Small Town Hip Hop
by Maria Luci
Recently, I received a very special promo in the mail. It was a hand-bound booklet from DC-based photojournalist, Jared Soares, titled “Raleigh, North Carolina Hip Hop Culture Over Everything.” I’ve been following Jared’s “Small Town Hip Hop” series for awhile now, after seeing he was documenting the hip hop culture of my hometown of Roanoke, Virgina. The promo prompted me to take a closer look, and to get in touch with Jared to get a deeper understanding of this unexpected series. Below is our interview:
You used to live in Roanoke, VA. How did you first end up there?
I moved to Roanoke from Kansas City in June 2006 to intern at The Roanoke Times. I thought I was only going to be there for 3 months but it turned into 3.5 years at the newspaper. I left the paper in 2010 but stayed in Roanoke to freelance and work on projects in the area.
Where did you get the idea for this series?
Initially, it was curiosity. I just wanted to see if hip hop existed in Roanoke. Then I met the people involved with the scene and wanted to go deeper to understand how hip hop culture influences their lives.
I grew up listening to hip hop, it has a special place in my heart. One of my early mentors told me that every photographer should always be working on a long term project along with their assignment work. When I was working at The Roanoke Times, I decided to put this advice into action. I made it my goal, a personal one, to find out where hip hop lived in Roanoke. I wanted to see what it looked like and give people a window into this world.
I lived in Roanoke for many years and didn’t know there was a hip hop scene in the area. How did you find these musicians?
On Melrose Ave. and Orange Ave., pretty much anywhere in Northwest. There are corner stores that sell mix-tapes—homemade burned CDs. Some of these are made by local rappers and others are just bootlegs. I bought a couple and just started calling the phone numbers that were listed on the back cover of the CDs.
What drew you to continue shooting this project in Raleigh?
In the summer of 2011, I hopped on a tour with Roanoke rapper, Poe Mack. He was the opening act for a few artists on Jamla Records, a label based in Raleigh. After watching the Jamla rappers perform, I became curious in terms of what it is like be an artist on the cusp of breaking through, also I didn’t know Raleigh had such a healthy and nationally recognized scene and I wanted to learn more.
How did you gain access?
When I first started working on the project in Roanoke, I didn’t take out my camera for three weeks. Most of the people I met were very skeptical of an outsider coming in with a camera. Since I wasn’t operating on a deadline, I invested the time in learning and listening to people involved with the scene. I felt that the more information that I could absorb by listening would lead me to the images that would speak to the experience and mood of the people participating in this culture. It was a lot of listening and hanging out before I really started to make photographs.
What are some of the differences between the Roanoke and Raleigh hip hop scenes?
In Roanoke, everyone was working a day job and balancing family life while trying to find ways to work on music. Whereas, in Raleigh, music was the sole focus since most of the guys that I followed were signed to an independent label. That was probably the biggest difference.
What was involved in creating the handmade booklets?
With my projects, the goal is to make intimate photographs that allude to a feeling or an emotion that encapsulate an experience. Holding and reading a book is an intimate experience, and I want the way my personal work is displayed to reflect that idea. I’ve tried pretty much every on-demand printer there is and while I’m satisfied with most of the results, I just want to more control over all the details. I’ve been interested in book making and now was the best time to dive in. I was also inspired by photographers Ben Rasmussen and Rob Hornstra, who are heavily engaged in book making. I started by sketching the concept for a saddle-stitch booklet; the only problem was that I didn’t know, how to do it. Luckily, there is Youtube. I probably watched this tutorial, about 30 times. For better or worse, I did all the design and editing. In the beginning, I only wanted to make a few booklets but it just snowballed because I was enjoying making something with my hands, so I set 50 as a limit. I really wanted my fingerprints all over this project.
What has the reaction been to the project and the booklets?
The project has been published on The New York Times’ Lens blog and SPIN’s hip hop blog among other places. Additionally, it has been exhibited at the O. Winston Link Museum and during Look3 Festival of the Photograph at The Bridge PAI gallery. The thing I hear the most is that project was an unexpected look at hip hop. And overall, the reaction to the booklet has been very positive. Both current clients, and clients I hope to work with, thought it was a refreshing way to share work.
Do you plan on putting a booklet together for the Roanoke side of the project?
There are definitely plans for a Roanoke book/booklet. The idea would be to catch up with some of the guys that I’ve followed to see what they’re up to now. It would largely be a showcase for new photographs from the project. Just gotta figure out when I can block out some time for a visit back to Roanoke.
What are some things you learned through creating this series?
One of the most important lessons I learned was to keep the camera in the bag for the first couple visits. Building trust is paramount when working on a long term project.
Do you plan on continuing this project?
Yes! I still talk to a lot of the guys that I photographed and they have become friends. I’m curious to see where they take their music as they move forward. Also, I’d like to expand the project to a couple more cities, but it’s just a matter of carving out the time to make it happen. Looking at Baltimore’s scene right now as a possible place for the next chapter.
See more at jaredsoares.com.