Photographer Sue Kwon Captured the New York Hip Hop Scene in Its Infancy

On the left, a man in a white tank top sits with his hands clasped, looking thoughtful. On the right, a man sits on a couch with a baby beside him. He is holding a sneaker. The room has a tiled floor and a glass table with a dolphin base.

Photographer Sue Kwon has photographed some of the biggest names in hip-hop and was around when the nascent genre was beginning to mature into the juggernaut it is today.

Kwon began her career in the late 1980s and early 1990s, initially working as a photojournalist for the Village Voice in New York City and then for other notable publications such as The Source and Vibe. She has taken portraits of Biggie Smalls, the Wu-Tang Clan, Jay Z, Eminem, and many other rap artists.

A man wearing a cap sits on a couch holding a baby dressed in a hat and striped outfit. The living room has toys scattered on the floor and couches, including stuffed animals and a playset. Sunlight streams in through a window with curtains in the background.
Method Man with son.
Three men are walking and posing on the street in front of a multi-level car parking structure. The man on the left is wearing a sweatshirt, the man in the middle has a large jacket, and the man on the right is crouching and wearing a jacket and pants. The photo is black and white.
De La Soul.
Two men are posing at night in a vibrant cityscape illuminated by neon signs and billboards. The man in the foreground has a thoughtful expression with his hand on his chin, wearing a sweater and a gold chain. The man in the background wears a light-colored shirt.
Mobb Deep.
A black and white photo of five individuals standing close together in front of a tiled wall with holes. They are dressed warmly in jackets, hats, and hoodies. Some are smiling, laughing, or gesturing with their hands, appearing to share a moment of camaraderie.
Nas, Kool G Rap, and Akinyele.

Her book, Rap is Risen, showcases some 300 photographs documenting rap as it was exploding with a combination of incisive portraits and unposed, spontaneous images that capture the energy of these ascendant artists and New York itself.

Kwon told Harpers Bazaar last year that after studying photography at New York University she wanted to become a war photographer but after becoming a mother decided on documenting the city’s burgeoning rap scene.

A man sits on a couch holding a sneaker with another on his foot. He's in a casual outfit and appears to be talking. A child is seated on another couch. The room has a unique dolphin-shaped glass table and a painting on the wall in the background.
Fat Joe and son.
A person wearing a blue and white tracksuit, black sunglasses, and a headband stands next to a payphone. They are posed casually with one hand on their hip in front of a storefront with visible graffiti and goods displayed in the window.
Busy Bee Starski.
A man wearing a hooded grey sweatshirt and a black cap underneath the hood is looking directly at the camera. He is smiling, revealing his gold teeth. The background is plain and white, keeping the focus on his facial expression.
Pusha T.

Kwon often took light-hearted photos of rappers but some would become more eerie such as a photo of Biggie Smalls, a.k.a. the Notorious B.I.G., just 11 days before he was murdered in 1997.

“Nobody knew hip-hop would become what it is today,” she says. “I’m just grateful that I was there.”

“I loved the music,” Kwon continues. “I would go to DJ seminars and different events for fun. And I always had a camera because I was obsessed with just documenting. I wanted to stop time. I don’t know why.”

Black and white photo of three men posing with arms crossed. The man on the left wears a "Raiders" cap and leather jacket, the man in the middle wears a jacket with a large "G," and the man on the right wears a cap and a hoodie. They all appear confident and serious.
Grandmaster Flash.
A person, seated on a dark couch, gazes intently at the camera. They wear a white tank top and a watch, with hands clasped near their mouth. The background is minimalistic, featuring a white wall with a large light fixture hanging from above.
Jay Z.
Close-up of a person's face, showcasing a gold and diamond-studded grill over their teeth. The image focuses on their mouth and lower half of the face in detail.
RZA from Wu-Tang Clan.

“Maybe Freud or some therapist might have something to say about that. But it’s a good thing for me that I did,” Kwon said.

“I just remember always having a backpack with my Rolleiflex and a light meter. We all had our little side hustles, and we were just trying to survive, right? But of course, it was exciting. I mean, I can’t deny that. I was like, ‘I’m listening to their music and loving it, and then I get to shoot and work with them?’ I was excited.”

Sue Kwon: RAP IS RISEN is available via Testify Books.

Image credits: Photographs by Sue Kwon.