Sue Kwon didn’t set out to chronicle the evolution of hip-hop. In the late 1980s, Kwon, who had grown up in Connecticut and studied photography at New York University, was living in lower Manhattan. For a while, she wanted to become a war photographer, but the birth of her eldest son, Kainoa, changed that calculus. She also became immersed in the city’s blossoming second-wave hip-hop scene. At the time, New York was teeming with new acts like A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Mobb Deep, and Wu-Tang Clan, with a powerful group of female MCs like Roxanne Shanté and Salt-N-Pepa taking the mic.
Kwon began to document it all, scoring assignments for The Village Voice and The Source. But what she captured wasn’t just the explosive energy of a musical genre finding its footing—it was a culture coming of age.
There’s an intimacy and immediacy in Kwon’s images that somehow managed to bottle the creativity, community, camaraderie, and joy that have always been at the center of hip-hop. There are the members of De La Soul crammed into the back of a car. There’s Yo-Yo enjoying a Popsicle on a playground. There’s a young Pharrell, with his turn-of-the-century outfit N.E.R.D, toiling away in a studio, dreaming up new things.
There are eerie moments, like Kwon’s pictures of Biggie Smalls, a.k.a. the Notorious B.I.G., presiding over a listening session for his album Life After Death just 11 days before he was killed in 1997, and lighter ones, like Kwon’s portraits of Method Man, whom she once shot brushing his teeth. There’s also an image of Method’s Wu-Tang-mate Raekwon with Kainoa, who was often by Kwon’s side.
“I would just bring him with his toys,” she says. “Nobody knew hip-hop would become what it is today. I’m just grateful that I was there.”
“I loved the music,” Kwon says. “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. Maybe Freud or some therapist might have something to say about that. But it’s a good thing for me that I did,” she continues. “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.”
“Right after college, I started assisting a fashion photographer. We’d be shooting 10 or 15 rolls of one dress down a beach, and I’d have with three cameras around my neck. And I just remember thinking, ‘This doesn’t matter. Conflict and war—that’s what really matters,’” Kwon says.
“I was always interested in stuff like that. I think it was because of my dad. He was a history buff. We talked about the Vietnam war and the Korean war. I thought documenting war was important because that was something that really could maybe change the world,” she continues.
“Robert Capa, who helped start Magnum [the legendary photo agency], was one of my first influences. And then I did an internship at the Magnum agency for a bit and was able to pour through all their negatives. That’s where I discovered Susan Meiselas, who took also those pictures of the conflict Nicaragua and also became a big influence.”
“Downton New York was different. I lived on Mott Street, between Prince and Houston. Def Jam was around the corner on Elizabeth Street. Loud Records, which was Wu-Tang Clan’s label, was on Broadway near The Village Voice,” Kwon says. “I worked at agnes b. in Soho. You would have Rammellzee or Jean-Michel Basquiat coming in, and then they’d converge and hang out across the street in front of a store. You would see all of these different artists or musicians convene. It was a little hub.”
“Biggie was obviously kind of that room. I walked in and ‘Hypnotized’ was blaring and I got goosebumps on my arms because of that song and the hook,” Kwon recalls of photographing the Notorious B.I.G. at Daddy’s House recording studio in midtown. “All these guys are just hanging out and there’s tons of smoke and this champagne and Hennessy. Diddy was dancing around and different people were dancing,” Kwon says. “Biggie had hurt his leg, so he was just sitting at the desk. But I feel like he was just on this throne, this presence. He knew his talent. I mean, he was a baby. He was 24 when he was killed. But he was just so confident at that age.”
“Method Man was so cool, even back then,” Kwon says. “He knew the power go the camera and how to play to its, but not in an annoying ‘Look at me!’ way. He was so charming, of course, he was not hard to photograph,” she explains. “But he was very open-minded. A lot of people might pause and be like, ‘How does this look for my image?’ whereas he was game for anything.”
“I admire when photographers can extract things and make the subject do something wild, but I’m just a fly on the wall,” Kwon says. “When I’m just in the moment and absorbing it and trying to get done what I have to do, I’m just looking for cool images or moments. I’m just focused on the camera and shooting and not thinking about the ‘big’ moment. I always love the stuff that’s just when the subjects are not working for the camera and they’re just doing their thing.”
“There was a lot of male energy. But if you were a woman and you could hold your own, it was fine. I think it took a certain type of personality to exist in that world,” Kwon says. “It’s a very special memory to me to have had my child with me on these shoots. A lot of times, if I photographed artists in the studio, I would just bring him with his toys and he would play. I’m grateful I was able to do that. Nobody was like, ‘Oh, you have your kid.’ It was very natural,” she explains. “At one point, I really wanted to do a project on rappers and their babies. The Source finally let me.”
A version of this story appeared in the August 2023 issue of Harper’s Bazaar.