When pieced together, the giant eight-panel print on the back wall of the Lower Haight’s Family Affair gallery reveals an image of focused crate-diggers, combing through an old Sacramento record store. Standing atop one of the stacks is a grizzly, short-haired cat, a sure sign for dedicated vinyl junkies that within these bins, gems are certain to be found. This same image appears on the cover of DJ Shadow’s seminal masterclass in the use of samples, the 1996 album Endtroducing… — and on this evening, it’s the crown jewel among a number of late-’90s Bay Area hip-hop photographic relics.
One hundred people are crammed into the 12-by-12-by-12 gallery, but dammit if it doesn’t still feel comfortable. The walls are adorned with iconic images of Bay Area hip-hop demigods, from Oakland’s Hieroglyphics crew to Vallejo’s E-40 to the Boots Riley-led The Coup to deft Daly City turntablists Invisibl Skratch Piklz. The tightly packed crowd is here to see a man who goes by B+. He stands about 6- foot-4, wears white Havaianas flip-flops with his jeans rolled up to his ankles, and sports a noticeable Irish accent. He took all these photographs, and to the hip-hop heads in attendance, he’s nothing short of a demigod himself.
“FREAKS OF THE INDUSTRY: Bay Area Hip-Hop Shot by B+” is the fourth exhibition that the four-month-old Family Affair is showing. Next door to, and philosophically affiliated with, the stalwart Groove Merchant Records, Family Affair was founded by influential Filipino-American product designer and former Wax Poetics magazine creative director Freddy Anzures. Photographs of hip-hop’s finest by B+ — or Brian Cross, more formally speaking — regularly graced the magazine’s pages and cover.
“We wanted this space to be archival of hip-hop,” Anzures says. “And ‘FREAKS OF THE INDUSTRY’ is a nod to the Bay, which didn’t have the same shine as New York or L.A. within the music industry. It’s a nod to these artists who did something great to put the Bay Area on the map.”
A native of Limerick, Cross first came to San Francisco for six months in 1988 and then again in 1990 to attend CalArts. He worked as a furniture mover in Hunters Point and rented a room in an apartment on the Mission’s Clarion Alley. And while that alley is famous for its street art, Cross loved hip-hop and soul records, and he was drawn to the bargain record bins at the adjacent Community Thrift Store.
“I couldn’t buy a Roy Ayers record for 29 cents in Ireland,” he says, musing, “The Mission, dude. … Community Thrift had a world of cheap 12-inch records. It became my home.”
As the ’90s got into full swing, Cross became a go-to hip-hop photographer. He shot for L.A.’s URB magazine since its inception in 1990, where he eventually befriended hip-hop historian and co-founder of the Bay Area’s Solesides label, Jeff Chang. In 1993, he designed his first album cover, for Freestyle Fellowship classic, Innercity Griots. His artist photography and album cover credits read like your cool friend’s Top 10 list: Lauryn Hill, Nas, Dr. Octagon, Mos Def, Ras Kass, Kendrick Lamar, Blackalicious.
But it’s his work with the artists who were grouped into hip-hop’s “underground” realm — many of them connected to the Bay Area — that made Cross a cultish figure.
“I’ve always been more interested in the things that are skirting around the edges,” he says.
Searching beneath the surface, he connected with Josh Davis, aka DJ Shadow. When he was working on his first book, It’s Not About a Salary: Rap, Race & Resistance in Los Angeles, Cross called Davis to ask about a particular sample. (“Before I heard the original, it was all the sample,” Cross says.) Davis says he really only knew of Cross as an acquaintance of Chang’s at the time — as Davis, too, was a Solesides co-founder — but they forged a lasting relationship.
“In the era that [Cross] was taking anyone’s picture, it was always a rock photographer who was doing it. … They dominated,” Davis says. “So it was unusual around here for someone like that to be making inroads into what we were into. It meant a lot to all the groups he photographed that he knew their music and knew who they were.”
The photos featured in FREAKS OF THE INDUSTRY are a gripping display of the comfort and depth of emotion Cross was able to pull from his subjects. And ’90s Bay Area hip-hop artists pined for people to understand their incredible art; Cross’ subjects clearly seized the moment in front of his lens. In one image of The Coup — perfectly framed within an apartment window — Boots Riley’s poise and conviction is palpable. In another, Cross captures the sincerity in the eyes of the group’s DJ, Pam The Funkstress. Less than a year after her death, the image remains an immortal remembrance of her tender-but-fierce presence.
For Dr. Octagon’s 1996 Dr. Octagynocologist album run, a photo of Dan The Automator, DJ Q-Bert, and Kool Keith on the streets of San Francisco sees the trio largely yielding the limelight to an eccentric transient who jumped into the shoot.
“This brother came outta nowhere,” Cross says. “The dignity he presented himself with — he stole the photo.”
With the artists blurred behind the zany figure, it gave the image the same insane feel of the most experimental and positively batshit-crazy album of the era.
Cross has never stopped shooting, and he’s now a tenured visual arts professor at UC San Diego and was also the director of photography for the Oscar-nominated Banksy documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop. He just put out his latest book of photography called Ghostnotes: Music of the Unplayed, a mid-career retrospective of his work from the past 20 years. It contains photos of artists interspersed with subjects he’s shot around the world, from Ethiopia to Brazil to Panama and beyond.
“It’s about the unplayed notes when a drummer makes a rhythm,” Cross says. “It’s a philosophical nod to the commitment to the not-most-mainstream characters.”
Like Bay Area hip-hop, B+ has thrived in the outskirts and he’s comfortable there, if not humble. As the evening at Family Affair came to a close, someone asked Cross, “What do you think of new hip-hop?” Cross chuckled, sighed a bit, and quoted Freestyle Fellowship’s Myka 9.
“It’s all love,” he said.
FREAKS OF THE INDUSTRY: Bay Area Hip-Hop Shot by B+, through Nov. 17, at Family Affair, 683 Haight St. Free, family-affair.org