Tour Tales | Photo Rob believes God helps him get pics of stars like JAY-Z, Nas, and Kendrick Lamar
On this week’s “Tour Tales,” Photo Rob explains working with the Nation of Islam to get JAY-Z photos and much more.
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.’
Robert Adam “Photo Rob” Mayer is blessed and highly favored. He’s been professionally shooting photos since 2000 and is the visual identity of the Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival, the longest running, independent music festival in New York City strictly dedicated to hip hop music. “Sometimes, I feel like God is moving me around. Sometimes, I’m just in the right place at the right time. It actually is a bit frightening to me and it’s a little bit unbelievable,” Rob told REVOLT TV.
On this week’s “Tour Tales,” Photo Rob explains working with the Nation of Islam to get JAY-Z photos, what circumstances will keep him from selling a photo of a rapper, and how he fought through hay and the smell of animal feces to get classic photos of Nas.
I’ve been going to the Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival since 2007 and every time I think of memories from it, your photos come to mind. What is the draw of that festival?
A lot of festivals these days are geared to get a wide audience. They have a variety of performers and there’s also a variety of sponsors. A lot of times, the people who are in charge of the festival are corporate entities. A lot of times, that can affect the talent in the show and the vibe of the show. Hats off to [Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival co-founders] Wes Jackson and Ebonie Jackson of Brooklyn Bodega that have kept that festival a real Brooklyn, New York; five borough, hip hop culture event.
When you did the 2011 Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival when Kanye West came out for A Tribe Called Quest, did you know that Kanye was coming out?
When we were preparing for the show, Wes said to me, ‘Kanye might come.’ At one point, security became very intense. So, I did know he was there and he was going to come out. I probably knew maybe an hour before the crowd. It was really a challenge [to shoot] because they actually closed the whole [photo] pit. They only allowed a few photographers in. I was one. There was a point when Kanye arrived that everybody else was cleared to the side.
The 2011 Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival was also two weeks after Kendrick Lamar dropped his breakthrough mixtape Section.80, and more than a year before his debut album, Good Kid M.A.A.D City. So, this was his first performance in Brooklyn after the world got more of a listen of him. What do you remember about Kendrick’s disposition or personality backstage at that time?
I took that photo of Kendrick with Schoolboy Q and Mixed by Ali, and they had yet to win over the east coast. I’m sure dudes in L.A. knew who they were. But, I think at that time, I was actually hoping to get an individual shot of Kendrick and he said, ‘I’d like to have my friends here.’
Which would you say was the most star-studded backstage at the festival?
When JAY- Z showed up [at the 2014 Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival]. Jay Electronica was there. J. Cole was there. Mac Miller was there. I was told, ‘Look, Jay Elec’s very private. Please don’t bother him.’ Also, I was told to stay away from people. My job is to document for the festival. So, I went over to the 5 Percent Nation guys and I introduced myself. I said, ‘Look, I’m Photo Rob. I want you to know I’d love to document everything that’s going on today. Here’s my card. If there’s a photo you have an issue with, I’ll take it down immediately. I just want you to know I’m not here to make anybody look bad or whatever. I’m here just to document the show for the festival.’ When I met Jay Elec, I introduced myself to him at the soundcheck. I think people can sense very quickly where your heart is.
You got some dope shots from that performance, too.
Sometimes, I feel like God is moving me around. Sometimes, I’m just in the right place at the right time. It actually is a bit frightening to me and it’s a little bit unbelievable. Sometimes, He gives us a little nudge, you know? Look at this. I’m right in the front when JAY-Z’s giving Jay Electronica the [5 Percent 7 Star chain].
If you look at my pictures from that festival, you’ll see I’m backstage, I’m all around. But, right when I’m in front of them, look what happens. I got there and three minutes later, it happened. Also, look at this one:
I go back to the crowd from the photo pit and just then, Jay Elec runs in the crowd, as I got in the crowd. He got in pretty deep in the crowd, too. Then, there’s this photo:
JAY had just put his foot on the stage. JAY had put his foot on the stage for the first time at the Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival. I thought that was interesting. I don’t know if anyone else thought it was. They had just given JAY the mike.
