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Brian “B+” Cross, the Man Behind the Camera(s)

Updated: Sep 11, 2021

Born in Ireland, Brian Cross is a man of many talents. His passion for photography has led him to settle in San Francisco in the early 90s where he attended CalArts. There, he immediately started working on his first book It’s Not About a Salary: Rap, Race + Resistance in Los Angeles (Verso Books, 1993). In 1993, he shot the cover for Freestyle Fellowship's Innercity Griots LP (4th & Broadway), having created countless records sleeves ever since for acts such as Jurassic 5, The Pharcyde, Cut Chemist, Flying Lotus or the late David Axelrod. As they were filming DJ Shadow's High Noon music video in Mexico in 1996 and unhappy with the way they were usually made by the industry, Brian and Eric Coleman teamed up to form Mochilla which have seen the release of many DJ mixes and several full-length music films. The pair were instrumental in Banksy's Oscar nominated documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop (dir: Banksy, 2010). In 2017, B+ published a photo essay called Ghostnotes: Music of the Unplayed (University of Texas Press), serving as an extensive mid-career retrospective on his work. B+ is currently finishing a film for Irish rapper/singer Denise Chaila and shooting a film about The Supremes.

B+ portrait, 2017
B+ portrait, 2017

 

From Ireland to California, a One Way Ticket


Jon

You were born in 1966, and you grew up in Limerick, Ireland. What was it like?


Brian

I guess in retrospect it looked pretty bleak. There were huge social issues in Ireland at that time, 30% unemployment and obviously a sort of low level Civil War happening in the northern part of the country. There were hundreds of thousands of people leaving. But then there were moments where things kind of made sense in the world. Obviously punk rock was a big part of that when I was a kid. I would have turned 11 at the end of 1976, and really that’s when I started to become aware of punk rock, and I started having more than a passing interest in popular culture. But then also, you know, playing sports and being a fucking regular cat or whatever, being interested in art and music, and it was okay.


I mean, the education system was pretty good. Although, Ireland was very inward looking in those days, and it was difficult to imagine what it was like in the rest of the world besides what we had access to from TV. There was much less back and forth, you know, when people would leave generally they wouldn't come back, or they wouldn't come back for a very long time. And places like the US seemed incredibly far away. I mean, I was properly culture shook when I came to the US for the first time in 1988. It was so overwhelming that we were kind of almost scared to leave the house. It was like too much stimulation. Everything seemed so new, whereas some of the streets in Limerick looked like they probably would have looked at the end of the 19th century.

Queuing up to watch Indiana Jones, Carlton Cinema in Henry Street, Limerick, 1989
Queuing up to watch Indiana Jones, Carlton Cinema in Henry Street, Limerick, 1989

Jon

You went to the West Coast in ‘88 and that’s why you went back there after your studies in Dublin.


Brian

Yeah, San Francisco first. I came here for a summer from the end of April until the end of September, and then I went home, I finished my undergrad and I was thinking about options. But I went back to Limerick for a year and worked in the local video shop, and then during that year, I applied to some grad schools basically. So I applied to CalArts and I applied to Columbia.


I don't remember how CalArts came to my attention, but I wrote to them and they sent me a catalogue and then eventually I applied, and then I got a letter from the embassy offering me a visa to go to live in America. Because there were so many Irish folks living in this country illegally at that point that they made a deal to give out visas. It was by lottery and my mom had applied when I was 16, and I was like 20-21. And then suddenly I got the visa and I was accepted into CalArts, but I actually came to America before I was accepted into CalArts.


Jon

Did you have other options in case you were not accepted at CalArts?


Brian

Oh yeah, at that time I was working moving furniture so I would have been doing that.

"Jamaican soundsystem repair", Ghostnotes: Music of the Unplayed cover shot by B+
"Jamaican soundsystem repair", Ghostnotes: Music of the Unplayed cover shot by B+

Jon

I read in your Ghostnotes book [University of Texas Press, 2017] that you started to listen to hip hop music and you were interested in photography, but that you were painting first. How did you become a photographer?


Brian

That's like maybe five or six years there. When I was in Ireland I studied painting, but I was really only interested in photography... In fact I wasn't really interested that much in photography, I was more interested in ideas. So I always had this sort of practice where you don't know whether it's going to be a painting or whether it's going to be a photograph, you don't know whether it’s going to be a short film, you don't know whether it's going to be a piece of audio, you don't know what it is! So that's the kind of work I was interested in making but I was young. So at CalArts there were some photographers there that I was interested in, particularly this one guy called Allan Sekula, so I thought it was worth applying to that school.


The music was something that I was absolutely fanatical about, but it was separate. Y'know, there's a big wall between the two things, and I don't think the two can exist at the same time. I mean, there was Basquiat and people like Fab Five Freddy, but that was a whole other dimension. I mean, I was just a kid making art.


And so then when I came to CalArts, a professor of mine asked me if I would make a photo essay, which was something that was kind of challenging, because I didn't really work in that way. I said I would, and then he gave me a choice. It was this other idea he had or to make a photo essay about hip hop in Los Angeles, "You've been arguing for the inclusion of hip hop in any discussion of the city, so make that argument using photos." Okay, so then within a month I had some photos, and they were like, "We should make a book,” and I was like, "A book? What the fuck?!" It seemed like "Whoa!!" so I started.

