Tour Tales | Mel D. Cole went to Coachella jail and epic Drake parties
Events millions of people never experienced in person, but will always remember would be nonexistent if photographer Mel D. Cole didn’t take chances.
Musicians are barely getting a slice of music industry revenue, largely eating off of live performances instead. For ‘Tour Tales,’ we dig into the rider requests, delayed shows, diligent preparation, and future of touring by talking with the multitude of people that move behind the scenes. Record executives, photographers, tour managers, artists, and more all break down what goes into touring and why it’s still so vital to the livelihood of your favorite artists. What happens on tour stays on ‘Tour Tales.’
Events millions of people never experienced in person, but will always remember would be nonexistent if photographer Mel D. Cole didn’t take chances. The sight of Rakim stage diving in 2015; Kanye West, Kid Cudi, Big Sean and Q-Tip sharing the Knitting Factory stage in 2008; and Odd Future’s only performance at Santos Party House in 2011 would exist differently in the minds of a generation if the photographer took no for an answer.
“[Early on], it was kind of like, ‘Can I go over there?’ Now, there isn’t a question of, ‘Can I go over there?’ I will go over there. I want to be told, ‘No, you can’t do this.’ So, I take the chances,” Cole told REVOLT TV.
Now, the photography veteran has started a Kickstarter campaign in order to bring his photo book, Mel D. Cole Presents GREAT: Photographs of Hip Hop 2002 – 2019, to the world. For this installment of “Tour Tales,” Cole takes us into Drake’s back backstage area, Coachella jail, and details the moment he believes he caught The Roots’ eye.
You’re dropping a 17-year compilation of your photos of the modern era of hip hop. How did the responsibility of capturing an entire era affect the curation of these photos?
I think we had many books within all of my photos. So, Matthew Ricke and myself decided to just focus on the hip hop stuff. It was tough to figure out what photos should go in. Sometimes, it was tug and pull. Matt looked at things from an objective point of view because he didn’t listen to hip hop growing up. He wasn’t allowed to. He grew up in a religious household that forbade him. So, a lot of times, there were some lightweight arguments where I would show him a photo and be like, ‘This has to be in there. This is so-and-so.’ He’d be like, ‘Well, I’ve never heard of them and I don’t think it’s a good photo.’
We had to narrow it down to a thousand photos. Then, narrow it down to a couple hundred photos. Then, narrow it down to the number we’re getting to now, which is still debatable (laughs). It’ll be somewhere between 100 – 200, closer to 100.
You photographed J. Cole pointing at the Kanye West photo backstage at SOBs in , his first show at SOBs. Was that pose your idea or Cole’s?
I had carte blanche of doing whatever the fuck I wanted to do at that venue. I knew everybody. He just got off stage and I followed him downstage. I already built up the relationship — I like to use that phrase loosely. Pre-show, I was backstage with him. So, when he came off stage, I was like, ‘Yo, Yo, let me get you right here.’ He literally looked behind him and was like, ‘Oh’ (points to the wall). He announced it on the mic earlier that this was a significant moment for him. The first show that he saw there, I believe, was Kanye. Then, that moment happened.
What was the hardest show for you to photograph?
One of the hardest shows I had to photograph was Odd Future at Santos [in February 2011], their one and only time there. That was my first time photographing them. This was when ‘Yonkers’ was out and I thought, ‘Oh, this shit is crazy.’ But, I didn’t know that it was going to be full-on mosh pits. That might have been my first hip hop show where it was mosh pits. I feel like that was the start of this new wave of rappers doing this punk rock-ish type of show and I was immediately hooked.
Mel D. Cole
I remember for the whole show, I just shot with my hands over my head and I’m in the middle of the mosh pits. I would end up on one side of Santos, then end up on the other side of Santos. Holding your hands up without anything in your hands is fucking tough. But, having a camera with a flash on it, that extra weight on you is fucking physical activity and exercising, and having people push you around. It was fucking tough as hell. I was just sweaty as fuck.
I remember the show like it was yesterday. I got these great photos. [Tyler] came out in a ski mask with a cross in the middle of it. The other guy came out with a wig. I was like, ‘Yo, these fucking kids are lit.’ Mos Def was there. When I got out the crowd after the show was over, I went up to him and we were chilling. Mos was like, ‘Yo, man. I fucking love Tyler. You think I should go say hello to him?’ I looked at Mos like, ‘Yo, nigga, you’re Mos Def, let’s go. Literally, I took Mos Def back to meet Tyler the Creator (laughs). He’s a huge fan and I have photos of them two together the night that they met.
