Photographer Jenny Risher brings Detroit hip-hop into focus for ‘D-Cyphered’

Jul 26, 2017 at 1:00 am
Thyme and Mudd of 5-Ela in Osborn High School Cafeteria. - Jenny Risher
Jenny Risher
Thyme and Mudd of 5-Ela in Osborn High School Cafeteria.

The west-side intersection of Dexter and Davison serves as its own little hip-hop sanctuary of sorts. Larger-than-life murals of Big Sean, Eminem, Royce da 5'9", and Proof are emblazoned on the bricks that enclose Dexter Check Cashing — as if the hip-hop giants' gritty stares are watching over a neighborhood that has witnessed its share of highs and lows. Twenty yards away at Zussman Playground, grade schoolers dressed in Jordans and ripped jeans play tag and basketball while their adult counterparts compete in a serious game of 21 on the other side of the court.

Today, the murals are joined by more rappers, arguably just as iconic. Members of Detroit hip-hop group Rock Bottom — Squash, Bathgate, Big Ace, Miss Tiana, Rock, Flame, and Duke — are here for a photoshoot coordinated by photographer Jenny Risher. It's their second attempt after a rainy day crashed the first photo session.

"We had two Maseratis, we had a Bentley — but the Bentley got stuck in the mud," says Risher. "It was the worst comedy of errors."

The neighborhood serves as home base for the historic group that launched onto the Detroit hip-hop scene with their 1997 album, From the Bottom Up. Rock Bottom has always been more of a loose collective than a traditional hip-hop group. And while they may not have the star power of Big Sean or Em or Royce, they've enjoyed the kind of local love that YouTube views and Instagram likes can't quantify.

"We owe it all to the city," says Rafael "Rock" Howard, the group's self-described CEO. "They've always supported us."

Risher is focused on the moment. She aims and clicks her medium format Hasselblad camera as a steady stream of images appear on a MacBook Pro laptop stationed next to her. Her assistant frantically multitasks — adjusting the lights, monitoring the laptop, and making sure a runaway basketball doesn't wipe out an expensive piece of photo equipment.

After several shots, the sun starts to dip on this Sunday afternoon and Risher brings the shoot to a wrap. She wears a look of satisfaction on her face, like a studio engineer after the last track has been mastered.

The members of Rock Bottom review the photos on the laptop. They seem pleased with the shoot. The kids from the surrounding neighborhoods seem happy to get the rest of their basketball court back.

As Risher packs up, Howard continues to reminisce.

"Everybody's not fortunate enough to make enough noise to get the light shined on them," he says. "So Jenny is giving opportunities in her own way."

The final portrait of Rock Bottom is one of many that will be on display at the Detroit Institute of Arts for D-Cyphered, Risher's new photo exhibition on Detroit hip-hop. It features more than 80 portraits of Detroit's most notable hip-hop figures, including Eminem, Big Sean, Danny Brown, Dej Loaf, and Tee Grizzley, among many others. It's the first time the museum has featured an exhibit strictly focused on Detroit music. (Full disclosure: The author wrote and edited the exhibition's texts.)

What is remarkable about the series is that Risher approached it as somewhat of an outsider. She's not a native Detroiter. She isn't a hip-hop head, and she's never worked in the music industry. Growing up in Mount Clemens, Risher was raised by an Asian mother and white father. She graduated from the College for Creative Studies in 1997 (then the Center for Creative Studies), and has since carved out a spectacular career for herself as an advertising and editorial photographer — with clientele that includes Hour Detroit magazine, Ford, General Motors, and ad agency Campbell Ewald.

Jenny Risher photographs Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope of Insane Clown Posse in Delray. - Courtesy photo
Courtesy photo
Jenny Risher photographs Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope of Insane Clown Posse in Delray.

She says she first became interested in photographing hip-hop in 2012, while working on portraits of notable Detroiters for her book Heart Soul Detroit. While photographing Eminem, Risher says he started telling her about Detroit's famous Hip-Hop Shop and the rap competitions that went on there. After the shoot, the two kept in touch, and Risher wound up continuing to work with Em on promotional work. "My world of hip-hop opened up," she says.

Her networking didn't stop with Eminem. Over the following months she continued to build relationships with other rappers, including Nick Speed, Guilty Simpson, Ironside Hex, Supa Emcee, DJ Skeez, Phat Kat, and Awesome Dre. And as she made more connections, her interest in hip-hop continued to grow. She went on one of celebrity tour guide Grandmaster Caz's "Hush" hip-hop tours in New York, attended Zulu Nation meetings in Harlem, and met hip-hop founding fathers like Chief Rocker Busy Bee, Afrika Bambaataa, and Coke La Rock (just to name a few).