It’s Not About a Salary... Rap, Race + Resistance in Los Angeles (Verso, 1993), written by B+
It’s Not About a Salary... Rap, Race + Resistance in Los Angeles (Verso, 1993), written by B+

I love music but I had a practice that was very different, I was really more of a landscape photographer actually, so that was the start. And it's only in the last sort of five years really that I've come to appreciate the learning that I did in those years, let's say between 1991 and 199. It was really a period of learning. I was trying all kinds of fucking shit, I was somehow batting my head against the wall of "What's the right way to make photos of this culture?" And I still don't have an answer… But that was that period, that was after grad school, and really trying to figure it out with a book. The book [It's Not About a Salary: Rap, Race + Resistance in Los Angeles, Verso Books] came out in 93 and is odd in many ways, and is how I met Josh. Through the book!



Working for Magazines, the Importance of the “Co-Sign” and Meeting Shadow


Jon

How did you convince the artists to let you take photos of them? And by someone who is not even American, almost like an outsider.


Brian

I didn't start off the first day photographing NWA obviously, I had to photograph lots of other guys that were lesser guys. But after a while you start to understand that within the culture, a co-sign from somebody was taken seriously, especially in those day. Now it's become more professionalized in the way that people network.


So, that’s how I met Josh. Mike Nardone, who used to do this radio show [We Came From Beyond, KXLU] told me “There's this guy in the Bay Area who's making these mixes to tape that are insane!” He played me one of the mixes and I was like, "Whoa!!!", and he said, "Dude, if you ever want to know anything about sampling this guy's encyclopedic, he's a maniac!" And all I had to say was "Hey man, Mike Nardone gave me your number", and Josh said "What do you need to know? What can I help you with?" and that's how it was, really!


So yeah, I just started going to the clubs and I'd bring my camera and then I would talk to people, and then people would say, "Oh, you should talk to this guy, you should talk to that guy" and I would just follow the thread. And it was that simple because it wasn’t an industry yet, there was no money. Now it's a different system, everybody has a manager and an agent, and it's just annoying!

URB Magazine issues #2 / #3 (February / March 1991), where B+ started
URB Magazine issues #2 / #3 (February / March 1991), where B+ started

Jon

You worked for URB, Rappages, but also for Dave Paul’s Bomb Hip Hop Magazine. Were you there from issue #1?


Brian

No, it already existed before. The first magazine I worked for was URB, I started at issue #2 or #3 [February/March 1991]. At first, The Bomb [Issue #1 is from October 1991] was more like an insider newsletter really, rather than a magazine per se. You know, at that time, it was something that you would get in the mail, and it was more of an industry magazine than it was a kind of general public thing. It was very useful for people that worked in radio. There'd be reviews of things that you wouldn't read anywhere else, or you'd know about records that you wouldn’t know anywhere else, especially more underground stuff. Billy Jam was there, Dave Paul was there…


But again, I was at URB first. I met Raymond [Roker, URB's co-founder] very early in that first kind of month. I'm like "Damn, he was on issue #1!" This young fella was making a magazine out of his house I mean, and his house was literally the size of… this big [he describes it as very small with his hands]! I was like "Wow, that's really far out!" And then he asked me if I would shoot, and I remember I'd never even seen my photographs reproduced. So, to see the photos, you've seen the magazines… The early ones are like, really badly printed newsprints where it would just knock all the contrast out of your photos, everything would be totally flat and uninteresting, not like it should be.

Rappages issue #1, October 1991 & BHH issue #34, 1994 (cover design by The 8th Wonder)
Rappages issue #1, October 1991 & Bomb Hip Hop Magazine issue #34, 1994 (cover design by The 8th Wonder)

Jon

Different shades of grey.


Brian

Basically different shades of grey, exactly. But at the same time, that in and of itself was kind of a portal, to where Jeff [Chang] ends up writing a column for the magazine for a while. You know, Solesides started as a column in URB!


Jon

I think he went by DJ Zen back then?


Brian

He did, yeah. He would tell you what was going on in the Bay. Jeff was studying for his Master at UCLA at that time, and that's how we became friends. Jeff helped me re-edit my book - which was fucking insane - and we became friends, but I knew Josh previously.



On Meeting the Solesides Crew


Jon

So, you actually came to know about Josh through Mike Nardone as he told you about his mixes?


Brian

Yes, but when I actually met him in person it was Jeff who had set up a photo shoot. They were going to be in LA for the weekend and on a Sunday afternoon they came by and we took some photos. That's when I met them all for the first time.


Jon

Jerry Hawthorne who was working at KDVS in the early 90s sent us some staff lists from back then. Jeff, Xavier, Joseph and Tom are on there but not Josh, because I don’t think that he was a part of it, really.

Xcel, Jazzbo and Jeff Chang on KDVS Staff list, Summer 1992
Xcel, Jazzbo and Jeff Chang on KDVS Staff list, Summer '92

Brian

He mightn't have been on staff, but he would have played mixes and he would have had a show. He was part of his Crew, but he might not have had an official role at the radio station. That sounds very much like Josh.


