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June 24, 2004

{     Interview : B+     }    

B+ IS hip-hop. The images that flow from his camera onto the album covers of your favorite DJs and MCs are as timeless as the records contained within them. Endtroducing. Black on Both Sides. Quality Control. This is classic material. Start looking at those liner notes for the name Brian Cross. Dr. Octagon. Innercity Griots. Brainfreeze. If he's not on the cover, B+ is blowin' up the sleeve. With a career as brilliant as it is prolific, his photo work is a big reason people still buy records.

B+'s latest creation is a documentary called Keepintime, which recently saw its highly-anticipated release on DVD. Keepintime is basically a meeting of the minds. Cross basically takes four of the most influential drummers of all time (James Gadson, Paul Humphrey, Earl Palmer, and Roy Porter), sticks them in a room with some of the world's top DJs (Babu, J-Rocc, and Cut Chemist) and films what happens, like some ol' War of the Worlds, Superfriends versus Legion of Doom-type shit. Science is dropped. Heads are flown. History is made. By the time its all over, you're left wondering why there's isn't more stuff like this out there. At least the DVD comes with a remix CD (with Motorcycle John himself, DJ Shadow) to ease your pain and provide musical accompaniment as you're left to ponder the universe.

I recently had the privilege of interviewing B+ about Keepintime, Tokyo Hotel Rooms, and the Smithsonian.

Eric: Growing up in Ireland, what are your first memories of hip hop? When did it all click with you?
Well, I remember listening to Rapper's Delight, I'm sure like everybody else, but it was Malcolm X: No Sellout and the Message that set it off for me. I was coming more from a Punk rock thing those days, being like 14 and seeing Rude Boy by The Clash and, of course, Stiff Little Fingers, etc. By 1986/7, all I listened to really was hip-hop, Mantronix, Run DMC, Schooly D at Art school in Dublin.

How did the Keepintime documentary come about? Wasn't it originally supposed to be only a photo shoot?
I had this idea to photograph these drummers that made a lot of the classic breaks. So I starting making a list and then wrote up a proposal which went out to a lot of the music magazines. Of course, nobody was interested � no matter how much I juiced it up. I remember somebody from The Source asking, "Do any of these drummers have records out?" Well, there hasn't been a time since WW2 that these cats haven't had a record out.
But anyways Tokion (Adam Glickman) is a very smart man. He came through with the money after the project had sat for several years, so that was it. Then when I called the drummers, I realized that they weren't completely hip to the records we wanted to talk about. So I thought we've gotta play them the records we like..... thats where J, Babs and later Cut came in..........

What is it that you're trying to tell people with Keepintime? I remember reading an interview where you talked about trying to convince David Axelrod that beat manipulation through sampling was a natural progression, an extension of technology. Axelrod only saw it as theft. Is this kinda like a further example of your argument?
Well, I didn't really have a presupposed script I was tryin' to get across. I just felt like that here's two generations of people that haven't really had a chance to converse and I wonder what will happen. I firmly believe, as Joao Parahyba from Brasil has said, that drum machines and turntables are merely tools. Automation has been in music for drummers since the 19th century at least. The trap kit itself is an automation of something that several people did, so there is no need for there to be a gap between Earl Palmer and J-Rocc. But this industry has a funny agenda and isn't interested in these kind of conversations.

Was it awkward having many of these legendary drummers who may not fully understand or agree with DJ culture interacting with some of world's top DJs?
Until they started playing, then everything was different. Basically, the drummers had a problem with the trick making subordinating the meter.... that's turntablism, really. The meter is subordinated to facilitate the trick, but that is just a beginning. Obviously, the elders are upset about the way they have been treated by the publishing houses and record companies. The last person to see money ever is the musician, but the reality isn't that different for DJs today. So once the conversation started everything was okay. The generosity of spirit of the drummers prevailed!

What do you have in store for your next project, the Keepintime sequel, Brasilintime? When and what can we expect?
An experimental documentary that interweaves the relationship of Brasilian music to American music at-large and that documents a historic meeting. Think the end of 2004.

Are there times when shooting a photo when you know its gonna be a classic?
Sometimes, but more often than not, it is revealed to us in the editing stage. Keepintime had a special feel when we were shooting.

