Photos: Here's What LA's Hip Hop Scene Looked Like Through The Years
Before streaming services like Spotify, hip hop was a regional thing. Each place had its own flavor. It was New York and New Orleans, Atlanta and Philly.
"It was sort of revolutionary when all of a sudden you heard the sound coming out of L.A.," said Vikki Tobak, who worked for an Indie hip hop label in the '90s. "It sounded nothing like what was happening on the East Coast. It kind of blew people away."
It was a "g-funk" (gangsta-funk, think Parliament-Funkadelic) sound, she said, intermingled with tattoo culture and lowrider culture. "In New York it was shell-toe Adidas and shearling jackets and Dapper Dan. L.A. looked very different — the all-black, the Dickies, the snapback caps."
If anyone remembers that time well, it's photographer Estevan Oriol, who started out as a doorman for underground L.A. clubs like Papa Willy's and Opus Lily's in the late '80s "when everyone and their mom wanted to get in for free." That's how he met Everlast and DJ Muggs, who later got him gigs as the road manager for House of Pain and Cypress Hill.
"I ended up quitting my construction job and going on tour with those guys," he said. Later, at the suggestion of his father, he started photographing the scene, documenting the musicians, the fans and the rotating orbit of celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Danny Trejo. Oriol has taken some of the most iconic photos of L.A.'s hip hop scene, some of which are now part of the show Contact High: A VIsual History of Hip Hop, which Tobak curated. The show is up at the Annenberg Space For Photography in Century City through August.
When Oriol took a photo of a woman holding up her gang sign, he had no idea it would become internationally symbolic of a specific brand of L.A. subculture.
"When you see politicians and law enforcement throwing up the gang sign — which was made by gangsters for gangsters, it's kind of funny how mainstream it's gotten," Oriol said. "I've seen Mayor Garcetti do the sign in his office and at an L.A. Kings game, I've seen LAPD do it at Dodger Stadium."
But it didn't used to be mainstream. "Hip hop started out in the '70s, but it got bigger in the early '80s with breakdancing and popping in the dance clubs and backyard parties," he said. "The first hip hop show I went to was Run DMC in 1984 at Stardust Ballroom on Hollywood Boulevard and Ice T was there, wearing this red leather outfit with these ski goggles. After that, the whole gangsta rap scene started blowing up."
Oriol became known for documenting that culture — lowriders, hip hop, gangsters, and L.A.— and after visiting over 40 countries with Cypress Hill, photography became his full time gig.
He and his crew had a studio in the Arts District ("back then it was just called Skid Row") that was an Andy Warhol style factory devoted to all things hip hop. There were three floors — the first floor was just filled with tricked-out cars, like a lowrider museum. The second was a tattoo studio where Cartoon would ink up artists like 50 Cent. And the third was Oriol's photo studio, where he would make images for magazines like Rolling Stone, Fader and Vibe. The guys started making music videos and commercials for brands who wanted to appeal to a Latino audience — they even started a fashion line called Joker.
"We were like the go-to guys for L.A. hip hop, a one-stop-shop for lowriding, tattooing, and photography," he said. "It was like if you want to see some real L.A. Mexican sh—, you go see Cartoon and Estevan and Cypress Hill. They had the best weed, the best clothes, the best everything."
Oriol photographed men with backs full of tattoos on the eastside, girls wearing tight tank tops and eyeliner at the L.A. River, vintage cars on Crenshaw Boulevard, and intimate moments like Kendrick Lamar hanging out with his friends at the Nickerson Garden Project in Watts, where he grew up.
Jay Rock was the first one in the Nickerson group to get a record deal, and he helped Kendrick get noticed.
Oriol says he did the same for his own friends back in the day. "We always used to say, if you come up, you bring your crew with you, so you can all eat and get paid together doing what you love to do."
Now the three-level building that was a center for Oriol's crew is no more.
"The management raised the rent two times on the downtown studio. And by the time we started paying that, they wanted 10 times the rent," he said. "So we shut it down."
Oriol is still making photographs and collecting lowriders — he still drives the car he bought in 1989, a 1964 Chevy Impala SS "Blue Velvet." But things aren't the same as they used to be.
"I miss that time now," he said. "If you lived through the '90s, you miss the '90s like crazy."
You can see some of Oriol's photographs at the Annenberg's Contact High exhibit, along with the work of 59 other photographers. The show runs through August 18. Admission is free.