Hip Hop saved my life.
It gave me the brashness to be me. I’m a high school dropout; I’m not formally educated. But Hip Hop taught me the attitude of taking nothing and making it into something.
That’s the culture— taking two turntables, mixing old records and putting lyrics on top of it. And then there’s me — a high school dropout, kitchen-trained chef. I helped take a product — Mitchell & Ness jerseys — that no one thought could be anything, and then the whole world was wearing it. I was even in a Mitchell & Ness ad with West Philly rapper Freeway about 20 years ago.
That’s how this culture has taught me to be: Unapologetic. To have a voice, to speak it out.
I grew up with Philly Hip Hop. I watched rap pioneer Yvette Money grow up. She’s a little older than me, and lived around the corner. This was before L.L. Cool J wrote “Dear Yvette,” a diss song about her. I remember back in 1987, Charlie Mack — who was the Fresh Prince’s bodyguard — brought Rakim (half of Eric B. & Rakim) on my block to see Yvette. So I got to meet Rakim, one of the greatest MC’s ever, when I was 13 years old.
Years later, I met Rakim again, and told him I was there when Charlie Mack brought him around that way.
When Hip Hop was raw, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, aka Will Smith, had concerts in the Hamilton School yard at 56th and Spruce, and I’d be carrying their speakers. I knew them from the neighborhood, too. And then they went on to be the first Grammy winners in Hip Hop. Years later, they were at the Roots Picnic, ragging me to “get them speakers.” That’s when I took my photo of them.
Taj Mahal, aka Taji Goodman, of West Philly’s Da Youngsta’s is my godbrother, and we share a birthday three years apart. They made it big in 1993, with their second album, The Aftermath. And I know Chill Moody, aka Eric Moody — I grew up with his brother.
One of my all-time favorite memories is meeting Brooklyn rapper Fabolous on Memorial Day weekend in the beginning of building the Mitchell & Ness brand in Miami. He wore those jerseys, and we talked about them, and the iconic athletes they represented. I caught up with years later in Philly.
I got images of all these guys, sometimes from the photo pit while they’re performing at the Roots Picnic or Made In America, sometimes backstage, sometimes I just see them around my ghost kitchens.
It’s gratifying to realize I got to influence my culture by helping to outfit these artists, and then I’ve been able to capture them with my lens in my own way.
West Philly born and raised with a slosh of Brooklyn New York in between, Big Rube partnered with Mitchell & Ness in 2000 to help make it a global brand marketing and selling high-end vintage jerseys. He has been photographing Philly since 2009, including in a Daily News Column from 2011 to 2017. He’s also a chef, currently at Pitcher’s Pub in Manayunk Thursdays to Sundays, selling the best handmade food in a Main Street dive bar.
Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story misstated what part of the city Freeway is from. He hails from West Philadelphia.
MORE VOICES OF PHILLY CULTURE FROM THE CITIZENMeek Mill performing at the Made in America festival in 2014. Photo by Reuben Harley