“I don’t know how good of a photographer I am, but I know I’m prolific.”
During any iconic moment in hip-hop, “Brother Ernie” Pannicioli was probably there, mingling with the crowd with camera bags hanging off his arms and neck. In the 1970s, the born and raised Brooklynite of Cree Native American descent started shooting the budding graffiti scene—that’s how he met the B-boys, who then introduced him to the DJs, who then introduced him to the rappers. The rest is pop culture history.
Now 71 years-old, Pannicioli, who goes by Brother Ernie, is publishing his second book, this time with Rizzoli. will include almost 300 never before seen images of the hip-hop greats including Ice Cube, LL Cool J, Notorious BIG, Lauryn Hill, Public Enemy, Missy Elliot, 50 Cent, N.W.A, Snoop Dogg, Lil' Kim, and TLC.
We spoke to Brother Ernie from his home in Jersey City—where he now lives with his three Pomeranians Bella, Rain, and Twinkie—about near-death experiences, photographing everyone from Flava Flav to Trump, and the most vulgar image in the book.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
Queen Latifah, Tupac and Kid Capri
Your work has been widely viewed since the 1970s, and your book Who Shot Ya? Is one of the most prolific in hip-hop photography - why, over 15 years later, this book?
Why 15 years later? Because with the passage of time, deaths, the emergence of watered down and trivial, predictable music and carbon copy DJs and a seemingly universal respect for the golden era of Hip Hop has grown. I sensed that the audience would have a deeper, almost sacred respect for what I saw, sensed and captured decades earlier. And images that seemed to have little meaning then are now viewed as iconic.
What will readers see in this book that hasn’t been seen before?
Not only will people see less polished and candid imagery but also deeply personal, artistic studio work that they had not seen before. Because of the large number of images, they will experience a span, a depth, and scope that will reveal much of my fascination with the creativity of Hip-Hop itself.
Do you think that hip-hop will ever have a renaissance? Will it ever be as good as the golden age?
No, I do not. Every form of music has a high point and a low point. All music reaches an apogee, a mountaintop, and then declines. This isn’t my law, it’s a universal law. What I want to believe is that hip-hop will be replaced by something better. Right now, we’re in an age of mumble rap. There are no more live artists, we’re using machines and touching buttons. This is maybe a distant cousin or an uncle to hip-hop, but it has nothing to do with hip-hop.
Why the photo of Queen Latifah and MC Lyte as the cover of the book?
We put two women instead of a big sweaty guy with gold teeth and a gold chain. I feel it’s important with the revelations of the #MeToo movement and with the LGBT community looking for nothing except one thing; equality. Equality means 12 inches in a foot, not 11, not 13. And all throughout American history, women have had to fight, blacks have had to fight, so I just figure what better way to celebrate this than put women on the cover.
You have a lot of photos of people who are rarely photographed, like MF Doom.
Yeah, when he’s a teenager. Doom to me is hope. Doom to me is like a prayer answered. I could listen to Doom all day and just trip over his linguistic skills. To be an emcee you have to number 1, have a good voice, number 2, have a good flow and number 3, at least be semi-coherent. And with him, my God, you have to keep rewinding and look up quotations and jazz masterpieces. His work is like a holy collage. His linguistic skills, I mean he’s like James Joyce on acid.
What’s Doom like in person?
If I had to describe him simply, it would be tongue in cheek. Much of his lyrics are tongue in cheek, they’re delayed bombs. He’s like taking a pill and it doesn’t hit you until 6 hours later.
Any rules we should know about photographing an artist, or being backstage?
Accept that the artist might be tense, fearful, self-absorbed or stoned just before a concert or awards show, and if they seem distant don't take it personal. Stay out of the way and be quiet.
Do you remember any photoshoots that you knew at the moment would become iconic?
Latifah in Islamic garb, Lauryn Hill as a princess, Method Man with fangs, Rakim at The Apollo LL COOL J in my studio, Slick Rick and Big Daddy Kane with heavy gold chains, and Public Enemy on stage and in my studio spring to mind.
Do you have any stories about some of the late great icons you’ve photographed?
Doing a photoshoot for a Japanese magazine at Sony Studio a few days before Big Pun passed away. He and I sharing a sandwich and him having an asthma attack and his wife and Fat Joe stripping him naked and trying to save him using towels dipped in cold water. Seeing him nude at almost 800 pounds is seared into my memory and no I did not film it.
Sitting next to BIG in his SUV listening to Tupac's music right after he was killed. Hugging Lauryn [Hill] and seeing her a frail, little girl and her saying how hard it was to be the icon of black women and being accused of hating white people, a lie created by sleazeball Howard Stern. ODB spitting at reporters yet coming up to me and hugging me and calling me his "Native Brother." Being in an expensive hotel lobby with Public Enemy in the deep south and one of the members of the S1's and Flava Flav playing standard songs on the lobby piano to the shock of the bewildered hotel guests.
