Ricky Powell is a photographer who is famous for taking photos of Run DMC, Cindy Crawford, Andy Warhol and Basquiat. He’s also well known for his relationship with The Beastie Boys: they toured together, hung out together, and partied together—so much so that Powell was sometimes called the fourth member of the band. He also ran a public access TV show called Rappin' with the Rickster (watch below), a significant document of hip hop’s “golden era” (1986-’89.)
These days he takes pride in photographing raw city life (check his Instagram for evidence) rather than celebrities. Powell has a personal investment in the city, and has chosen to stay despite almost everything he loved about the neighborhoods he grew up in being written over by corporate interests—interests drawn there in the first place because of the cultural capital he and his peers were responsible for.
Powell is straightforwardly disgusted by the city today, and he wants to ensure the posterity of its rich history before everything went to hell. One way he passes on his specific knowledge is by leading tours of the Lower East Side, offering a perspective that comes from having lived there his whole life—he’s now 52—and having participated firsthand in that mythological era of music and art for which New York became famous.
In the caption for the Instagram post advertising the most recent tour—held this past Saturday, which I attended—he told interested followers to meet him at 3 in a mythical-looking cul-de-sac called Patchin Place just off of 6th Avenue. I got there a little early, saw that nobody else had arrived yet, and waited. A couple minutes later, I noticed a man in shorts, sunglasses and a slightly-tilted cap looking pissed, transistor radio softly making noise at his side.
I said hello and asked if he was Ricky Powell, and he said yeah, asking if I was there “for the thing.” I said yeah and he stared at me scrutinizingly, clearly thinking unfriendly things. Automatically I was excited—what was about to happen? “Where are you from,” he said. “LA. I just moved here.” He started laughing, saying “Oh yeah?” condescendingly. He then asked what I did. When I said I wrote about music, his incredulous stare intensified, then he scratched his head in irritation and put his head in his hands for a full minute. Nobody else showed up for the tour—it was just me and him.
It was an interesting moment because people don’t often get criticized for being SoHo gentrifiers, as SoHo’s gentrification is for the most part taken for granted by most people that live there: the depressing fact is that a huge percentage of its original residents have already been displaced, so they’re not even there to be angry. In fact, several waves of gentrifiers have been priced out of SoHo by now—it is simply just an extremely expensive neighborhood now to most people. Conversations about gentrification in the city are almost completely focused on Brooklyn, Harlem and Queens.
If the sight of me (or what he takes me to be) is so upsetting, then why is he doing a tour of Greenwich village, I wondered. The storyline of a longtime Manhattan resident (particularly someone with a punk attitude who uses words like “poser”) lamenting the way in which the city has been ruined is so rarefied that our initial exchange felt surreal, like I was performing the role of myself, or, rather, myself in the ‘90s, played by someone like John Cusack.
“I’ve never done the tour with one person before,” he said as we started up at a slow dredge. We walked around the corner and he pointed to a basketball court, unenthusiastically saying that he used to play there with Adam—Ad Rock—from the Beastie Boys when he was a kid. I said “word” enthusiastically and he asked me to please not say that anymore, insisting that we talk like regular people. I respectfully agreed.
We walked a little further and he asked me if I knew what the Village Vanguard was. When I said yes, he quizzed me on it. I said it’s a jazz club, that one of my favorite John Coltrane albums was recorded there. Visibly impressed, relief set into his face a little. Underneath the venue’s awning he told me that he once took a photo of Dr. Lonnie Smith in that exact spot, admiration and respect for the man clearly coming through in his voice. He talked a little about Blue Note Records—arguably the most important jazz label ever—and its relationship to the venue. He recommended a jazz artist, Lou Donaldson, I’d never heard of and rubbed the door handle for good luck, which he always does.