As Risher's friendships developed, so did her awareness of what appeared to be a conspicuous lack of presence of hip-hop in Detroit's cultural centers. "I noticed there wasn't any hip-hop represented in any of the galleries or museums in Detroit," she says. "So I felt that was a necessary body of work to create."

When Motown Records left Detroit in 1972, it was as if a city that defined itself by its music had suddenly been muted. But soon, hip-hop would emerge in South Bronx, New York.

"I think after Berry Gordy, Detroit was just supposed to be consumers of music and not the producers of it. It was like we were under some so-called Motown curse," says longtime Detroit rapper Supa Emcee. "But we have lifted them spells and a few of us have made it there, and it gives hope to our music community."

These are stories that Detroit hip-hop fans know, but have never before seen visualized like this.

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Maureen “Ma Dukes” Yancey, mother of the late Jay Dee (J Dilla). - Jenny Risher
Jenny Risher
Maureen “Ma Dukes” Yancey, mother of the late Jay Dee (J Dilla).

While Detroit hip-hop has always been able to attract fans, the scene didn't always get the attention it deserved. Artists like J Dilla and Slum Village were internationally loved and critically acclaimed, yet received very little support from local radio outlets.

But Mayor Duggan giving Big Sean a Key to the City in April was a monumental juncture — a far cry from when former mayor Dennis Archer's administration threatened to shut down a Dr. Dre and Eminem concert back in 2000.

"I'm glad the city of Detroit is honoring its hip-hop artists. It took a long time to do it this way, but I stop short of saying it's overdue," says Khary Kimani Turner. Turner is lead singer of Detroit hip-hop group Black Bottom Collective. These days, he serves as the executive director of the Coleman A. Young Foundation, a nonprofit that works with Detroit youth.

"The city's history involves a mix of things that do and don't gel with hip-hop. Labor movements, race and culture, city vs. suburbs. Hip-hop kind of goes 2-for-3 in terms of what it connects to, so I can see where it would take time for Detroit's municipal and corporate brain trust to come around," he says. "At the end of the day, it's a good thing."

For Detroit hip-hop heads, D-Cyphered may very well be the proverbial next shoe to drop during a year that has also seen Royce Da 5'9'' (also featured in D-Cyphered) receive Detroit City Council's "Spirit of Entertainment Award" during the Detroit Music Awards in May. "We're always growing as a city," Royce says. "I think once you get people like Jenny involved, the right ideas begin to flourish."

D-Cyphered has its origins with last year's Detroit After Dark, a DIA exhibit about Detroit nightlife. Risher was invited by DIA curator of photography Nancy Barr to contribute to that show, which wound up featuring a handful of hip-hop inspired portraits from Risher. But already Risher had started to build up a body of work on the subject. "I only had four pieces exhibited for the show, but I had taken like 30 pictures," she says. After the show, Barr and Risher discussed a possible hip-hop project and by January, Barr and the DIA agreed to host and sponsor the exhibit.

With a deadline set, Risher began aggressively reaching out to managers and artists to schedule photoshoots. It wasn't always easy. "People are celebrities — [they] have tour schedules, personal lives," she says. "Their time is limited. So just working around their schedules was difficult."

Fortunately, she had Ironside Hex, Nick Speed, Mr. Porter, Supa Emcee, and DJ Los to help navigate the Detroit hip-hop scene — and from there, her collection continued to grow. "At first I wanted to feature 50, and then that turned to 80, and I could have kept going," she says. "The biggest challenge was knowing when to stop myself."

click to enlarge Chedda Boy Malik and K-Deezy. - Jenny Risher
Jenny Risher
Chedda Boy Malik and K-Deezy.

That left Risher to focus on making sure each photograph was unique to each artist: Esham in front of his east-side childhood home; George Clinton at United Sound Systems Recording Studios; Danny Brown on top of the Park Avenue Hotel; and Frank Nit and Ila J in front of J. Dilla's Conant Gardens childhood home.

"In some cases I did impose my artistic vision on a few pictures, but mostly I wanted the portraits to feel like them," Risher says. "A lot of the pictures are sentimental to the people, they are not random locations. I felt it was really important to make people feel like it was really their picture too."

There are also photographs that hit emotional chords. The surprising portrait of Chedda Boy Malik counting bands with K-Deezy from the Street Lordz — whose respective crews had an infamous beef which resulted in two deaths in the hip-hop scene — is a showstopper. J Dilla's mother Ma Dukes is surrounded by fan art devoted to her late son in her photograph. Motsi-Ski stands at his grandfather Jackie Wilson's grave surrounded by his crew Detroit's Most Wanted. Thyme and Mudd of 5-Ela hold a candid photo of Proof in their portrait. And the mother of the late Blade Icewood cradles her son's high school graduation photo in hers. These are stories that Detroit hip-hop fans know, but have never before seen visualized like this.