Jon

What you mean is that through Jeff's show they were able to have their music On Air?


Brian

Yeah, that's exactly it. So now they're a crew and Jeff is beginning to take a kind of organizational role. Then they came down to do Mike Nardone’s radio show, I think maybe they had their first independent release at that moment, which might have been like that one, that EP [Entropy b/w Send Them by DJ Shadow and the Groove Robbers b/w Asia Born / Solesides, 1993] with one side is Josh and the other side is Blackalicious or something.


Jon

That was Asia born.


Brian

That's right, so it’s 93, they would have had the test pressings. I remember that they were picking up the test pressings, and then Jeff asked me if I could take photos of them. And I remember it was a Sunday afternoon, it's pretty funny what those dudes looked like. I mean, just to see them at that age, that young.

Benj, Jeff Chang, Jazzbo, Chief Xcel, Shadow, Gift of Gab & Asia Born (The Solesides Crew) shot by B+, 1993
Benj, Jeff Chang, Jazzbo, Chief Xcel, Shadow, Gift of Gab & Asia Born (The Solesides Crew) shot by B+, 1993

Jon

You have published a photo of Josh behind a Cadillac on your Instagram, and there’s this one where the crew is sitting in the street stamping labels onto records.


Brian

Yeah, it was that period. There's a photo where they're all sitting on a bunch of steps.



The Art of “Making” Photographs


Jon

So you met them all at the same time on a Sunday afternoon in Los Angeles circa 1993. I don't take a lot of photos, but I prefer to shoot people when they don't expect it. How did it go?


Brian

The idea is nice in theory, however with an attention to detail and understanding of gesture you can create a moment where it feels like people are behaving in a way where they're not being watched. Or at least, you can create something that disrupts the idea that everything that they're doing is for the camera, basically. And that's what it is, that's what photography is!


You create your moments basically, and the difference between somebody that does it in an amateur way or in a way where it's not, you know, I have to be able to repeat it. I have to be able to make that happen every time no matter who it is, no matter if I know them really well or I've just met them five minutes ago, I have to be able to make that feeling, that gesture.

That moment has to almost feel repeatable in order for me to be successful and have some control over it, so that it can be generative, so that you can actually make things that feel like something, and that's it.

Josh during a road trip, B+ circa 1996
Josh during a road trip, B+ circa 1996

In that period I used to call it "Go for a walk!" So, we go for a walk, and then you find somewhere where there's an interesting piece of light, you find something where there's an interesting piece of architecture, like a stairwell or something. And then you just try to kind of maneuver something into that space, and then you make images of it. And then you move really quick, and you don't overthink. And really it's actually that stupid! But it does occasionally yield moments, sometimes it doesn't. I mean, you just have to...


Jon

Seize the moment?


Brian

... Seize the moment, persevere, and hopefully it will be something. And what's weird is that those photos for example, at the time to me, were failures. You know what I mean? That's the reason that I never scanned them, that's why I never printed them, they just sat there! But then here we are, like 28 years later and well now they have a different kind of cachet entirely. They're the only photos of those guys together.


Jon

But what did you want to achieve then?


Brian

In those days, it was to make some photos of them with the notion that if somebody wanted to write something about them, that we had a decent photo that we could use next to the piece of writing, basically.


Jon

For me they’re iconic! Let's take the Quannum Spectrum poster that came with the Solesides Greatest Bumps boxset released in 2000, do you remember this one?

The Quannum Crew, B+ circa 1997
The Quannum Crew, B+ circa 1997

Brian

In the tree? That's a photograph, okay. But now that's six or seven years later. They grew up as far as how to behave in a photo, and I grew up on how to make a photo.



Staying Humble in the Hip Hop Industry, Conscious Hip Hop and Heads


Jon

You've done many record covers, several exhibitions, wrote 2 books and you now are internationally recognized. Did you have the feeling that you were capturing a special era?


Brian

Well, very early in those days I realized a couple of things. Number one, the goal wasn't to become the most famous photographer, I wasn't interested in this really. Because very often the most famous photographer is by proxy. The most famous photographer in music is the guy who's photographing the most famous musicians y'know? For me, I wasn't that interested in this, especially as hip hop became more commercial. A lot of it was less interesting to me. Not that it wasn't, that I didn't appreciate it or didn’t understand that it was good, but it just played less of an important role in my life.


So groups like The Pharcyde or Dilla, or Flying Lotus or Thundercat or Kumasi Washington, they might not be the number one Billboard acts, but in my house they are in the chart that exists here. They're my number ones, and I think that chart is more important than Billboard.


So I work with that. It's very nice actually in the end to have people like Flying Lotus say, "I want to work with you, because I know you only work with people that you believe in. So, if you agree to work with me, I understand that means that's the kind of co-sign. I appreciate that, and I want that!" This is wonderful!