Asking if I had any weed, Powell told me Waverly Street was good for smoking bowls, which is not something I imagine most of its current residents saying. He was hungover from an Adidas party the previous night, showing me a picture on his Instagram of himself and blonde model with the caption “chicks dig #unclesloppy.” We walked past the spot where he shot the famous photo of the Beastie Boys imitating the Abby Road photograph, pulling it up to show me by searching Google on his tablet. For a moment we paused in St. Luke’s Garden, a luscious, beautiful little spot he told me was one of his “havens,” and he told me about the history of Jewish comedy in the Catskills.
Stopping in front of Magnolia Bakery, he pointed across the street to a stroller-filled, shaded nook of a park, saying that Italian gangsters used to hang out there. He remembers how they used to run the neighborhood, telling me how Bedford Street was full of Italian social clubs with guys with baseball bats out front. He told me about a scary Irish person he grew up with called “Piggy” that was getting out of prison that year. “Everyone was afraid of him, but for some reason he liked me,” he said, smiling. “Come, come,” he said with a pseudo-bourgeois affect, and we walked on.
After pointing out a wall he had tagged with his nickname, “The Lazy Hustler,” we went to the Carmine Street Park, where he used to play softball in 1985 on famous graffiti artist Futura 2000’s team with Fab Five Freddy and Matt Dillon. “Keith Haring and Andy Warhol used to be cheerleaders,” he told me during a lull in a phone conversation with Verizon.
There was a pool right next to the park with a huge, original Keith Haring mural in yellow and blue. Asking me if I’d ever seen Martin Scorcese’s Raging Bull, Powell described a famous scene shot there with Robert DeNiro and Cathy Moriarty where the boxer sticks his two fingers through the fence—a move Powell imitates, lost in reverie—to touch hands with Cathy. Across the street was Mike D’s apartment, where he had lived for a year in 1987 when the Beasties were on tour and another stoop where he had shot them.
Stopping at a bodega, he bought about seven Tootsie Rolls—“I’ve gotta have candy”—and left their wrappers in a trail for the rest of our jaunt, habitually letting them fall as we walked in front of full avenues’ worth of green light traffic. He asked me about my aspirations, giving me career advice and denouncing the general low ethical standards of people doing business, speaking with genuine good intention and listening attentively to my responses.
Next stop was Minetta Lane, where he reminisced upon having done countless shoots, also pointing out a building from a scene in Serpico, an Al Pacino movie. Telling me about his career trajectory, Powell explained that he started taking photos because he wanted to spite an artist ex-girlfriend and make something of himself, using an inexpensive Minolta she had left behind—“taking photos was easy”—and that before he knew it he was “The Rickster,” the photographer of the downtown art scene. He remembers first going to see the Beastie Boys because he had grown up with Adam, who had always looked up to him as a kid, and how much he ended up identifying with their music and presentation. At that show they were drunk talking shit, tossing beer everywhere, and shaking the place with powerful 808s. An 18-year-old LL Cool J was even there in a Georgetown jacket. After that show he quit his job at a Frozeade stand—where he once took a famous photo of Basquiat rummaging in his pocket for something smaller than a $100 dollar bill to buy a treat with—and flew to Florida to join the Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, Whodini and Run-DMC on their Raising Hell tour.
We walked on to MacDougal Street, which he remembers for its importance to the Greenwich village hippy/folk scene, pointing out Cafe Wha? where Bob Dylan used to wait tables, and the Comedy Cellar, a once-famous hub for New York’s Jewish comedy scene. Arriving in Washington Square park, he’s heartened to see a horn player he loves, Charles Rasheed—“he studied with Donald Byrd”—beautifully playing in the midst of the park bustling with people relaxing and kids playing. A kid zooming by on an electric scooter going too fast prompts Powell’s lovingly harsh reprimand, “slow down asshole.” He snaps some photos of three kids playing drums dexterously as I take a photo of a man covered in birdseed calmly being nibbled by pigeons. Powell walked over and explained, “I’ve been coming to Washington Square Park to people-watch since I was a kid. It inspires me.”