Risher says most of the photoshoots were drama-free — with the notable exception of Prince Vince's (of "Gangster Funk" fame), held near Grove and Cruse Streets on the city's west side.

"It was one of the last shoots. This random bystander just pulls out his gun and says, 'You wanna shoot Detroit, I'll give you something to shoot,'" Risher says.

Fortunately, the situation was resolved with a little lighthearted humor and a mild threat. "Prince Vince and a couple of other guys had their guns, too," Risher says. "I mean they were all laughing, but they would have been prepared had anything gone down. We just ignored him and kept working."

Most days, the Detroit Industrial Warehouse is a boring complex full of dust and walls dedicated to storing commercial goods and equipment. But on a weekend in April, hip-hop artists Mahogany Jones, Che, ReddBone, Alexis Allon, Ellie Sandiego, Piper Carter, and Lakia Nicole are recreating one of the most iconic photographs ever produced — the 1967 portrait of Huey P. Newton seated in a wicker chair holding a rifle and spear, perhaps the defining image of the Black Panther Movement.

"I was inspired by the summer of 1967, the anniversary of the riots," Risher says. "I really want to create a picture like this for hip-hop, a revolution tribute."

The women are draped in various assortments of black leather garments inspired by the style of the movement they're representing. The energy is overwhelmingly positive.

Che, Alexis Allon, Ellie Sandiego, Reddbone, Mahogany Jones, Piper Carter, and Lakia Nicole’s Black Panther tribute. - Jenny Risher
Jenny Risher
Che, Alexis Allon, Ellie Sandiego, Reddbone, Mahogany Jones, Piper Carter, and Lakia Nicole’s Black Panther tribute.

"A lot of these ladies, we haven't seen [them] in a very long time but everytime we come together its for a common purpose and it's always love," says Ellie Sandiego.

It's not all kumbaya, however. Piper Carter, the founder of the Foundation of Women in Hip-Hop, doesn't mince words. "The DIA being able to catch up to everyone else and understand the importance and significance of Detroiters and hip-hop that it has lended to the arts ... I don't want to hurt the DIA's feelings, but you're late to the party," she says. "You're late to the game, this is something the world recognizes."

The rebellious energy adds to the black girl magic of the session, and Risher hopes the photograph will be the most aggressive and political in the exhibition. "Nothing is more beautiful than sisterhood and unity and fighting for a cause for the greater good of mankind," she says. "Not to mention, women were the key in shaping the Black Panther party, but in history they are rarely celebrated."

‘This random bystander just pulls out his gun and says, “You wanna shoot Detroit, I’ll give you something to shoot.”’

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Weeks before D-Cyphered is set to open, Risher sits beneath the array of skylights in Kresge Court inside the DIA flipping through her stack of portraits. At this point, there have been over 100 photo sessions, and 230 people photographed. There's still much to consider. She still has to collate the photographs for the exhibit. The order the portraits will be presented and how they will be categorized are all important decisions to ensure the exhibit has the right kind of continuity.

Looking through the photos, Risher is reflective on the journey that D-Cyphered took her on — going into neighborhoods with questionable reputations with people she barely knew, and not worrying about the thousands of dollars of equipment she uses for her shoots or her own safety.

It also took her far beyond Detroit. She flew to Florida to photograph techno icon Jeff "the Wizard" Mills, traveled to New York to shoot Dej Loaf as she finalizes her major label debut, and made a failed attempt to photograph Street Lord Juan, incarcerated on drug charges in federal prison in Lisbon, Ohio.

Though some notable Detroit hip-hop figures couldn't be featured — such as Street Lord Juan, or the fallen Blade Icewood, J Dilla, and Proof — they still left a mark on the project, mentioned fondly by her subjects, and acting as an unseen force. For that reason, she dedicated the show to Proof, aka DeShaun Dupree Holton, who died in 2006 in an altercation at a Detroit nightclub.

Although Risher admits she didn't personally know him, she feels his spirit helped guide the project. "Through the whole project I could feel Proof's presence," she says solemnly. "He touched so many people's lives across the board. What came up constantly were stories about him. I would never force people to tell me stories, but they would just voluntarily tell me stories."

Risher says each artist brought positive energy to the project, and set aside ego and posturing to be a part of what has turned out to be more than an average photo exhibit — though she also understands why some artists were initially skeptical to work with her because she wasn't from the community. "I think it was maybe a little easier because I started with Eminem," Risher says. However, Risher says as others in the community joined the project they also vetted for her.

