Eric Johnson’s studio, Upstairs At Eric’s, is located in a three story walk up. There’s a huge partition separating the cyc and seamless from the living room. Several Ikea ClosetMaid Cubeicals align the back wall, holding what seems like a century’s worth of vinyl. There’s a vintage point and shoot camera resting on the couch as a Bengal cat named Coolie prances around our peruse through Johnson’s catalog of history.
In the three decades since he started shooting, Eric Johnson has shot the legendary Vibe cover with Biggie and Faith Evans in the back of a convertible parked along the East River. He also shot the cover and foldout for classic albums The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill, Stakes Is High, among others. Outkast, Bootsy Collins, Lady Gaga—30 years of defining culture rests inside his Macbook.
Johnson started shooting at 16 years old while attending Arts High School in Newark, NJ. From there he took his talents to FIT where he began assisting photographer Constance Hansen (aka Guzman) and sharing his work with others.
“One of the first things I did [in Hip Hop] was a Special Ed single cover,” Johnson tells HipHopDX. “Outside of that, I shot a lot of things that weren’t Hip Hop. But as Hip Hop became more popular and Vibe and these places would hit me up, I sort of got on a roll shooting all of these kids. I didn’t really think that my style is necessarily Hip Hop. That’s why some of those shoots are really important to people. It wasn’t the cliches of Hip Hop. It was just Hip Hop subjects. You’d all see each other’s work because at that time it was very much about magazines.”
“I didn’t really think that my style is necessarily Hip Hop. That’s why some of those shoots are really important to people. It wasn’t the cliches of Hip Hop. It was just Hip Hop subjects. You’d all see each other’s work because at that time it was very much about magazines.”
As we sip Pacificos, sifting through images trying to decide which would be best for this feature, Johnson stumbles through a folder filled with early shots of Cash Money’s roster hanging in New Orleans. Lil Wayne before the face tats, Baby before the beerbelly, Juve, Turk, B.G., Slim, Mannie Fresh, they’re all included. The shoot was for Rolling Stone. He completely forgot it existed.
“To be totally honest, I may not have looked at these photos for a while,” he says. “Now that I’m looking at them, this is definitely something I should be paying attention to. I’m looking at this for the first time…
“I’m chill by nature but you can tell that you have to be so chilled to be able to catch these moments,” says Johnson. “It’s very natural even though you’re right there. It’s not like they’re affected by me at all. It’s also not being personable. I think by nature people like to have exchanges because I think they believe it makes the subject more comfortable in a way. Sometimes I think it’s kind of cool to not inquire about anything personally. I’ll follow you as opposed to you having to give anything back. In addition to me not being there, I’m not too exchangy which then breaks up the dialog between each other.“
There’s something gripping about these photographs. Each image captures a moment in time nearly too distant to remember for many fans of the vaulted label. Looking at the original “Cash Money Records” logo on the wall above the receptionist harkens to a time when it seemed like CMB was more building than bling bling. There’s one where Weezy is in a sneaker store trying on a pair of Reebok Classics with his rhyme book on his lap presumably crafting his future. There’s another in a barbershop with B.G. throwing up his 1990s rap hands. They all look like friends—a way they haven’t looked collectively in over a decade.
“Something great about photography is that it really captures time,” he concludes. “No one would’ve really seen that except for you in that second. When I got into photography, that was it. I was always into it and I’m into it as much now as I ever was. I know for sure that I’ll be taking photos for the rest of my life. That’s my thing… This is basically a day in New Orleans with Cash Money.”