Los Angeles

Under the Influence: Michael Miller's L.A. Hip-Hop Photography

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Thumb through a stack of major Los Angeles hip-hop albums from the late 1980s through mid-1990s and you might notice one name credited on all of them: Michael Miller. During the West Coast's hip-hop scene's ascension into global fame, the photographer ended up being the go-to lensman for countless album covers and publicity stills. Miller's output is staggering, and would be hard to believe if not for his recent, self-published book documenting all of it: "West Coast Hip-Hop: A History In Pictures."

In it, Miller compiles literal portraits of California hip-hop during one of its most vibrant eras. That includes the giants of the scene such as Tupac, Cypress Hill and Snoop Dogg but also lesser-known artists such as the Whooliganz, Funkdoobiest and a group originally called the Atban Klann (better known by their later name: Black Eyed Peas).

Michael Miller | Photo by Oliver Wang.

Miller grew up on the Westside, attending Santa Monica public schools while living in Malibu, back when he says it was still "really country." His teen years were impeccably timed; not only was he classmates with Rob Lowe and Sean Penn, but as an avid skater and surfer, Miller ended up befriending members of the Dogtown skating crew, the Z-Boys, especially Tony Alva.

Miller graduated from UCLA in the mid 1980s and decamped for Europe, first to compete in downhill skiing before ending up in Paris, where he briefly made ends meet by painting houses. His entry into photographer was a bit of a fluke, he says. He and a friend, "were after one thing and it [was] to date models and it's where my photography first started." Whatever his original motives, Miller quickly proved gifted for the craft and within months, was traveling across Europe to shoot campaigns for Cacharel and other major fashion houses.

When he returned home to L.A., his fashion work caught the eye of record labels such as EMI and by the late 1980s, he was shooting artists as varied as girl rockers The Go-Go's and Heart, to jazz players such as Stan Getz and Herb Alpert. Miller, however, grew up a hip-hop fan, listening to 1580 AM, KDAY, the first 24 hour hip-hop station in the country. As a teen, he used to spin late-night shows on KBOO, literally an underground radio station housed in a Malibu basement. In 1989, he snapped his first rap-related cover, for the original N.W.A. group member, Arabian Prince and his debut solo album. That began Miller's long history of shooting the key figures on the West Coast rap scene, thoroughly compiled in "West Coast Hip-Hop" and the subject of his in-progress documentary about the influence of this region's hip-hop culture on the rest of the world.

"West Coast Hip-Hop" includes extensive background testimonials to almost all the photos, providing crucial personal and historical context. During the course of our interview, we asked him to expand on the backstories to a few of his most iconic images and here's what he shared.

Miller first met Coolio through rapper WC and Warner Bros. hired him to shoot the cover for Coolio's debut album. LP cover for Coolio's "It Takes a Thief" (Warner Bros., 1994) | Original photo by Michael Miller.

MM: I'm living over here on Stanley [Ave.]...and there's a knock at my door and Coolio comes with his hair like that and I go, "a star is born." Coolio is gangster. He was gnarly. I mean, he was a great person, but his face...look at the image. It's scary! But again, he loved me. I did all his covers.

Where did you take that photo? It took me a long time to realize it wasn't some kind of abstract illustration; it's razor wire.

MM: That was a great demo[lition] yard. [I told Coolio], "get on the ladder, put your head in the barbed wire, just put your head in the middle of the barbed wire." I got in the barbed wire and shot through it. It was spontaneous, it wasn't a premeditated photograph, it was "let's go." The art director, his name was Erwin [Gorostiza], a couple of years later he tells me, "oh, the photo won awards." He never told me [at the time].

Miller was hired at the last minute by Def Jam head, Lyor Cohen, to shoot the cover for Warren G's debut, "Regulate...The G-Funk Era." Miller had to fly directly home from New York after his meeting with Cohen in order to make the shoot the next morning. They originally had planned to shoot Warren in a location that Miller had chosen but the rapper had other plans. Album cover for Warren G's "Regulate...G Funk Era" (Def Jam, 1994) | Original photo by Michael Miller.

MM: I got an old naval demo yard locked down in San Pedro. Acres of gas towers and broken down warehouses. Warren's all mellow and he [insists], "I got to do a shot on 21st and Lewis where I grew up. That's going to be my cover." So we drive to 21st and Lewis [in Long Beach] and it's in the middle of the day. The worst possible light you can have. I just shoot. You just gotta go for it. The art direction was unbelievable. [Director] Steve Carr put a black strip on top and reversed the palm trees. The cover's one of my favorites. They really nailed it. They added another photo of them on a wall. I shot [that] in the alley by his house. 

They all grew up there. There's so many rappers and superstars that were on 19th and Lewis and all over the place. Snoop did his first "Doggystyle" video, with all the dogs running after him, in that alley.

In 1989, Miller was hired to shoot an album cover for WC and the Maad Circle. The shoot ended up being on L.A.'s downtown Skid Row. W.C. on L.A. skid row, 1989 | Photo by Michael Miller.

MM: Every shoot, there's a concept. I try and get that out of the artist. WC came to me and was like "I want a census worker counting people on Skid Row."  So I went down to skid row at 12:30 at night and it was a gnarly situation. All of the sudden, out of the shadows, there's this dude sweaty, just running by full speed, "fuck you Hollywood motherfuckers, get the fuck out of here, I'ma fucking kick your ass." We walk around the fence and he's throwin' up a set and WC's like, "yo homie!  That's my crew!" And they started talking and -- boom -- best friends. Immediately, it just switched. These guys are intense. But when you're down with them, it's just all love. We ended up becoming buddies with Scrap Loc. He's in that photo. 

Many of Miller's photo shoots with rappers happened at the beginning of their career. With Tupac Shakur however, the rapper was nearing the height of his fame; he was anything but a newcomer. Tupac Shakur, 1994 | Photo by Michael Miller

MM: He was huge. I was nervous to say the least. I tried to keep my enthusiasm under control. That one, we were over by, I think it was 51st and Santa Fe and it was an old train yard. I got a lot of great shots of him that day. After this shot, there there was abandoned train tracks and railroad cars. We went inside, my assistant got Burger King. We went inside and we all kicked it in the old train. 

Then we went over to Elysian Park and it was dangerous so when things got a little heavy, we'd just move. Nothing dramatic happened, we ever had any physical altercations but we did have gang situations where it was gnarly. With Tupac, he attracted everyone. Like, "Tupac's in the neighborhood, let's go!" If some gangsters came out of the woodwork, he knew. He'd be like, "let's go. Hop in the van, let's get out of here."


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Top Image: Michael Miller | Photo by Oliver Wang.

About the Author

Dr. Oliver Wang is an associate professor of sociology at California State University, Long Beach.
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