Josh at the Record Rack, B+ circa 1996
Josh at the Record Rack, B+ circa 1996

The most important record cover I did for a long time was [DJ Shadow's] Endtroducing [Mo Wax, 1996] which isn't a fucking billboard number one record or anything, but is a profoundly important record. You know, for people that make music like that, it has a kind of foundational aspect to it. And to be associated with that, to have the kind of cultural cachet to be the guy that made that record, people always bring it up, you know, and for me that feels right like that. That's me! I'm not the guy that did the 50 Cent record, you know what I mean, and I've photographed Snoop [Dogg] many times, but I didn't want to be the Death Row photographer for example, because I felt more strongly that The Pharcyde and Freestyle Fellowship and DJ Shadow and Solesides and Dilated Peoples and Jurassic 5 would have a more important impact on the culture in the long run.


Jon

Don't you think that the connection with most of these guys is that they are doing conscious hip hop?


Brian

Well, true. I mean, certainly you could say that all those people that I just mentioned make conscious music. But I don't know necessarily that that's the most helpful way to understand what they do. I think perhaps for me at least in that era especially, I felt like they were making an argument for a more radical kind of music formally then the music industry was engaged in now. That's half true, half not. But at that moment, I believed we could impact social change through doing this. But, you know, conscious music is something that kind of feels like it came later almost.


I didn't feel like they were trying to be Public Enemy… And there were people that were trying to be Public Enemy. Their thing was different you know, like it was about skills, it was about not biting, it was like the fundamental core tenets of hip hop. But really trying to do it, really trying to be able to make beats that would be as tough as anything that [DJ] Premier could make, or really trying to be as swingy as A Tribe Called Quest.


Jon

Experimenting, kind of.

Josh digging in the crates, B+ circa 1996
Josh digging in the crates, B+ circa 1996

Brian

Experimenting and prioritizing that. And to me what was of interest really, was that experimentation process, openness, we're all really important. Josh often talks - we often talk about this - he talks about before hip hop became a set of rules or something. Where it was like, you're still making it up, and all of us being from that era and aspiring to that, you know, that it was a way of being almost nerdy before it was a style. Do you know what I mean?


Jon

Like breathing this will to explore new things through hip hop.


Brian

Yeah, but absolutely driven by hip hop, and knowing that in the case of something like UNKLE that it might take you into other places, who knows? It could be a film, it could be a piece of theatre or a book. But the notion is that you're driven by this set of core kind of cultural understandings that we share from the pre-commercial moment of hip hop. Aspects of hip hop were commercial from the very beginning in 1979, but that kind of 70s approach to rethinking the world or whatever would inspire us to be able to do something new.


Jon

As a listener, I tend to go back to the 80s or 90s.


Brian

And that's okay. But let me explain something: in the era we're talking about, people were listening to Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer and Tone Loc and Def Jeff and people that had kind of pop / hip hop careers that were making music that worked on the dancefloor. And I think this is the important thing to remember about the music now, a lot of music now has a different relationship to the body. Whereas there was more and it wasn’t the most popular then either, but there's still people making music that survives.


As a fella told me a long long time ago when I first came to Los Angeles, one of the elders in record collecting - which if you want to understand Josh, I think he is good to probe - like, "How does the record knowledge get learned?" A lot of times, it's from guys that were collecting music before the aesthetic of hip hop came. So, guys that were collecting doowop or guys that were collecting rare blues. It was a discussion about Roy Ayers, and the guy just said "Look, no matter where you go in the world, there's Heads!"


Heads are the ones that go a little bit deeper. Heads are the ones that are more interested in outsider things. If everyone else likes it, the Heads probably don't like it. They like the ones that you don't know about and it precedes hip hop. It is not what hipsters are, a hipster is a different thing but it's another way to think of it and that was the thing, it was music for the Heads.

David Axelrod, B+ circa 2000
David Axelrod, B+ circa 2000

[David] Axelrod for example, he would have been a big, big influence. But you realize Axelrod is somebody who wrote music for the Heads. Of course he went off and did huge hits, but when it comes to his thing, it has to make sense to them first and that's the thing to understand. Because it wasn't like there was some magical moment where there wasn't pop-annoying-wack-hip-hop, of course there was loads of it, I will just mention the hits. There was tons of other stuff that was really of course awful...


Jon

You have to go through a process, put all the beats together and find the samples, so it's a lot of research in the end, I guess.


Brian

But in that sort of formational period, the stakes were so real that there was no way to account for the DJ Shadow sort of people. But yet, it becomes a hugely impactful thing. There's no way to account for West Coast underground which includes Hieroglyphics, Solesides, Freestyle Fellowship, Project Blowed or The Good Life, you know.


All of our practices, and then the second generation of guys which is Living Legends and all these, you know them all right down to today, it's just another network. And what's interesting is - and this is what the lesson of Solesides and Freestyle Fellowship is - is that you could make economic models that would support the music, using more creative ways of financing that didn't really exist in the mainstream, you know. For example, the first person to sign The Roots was [UK DJ] Giles Peterson, do you know what I mean? That's real! In America, believe it or not, the American-behemoth-music-industry couldn't find a place for The Roots, while Giles Peterson was able to do that, like that's weird!


Clearly, you have somebody like James [Lavelle] supporting records. But even back in those days folks were getting funding from Japan. There were all kinds of other economies going on depending on what you're able to produce, even in a super local way. For example, Freestyle Fellowship but even Hieros [Hieroglyphics]. I remember Hieros, we all found out about them for the most part because Souls Of Mischief just had their hit [93 'Til Infinity / Jive, 1993]. But then what you come to find is that Souls Of Mischief is just one little piece of this larger network of people where you even have Del [Tha Funkee Homosapien] who had a hit from before [Mistadobalina / Elektra, 1991]. But they were able to support themselves, they didn't need the labels in the end and that's really what's very important actually. I mean, that allowed them that break with the industry, allowed them to continue to be as creative as they wanted, and they still are!