What is your favorite cover you've done?
Wow, there's so many that I'm proud of. Endtroducing is one of my more famous ones, and Ras Kass (Soul On Ice) which I shot the same week. I'm proud of mostly everything I've done from tiny projects to the big dough joints, from Freestyle Fellowship to Malik Favors (my most recent, I think). Of course, shooting two records for Blue Note last year was very satisfying, and a dream come true.

What are some of your favorite album covers in general? Any album covers do you wish you did?
Wow, tons. Francis Wolf (Blue Note)has always been an inspiration as well as Norman Sieff (Blue Note and many others), Robert Frank (Exile on Main Street), but there are so many amazing covers... I'd love to have shot Miles or Fela, but hey, I got to shoot Eazy E, Biggie and even Tupac.

Who are your favorite artists to work with?
Its easiest with friends: Shadow, J5, Blackalicious Dilated, Madlib... but I'm down to work with anybody who has committed themselves to music. I like to be challenged in my work, so I'll shoot Susanna Baca this week and then Cash Money the next.

I remember reading a few years back about how there are certain things that down south cover kings, Pen & Pixel, won't include in their work... like depictions of other rapper's cars being blown up. Is there anything you refuse to do? Have you ran across anything like this?
I'm cool on the guns, jewelry, ass, and Nikes...... and the military. What does that leave? But in reality, you have to negotiate your own compromise. I try to work on an individual case basis. But I'm so cool on Nikes and no B+ army ads.

Is there anybody you want to work with that you haven't yet?
Wow again. Dang this a long list... James Brown, Al Green, Max Roach, Christy Moore, Sinead O Connor, the list would go on for a long time. Prince.

Who/What are some dominant influences on your photography?
Life, reading nonfiction, other photographers like Eric Coleman, and mainly music, usually jazz, although I've been inspired by every kind of music - although mainly music of the African diaspora.

You came to Los Angeles in 1990 for school when you also shot the photos for the Freestyle Fellowship's beyond-influential "Innercity Griots" album. What differences do you see in the Los Angeles scene when comparing the Good Life days with today? What about hip-hop in general, especially since many of your friends (Shadow, J5, Dilated, Solesides) have gone on to blow up?
Big question. I mean LA is like everywhere else. The Chronic changed everything. But underground and noncommercial music is still striving and thriving. Most of the homies are the same - we've lost a few and gained a few, but heads know.......

How does it feel when you catch yourself in a Tokyo hotel room at 3 in the morning trading 45's with Shadow and Cut Chemist, like in the Product Placement DVD? You're on a tour with friends capturing these moments in time, as your job. How does it feel to have your images thought of as basically inseparable from an artform (hip hop)you're so passionate about? Ever catch yourself buggin' out over this?
Yes, yes, all the time. You know I'm like the next man as far as strugglin' in this - I don't have a savings account and I don't have health care but I'm happy doing what I do. I feel very privileged to be able to help. Good things have happened for me - I have received a lot of love from cats that matter in this and I will forever be grateful. Sure, at 3 in the morning in a hotel room in Tokyo, I feel glad and bugged at the same time.
However I didn't like Lost in Translation... next time you see it, ask yourself when was the last time you spent two hours with a philosophy graduate with nothing interesting to say. I love Bill Murray, but...

You're down with the greats. Who has the best record collection?
The best -mmmmmmm I dunno. Most of the real heavies, you never see the whole thing. But I think there are two factors at play here... 1) who has listened to the most records as opposed to owning the most, and 2) who knows their own collection the best and puts it to best use. The Smithsonian probably has more records than everybody but I dare say MF Doom ain't callin' them for beats.

What's the most cash you ever saw someone drop cratedigging?
Thousands...... what can I say, heads are hungry for that next.

You've done videos for Shadow and a few others. How does video compare with still photography? What it a natural extension?
Yes, totally. Keepintime illustrates this perfectly for me. I did videos at school, but I found my voice doing photography, so that's what helped me find it in other mediums.....

What are the future plans for Brian Cross?
A rest, a few more films....... More collaborations....

    » Visit the Keepintime website.
    » Buy it at


Wow, I had B+ as a photo instructor at a high school art program at Cal Arts back in 1992. We thought he was the shit back then, graffiti was getting really popular and we ate up anything that had to do with hip hop. His photos rock. Nice interview.

Posted by: Jeff at July 9, 2004 6:54 PM
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