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vol 3 - issue 06 (feb 2001) :: interviews
RICKY POWELL
interview by debbie

HOW MANY BEASTIE BOYS' LYRICS DO YOU KNOW? BECAUSE WE KNOW ONE, AND HIS NAME'S RICKY POWELL. HE'S BEST KNOWN AS HIP-HOP'S THIRD-EYE VISION, CAPTURING EVERYONE IN ACTION. FROM THE BEASTIES TO BAMBAATA. TASTES LIKE CHICKEN'S THIRD-LEG REPORTER, DEBBIE, SPENT SOME TIME RAPPIN' WITH THE RICKSTER ABOUT DOGS, PHOTOGS, AND MODERN DANCE.

debbie: For the record, in your amateur opinion, do dogs have lips?

Ricky: Yes, definitely. I like to kiss dogs. I got no problem with that.

d: Actually, that brings me to my next question. I’ve heard that you’re big on animal rights. Can you tell us a little bit more about it?

R: Well, I definitely look out for animals whenever I see them. I try and include them in my photo essays or projects. I always try to give them their due, because they’re beautiful.

d: So, animals are something you’ve always been into?

R: Yeah. My mom brought me up with a lot of animals around the house. Especially dogs and cats. She used to bring home a lot of strays ‘til we found homes for them. I’ve always loved dogs. They’re cool to hang out with.

d: When you were shooting pictures on the Raising Hell Tour back in ’86, did you have the slightest idea you would take photography as far as you have?

R: No. It just happened. I had just finished school and got a Bachelor of Science in Physical Education. As far as I knew, I was gonna be a gym teacher. But at the time I was hanging with the Beasties. When they hit it big, I was a frozen lemonade vendor on the street. One day I just brought my cart in, quit, and flew down to Florida. I hooked up with them at the Tampa Dome. There was an extra bed on the tour bus, so they let me come along for ten days on the southeast leg of the tour. I took pictures with my little auto-jammie for fun, just to document for me and them. The pictures I ended up taking turned out to be pretty good. The Beasties were under Rush Management, which handled other groups like Run DMC, LL Cool J, and Public Enemy, so it just kind of blossomed. I was lucky and fortunate enough to be going in the right direction while doing what I love.

d: Right place at the right time?

R: Yeah. I’m 39 now, so I grew up in the '70s. I was just well prepared to do the scenes.

d: You must have seen a lot of stuff growing up then.

R: Yeah, like the graffiti art movement of the early '80s. That was real cool. They were like celebrities. Outlaws. Celebrated outlaws.

d: When you said “auto-jammie,” what kind of camera were you talking about?

R: A Minolta Auto-Focus 35mm from the late '70s. It’s a little thing. It has a strap that fits nicely around my shoulder, so I can tuck it away behind my jacket and be inconspicuous.

d: Do you still have to be inconspicuous?

R: Yeah. I do some “street documenting.” But, if there’s someone interesting I want to get a one-on-one with, I’ll ask ‘em. Some people look at me weird.

d: But you just do it?

R: Just do it. I love photography. I love freezing moments.

d: So have you dabbled around with different camera formats?

R: Not really. I’m not classically trained, so I just use my Minolta auto-jammie. I’ll break out my Pentax Cam 1000 for publicity shots or band shoots. I did get into video in 1990. I started my own public access television show called Rappin’ with the Rickster. I was tired of what was on TV, so I decided to make my own show.

d: Is that still going on?

R: No. I did it from ’90 to ’96, off and on. I have a videotape out called Get Zooted With Ricky Powell. It’s four of my favorite old episodes. People will be able to order it this spring from my website.

d: How has doing so many different things at the same time affected you on the business side of things?

R: It’s good. I like working for myself. That beats working for somebody else. All the other shit is just hustling. When I get a book deal, I get the advance, and basically that’s it. I don’t really expect to see any royalties, so I just do what I can. The books are like portfolios for me. They help me get additional work.

d: You must know a shitload of people by now. Do they come up to you and ask, “Hey, can you shoot this for me?”

R: Yeah, they inquire. I do favors for people. I won’t charge some people, if they’re struggling, because they’ll get me back someday.

d: And that goes for everybody, from stars to everyday people?

R: Anybody. As long as they’re interesting and as long as they’re cool; that’s all there is to it. You might be famous, but if you’re a dickhead, I won’t even waste my time.

d: Hell yeah! Have you ever done any gallery shows?

