Famed Cree hip hop photographer's work on display in Edmonton

This weekend, legendary hip hop photographer Ernie Paniccioli is in Edmonton for iHuman's Knowledge is Pow Wow, a free event at Boyle Plaza. The event features an exhibit of some of his famous portraits of hip hop stars.

Right place, right time, right spirit: Ernie Paniccioli has seen hip hop change throughout the decades

Flavor Flav, shot by Ernie Paniccioli in 1993. (Ernie Paniccioli)

He's shot some of the world's most famous hip hop stars, but Ernie Paniccioli's photography career started on the streets.

Growing up in Brooklyn in the 1970s, the Cree artist was in awe of the hip hop-themed murals painted by neighbourhood kids. They'd seemingly pop up overnight, and, just as soon as they appeared, they'd vanish.

"I was amazed," Paniccioli told CBC's Radio Active. "I'd go back a couple days or week later to show my friends and they were gone. They were defaced or written over by the city or whatever.

"I borrowed a camera and started taking pictures of these incredible images. I was brash enough and bold enough to go where the action was, a lot of bad neighbourhoods. It just caught on."

It was these photos that quickly got him noticed among the hip hop scene. Now almost 70 years old, he counts Queen Latifah, Snoop Dogg, Jay Z, Aaliyah, Common and three album covers for Public Enemy as some of the highlights of his portfolio.

This weekend, Paniccioli is in Edmonton for iHuman's Knowledge is Pow Wow, a free event at Boyle Plaza. The event features an exhibit of some of his legendary hip hop portraits, some of which have been published in Life, Rolling Stone and Time magazine.

Paniccioli got his start as a hip hop photographer shooting the graffiti murals in Brooklyn. (Ernie Paniccioli)

Capturing hip hop's 'revolutionary concepts'

At the start of his career, hip hop was just an emerging genre, especially for photography.

It had a certain energy to it that drew him in, Paniccioli said.

"I related to the revolutionary concepts, to the self empowerment, I related to the fact that these are kids that came from nothing, had nothing," he said.

I'm glad to have been able to add to the visual commentary and the visual documentation of a genre that is now commercialized, that is now exploited.- Ernie Paniccioli

"Like jazz, jazz was from the very poor. Reggae came from shanty town. The blues came from ex-slaves. So I understood that people that had nothing, this was all they had. And I was attracted to it."

But Paniccioli says hip hop, like so many other music genres, has lost its way to commercialization. There are a handful of artists he follows now — including Wise Intelligent, Mos Def and Canadian Indigenous artists like Drezus and electronic group A Tribe Called Red.

But he considers himself lucky to have been able to capture the genre while it was still "organic."

"I'm glad to have been able to add to the visual commentary and the visual documentation of a genre that is now commercialized, that is now exploited," he said.

"Yes, I was at the right place at the right time, but I also had the right spirit. That's my message to all you young artists: follow your dream, follow your energy, follow your heart. Follow your spirit, and you can make a difference, you can be successful, and you can become accomplished."

Lauryn Hill, shot by Ernie Paniccioli in New York City in 1996. (Ernie Paniccioli)