Mel D. Cole
You’ve worked closely with The Roots and their frequent collaborators such as D’Angelo. He and Questlove are meticulous to a fault when it comes to their music. You have a photo of them going over details during rehearsals. Did that same meticulous nature translate at all to their show preparation?
That was a rehearsal for Roots Picnic 2016. I got there halfway through rehearsal. It was interesting. They were full-on jamming and rehearsing. I think John Mayer was there, too. He was jamming on the guitar and all this shit. I actually have a video of the rehearsal. At one point, Common shows up and a couple of other people show up. It just turns into a full-on performance. D’Angelo was fucking feeling it because he knew all his peers were there. He just fucking put it on. I missed the whole heyday of the Voodoo Tour and all that, so being in the room with him and watching him perform for just such a small amount of people was crazy.
He’s super meticulous. The motherfucker hasn’t updated the way he does anything. He still has his old ass piano. He has this old system where he still uses floppy disks for whatever he’s doing. Yeah, he had a whole case of floppy disks. Questlove has a good story about that, I’m pretty sure. He had pink and orange floppy disks.
You have some amazing photos of Beyonce at what could go down as her most iconic performance ever, her 2018 Coachella performance. Were you in the photo pit for those photos?
Were you trying to get in the photo pit?
I never tried to get in the photo pit the whole time at Coachella because I knew I didn’t have the access. Coachella is one of the most strict festivals. They might be the most strict that I’ve ever been to. Actually, it’s a good time to talk about this because I’ve never publicly spoken about this Coachella incident. This is some exclusive shit (laughs).
So, I was hired to be at Coachella by Google. I was hired to shoot at their activation backstage in the VIP area, which is the back of the main stage. So, you’ll have VIP, celebrities, you have everybody walking around back there. I was hired to take photos on the latest version of the Google Pixel phone, me and Kim Kardashian’s photographer [Marcus Hyde]. I hope he’s OK. I heard he had an accident. I basically had to work a few hours a day and the rest of the time, I had VIP access to do whatever the fuck I wanted to do except for going onstage and in the photo pit.
So, of course, I’m bringing my camera and my equipment. It’s my second time there. My first time there, I didn’t have a photo pass, either. This is 2012, I think. I’m hopping over gates to get photos. I’m paying off security guards, so I can take photos. Frank Ocean performed. I gave a guy $20 and he let me in the photo pit but, it was one of the smaller stages. This time, I shot from the VIP crowd. But, I had a 300 [mm camera lens] on my camera, so I could just reach far and it was still close enough where I could get crisp photos.
Mel D. Cole
So, Beyonce performs and she’s sliding in front of me. It was like I was in the photo pit. It didn’t matter because she was literally right there and I was right there. She killed it. I go back to where the Google thing is. I edit my shit. I put my shit out. No problem. Then, the next day is when the problems started. I’m shooting Cardi B, and security sees me and it wasn’t as packed as it was for Beyonce. So, security actually came into the VIP area. I’m arguing with a guy across the fence. He goes, ‘What are you doing? You’re not supposed to be taking photos. We told you to stop.’ I was like, ‘You didn’t tell me anything. I just have my camera. I have my credentials. No one told me that I couldn’t take photos.’ Then, another guy comes and goes, ‘Give me your [memory] card.’
Oh, that’s a huge red flag for photographers shooting live shows. That memory card is your life, basically.
I was like, ‘No. Why?’ He was like, ‘That’s it.’ He then picked me up and threw me over the railing. I’m trying to stay calm. I opened up my camera and take my fucking memory card out, and stick that shit in my shoe. They’re pulling me, pulling my cameras off me, snap my camera strap. At this point, I’m fucking livid. I’m crying and shit. I’m so fucking angry. I’m so embarrassed. They take me to the back. I’m yelling and screaming. They were like, ‘Calm down.’ The actual real police come because they got Coachella jail. They came and they wanted to talk to me. The police and the head of Coachella security, and they were like, ‘Where’s the memory card?’ I told them, ‘I don’t know. I lost it. Y’all shouldn’t have been pulling on me.’ I’m explaining to them why I’m there.
They put me on the back of the shit and drive me to the little Coachella jail where it’s people on pills, people who snuck in, people with fake badges. I’m sitting there for like an hour and some change, and I’m trying to talk to these guys. They don’t want you to be on the phone back there. It’s a whole fucking thing because technically you’re on private property. Eventually, they went and talked to the Google people. Then, they were basically apologizing to me. They took me to get a new wristband and it was like, ‘Okay. Cool. There you go.’ That’s it.
Mel D. Cole
You captured one of the rarest moments in live hip hop show history: Rakim stage diving. There’s a video of the moment he does it and you can see you go to a specific spot on the stage, and start shooting photos. How did you know what angle to get that quick?
