The Notorious BIG, stoic and resplendent in front of the Twin Towers. Tupac Shakur, eyes closed and arms raised, billows of smoke rising from his lips. Eazy-E, perched on top of his lowrider, using him as a throne. Mobb Deep, snuggled up with friends on the roof of a housing project in Queensbridge. Nas, reflected in his childhood bedroom. Members of the Wu-Tang Clan, gathered in a circle and staring at the camera, sharpness in their eyes.
For the essential rap stars of the 1990s, there is a good chance that their defining images – the ones that have been imprinted for decades in the popular consciousness – were all taken by one person: Chi Modu.
In the early to mid-1990s, working primarily for The Source magazine, then the definitive compendium of hip-hop’s commercial and creative rise, Mr. Modu was the go-to photographer. An empathetic documentary maker with a knack for capturing easy moments under often extraordinary circumstances, he has helped define the visual model of dozens of hip-hop stars. The Source was creating a new generation of superheroes and Mr. Modu captured them as they took to the skies.
Mr. Modu died on May 19 in Summit, NJ. He was 54 years old. His wife, Sophia, said the cause was cancer.
As hip-hop was still gaining its place in pop culture and the mainstream media hadn’t quite caught up with it, The Source entered that void. The same goes for Mr. Modu, who is often the first professional photojournalist his subjects meet.
“My future goal,” Modu told BBC Africa in 2018, “was to make sure that someone from the hip-hop community was responsible for documenting hip-hop artists.”
His photos have appeared on the covers of more than 30 issues of the magazine. He also photographed the cover of Mobb Deep’s groundbreaking 1995 album, “The Infamous …”, and “Doggystyle,” the 1993 debut album by Snoop Doggy Dogg (now Snoop Dogg), as well as the promotional campaign “BIG Mack” from Bad Boy Records. , which featured rappers Notorious BIG and Craig Mack.
“We were pretty primitive in our looks back then, and we needed someone like him,” said Jonathan Shecter, one of the founders of The Source.
Mr. Modu’s personality, he added, was “super cool, no stress, no pressure. He’d be just a cool dude to hang out with the team. A lot of rappers thought he was someone they could hang out with.
Mr. Modu’s characteristic approach was crisp and intimate – he made his subjects like heroes, but with near humility. As this generation of emerging stars learned to present themselves visually, he helped refine their images. (He had a special relationship with Tupac Shakur, which spanned several years and shoots.)
“When you bring that high level of skill to an arena that didn’t have a high level of skill, you can actually create some really important work,” he told Pulse, a Nigerian publication, in 2018.
For the cover of Mobb Deep’s album, he set aside time in a photo studio, which resulted in the duo’s indelible cover portrait. “A big part of our success was this cover – it captured a vibe that encapsulated the album,” Mobb Deep’s Havoc said. “Seeing a younger black brother take pictures of this nature was inspiring.”
But Mr Modu also spent a day with the duo in Queensbridge, the neighborhood they were originally from, taking pictures of them on the subway, near the Queensboro Bridge, on the roof of the apartment building in which lived Havoc. “Twenty-five years later, they almost feel more important,” Havoc said. “They give you a window into this era.”
In addition to being an agile photographer – he sometimes turned his images on slides, with his small margin for error – Mr. Modu was a skillful amateur psychologist. “He could travel from New York to Los Angeles and go to any neighborhood. There was never a problem, never a problem, ”said Mr. Shecter. His wife remembered Mr. Modu leaving a vacation in Jamaica to photograph Mike Tyson, only to arrive and learn that Mr. Tyson did not want to take pictures; at the end of the day, by charm and cajoling, Mr. Modu had his shots.
Mr. Modu was also a keen student of the dynamic balance between photographer and subject – fame was the raison d’être of the shot, but the photographer was the shaper of the image. “The reason I’m able to take control is because I’m trying to help you get to where you’re trying to go,” Modu told Pulse. “I’m on your team. It’s me looking at you. You might think you are cool, but i have to see you as cool to press my shutter.
Jonathan Mannion, a friend of Mr. Modu’s and a next-generation hip-hop portrait painter, said Mr. Modu played a crucial role in establishing the presence of sophisticated photography in hip-hop. “He knocked a lot of doors off their hinges so that we could go through them,” Mannion said.
Christopher Chijioke Modu was born on July 7, 1966 in Arondizuogu, Nigeria, to Christopher and Clarice Modu. Her father was a capable statistician and her mother worked in accounting and computer systems processing. His family emigrated to the United States in 1969, during the Biafran War.
His parents then returned to Nigeria, but Mr. Modu stayed behind and graduated from Lawrenceville School in New Jersey and received a BA in Agribusiness Economics from Cook College at Rutgers University in 1989. He began to take photos in college – using a camera bought for him as a birthday present by Sophia Smith, whom he started dating in 1986 and will marry in 2008 – and received a certificate in photojournalism and documentary photography of the International Center of Photography in 1992.
He photographed for The Amsterdam News, the Harlem-based newspaper, and became a staff photographer for The Source in 1992 and later director of photography for the magazine.
After leaving The Source, he was a consultant on diversity initiatives for advertising and marketing companies and was the founder of a photo-sharing website. And he continued to take photos around the world, capturing life in Yemen, Morocco, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and elsewhere.
Besides his wife, Mr. Modu, who lived in Jersey City, is survived by his mother; three sisters, Ijeoma, Anaezi and Enechi; a brother, Emmanuel; and a son and a daughter.
In the early 2010s, Mr. Modu began working to rekindle interest in his’ 90s hip-hop photography, initially teaming up with a New York-based display company to exhibit his work.
“He felt that there were some guardians, especially in the art world,” Ms. Modu said. “He always said that people are the ones who appreciate art and want the art that he has. And with the billboard thing, he was bringing art to people.
The billboard project, called “Uncategorized”, has resulted in exhibitions in several cities around the world. In 2014, he presented a solo exhibition at the Pori Art Museum in Finland. In 2016, he published “Tupac Shakur: Uncategorized”, a book bringing together photographs from several shoots with the rapper.
Working at a time when the conditions for celebrity photoshoots were much less onerous than they are today, he retained the rights to his photographs. He sold posters and prints of his work and licensed his photos to collaborate with clothing and action sports companies. Last year some of his photos were included in Sotheby’s first hip-hop auction.
Years after his heyday in hip-hop photography, Mr. Modu still left his mark on his subjects. DJ Premier of Gang Starr – a duo Mr. Modu photographed for the cover of The Source in 1994 – recalled taking part in a hip-hop veteran’s European tour in 2019. During a stopover in Berlin, he did heard Mr. Modu, who was in town and arranged for him backstage passes.
When Mr. Modu arrived, he approached a room where the Wu-Tang Clan members were all gathered. DJ Premier recalled the enthusiastic reception: “As soon as he walked in it was almost like a cheer -” Chiiiiiiiiiiiiii! “”