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'Ghetto fun, graffiti art, hip hop'

Smear 3 Graf Jam, Hulme, Aug 1996
Al has been capturing Manchester hip hop since the early 90s

From graffiti jams to packed gigs, photographer Al Baker has spent almost two decades recording how hip hop music and the culture it inspires have impacted on Manchester.

It's safe to say that his documenting of the city's scene started almost as soon as he arrived here.

As he says, when he "moved to Hulme at the beginning of the 90s, one of the first things I noticed was the graffiti."

What struck him most was that the graffiti was very different from the stuff he'd seen elsewhere.

"Like most housing estates, these were the desperate voices of dissent scrawled onto buildings.

"But here there was a notable lack of hatred and racism, and a more anarchic sloganeering was prevalent.

"There was another form however, coming up out of the subways, which caught my eye and made me want to take a photograph.

Sound systems were rigged, DJs sought out, bonfires built, booze sold from the boot of a car
Al on the Hulme graffiti jams

"New York style graffiti would spring up overnight; colourful, bold statements made by mysterious agents, somehow psychedelic against the grey derelict drabness of the estate.

"Thing was, everyone seemed to like them. Kids loved them. Little old ladies liked them. Local shop keepers would ask for their shutters to be painted!

"Anti-social graffiti did not join it nor, respectfully, were many pieces vandalised. In time, they would simply be replaced with new artworks."

Becoming 'Grandaddy Al'

His love of the artwork led him to seek out other aspects of the hip hop culture.

He went out looking for the musicians and DJs that he loved - something that he says is still true today, though things have changed a little.

Root Manuva at Friends and Family in 2001
In the thick of it at the Roadhouse's Friends and Family night

"When I began photographing UK hip hop, I was first drawn to DJs who impressed me, an older generation of artists whose contributions I was aware of previously, whose records I had heard already.

"I photographed my musical heroes. Then I began looking around for new voices. I looked to my contemporaries and to a younger generation.

"Nowadays, there is a whole new batch of DJs, music producers, MCs, rappers, promoters, label owners and I'm just seen as Grandaddy Al!

"As I've gotten older, the UK talent, the subjects of my photographs, just keep getting younger and younger!"

'Ghetto fun, graffiti art, hip-hop music'

Not that it has stopped him shooting and he's as involved now as he was when he the unpaid resident photographer at now defunct night club Planet K or in the thick of the Roadhouse's Friends and Family night.

Kelso's escape bike, July 1996
Al went with graffiti artists to 'canvases' to capture the art as it happened

That said, his favourite memories come from those graffiti jams back in the 90s Hulme he initially moved to.

"I think there were half a dozen or so events until Hulme finally came down around us.

"Graffiti artists from all over the UK would descend on the derelict estate. Sound systems were rigged, DJs sought out, bonfires built, booze sold from the boot of a car.

"In those days, it was easy to have an all-day party in Hulme. Everyone always turned out and the police very rarely intervened.

"It was just old school punks, local heads, old hippies, nu-school ravers and hip-hop aficionados - ghetto fun, graffiti art, hip hop music, lino ripped from an abandoned kitchen floor. Aah, happy days!"

Going through changes

In being so involved in the scene, Al has seen it change over time and he's sure the move from subculture to centre stage can only be seen as a positive thing.

Broke'n'English at Sankeys in 2002
Al has learnt to get up close to the acts he photographs

"Home-grown hip-hop has merged and mutated through other musical forms British in flavour and origin - Jungle, UKG, Grime, Drum'n'Bass, Dubstep.

"These distinctions that helped to define youth culture are becoming increasingly fluid and flexible. It's all influences into the same communal cooking pot.

"There is a generation now happier to shift genres to stay musically fresh.

"Dizzee Rascal or Wiley can drop a commercial club anthem and still maintain important street integrity."

'Getting up physically close'

With so much knowledge and so many memories, it's little wonder that his photos are forming part of Urbis' celebration of the UK hip hop scene, Home Grown.

Yet what's most striking about Al's pictures isn't the subjects, but the intensity of their proximity.

Often, he appears to be right on top of his subject, which you may think is down expensive equipment.

Al, however, says it's nothing of the sort and that the close-ups come from being, well, very close-up.

"I often get asked about the camera kit I use, but I have nothing special; no expensive paparazzi lenses, no fancy auto-exposure or auto-focus.

"The image detail comes from getting up physically close, and I had to build up the confidence to do that."

Thank goodness he did or the fine fun and great times that have made Manchester a mainstay of the UK hip hop scene may have gone undocumented.

Home Grown: The story of UK Hip Hop is at Urbis until March 2010. Entry is free.

In pictures: Manchester's hip hop
28 Oct 09 |  Arts & Culture



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