You’ve captured so much history from that one performance. It’s still one of my three favorite live performances ever.
Are there moments you wish you could’ve snapped, but didn’t out of respect for the person’s privacy?
I definitely stay away from those. I had an instance where an MC was praying and I was like, ‘Oh my god. That’s so cool,’ and I snapped the picture. But, then later, I discussed it with the artist and he asked me to remove that from the link, and I took it down. I’m not a paparazzi, OK? If you don’t want your pictures taken, I’m not going to take it. I was at a pub and Bruce Springsteen was there. He asked me not to take photos and I respected him. I’m a photographer. I’m there to document. I do snap pictures. But, I’m a respectful person.
I was asked to sell the New York Post a picture of Brownsville Ka for the cover. I declined because they couldn’t promise me it was a positive story. The story came out that Sunday and it was a racist story talking about his lyrics as being anti-cop because he was addressing the problem that we’re having of cops killing black kids. It was bullshit. So, I didn’t sell that picture. There have also been times when artists have gotten into trouble for various things and people have asked me to sell their photos, and I don’t sell them.
What was the hardest show you ever photographed?
The hardest show I ever photographed was probably the Nas show at Radio City Music Hall on New Year’s Eve 2012. The Radio City stage is a very old-school stage the way it’s set up and backstage is sort of underneath it, too. There were times where right before the show, I had to take a picture of Nas getting ready. So, he was getting on the couch to get into the scenario of his last album cover [Life Is Good]. Then, I had to exit the stage. To exit, you had to go under the stage and through this maze, and shit. So, if you take a wrong turn, you’re going to end up where they hold the camels for the [Radio City] Christmas Spectacular.
I was trying to get through and I run into a room, and there was hay and it smelled like camels. There were no animals in there. But, it was a maze underneath the stage. It was a bit difficult to get from the pit to backstage and back.
You were also there for JAY-Z’s opening of the Barclays concerts and captured one of the night’s most memorable shots. How did you get this shot and what was the energy like at that show?
It was a big deal for New York and Brooklyn, especially. I just remember, at one point in the concert, this moment happened and this was the first night. This was opening night. All the lights were shut off except this one spotlight. So, I had to adjust. I turned my flash off and I cranked up the ASA (light sensitivity setting) on my camera to get a shot like that. When that moment happened, it’s really the best photo I have of the night.
You photographed Yasiin Bey’s first Brooklyn show in years at the 2018 Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival. What was he like backstage or during rehearsals?
When Blackstar came out, they were in different RVs, Talib and Mos. So, I didn’t see them together. I was trying to talk to someone about getting into the RVs. I think I was talking to Muhammad of Zulu security. He motioned to me to look to my right, and Talib and Mos were standing next to each other. They were getting ready to go on. So, I was like, ‘OK, we’re going on. Let me get it together.’
What’s another cool story of you making sure you got a desired shot?
At the 2010 Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival, De La Soul didn’t hang out the entire time backstage. If you’re going to a De La Soul [show], what do you want to get? A picture of Trugoy, Maseo and Posdnuous together. All three plugs together. But, they didn’t hang out, and onstage, they weren’t all so tight. So, I was standing by the stairs and I said, ‘Yo, Mel [D. Cole], let’s block the stairs at the end of the show. There’s only one way off the stage. It’s here. Let’s stand here and block the stage.’ At the end of the show, we stood there and we were like, ‘Yo, guys. Can we get a shot?’ Me and Mel got the only shots of De La together that day. You’re welcome, Mel (laughs).
You’ve done so much over your near-20 year career. After two decades, what would you say is your greatest talent?
Not quitting. I’ve made a lot of personal sacrifices, and so has my family, to document this culture. I’ve got kids and I’m in the arts. You’ll see a lot of photographers kind of come and go from this. But, the ones [who] remain know that that’s something. When I was young, I would go to museums I loved. I used to sit in the library and look at photo books, and I studied the compositions. I studied the compositions of classical 19th century paintings. I used to be a street photographer. So, I learned about the decisive moment and waiting for moments to happen. So, I would say, just never giving up.
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