Irish photographer Brian Cross aka B+ has been documenting the hiphop scene in LA and beyond for almost three decades. His photobook, Ghostnotes: Music of the Unplayed, was recently published to widespread acclaim.
Taking its name from the unplayed sounds that exist between beats in a rhythm, the book creates a visual music, juxtaposing images and creating new histories in the process. Cross brings together L.A. Black Arts poetry and Jamaican dub, Brazilian samba and Ethiopian jazz, Cuban timba and Colombian cumbia. He links vendors of rare vinyl with iconic studio wizards
Cross returns to Ireland this month for a series of events. An exhibition of images from Ghostnotes will take place in the RHA Gallery (March 22-25), he is a keynote speaker at Offset (March 23) and he’s going to be hanging with Erykah Badu for some special parties in the Sugar Club over the weekend.
What sensation do you feel when you return to Dublin? What’s your relationship with the city like these days and how important is this series of events in that respect?
Dublin is always a flood of memories. The smell of the Guinness Hopstore as you go up Thomas Street, the nervous rush of Heuston Station, the anxiety of a country person new in the city, the beauty of the canals, the awkward frame of history, the Liberties. I feel less connected to Dublin Airport for example than the train station. I always find myself in search of pre-Celtic Tiger Dublin but similarly fascinated by new multi-cultural Dublin. Dublin was where I began to find myself, as a lad up from Limerick it seemed so cosmopolitan and sophisticated. I have a complicated relationship to the city.
That being said the idea of coming home with this project is hugely important – I want to show it here. I also wanted to come home with something that was unique and between the show and Erykah spinning I think we will have an epic weekend. There’s folks coming from all over the place for this. I am most comfortable at home and I look forward to having a chance to share.
Ghostnotes has been billed as mid-career retrospective – how does this impact on your relationship with documenting the new wave of hiphop? Are you perceived as a veteran? What changes are you noticing on the scene?
Yeah I’ve been perceived as a veteran for maybe 10-15 years already. It’s hard to keep up on many levels. Obviously as a fifty year old there are some stark differences between my concerns and interests and those of a bunch of cats in their late teens early twenties, but likewise the ground has shifted radically beneath us. Photography and video have been significantly changed by the evolution of social media. Everyone is in conversation with that now whether you participate or not.
I think the music is ever evolving. Clearly there are differences between Public Enemy in 1988 and Kendrick in 2018 but then again some of the concerns are the same. I think it is important to understand and find things to appreciate now and then. Some of the best hiphop ever made is being made today. I believe that.
Obviously, the cover of DJ Shadow’s Entroducing is perhaps the one most cited in relation to you but are there any others which you feel define your aesthetic or have drawn less notice?
I love a lot of the work I have done for Quantic over the years, Magnetica I’m especially proud of… both video and still stuff. The work I have done for Damian Marley obviously I’m proud of… but really this book is a crowning glory in general. The book most clearly defines what I’m about more than any commission.
Your connections have enabled you to access locations and moments which would be off-limits to other photographers. Any examples of times when you were pinching yourself to ensure you were really there and ‘that’ was really happening?
Oh man look, the worst times were when for whatever reason I wasn’t able to photograph or worse again record what I was hearing. Documenting in general is sadly lacking on a lot levels in the culture. The most important moments are often just in between moments when folks are warming up, rehearsing, being social… I was in the room once early on in my career with A Tribe Called Quest, Leaders of the New School, Freestyle Fellowship and Snoop; they were all excited to see each other, they asked me not to make photos I obliged, I had to… what went down in that hour or two fried a lot of their minds and mine too. That moment back in the Low End Theory (album) days will never be repeated…
Back then I even remember the freestyle sessions at the Pharcyde Manor, the level of creativity, the competition, the originality, the risk taking… none of it ever recorded, luckily I made some images. I feel this way about Jazz – its only a fraction that was ever recorded. What happened on the days that they didn’t record? This is the nightmare of the documentarian.
Can you discuss your relationship with Erykah Badu who is coming to Dublin as part of this retrospective?
I love Erykah. She is maybe the most important person in the culture in so many ways. She is timeless and completely contemporary. She is a risk taker, an artist in the profound way and a doula. She catches babies. She is also hilarious and a friend. She was the last person I photographed for Ghostnotes not because I wanted it that way but I didn’t feel like the book was done until she was in it.
When Mark asked me who in a dream world would I like to have spin for the weekend I said her. I was amazed that he was open to the idea and humbled when E said yes. If you want to have that feel good, that deep spiritual rub, that connection then E is the one. Its been twenty years since Baduism, she still conquers all and with a truth and creativity that is inspiring. I’d say if you want to have an intimate night with Badu you might not want to miss the weekend.
Is there a standout hiphop track for you and for what reason?
Man there’s so many. It’s the soundtrack of all of our lives. I mean this could be a book. Dole Queue by Scary Eire? My Philosophy by KRSOne? Respiration by Black Star? Triple Optics by Dilated Peoples? Park Bench People by Freestyle Fellowship? Runnin by the Phatcyde? Fall in Love by Slum Village? Stakes is High by De La Soul? Jump Around by House of Pain? We Gonna Be Alright by Kendrick Lamar? All these songs and so many more have hit me in places emotionally that live with me every time I hear them.
Music does that. It burns a placeholder into your psyche, its hard to explain why often but it has to do with memory, context and the right kind of emotional force.
Current hiphop acts who are exciting you?
I am from Limerick you know. Russangano Family are all of that and a bag of taytos.
What’s next for you in terms of work and collaborations?
Well, currently, I’m working with Common, Karriem Riggins and Robert Glasper on a new project they have called August Greene. There definitely going to be more work with Damian Marley, Quantic and Kamasi Washington, but also I want to make Ghostnotes into a film.
And well I’m gonna say it loud for the first time here I have an idea for a feature and while in Ireland I’m doing some research for that. Y’all aint ready!
Ghostnotes: Music of the Unplayed is published by University of Texas Press.
Words: Michael McDermott