There are two ways I would describe photographer Mel D. Cole: a photographer, and a fool.
To the former designation, he's been present for some of the most iconic and intimate moments in hip-hop of the past two decades, resulting in the new book GREAT: Photographs of Hip-Hop 2002-2019. With a forward penned by frequent subject-turned-friend Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and a Kickstarter campaign crowdsourcing the production of the project, the book is a testament to his career thus far; from his beginnings as a guy with a disposable camera wriggling his way into shows, Cole's carved out a unique career from shooting Diddy's White Party in 2009 to being the photographer of choice for artists like the Roots and Trey Songz.
The latter side of Cole? The man who loves to clown everyone (including himself), who loves to hop on Instagram and troll his famous friends’ comment sections, and who once Facetime’d me at 2pm while I sat in a meeting, to say “we don’t text in 2019 no more, we Facetime.” Over the course of the past year, I'd go find him in his Jersey City neighborhood to drink and talk; at some point, I'd turn on the recorder. Within our conversations, there's someone who's passionate about documenting the cultures he finds himself an active participant in — a true talent with an endless amount of stories that you never want to end.
What made you decide to make a book?
It came from having a hundred-plus people tell me I should have a book. For me, it's a way to end the era.
How did you decide which photos to include?
Shit, it was a rough process. The book was originally going to be about everything, from girls in fucking Mickey Mouse mascot hats to me documenting homeless conditions. Eventually, I was like, "Let’s just focus on hip hop." That's what I'm known for the most, and what's probably going to get the most attention.
What was the first major step?
Getting it down to 5,000 images. I knew I needed an objective point of view on some of these images, which I got. Then we got it down to 300 images, and we're still trying to narrow it down to 200.
Is it hard to go back to some of your earlier stuff?
I started off with disposable cameras, so in the beginning, I was like, “I don't give a fuck. This is it.” Then one of my friends was like, "Just imagine what you can do when you learn how to use these applications and programs." The rest is a wrap.
Were there some images that you knew would make the cut?
Common and [Erykah Badu] at SOBs, where she seems like she's about to stage dive and Common is in the back. That was a no-brainer. I have a few Mobb Deep photos that are going to make it in. This Questlove photo where he's in the bathroom looking in the mirror with hairspray — that gets in. Mac Miller at Statik Selektah’s house back in, like, 2011 or '12 with his MacBook. That was definitely one.
Your business partner Matt Ricke said there was some back and forth about what should go on the cover. Was there an original idea that got swapped out?
[Tyler the Creator] and Odd Future's first time at FADER Fort during SXSW wasn't my favorite photo of all time — but, shit, he won that battle, and everyone seems to agree with him. But I'm very happy with the photo that's on the cover.
I’m having a throwback week, because I was at SOBs two days ago. It had been a while, but I was reminded how important that place still is. When I moved here in 2009, that was the first venue I could get into consistently, which helped me start writing about shows.
If it wasn't for [Kozza Babumba], I wouldn’t have gotten into so many shows. I wouldn't have ever known these doormen to let me in places. I forget to thank him enough for that.
Did you always want to be a photographer? What were those first years like?
I didn't know I wanted to be a photographer. I was working at a pharmaceutical company when I moved to New York. Before that, I was in the New York Teaching Fellows program for two months before I was like, "I can't do this." Before that, I was working in Philly at the University of the Arts as a dorm director, as well as a substitute teacher in the public schools. I had quite the journey of fucking jobs. I hated the pharmaceutical company — I think I maxed out at making $45k. It was fine, but I was like "This isn't my life." I quitted, which was either the biggest or best mistake of my life.
I went a whole summer being broke, back on ramen noodles. Didn't know how the fuck I was gonna pay rent. That was the last time I asked my grandmother for money. Then I got another job as a customer service guy — I was the gatekeeper for people to get SSL certificates. There wasn't a dress code, because you're just sitting there with a headset on. I was able to get off just in time to go to shows. I quit that last job in 2010, and I haven't had a day job since.
What were some of those great first shows that you shot?
Shit, some of the biggest hip hop artists right now. Drake had the most memorable SOBs night that I’ve experienced. I was at Kendrick's first SOB show, and J Cole. It didn't get much bigger than those. I was at a lot of failed attempts. Drake had openers, and Peter Rosenberg was hosting. The opener was this white guy and somebody else, but they never fucking made it. MC Lyte actually did two songs that night, randomly. I've never seen anything like that shit in my life.
Everyone on Twitter was talking about fucking Drake, and I was like, "Who the fuck is Drake?" It's just Drake from Degrassi — like, I don't like that shit. Someone put up a photo and it had been trending in my network of people. Someone said, "There are a bunch of girls that have been lining up since 10 o'clock in the morning." I was like, "Alright, I guess I got to go to this fucking show." I never heard any of his music before. When I got there, the line was down the block, but I was able to get backstage and all this shit.
Early on, how would your photos get out to the public?
It was so different back then. I had my blog, Vilageslum.com. That's how I put photos up and would let people know that this shit was going to go on there. That's how it happened. I was shooting music and nightlife a lot, and I used the nightlife part as a way to network and become somewhat of a personality in the scene. When I was going out, I never wanted to just be a regular-ass fucking person going out. I wanted to be the mother fucking photographer — the guy.
iPhones changed the fucking game. For a couple years, it stopped me from bringing out my camera, because I was like, "I have this camera in my phone, I'm just gonna take photos this way." But eventually I was back to taking my big-ass Canon SLR everywhere with me. People kind of looked at me differently because I had the camera. They treated photographers a little differently and with more respect than they do now — especially at concert venues.
Over the past few years, you’ve shot soccer photos more. How are shooting sports and music different?
I didn't expect to fall in love with soccer. It just happened six years ago. I was tired of playing Madden, and I couldn’t stop thinking about soccer. After one of the World Cups, I bought a video game and immediately got hooked within three days. Then I started watching this shit and was like, "This is a whole other level of celebrity and sportsmanship that I need to know about." I fucking fell in love with it. I have probably like 150 jerseys.
Didn't you do a jersey with Umbro?
Yes, a fucking collaboration with fucking Umbro. I don't know how the hell that happened. A whole photo spread. There's one of me eating chicken. Then I wound up hooking up with Black Arrow FC. We're about to fucking start traveling and really get into it — just exploring black soccer culture in Europe, Africa, wherever it is. I’m gonna be documenting it.
I had no idea how many black soccer fans there are just in America until I started doing this. Watching some of the big clubs on TV, you think it's all white but that's not the fact. There's so many black soccer fans out there. I'm just trying to connect with them. Soccer allowed me to shoot my first professional sporting event. I've never shot professionally at an NFL game. Never shot the Knicks.
Tell me one more story.
Well, there was [the photo of] Drake and Sade.
Tell me everything.
We were in London. I work a lot with Trey Songz, and we were out there for some other shit. Him and Drake had a weird relationship over the few years, but they rekindled it, and Drake wanted him to come out on stage. Long story short, all of a sudden we're walking and Trey, was casually like, ”Yo, I just saw motherfucking Sade.” So we see her and she's just super nice. We go backstage and he's like, "Let's take a picture of Sade." After the show, we go to the VIP area and Sade was just there, Drake is fucking DJing, and I was just like, "Yo, what the fuck?"
Sade was just super cool. There was this little fucking palm tree in the room, and I remember Trey, Kevin Liles, and fucking Swizz Beatz were all there, dancing around this fucking palm tree. Swizz Beatz was fucking starstruck, and Drake’s over there playing music on his fucking phone and looking over at us like, “Fuck these dancing motherfuckers over there having fun.” It was funny. He’s the only one that could have got her there.