P: I’ve shown in New York four or five times. Had a show in San Francisco in August at the Upper Playground Gallery, which was good. That’s my man out there, Matt Rivelli. I presently have a show up at the Belmont Lounge called “What The Fuck Ain’t? You Know What I’m (Not) Saying? Classic New York Images.” Half the show is framed black and white blowups, but the other half of the show is little 4" x 6" black and whites that I had graffiti dudes and some friends paint over or color on. Dudes like Zephyr, Dr. Revolt, Scene and Lee, and Phil Frost. I like collaborating. I’ve got two more books coming out in the spring. One of them is gonna be a little mishmash of everything. Then, I might do a little art book with my girl, Judy. It’ll have pictures of people sitting on this little school chair for kindergarten kids that’s in my house. I’m also putting out a series of t-shirts called “Rap Legends” this spring, that Rawkus will be distributing.

d: Sounds like you’re branching out.

R: Yeah. It’s the upswing. I’ve had my struggling times, though, believe me. Those are the times you live and learn. I had the displeasure of associating myself with a couple of perpetrating cornballs that played me wrong. But I learned from it. Those people are living like roaches now, so it’s alright.

d: Do people on the streets recognize you?

R: A lot of people know my name, but they don’t know who I am. I never get recognized in the village where I live. People are receptive to my work because they’re real shots. I think people dig that.

d: In your shout-outs from your first book, Oh Snap!, you mention Spike Jonze and Sophia Coppola. How do you know them?

R: I met them through the Beasties. They used to come to shows all the time, and Spike does videos. He did “Sabotage”. He and Nathaniel Hornblower are down with the same crew.

d: It’s 2001, yet there are no flying cars, light-speed spaceships or rayguns. Do you find any of that disappointing?

R: Yeah, a little bit. Shit is whack here. New York City lost a lot of its essence with Giuliani. He destroyed a lot of shit in New York. It’s not futuristic.

d: It’s obvious that hip-hop culture is something you hold very dearly. What else plays a large role in your life?

R: Well, hip-hop used to. Now I’m stuck in a time warp in the '50s, '60s and '70s. I like all the Blue Note shit; the jazzy funk. That’s when shit was original and authentic.

d: In the opening for Oh Snap!, you mention taking “the dreaded one-credit modern dance class.” How the hell did you get through that?

R: Oh, God. Well, first, I didn’t wear tights. They let me slide wearing sweatpants. I just used to stay in the back of the class. It was once a week for ten weeks. I was the only dude in the class.

d: That doesn’t sound that bad.

R: I know. But it was embarrassing. You feel awkward doing those movements, especially if you have to do it in front of everybody. I used to just close my eyes. Sometimes, I used to eat pot cookies before I went, so I would be laughing and shit.

d: Alright. My next question is a math question. If one kid is toking up in the bathroom of an Amtrak train heading south out of Hartford, Connecticut at 88 miles per hour, and another kid is smoking a joint in the back of a theater in Detroit, Michigan during a showing of The Nutty Professor 2: The Klumps, which one will reach Quebec first?

R: Uh,.. Detroit.

d: The kid in Detroit?

R: Yeah. I believe so.

d: What’s the best thing that happened to you last week?

R: Not much, man. I can’t really answer that one. Got an alternative?

d: Well, what’s the most fucked up thing you saw happen last week?

R: Oh, actually the best thing last week was that I saw this Bruce Lee documentary on Bravo. That was very enlightening. The worst thing was I saw on the news that somebody was shot in the head and I was hoping that it was this one person, but it wasn’t. It was disappointing.

d: Damn. (laughs) Alright, finish this sentence: “Your mama’s so fat…”

R: How about: “Your mama’s so hairy...”?

d: Okay.

R: Your mama’s so hairy, she looks like she has Buckwheat in a headlock.

d: If you could do absolutely anything in the world right now, what would you do?

R: Have my own TV show.

d: Like on a network?

R: Yeah. Like a magazine show that had traveling involved. That’d be cool.

d: What would you call it?

R: Hanging With The Rickford.

d: Who do you look to for inspiration?

R: People that are doing shit, but don’t act all hype. Those are the kind of people that get my most respect. Bruce Lee was very inspiring. He was a real classy guy. Linda McCartney; her book of photographs from the '60s is a big inspiration for me. I like the style as well as the content of the photos.

d: Who do you think would win in a fight: Batman or Indiana Jones?

R: Batman. But Adam West, not Val Kilmer.

d: Saucy. You got any final comments?

R: Yeah, man. Act right, respect your elders and try to keep a positive karma. I know it’s an ugly world, but you can have a little bit of faith that shit can happen. Try to block out the negative and throb on the positive. Basically, the world is how you see it.

GET MORE RICKY AT RICKYPOWELL.COM


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