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Interview with Mel D Cole, Photographer

posted by on 30/08/2011

About a month ago I stumbled across an image of Q-Tip at the 7th Annual Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival in July. I spend a lot of time reading concert reviews, watching live performances and looking at event photography and I honestly do not think I’ve ever seen a photograph from an event before that conveyed so much energy, well maybe I have – but the photo really stuck in my mind. I found out the photographers name was Mel D Cole, checked out his site – became a little obsessed with his images and inspired by his hustle, and then decided to hit him up for an interview. Luckily he was visiting London for a week in August, and so we arranged for me to catch up with him and ask a few questions backstage at The Root’s show. Hit the jump to read what photographer, Mel D Cole had to say.

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Mel D Cole

Connect with Mel D Colewebsite | portfolio | tumblr | facebook | twitter  | instagram | high snobiety

Self-taught photographer, Mel D. Cole has gone from a fan with a disposable camera at a Common show, to an internationally known creative who has shot images for Kanye West, Erykah Badu, P.Diddy, Lil Wayne, John Legend, Raphael Saadiq and Little Dragon to name a few. Whilst I browsed through Mel’s vast portfolio, with every single photo that I looked at, one thing stood out in particular – reality. They weren’t posey club photos of girls drinking cheap wine, or glitzy over-edited shots of Liz HurleyMel’s images were stripped-down, raw, provocative real-life documentation of 21st century life in AmericaNew York in particular. Mel is the house photographer for Hip Hop legends, The Roots and has had his work published in ID magazine, Okayplayer.com, Respect magazine, RapRadar.com and Magma, has his own pair of trainers with Etnies, is an ambassador for Henieken and blogs for the online magazine of cool, High Snobiety.  His portfolio images consist of Hip Hop concerts, portrait photography, images of homelessness, sports photography and editorial shots – this guy gets around!

mel d cole eiffel tower

How and when did it start, can you remember the first photo you ever took?

The first photo was with a disposable camera. I shot Common at an Electric Circus show back in 2002 or 2003. I didn’t know I was going to be a photographer – I just took the photo as a fan, I love Common he’s one of my favourite rappers besides Black Thought. I believe Common is one of the dopest MC’s to ever walk this earth, along with Black Thought. I was really into Common at the time, so it inspired me to capture the moment.

common-mel d cole

So you started with a basic disposable camera, what are you working with now?

I work with different ones, but mainly Canon 7D.

And when you took your first photo, of Common – was it good? Did you put it on a website or anything?

I didn’t put it on a website at first cos I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I got it back and was like “Yo, this shit is dope!” – but I didn’t know it was dope in comparison to a lot of other photographers in history. I had no fucking idea until I started to become more of a photographer and people would say “Yo, your work reminds me of so and so” and I looked at their photos and thought my shit holds up…I think I can make a living out of this – capturing moments.

What was the first step to becoming a professional paid photographer?

First step was club photography for the back pages of a magazine called URB. And then I started doing shit for Roxy Cottontail and her parties in New York and Mighty Healthy. And then I made friends with people that are still some of my greatest friends today, the guys that made Leroy Jenkins, the clothing brand. Ron & Pen. Pen was in L.A., but Ron specifically showed me a lot of the streetwear brands and they were doing a lot of cool parties back in ’95, ’96, ’97 and so those three years kind of built me up. And then another good homie was like “Yo, you should come to these shows” – he was working on The Roots and Friends, a concert at Radio City Music Hall back in 2008. So 2008 was when I really started fucking with The Roots on the regular and that’s when they found out about me. I’ve always loved The Roots but that was when I was like “Yes. I’m a photographer. I can go to a show and take pictures”. But I still didn’t have credentials or anything, my boy just got me good seats.

black thought

Do you have a preference between event/club photography and concert photography?

Concerts. Hands down.

I read about your Heineken and your Etnies collaborations, tell me more?

Heineken sponsor me to get beer to the people. I kind of represent it, like a brand ambassador. They basically pay me to have a good time, to make sure that I get their beer to a demographic, mostly African Americans.

And Etnies, I did a collaboration with Etnies in April 2010, I made a sneaker and two t-shirts with them.

What do you believe to be the best, or favourite photo you’ve ever taken, and the craziest?

I don’t think I really have a favourite. There’s a bunch of crazy photos. I love pictures of girls pussy’s, I love pictures of asses. Musically, I don’t really know. Event-wise, there’s a photo I took with a fisheye camera, with film, a Lomo. And it’s this dude getting head and finger-fucking this chick in a club. That’s probably one of my favourite photos, that shit is crazy.

What tips would you give to people that are starting out, for example the guy that’s at a concert with his disposable camera?

I always say don’t try to be like me, try to be better than me. Do your own thing. You might look at a guy like me, doing it in New York, but I fucking bust my ass. I don’t get much sleep and I really, really work hard. So if you want to even attempt to be on my level, or even just be ‘there’ then you better be fucking dope.

Which three qualities do you think a person needs to become a good photographer?

You need to be confident, extreme and just talented. I mean, I could go on and on. You just have to know who you’re working with. You have to be a chameleon and be diverse. I take photos for people like The Roots, but then I’ll also take some punk rock shit, some hipster ass shit. But there’s nothing like working people that you have a relationship with and that are comfortable with you hanging around, with a camera. These guys, they live private lifes and everything, but they let me in. The Roots are my favourite group to work with of all time.

Do you think it’s important to create and stick to your own style? I notice a lot of your photography is black and white.

It’s my style. But I shoot colour too. 90% of my photos on Village Slum are b&w. I’ve never had to compromise my style, but, for a big fat cheque – absolutely – as long as it’s not going to compromise my website, or my portfolio then hell yeah.

What have you been up to during your time in London? Have you covered any other shows alongside The Roots?

Well one of the Semtex team hooked me up to take photos at the Big Sean show but it was my first night here and like a good friend, I was like fuck it lemme just hang out with my peoples….and then it was like “KANYE’S THERE”! I also went to Amsterdam for the day. Tonight [The Roots show] is the first show I’m taking photos at in London.

What are your plans for 2012?

To make more money. To become more internationally known for my work, as well as in my own country, and in my own state.

Random question: If you become a multi-millionaire overnight, what would be the first three things you’d do?

I would take a trip to space. I would buy a studio for myself right in the middle of New York. And I would also buy an apartment in Tokyo, Japan. So I could spend half my time in Tokyo and half my time in New York.

Fortunately I was lucky enough to spend some time with Mel whilst he was over, I took him down to Brick Lane for some curry and we spoke lots about comparisons between English and American culture, music, politics even porn on TV (lol). One thing that struck me is that as a photographer you are forever working. Armed with a camera and an opportunity-seeking eye, Mel was constantly snapping photos as we walked around East London – it was if everything was art to him, situations and images that the average person would just walk past and never acknowledge. I guess that’s part of the reason why Mel strikes me as a hustler, grabbing every opportunity and making something of it! It was truly inspiring to be around someone that genuinely loves what they do and lives and breathes it, many of us live in circumstances where chasing and achieving our dreams are possible and Mel is the perfect example of this. A Hip-Hop lover who’s favourite artists growing up were Common and The Roots, is now the house photographer for Black Thought and crew, one of the most inspirational Hip Hop artists in the world! I hope this interview inspired some of you to chase your dreams, as cliche as that sounds! Mel is as skilled with the interwebs as he is with a camera lense and regularly posts photos on High Snobiety, as well as his websites, tumblr and instagram featured at the top.