Staying Independent, Bootlegs, & Ultimate Breaks


Jon

Josh has managed to find his independence. Basically, he has a label but he managed to keep his freedom and that's very rare in the industry. How do you explain that?

Josh at "Motorcycle" John's records store in Merced, CA. URB session by B+, 1996
Josh at "Motorcycle" John's records store in Merced, CA. URB session by B+, 1996

Brian

Insane! Insane! Really hard to do. How he's able to do it is, he managed to make the first two records and the people that love those records will love those records forever, and they will stand by him forever. That's a fact! I mean I was there, I saw the music, I love the music, but none of us had any idea how much of an impact it would have!


He represents a kind of subjectivity that's very rare in the culture. Maybe in previous periods we saw more of this kind of outsider practice. But he's earned his autonomy, and there's something very special about that. At the same time as far as I remember, his favorite director is Spielberg, which is about as mainstream a kind of practice you could possibly imagine! But then Josh himself is so absolutely true to the notion of what potentially Spielberg represents to him, which is the kind of person who does whatever he wants, he's not waiting to be given permission. Josh's being that now, and that's radical! I mean, that's something really, really, really hardcore!


The best example of an explanation of this kind of thinking - honestly it's gonna be a weird reference but maybe it will help you - there's a movie called Still Bill [dir: Damani Baker, 2009] which is about Bill Withers, a completely different kind of musician. He came to music very late, but he understood profoundly that the thing that everybody is interested in, is this little piece of creativity that you have, and everything else comes in to try to find a way to put their hands on it, turn it, or manipulate it, or whatever... But he's holding on to this, this thing, because that's the thing that he's been given! Do you know what I mean?


And it turns out it's a lot more challenging than you would imagine, to be able to not be affected by what others think or what they think that you should be doing. To absolutely listen to yourself like this is very, very difficult!


Jon

Oras Washington [KDVS] and Alex Mejia [KMEL] both said that he was driven from the beginning.


Brian

I'll say this: the very first time I met them all [The Solesides Crew], the thing that I most remember from that day - I mean, besides the fact that Lyrics Born had a sense of humor that I completely didn't understand (he laughs) - was that we went by and we ended up back at my house. We were listening to records, I was super happy to be able to listen to records with these guys you know, it was like the fucking ultra-black-belts and I'm there!


Jon

The heavy weights.


Brian

Yeah, the super heavy guys in my world now! And Josh saying to me, "I don't think you should buy these kinds of records," and me saying "Why?" And him saying, "Because this is a bootleg, and they're not paying any money back to the musicians."

Ultimate Breaks & Beats LP [Street Beat Records, 1987]
Ultimate Breaks & Beats LP [Street Beat Records, 1987]

Jon

When I met Josh the first time I asked, "What's your opinion about bootlegs? Because there is so much of your music bootlegged out there," and he said exactly that it's not rewarding for the artists.


Brian

But what I would say - and this is the important part of the paradox here perhaps - is that without bootlegging, without Ultimate Breaks & Beats [Street Beat Records, 1986], which at that time was kind of a…


Jon

The Bible?


Brian

Yeah, it's still the Bible of drum breaks for the music and the culture, but it's a bootleg and he knew, and he would have had Ultimate Breaks & Beats, to study it and to see what's there and what's not, to understand the records through that. But then when it comes down to actually finding the record, he believed somehow you have to go out there and endeavor to find the original copy, because that contributes back to the culture that somewhere back along the line, hopefully the artists received some remuneration. Of course in the end maybe it's naive. Do artists get remunerated from secondary markets? They don’t! If I buy the record for 10 bucks and then 10 years later I sell it for about 200 bucks, the guy who made the record still got paid from the 10 bucks, you can't get paid from the 200, do you know what I mean?


So yeah, it's a more sophisticated position and Josh was aware of that. But for me as a young kind of photographer thinking about music and whatever, that kind of made me go like, "Oh, I never thought of that, yeah!" And then it's like, "Oh, this dude is thinking about ethics in the way that he buys records," and that's conscious for sure. Not in the way that you would think of as you know, Chuck D and Flavor Flav is conscious, that's a different thing. So there's a different ecology and that's where he came from, and that's the thing that is still so spectacular about what he does today, is that he's managed to continue to be free in his own way!


I mean, to me I think that's the beauty of all this stuff that we draw close to us, those things that we need to help us navigate the world. And in this case, Lisa [Haugen, Josh's wife] is clearly somebody who has contributed a huge amount to his stability, to his ability to...


Jon

To just 'Be'.


Brian

Yeah, it's extraordinary and it's wonderful! It's absolutely wonderful! I mean, he's all those things around him and he's a special dude no question!



Collaborating With DJ Shadow, John Hilliard, Filming Midnight & the Art of the Mistake


Jon

Were you around when Josh toured Europe with James Lavelle in 1993?


