Los Angeles-based photographer and filmmaker Brian Cross (or B+, as he's commonly known) has blazed a distinct path through independent media over the past two decades. A native of Limerick, Ireland, Cross moved to L.A. in the early '90s and quickly became a go-to hip-hop photographer starting with avant-garde act Freestyle Fellowship and culminating in high profile work today with artists like Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley and Nas. He also formed Mochilla, a film and music production company with photographer, filmmaker, and DJ Eric Coleman. Mochilla recently released the three-part live concert film series Timeless as DVD box set.
Cross shot the iconic cover photo for DJ Shadow's Entroducing, filmed Ethiopian jazz legend Mulatu Astatke, brought Madlib, Cut Chemist, and J-Dilla to Brazil, and filmed extensively in Colombia with producer Will "Quantic" Holland. Needless to say his passport stamps arouse envy. He's making his way to the Bay for a month-long photo show at Peek Gallery that includes rare photos and video clips from Cross and Coleman's archives. Opening night Thursday, June 2, includes a Q&A session with the duo. The following night, Friday, June 3, the pair spin at Braza, a Brazilian club night at Som Bar. Endowed with fanciful Irish story-telling abilities, Cross threw down on getting shot at in South Central L.A., chilling in Bob Marley's family house in Jamaica, and other career highlights.
How often do you show these photos?
This set of photos has never been shown. It's a set that we're doing specifically for the space.
What are a few that people might recognize?
There will definitely be some of the iconic images, the DJ Shadow [photos], Damian Marley, and some classic Colombian, Ethiopian, and Brazilian ones.
How does the name of the show -- If It Fits in the Backpack -- relate to the work you're showing?
[The show's title] is kind of having fun with the notion of being backpack photographers. Mochilla means backpack in Spanish. We were working on the music video for DJ Shadow's "High Noon" in Mexico -- me, Eric, and a producer went down there and were working with a local company -- I think there was a production crew of 60. And a guy from the crew said, "How do you normally work?" And we said, "See this backpack right here? If the equipment fits in the backpack, we shoot it, if it doesn't fit in the backpack, we don't shoot it. That's how we work." That's still how we work. Once [in] a while we'll bust out something bigger, but for the most part we don't use tripods, plate cameras, or anything like that. It was also a nod to the where were coming from at that moment as well. It was the burgeoning moment of backpack hip-hop. In Spanish it's spelled with one L, but it's pronounced mo-chill-a. We're gringos, so we accidentally misspelled it.
You've shot photos in Jamaica, Brazil, and Ethiopia. What was one of your most sketchy photo shoots, one where you were in actual physical danger?
I didn't have to go that far at all. I photographed B.G. Knocc Out and Gangsta Dresta for Def Jam back in the late-'90s and was down at 78th and Western Blvd. in South Central Los Angeles. We were shooting in front of this house and someone rolled up and busted a bunch of caps. I was shooting [photos] and all of a sudden they jumped on the ground and I'm like, "What the fuck happened?" I heard the shots but I didn't process it. It didn't seem real. I didn't have to go to the favelas in Brazil or Medellín in Colombia to get shot at.
For all of the supposedly sketchy places that I photographed in, a lot of it is how you carry yourself. Not so say that I haven't been jacked [robbed], I have had my camera stolen. I've been very lucky over the years that people generally respect why I'm there and what I'm doing. At the same time I'm not [a] fucking war photographer. When the shooting happened in South Central, we just got in the car and finished the shoot somewhere else. We just kept working.
What was one that turned out better than you expected?
The DJ Shadow Entroducing shoot turned out amazing. Josh [Davis, a.k.a. DJ Shadow] had a very specific idea. He had made some stick-man sketches of exactly what he wanted and so we shot that first. Then we noticed a cat sitting on the record shelves. So I was like, "Lets try this now." We set up [the photos] with the cat all the way to the left and Beni B and the guys looking through records in the frame. I liked the perspective the way I was setting it up. What happened is the camera was a manual panorama camera and the focus on the camera was in meters. For whatever reason we thought it was in feet. So we're thinking we're focusing on the cat and we get the film back and the cat is out of focus! But then I look at the proof [sheet] and I'm like, "Fuck!" There was no doubt in my mind or [Davis'] mind -- there was only one frame that was going to be the cover and that was it. I live by the old Sun Ra mantra -- "Make a mistake and do something right." If you're open to mistakes in what you do, they can be the greatest gifts.
Do you have an enduring memory or story about J-Dilla?
From the time we heard J-Dilla sample the Stan Getz and João Gilberto record he used on [Pharcyde's] "Running," me and Eric always had this idea that we should bring him to Brazil. When we proposed the idea, he had recently been in a coma for six weeks [suffering from lupus]. But we got an offer where someone in Brazil wanted to screen Timeless and bring Madlib down and do a show as a part of this film festival. So Madlib calls Dilla, who was out in L.A. at the time, and he said, "Yeah, I wanna go to Brazil!" Dilla, god love him, he was such a trooper. The brother was barely walking; he was so thin. In those days there were no direct flights to Brazil, you had to stop in Panama. I just remember in Panama he looked so weak; he was so thin that he wasn't even filling out his clothes; his shoes didn't fit. We were walking through the airport and Dilla says, "Man, I gotta bunch of weed taped to my dick!" And we were like, "Are you serious!?" From Panama to Sao Paulo through customs I was sweating! Because if you get caught with drugs coming into Brazil, it's super serious, they'll throw you in the jail underneath the jail! [Dilla] only ended up staying a couple of days, he had to go home on an ambulance flight. He was a great fuckin' guy.