Supa Emcee in a tribute to Proof. D-Cyphered is dedicated to the late rapper. - Jenny Risher
Jenny Risher
Supa Emcee in a tribute to Proof. D-Cyphered is dedicated to the late rapper.

The term "culture vulture" entered the urban dialect a few years ago and has been used to define a person that comes from outside the hip-hop community to capitalize off of it. Risher acknowledges that things may appear that way, but affirms her devotion to the cause: Much of D-Cyphered was financed out of her own pocket. And she's not shy about addressing her intentions to anyone who is still on the fence about her.

"I think a lot of times people take advantage of the hip-hop community and maybe display the hip-hop community in a light that's not authentic to how they want to be represented," she says. "Here I am, this Asian girl photographing this African-American culture. But somebody's gotta do it. At some point somebody's gotta say, 'I'm going to start it, I'm going to do it, and somebody's gotta take the criticism, and I'm willing to take it!'"

To use another famous slogan from the hip-hop community, Risher is "doing it for the culture."

Among the project's participants, her efforts are appreciated. "Working with Jenny was cool because she didn't have any preconceived notions concerning what or who made up Detroit hip-hop and listened to people's suggestions," IronSide Hex says. "It says that it's diverse. It's more than just Slum Village, Esham, Eminem, and Big Sean. The pictures tell the story."

"I think that it's great for the community. It's a unified thing and it promotes positivity. I mean, Detroit is a key in hip-hop. People aren't quick to give us praise, but we're responsible for a lot of things, whether you're talking Dilla, Slum, Esham, Cha Cha, Davina, Royce, etc.," says rapper Nolan the Ninja. "We have some of the illest artists coming out of the city and around it. And that's what I love about it. When I go [out of town] and people fuck with my music, they show more appreciation when I say that I'm from Detroit."

Nancy Barr has helmed the Albert and Peggy de Salle Gallery of Photography inside the DIA for the last 20 years. When we meet in May, she's in the back offices of the museum, where much of the logistics and coordinating for the exhibit have taken place.

Barr admits she didn't know a lot about hip-hop at the outset of the project, but was intrigued to learn. "I grew up in Detroit, I love Detroit music," she says. "For me it was really fascinating to learn about all the layers through all the musicians, how interesting that story is and how we're going to play a role in [bringing] that history to the public."

While D-Cyphered is the first DIA exhibit solely focused on Detroit music (that's right — not even Motown), it's not the first exhibition to feature Detroit music. Famed photographer Annie Leibovitz's 2006 American Music show included portraits of the White Stripes, Aretha Franklin, and Iggy Pop, among others.

click to enlarge Royce da 5' 9''. - Jenny Risher
Jenny Risher
Royce da 5' 9''.

Barr says she hopes D-Cyphered will surpass that exhibition in terms of impact. And even with the excitement throughout Detroit's hip-hop community in anticipation of the show, Barr admits she has heard the "what took you so long?" questions regarding the lack of love for the hip-hop community until now.

"I think that the DIA has had its own long list of crises over the last few years, so focusing on bigger cultural issues has not been at the forefront of our priorities," Barr says, in a nod to threats of the city auctioning off its artwork during Detroit's 2013 bankruptcy. But in many ways, since then, the DIA is a new museum. It has a new, younger director in Salvador Salort-Pons, who started in 2015. Barr promises that D-Cyphered won't be a one-and-done project and there will be more hip-hop-centered programming at the museum — a way for traditional institutions to stay relevant to a new generation of audiences.

"Our visitors take great pride in all things Detroit," she says. "I think the [people] that are going to come here will celebrate this with us."

As part of the exhibition — which opens to the public Thursday, Aug. 3 — the DIA will host a variety of auxiliary programming.

At 7 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 4, the museum will host a rap battle featuring a number of Detroit artists. From noon to 4 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, the museum will host a "Hip-Hop Family Festival" with graffiti art and breakdancing. On Saturday, the Detroit Film Theatre will screen Wild Style, a documentary on hip-hop in the South Bronx in the 1980s.

Risher says the project from the beginning was meant to be unique to Detroit — she isn't planning on taking the photos on the road as a traveling exhibition or trying to profit off of them. And with this project, this snapshot of Detroit history will officially be preserved by the museum for posterity, with the portraits being added to the DIA's permanent archives.

For Risher, it's a mission accomplished. "This project for me comes from a place of love — they're [not just] my pictures but a collective vision between myself and the artists I've photographed," she says. "Together we created a portrait of Detroit and Detroit hip-hop that we all can be proud of."

D-Cyphered opens at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 3 at the Detroit Institute of Arts; 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-7900;; Admission is $25 for the opening reception. Runs through Feb. 18; free with museum admission.