Brian

I wasn't in touch with him that closely then. I remember the first time I met James was in this period and I knew he was working with Josh, but I didn't know James well enough to really talk to him. I would hear from him once in a while, but if you remember in those days to make what was considered a long distance telephone call you would have to pay extra money for it. We weren't in constant touch. Like I wasn't in the close circle of friends, I was the LA guy. Josh once in a while would call me because he would have heard about somebody in LA, either through the grapevine or in a magazine or whatever, and he'd call me about it, "What's up with Volume 10?" or "What's up with this Freestyle Fellowship record, is it really that amazing? How can I get my hands on this?" But as far as him filling me in on the details of this first Tour? No!


But the first time I was in Europe with him I stayed at his house for a month when he was out there recording UNKLE at St. John, London in England, which would have been like 96, I guess? I stayed at his house for a month.


Jon

You were all together in London?


Brian

Yeah, but even before I did Endtroducing I did Blackalicious. That was my first EP.

Chief Xcel & Gift of Gab from Blackalicious on the shoot for Melodica in Palmdale, CA, B+ 1994
Chief Xcel & Gift of Gab from Blackalicious on the shoot for Melodica in Palmdale, CA, B+ 1994

Jon

Melodica [Solesides, 1995], yeah.


Brian

Melodica, exactly. And there was a version of it that came out in Europe, but they didn't like the art, so they wanted to shoot photos and we made photos but that was down here [in L.A.]. Of course, we would have caught up and I would know what was going on with Mo Wax and everything but the idea for those photos was kind of bugged out. I mean, we were in touch and then the next thing he started talking to me about was Endtroducing, so that's like 94 probably when we first started talking about it.


Jon

Josh’s first record that came out with a cover of yours was Stem [Mo Wax, 1996], was it his idea?


Brian

I shot that afterward. If I remember correctly, Endtroducing was first, it's just it didn't come out until later. And then after that, we were just thinking about ideas. There was Stem, but there's even a UK version of Midnight [in a Perfect World] for example, which had a cover of these little mannequins in the air or whatever [MW057 / Mo Wax, 1996].


Jon

This one was very strange. It was toy models?


Brian

Yes, models.

"Motorcycle" John in his store in Merced, CA from the Midnight in a Perfect World US 12" photo session, B+ 1996
"Motorcycle" John in his store in Merced, CA from the Midnight in a Perfect World US 12" photo session, B+ 1996

Jon

I like the one that portrays John Hillyard [on US copies of Midnight in a Perfect World / FFRR, 1997]. I know that he was a very important figure to Josh because he had his own philosophy. How did you take the photo?


Brian

He was a really important central figure for Josh! Josh brought me there [in Merced, CA], so after we did it, then we did Endtroducing. After that I was in touch with Mo Wax and I was doing these weird things with little models and stuff, which was all coming from Josh. Josh was feeding it. Like, "Why don’t we have it upside down? It would be cool! Let's do that, okay?"


There's some war thing happening, but it was all coffee and it's a model and you know, the palm trees aren't even real, and it's this kind of fake / unreal! So we did that but it was all sort of generative, it was all just turning up material to sort of think about what the vocabulary of Endtroducing was visually, you know. But then before the record came out, URB magazine asked me to photograph Josh for the cover.


I said, "What should we do?" So I had this idea to do some photographs with flash in San Francisco overlooking the city, and he wanted to go visit John Hillyard and make photos there, because it was such an important place. And yeah it was, it was! We did it over a day and a half, and that's what produced the Hillyard photos, and that's when I began to know about Hillyard. I love that photo too. The problem with that single though, is on the back there's a weird kind of anime mural [actually a graffiti] or whatever. The label got sued for that photo and ended up paying because the guy who made the mural sued them! Hey, I wouldn't have paid for it! Anyway, It's not to do with me.


Jon

FFRR got sued by the artist who did the mural, but then what about you guys?


Brian

No, no, because I never signed the contract.

Negative for the back of the Midnight in a Perfect World US 12" photo session, B+ 1996
Negative for the back of the Midnight in a Perfect World US 12" photo session, B+ 1996

Jon

The front sleeve is blue obviously because of the word ‘Midnight’?


Brian

The front is blue because I shot that type of film.


Jon

Why was the US cover different to the Mo Wax one?


Brian

It was a different single and had different songs on it, so he wanted to have something that would make it separate from the UK release, so it was a different idea altogether.


The American Art Department put it together at London Records in New York, and as soon as Josh saw the photo he was like, "That's it! We're putting him on the cover!" He was an extraordinary character and somebody who was a really kind of weirdly talismanic figure for Josh, I think!


Jon

He must have been the kind of - I don't mean to say it in a bad way - but maybe an illuminated guy, so they could understand each other maybe in their own way.


Brian

Fundamentally, yes. Fundamentally, I think Josh somehow sees himself a little bit in this guy, in the sense that John Hillyard was absolutely an extraordinary musical repository of information.


