Joe Conzo Jr., known as hip-hop’s first photographer, played a crucial role in documenting and preserving the early days of hip-hop in New York City.
While many recognize the artists and performers who shaped hip-hop, it’s important to acknowledge the contributions of individuals who captured the essence and spirit of hip-hop through images, words, and beyond. Conzo’s photographs are a testament to the birth and evolution of the hip-hop genre as the world continues to celebrate its milestone 50th anniversary.
“I’m just an ordinary guy from the Bronx that took some pictures and has been traveling the world ever since then,” he recently told CBS News in an interview.
However, Conzo’s contributions go beyond just taking photos. His images have captured a moment in time and helped shape the way we remember and appreciate the origins of hip-hop culture.
Conzo, a Bronx native of Puerto Rican heritage, developed a knack for photography while attending the Agnes Russell School at Columbia University at the age of nine.
He was also heavily influenced by unique exposure to culture and politics through his family. His grandmother, Dr. Evelina Antonetty, was a dynamic leader and passionate activist within the minority community of the South Bronx. Joe’s father, Joe Conzo Sr., is a musician who had been a historian and confidant to the “King of Latin Music,” Tito Puente, for many years.
Once he got to high school, that was where Conzo made his own indelible mark on history.
“Photography just became a love and passion that I fell in love with. I was that chubby kid with a big Afro that wasn’t good in sports or with words. But I was the only kid in the neighborhood that had a camera,” he said, according to Pregones/ PRTT.
“In 1978, while attending South Bronx High School, Conzo became friends with the Cold Crush Brothers members, an important and influential early Hip Hop group. Conzo became the group’s photographer, documenting their live performances in many of Hip Hop’s legendary early venues, such as the T-Connection, Disco Fever, Harlem World, and the Ecstasy Garage. He also took pictures of other Hip Hop artists and groups, including The Treacherous 3, The Fearless 4, and The Fantastic 5,” according to Cornell University’s Hip Hop collection.
“I was a junior high school photographer, high school photographer, and next thing you know, I was befriended by some high school classmates who are some pioneers of the culture of hip-hop, and I got invited to go to a ‘jam,” Conzo told CBS News. “And next thing you know, I’m traveling throughout the borough with the Cold Crush Brothers, and the rest is history.”
This hip-hop culture pioneer would go from the streets and school gymnasiums in New York to traveling the world and telling the genre’s story with his photos.
But there’s more to Conzo’s story, too. He is also a father, husband, and advocate who served in the Army and retired from the FDNY as an EMT, CBS reports. He was a first responder on September 11th and developed 9/11-related cancer, which has now been in remission for four years.
He continues to capture stories through photos and just released the third edition of his book “Born in the Bronx: A Visual Record Of The Early Days Of Hip-Hop”.
He travels around the globe for exhibitions showcasing his work, and more than 10,000 of his negatives and prints can be found in Cornell University’s hip-hop collection. Conzo’s work has been instrumental in preserving the genre’s rich history and showcasing its significance in the cultural landscape.
“The Bronx is dear to my heart. My grandmother and my mother instilled in me that we gotta go out there, preserve what we got, help each other as human beings, and keep our story alive. I’m just grateful that I’m part of the story also with my images, and when I’m gone, my images will be here,” Conzo said.