Hip Hop Photographer Mel D. Cole

Editors note: How many people can say that they do not only one, but two things they love for a living? Hip Hop photographer Mel D. Cole surely can: 1) taking pictures at 2) hip hop shows. I’ve been aware his work for years now ever since I saw his photos featured on the Okayplayer website. Ten years later, he is still going strong, shooting the best names in the business. But he doesn’t have the most orthodox approach. For example, he prefers disposable cameras and shoots with a beer in hand. It’s refreshing to see some of his philosophies and practices that break from the norm. Read on for one of our most colorful and candid interviews yet…

Mel D. Cole

Mel D. Cole

Hometown: The South side of Syracuse, NY

What were you doing before you got into photography? Working at a pharmaceutical company in the record keeping department. This job was HORRIBLE! I use to go to the bathroom and fake like I was taking a dump but I really would be sleeping. Before that I was in the NYC Teaching Fellows program. This job was fun! ME a teacher! I am a high school drop out. A former minor weed and sometimes crack dealer. A knuckle head. And now I was teaching. Hahaha pretty amazing. Before the teaching gig (which only lasted a summer) I was a dorm director for two dorms at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and prior to that I was in college at Stony Brook trying to figure out who I am.

Favorite camera and lens? Why? I really love disposables from any drug store. They are my favorite cameras to shoot with. Any lens that is plastic is a favorite of mine. For SLRs I mostly uses my Canon 7D. I like Sigma and Canon lenses, but I really dislike talking about equipment. Great photos don’t require an amazing lens or even camera for that matter. It’s about how you see it and if you can capture it with what you have.

The Roots Picnic © Mel D. Cole

If you could shoot anyone/anywhere/anything, what would it be? I was asked this question before. My answer before was Kanye West nude on the George Washington Bridge on the Bronx side. Now…I want to say, Anthony Bourdain who is the star of No Reservations on the Travel Channel. I would want to photograph him in Italy or Spain. I would really just like to hang out with him. I would not really want to do a photo shoot with the guy. Hanging would be much better. He is the DUDE, dude!

What’s your shooting style? Photographic influence? My style is documentary-ish when shooting shows and events/parties. When shooting photo shoots…I’m not sure what my style would be called..Mel D. Cole/Village Slum style?  I am influenced by NYC, women, traveling, grit, grim, MUSIC!, beauty and entertainers.

Do you ever use off-camera flash? If so what is your approach? Yes, for photo shoots. My approach is very straight  forward. I do not like to use bells and whistles. That’s not my style. Basics work best for me.

Who’s your favorite star/rapper to photograph? Very hard question. Right now, I love shooting Kid Cudi, Yelawolf, The Roots,  Mos Def, Tribe, Ninjasonik, Common, Jesse Boykins, Theophilus London and Odd Future.

Nas © Mel D. Cole

Any experiences shooting A Tribe Called Quest (our favorite rap group):

I have been photographing Q tip ever since I got started. I remember the 1st time I ran into him I damn near shit my pants. I was like holy shit…it’s one of my musical idols! In the flesh no less! I told him I was a big fan, shook his hand and asked if I could take his photo. He said yes. I would always dream of seeing and photographing the whole Tribe together. I was about 5 yrs after meeting Tip that my dream came true. (My style has always been to just hang around and chill. Wait for shit to happen and not to force it. Especially if I am not super cool with the artist) It happened at a Tribe show in BK a few yrs ago. I was back stage and I saw all of them hanging out together with Consequence. I walked over to Cons and said you gotta help me make this happen. He agreed. I took the pic and totally fan boy’d out! I think I said something like OMG, thank you very much, I hope you guys understand how much this means to me! hahaha I looked at the pic to make sure I got it…smiled DUMB hard and prob said I love you guys are some other FANtastic shit. But I did not care! I am who I am. I love music. I love Tribe! I love what I do and sometimes, shit most times, there is nothing wrong with breaking your cool. It makes you that much cooler! And now look at me! The whole group knows my name. They know who I am, what I do. I even have a photo in the Tribe documentary

M.I.A. © Mel D. Cole

As a hip hop fan, are you able to enjoy the shows at the same time you are shooting them? Hell yes! I would not do it if I did not enjoy the shows. If you ever have the chance to see me work at a show, you will more than likely see me with a cam in one hand, beer in the other all while snapping away, rapping and bouncing to the tunes! Yelawolf just sent me a email telling me that he was cracking up watching me work while I was photographing The Roots at the Roots picnic last weekend.

What’s the most memorable experience you’ve had shooting a show? Hmmmm good one. I am a tad bit jaded these days. I guess the 1st time I shot a concert when I didn’t even understand what shooting a show meant. Common at SOBs back in 2002. It was pure magic! I photographed that show with a disposable camera.

Erykah Badu & Common © Mel D. Cole

What is the strangest experience you’ve had with a star/rapper? There’s always the times when you have heard of a person but do not know what they look like. Those experiences are always a blast. You go up to the person and introduce yourself and all they say in return is nice to meet you like you are supposed to know who they are. SMH!

My Diddy x Twitter x Questlove story is a strange one. Make my way to DJ both, Diddy and Jay z were there. Q tip was DJn. I ask Diddy if I could take his pic. He looked at me and sent me to his security guy. I tweet about what just happened to me. Questlove Tweets myself and Diddy. Questlove calls me, tells me Diddy wants to apologize, asked if it is ok if he has my #. Diddy calls, next thing you know I am flown to Beverly Hills to be his personal photog for his famous white party.

Diddy | White Party © Mel D. Cole

What is the best thing about being a music/event photographer? Best thing is I get to do what I love. I get to be around music, musicians, artist and other inspiring people. I am truly living a big fat dream! Never in a million years did I think I would one day hang out with Questlove and Black Thought from the Roots or have other photographers come up to me telling me how much in inspire them. It’s really crazy! Freaking humbling, but at the same time it motivates me to do even better.

Worst? Compromising – something that I don’t do 99% of the time. If I do it really has to make sense! All you PR people can shove your shot list up your you know whats! :)

What does the future hold for you? Drinking more Heineken, traveling more, tours, eating more chicken wings and surrounding myself with some of the most interesting people on Earth!

Here’s an additional video profile: Mel D. Cole: NY Giant from Kellen Dengler on Vimeo.

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