Like he really, really knew the labels, knew the music, and he was a musician himself [John was featured on Kim Foley’s LP called Good Clean Fun / Imperial, 1969, specifically on a song called “Motorcycle” from where he got his moniker] and he just squirreled away and hustled away millions of 45s! I mean so many 45s, like insane amounts of 45s in a moment when people weren't looking for 45s really, you know, it was the FM era, people bought albums. He had been in LA and then moved to Merced, and Josh found someone who brought him there [Mr. Nice Guy]. That's really where his fucking head exploded like, "Oh, shit! Don't worry about Ultimate Breaks & Beats, there's a whole other vocabulary that we can find!" And, I don't know what percentage of that era, but I would say a lot of Josh's big finds in that era came from that store. And it was disgusting, it was a horrible place!


Jon

Yeah, some people used to go to the shop and said that it looked like a hobo's place, it was messy and all but that was the beauty of it.


Brian

It was! But I mean this is the romance if you will of record collecting, places like this one.


The romance of record collecting is the cat on the front of Endtroducing. I love the cat among the records! It's the notion that everything there has already gone through some kind of human cycle. The way Josh is very eloquent in that movie Scratch [dir. Doug Pray, 2001], you seen that movie Scratch?


There's a sequence where they play Midnight, and I did the video for Midnight in a Perfect World, we shot it in the basement there [at Records in Sacramento, CA]. But then Doug Pray the documentarian had never seen the video - which is so weird - and he uses the song for the chat in the basement, and Josh delivers this very eloquent explanation of like, "In some way, in these piles of records there's possible futures that never happened!" You know, there's like all these possibilities that never happened, and his job is to recover some of those possibilities and it's fucking wonderful! And if you look at the video from Midnight in a Perfect World, and maybe a lot of people don't understand this, but the genius of that film isn't so much what you're watching, it's the way you're watching it! Because what we did was, we didn't shoot the video to the song, we shot the video to the samples, and then in the edit room with this amazing editor Eric [Zumbrunnen].

Beni B, Chief Xcel and Lyrics Born at Records record store in Sacramento, Endtroducing cover photo session, B+ 1996
Beni B, Chief Xcel and Lyrics Born at Records record store in Sacramento, Endtroducing cover photo session, B+ 1996

Jon

So it’s kinda cut-up DJ in itself?


Brian

Well, the easiest idea in the video to help you understand, is there's a clip of a woman playing a cello. She wasn't a musician or anything, but we figured out a way where we had her play the part, and then what we did was we put a dissolve in the middle of it.


Imagine you're watching TV, you're not paying attention to where the edit is going to happen or the sample will happen, so you're putting in a dissolve because you're listening to this other piece of music, and then we chop in the middle of the dissolve which is totally a break, it's a rupture. You would never do that in a film! You'd never edit in the middle of a dissolve! I mean, with a dissolve you put two shots one over the other. It's too rough! But then we're not making the video for the bigger piece of music with the cello, we're making the video for the DJ Shadow song.


Jon

It’s like an homage to the samples that were used to make the song, no?


Brian

It literally makes the process explicit without ever saying the hand of Josh is in the film, even if you never see the hand of Josh.


So for me in that period, say beginning with shooting the album cover like Endtroducing all the way to making the video, which is my first music video in like 96-97, it’s an exploration. Kind of trying to understand what a vocabulary around Endtroducing would be, and having all kinds of possibilities being photographed with John Hillyard, scrambling around and making something at the record store where it originally came from, recreating the fucking album cover, and as a moving thing!


Jon

Yeah, I think it's a great connection. So you can really identify that this song is coming from this LP, like it's a part of it now. I guess that beyond the music, Josh wants to be a part of the full process. For this video in particular, is it your decision to film it that way?


Brian

It was collaborative. Everything! This is one of the beauties of this dude, to know that whatever I'm doing or whatever we're doing supersedes or goes past what his original idea was, because that's Endtroducing, you know? For Endtroducing he gave me a drawing and he said, "Make this!" And I did but then while I was doing it, I noticed "Oh shit, what if we go over here and we use perspective? It's a different field!" And it de-prioritized the records that were in the shelves, and it became more about like this activity that's happening across the store. And then for him to be smart enough to go, "Of course, that's the right answer, fuck what I had!" You know, he's this guy!


Also again, the thing that's most interesting about him is, he is one of the first people I've heard in my world articulate the mistake. He loves mistakes. He’s very, very acutely aware to mistakes. Well, when he plays live he doesn't! He likes to have everything go exactly as planned, it's not as loose. But in the process of making - creating especially - yeah mistakes are important.

KeepInTime: Talking Drums and Whispering Vinyl, Mochilla's first release on VHS, B+ 2000
KeepInTime: Talking Drums and Whispering Vinyl, Mochilla's first release on VHS, B+ 2000

The best argument for this is, he did a remix for Keepintime: A Live Recording [Mochilla, 2004] around this fuckup in the show where Madlib's equipment isn't working and the guy keeps saying like, "Can somebody turn up Madlib? Can you turn Madlib up?" Everybody's struggling like "What the fuck is going on?! Why can't we hear Madlib?!" And he made a whole song out of this [“Bring Madlib Up” / Mochilla, 2004]! So he’s a very creative person and it's very inspiring, very ‘generative’ is a word I like to use lately.


Jon

Maybe that what people would usually call a mistake becomes an opportunity for him to grow on it, like serendipity.


