this year. We were flown out to Cognac, France, where Hennessy prepares their barrels, so we were learning about it. Sam was just in one of her playful moods and I turned around and was like, “Alright, I need this shot.” If you know Sam, you know that she doesn’t smile, but she’s always joking. If you just look at the image, you can’t tell that she actually knew I was taking this picture. She just has that look on her face, the “Samantha Ronson look.”

Mark Ronson, February 2011: Mark and I were DJing the Gucci event during the Grammys, and after the event was over, the place had cleared out. The piano was right by the stairs, and as we were leaving, Mark just started fooling around and all of a sudden, he started playing Stevie Wonder songs. We just sat at the piano singing Stevie Wonder tunes.

B.o.B., November 2007: That was taken in 2007. He didn’t have any music out. My boy from Atlantic Records was like, “You really need to shoot our new artist B.o.B,” and at the time I was DJing in Florida, and he’s like, “He’s going to be huge.” So I didn’t charge Atlantic, I rerouted myself to Atlanta, just so I could go hang out with him. I hung out with him all day. He plays his guitar in the show, and the record company didn’t want him to confuse people by carrying a guitar when he’s a rapper. But I have all these images of him doing nothing but carrying a guitar. He was just playing tunes on the back porch.

Travie McCoy, October 2010: Travie and I were also on the Hennessy tour last year, and that picture was actually taken in his dressing room. It was our first time meeting. That was in Detroit, I was DJing, so once my set was done, I went backstage, and I just wanted to meet him, because I’d just heard that he was into photography as well. We were just sitting there, talking, and the light was just kinda harsh on his face and I was like, “Yo, let me get this shot of you, bro!” I took maybe, like three pictures of him.

Q-Tip, June 2010: I shot the Hennessy campaign for that tour. I didn’t want it to look like it was shot in a photo studio, so what we did was, instead of going to a studio, we used someone’s house and they had this huge backyard, and we threw a barbecue, a little cookout. Every now and then I would tap one of the artists on their shoulder and say, “Let’s walk around here,” and just get like dope shots of them. That particular shot of Tip, he was just standing against the wall just trying to like, fix himself, getting ready for the shoot, and I just looked over at him, and I just loved that angle, that profile shot of him. We never used it for anything, I just snapped it and put it away for myself, like, “This is something that I want. My little personal image.” I love this shot, Tip rocking the Playboy glasses, that’s Tip all the way, man.

Kid Rock, July 2009: Bob [Kid Rock] and I have been friends from the beginning of our careers, since like ’88, ’89. I produced a couple of songs on his very first album, and we’ve just been great, great friends ever since then. I have so many Kid Rock images… that particular image, he was headlining Tiger Stadium, and I was in Detroit DJing, and he was just like, “Yo, stop by when you get here.” As soon as I arrived, you could tell he had one of those nights. It was like, early in the morning, he had his cap on… we’re just talking and I happened to look up at him, and I was like, “Man, this looks like one of those rock ‘n’ roll shots.” I was like, “Don’t move dude, I need this shot right here.”

Pharoahe Monch, August 2010: I shot Pharoahe‘s album cover last June. It was one of those moments where we were walking down the street and trying to decide what was next. Pharoahe has bad asthma and he was walking around with this gas mask. Not that he was using it, but he wanted it to be a part of his photo shoot. He was kind of going through one of his moments, where he was like coughing a bit, and I just looked over at him and snapped it. I kept shooting him at that moment, just in case we did get good images. But I know I shot it, because he puffed and he just pulled off the gas mask.

Questlove, June 2009: I was walking down Broadway in NYC and this taxi cab pulled over and all I see is the afro coming out of the taxi, and I ran over and was like, “Yo, I want your autograph!” and when he got out of the taxi he couldn’t see my face, I had the camera in front of my face, and I just started talking pictures and then I pulled it down, and he started laughing.

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