Once I heard him talk about he’s going to stage dive I thought, ‘I have to get up there.’ Whether he’s bluffing or not, I’m not going to take a chance. I’ve got to be where I think he’s going to be to make this photo happen. That’s one of my most memorable photos actually. I really fucking love it because it’s Rakim stage diving. He’s never done that before.
I love Rakim but, there has been a time where I saw him and he bored me with his performance. He didn’t do shit. He just sat down in a fucking chair like he had a goddamn long day… It was like he was tired midway through his performance. I was like, ‘Damn, this is some old school shit.’ You Rakim, the god MC. But, what the fuck? This shit is boring, my guy. You’re just sitting there.’ But, when he stage dived, I was like, ‘Yes.’ It wasn’t even that type of show to do that. You can print this. He was fucked up (laughs). Rakim was lit and he was feeling himself. I’m happy that he did it because we got a historic moment.
What is the most intimate and personal backstage moment you’ve captured?
I have a few. There’s situations where I’m backstage with Trey Songz and his family. Being backstage when Nicki Minaj and Meek Mill when they were together. There’s only just one person that blew my mind, to date. That was Sade. I was in London working with Trey Songz. I remember just looking to see what was going on out there. Drake had a concert at the O2 arena [on March 20, 2017]. In my head, I was like, ‘Fuck, I hope we’re going to this show. I hope I’m going to the show.’ [Drake and Trey] were just rekindling their off and on relationship. So, Drake invited Trey to the show. I shot the whole show. But, before the show, Trey goes, ‘Yo, I just saw Sade and I just froze. A car door opened and I saw a glimpse of Sade.’ I was like, ‘My nigga, we got to get a photo of this shit. I know she’s private and all this stuff, and I know you’re not like this or nothing but, if you got to throw me underneath the bus, just do it and just tell me no. But, I’m asking her to get the fucking photo.’
We get inside. We go to the VIP area behind the sound booth. It’s Drake’s dad, Drake’s uncle, Sade, Winnie Harlow and Sade’s son. Drake is performing, I’m taking photos but, out the side of my eye, I’m looking at Sade and Trey talk. Trey just kind of looked at me and I felt like in his head, he was like, ‘Go ‘head, nigga.’ So then, Winnie came over and I thought, ‘This is perfect. It’s a buffer. Sade might not want to be seen in the photo with just Trey.’ So then, I was like fuck it. I was like, ‘Can I get a photo of you three?’ Sade was cool. Everybody posing [looking straight into the camera]. Sade was posing [from a side profile angle].
I didn’t give a fuck. I got my Sade photo and I thought that was going to be the end of it. So, we go backstage. At Drake’s show, he has a backstage but he also has a back backstage. The area was big as shit. This motherfucker had a desk. I don’t know if he brings a desk with him but, it had his name on it like he was about to sit down and do some work (laughs). In his bathroom, he had personal towels with the owl on it. I’m dead ass serious. They were maroon towels. I walked in, and the first thing I see is Drake and Sade about to pose for a photo. I literally walked up — never question it — and just started shooting.
Now, I got Drake. I got Drake and Sade. I got Drake, Sade and his mom. We go in the back and then, Sade comes in the back kicking it with Trey. The next thing you know, Swizz Beatz comes over and he’s kicking it with us. Swizz looked at me like, ‘Yo, Sade. Bruh. Yo, you got to get a photo of me and Sade.’ Everyone got a photo.
Mel D. Cole
There was a situation where Drake is deejaying, played music on his iPod. This is when More Life just came out. I love that album. At one point, it was Sade, Trey Songz, Swizz Beatz and Kevin Liles dancing around this tree in a circle (laughs). Sade is down on the ground, bopping. Kevin Liles is dancing. I stepped back like, ‘What the fuck is going on now?’
In the foreword to your book, Questlove compares you to legendary Beatles photographer Harry Benson, in regards to what you mean for The Roots’ career. What is the most memorable show that you’ve ever photographed for The Roots?
Radio City Music Hall, both shows [in May 2006]. This was before I was their photographer. I was on my first digital cam. It was this Fuji camera and it was only four megapixels. I had this bullshit memory card. It was all bullshit. But, there was a time when there weren’t a bunch of photographers like there is today. No one wanted to be a photographer back then. I documented both nights. The Roots went up the aisle, I was right there snapping away. I didn’t know them. Maybe I photographed a couple of other shows before them, but I didn’t know them. I wasn’t backstage with them chilling. I was hanging out. They had JAY-Z, Nas, Dave Chappelle, [and] Erykah Badu. It was like The Roots Picnic at Radio City Music. It’s probably the most memorable because that one is the one that I think really got the attention of Questlove, The Roots, and Okayplayer.
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