Brian

Fully, fully, but to be good it has to be both. There has to be an aspect of it that feels like it’s predictive, like you know something is about to happen, but there's an aspect of it where I have to disrupt that too, and then it gets like "Oooh!" And then to be able to do that with machines that are generally built to repeat exactly in the same way every time, this is where it's interesting and he overstands it, to use Rasta slang. Like he doesn't just understand that, he's able to explain it to you and that's part of what makes him good.


Jon

That’s interesting because he worked with his MPC for a long time and I think it's Ableton lately. But he goes up to the limits of the machine as far as what he thinks he can learn from it, and then he switches to something else. Of course he has to learn how to use the new one again but it doesn’t stop him.


Brian

Yeah, but you should also understand that the process of learning a new interface allows you to think about possibilities in different ways. So, that's generative for people like Josh to find a way to do something that you never heard before through the machine, it's what feeds that a lot of times, that's how songs are made. It's just like, "Wow, that's fucking weird! How that did that!? That's cool! Maybe we can do something with it and have a generative possibility!"



On Mochilla, Keepintime, and Sampling Earl Palmer


Jon

I watched Keepintime. Talking Drums And Whispering Vinyls on that VHS that was released in 2000. How did you start your label Mochilla with Eric Colleman?


Brian

Mochilla was formed because we were unhappy with the system by which music videos were made. And basically Keepintime is a response actually to Josh, to what we did with the video for Midnight. Because if you notice, there's a guy in that video called Earl Palmer if you go back and look.


Earl Palmer is somebody that at that time I was thinking about, and I didn't know what I was going to do yet. But I knew that he had played on the Axelrod records, and I knew that the Axelrod records were absolutely fundamental to understanding what Josh was doing, what UNKLE was doing. The producers that I was interested in were all touching Axelrod at that time and Earl Palmer was the drummer on all those records, and there's an Axelrod sample in fucking Midnight! I don't know what now... [“The Human Abstract” from Songs Of Experience / Capitol Records, 1969].

Kashmere Stage Band's Conrad O Johnson with Josh on a road trip, B+ circa 1996
Kashmere Stage Band's Conrad O Johnson with Josh on a road trip, B+ circa 1996

Josh was even nervous that Earl was going to hear the sample. He hadn't a clue! Earl was like "Wha?! You want me to do wha?!" you know, like it was funny. But it was through meeting him and the professionalism and the way he held himself that I then realized, "I should make a film about him!" Even a little short you know, and well it wasn't a film at first I needed to do photos of him, I needed to make a situation where I can photograph him and a number of other guys that are important drummers. Because drummers really in that era, it was the first level of understanding whether it was a record that you wanted to buy or not buy.


For me, I grew up in a house with no records, and I grew up in a country who ostensibly has a very poor history in terms of records relative to places like England or Japan or even France, or obviously the US, just because the nature of the economy and the way the culture worked in Ireland as a kid, I didn't have access to much. I'd never seen a James Brown record to be honest with you, until I came to America!


Anyways, I'm not trying to exaggerate too much. But the point being for me, there was a twofold aspect to it. Like it was research on one level, where I could understand what the tradition is in terms of what an album cover is supposed to look like. I mean, just looking at pictures of musicians. Then the other side of it, is that the best way for me to understand what was going on in the music, is to understand what the people that were making the music were listening to.


I loved the idea that it was a wide open book, and that I might find something that they might not know about, which in a blue moon I did, it's very rare! Josh especially... Forget it! You can't really show Josh records unfortunately, he just knows too many records it's fucking stupid! I do remember in the 90s being at Records in Sacramento in a basement full of records and being like 20 feet away from him and being like, "Mary Murphy on Cap Records" and then him being like, "Yeah, it's okay. I'm not sure if you're gonna like it". And I'd be like, "How the fuck is he doing this?!" The most obscure weird looking record. Every record I would call out he would "Nah! Yeah, it's got a break on it. You know, it's kind of Jazzy, you won't play it out...” Now, “How's he fucking doing this?!” And there's only a few people that can do that, that hard. Madlib is one of them, Cut Chemist is one of them, Jay Rock is one of them, and Dante Carfagna… Like Dante is insane! Insane!


 

All photos used with permission or kindly provided by Brian "B+" Cross

Follow him on Mochilla, Facebook & Instragram


-----

Conducted by Jon (eikimono) on September 10, 2020

Transcript & editing by James Gaunt

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7 commentaires


Awesome..

J'aime

Such a GREAT interview Jon, although it took me a couple days. ;-D Fun to think through the timelines and what was happening. Very strong!!

J'aime
En réponse à

No, don't change it. I like when the whole thought process is there. I think I just didn't fit into the 35min read time it said. 😄 I probably was clicking onto it over 2 days~but also processing my memories. You can't worry about losing readers. Either they are interested in looking for this deep dive interview from the people who were there or not. 😉

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pmsplan
pmsplan
12 sept. 2021

Fascinating story! Phenomenal photos as well!💣

J'aime

Invité
12 sept. 2021

Truly awsome photos and what a great interview! 👏🏻

J'aime
Jon (eikimono)
Jon (eikimono)
12 sept. 2021
En réponse à

Appreciate your feedback, this one took a year to be finalized 😀

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