Can you tell me more about being with Biggie right after Tupac was killed?
I was just minding my business, walking down the street and someone in a dark SUV on a dark street honked his horn. So, I looked and I saw this big guy and I said ‘nah, I don’t know him.’ I kept on trucking, I’m from Brooklyn. I know better. And the window rolled down and he went, "Motherfucker, get in here it's cold as shit outside you're gonna freeze! And even if I didn’t see him, I mean, I recognized that voice. So, I went inside and we were just kicking it, talking about how cold it was. Then I got into Tupac and he was like “man I love that n****” and I’m quoting him exactly, I remember it. And he said, 'If the two of us lived then we’d be running this shit because nobody on this fucking earth can touch us.' He said listen, and he turned up his music and Tupac’s music was playing already, it was on the tape deck. So just as I’m leaving the car I take a picture of him, and he says ‘hey, bust this.’ And he had his right hand in the shape of a gun and he aims it at me. I get that picture, and it was only after he was killed that I realized that he was killed in an SUV. That was painful.
So you must have been shocked when Biggie died pretty soon after.
I cracked, I’m not gonna front. Sixteen years earlier I remember going to take a shower and my son would go out and get me the newspaper in the morning. He gave me the newspaper and then I was toweling off and I looked at the headline and it said “John Lennon Slain.” It reminded me of that, I remember crying that morning. And I remember after that having lunch with Yoko Ono in the Dakota. I took some pictures of her and me together. Her making me lunch. She allowed me to take pictures of the apartment.
I want to ask you about some specific photos in the book, the first is the one of LL Cool J and Marley Marl holding up the check from Donald Trump that’s stamped with “Insufficient Funds.”
LL Cool J and I, at one point we spent a lot of time together, he was in my studio about 12 times, and he’d always be on time. One time he was 15 minutes late and he called me from the Queensboro bridge, apologizing for being late. He’s the one who taught me his overriding ideology; he said its two words: show and business. Show, you go on stage for an hour, that’s the show. The other 6 and a half days of the week you’re doing the business.
He invited me on The David Letterman Show, I photographed him and Marley Marl and his dancers. And when we were backstage we saw these props, and we just picked up this check and used it as a prop. We never realized the profound prophesy that would come twenty-something years later. But even then, Trump was known as a joke.
Marley Marl and LL Cool J
Have you ever photographed Trump?
Years ago, I was the chief photographer for the New York Hard Rock Café. And all the celebrities who would come in, and that’s everybody, I had to photograph them. And they opened up a branch at the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City and they sent me down there. I spent three days photographing Trump, and if you asked me to sum him up in one word it would be “vulgar.”
John Kennedy Jr. was the antithesis of Trump, and he could have been our president. I worked for 13 weeks with him on a TV series called Heart of the City which showed compassionate people in New York City who made a difference in the lives of homeless people, people with mental, emotional problems and various problems. So I have a whole wealth of beautiful images of him and it just shows the contrast.
What about that photo of Aaliyah on her sixteenth birthday looking out the window at the Apollo. In the book, you say that the photo disturbs you now because it looks like she’s staring into nothingness as a warning of her fate.
What she’s looking at is sheer blackness. What’s so weird is that a young girl saw the picture, and I just saw it as a nice photo of her smiling, but the young girl was sensitive and she said, "That picture is horrible." I asked why. “Because look at what she’s looking at, she’s looking into blackness like she has no future.” I almost cried. At the time I didn’t realize it.
This is somber, let’s talk about the most vulgar picture in the book.
What’s the most vulgar photo in the book?
It’s a picture of Flava Flav holding a Sambo. If you look into the history of the Sambo, it was a racist hateful thing where white people used to call black people sambo and paint their faces black. But the beauty of the picture is that it was shot in his mother’s house, and by the way, I was appalled by Flava Flav when I first met him, I was disgusted. It was because of the sambo. But talking to him and spending time with his mom I realized how hurt he was as a human being, and how this skinny, little, not very attractive black man overcame that by mocking sambo. So all that “yeee boi” is a parody of white supremacy and white racism and it’s brilliant because he’s taking that image and throwing it in your face. And we’ve been friends over thirty years and during that time I’ve seen him do compassionate things and talked to him in times of pain and hurt and there’s a brilliance, a genius, a kindness and a compassion in him.
The second vulgar picture in there is the picture of Lil Kim with the blond wig and blue eyes. I knew her when Biggie introduced her to me and she was a dark-skinned black girl.
Oh, you mean it’s vulgar because she was trying to make herself look white?
Yeah, she was trying to satisfy that—she wasn’t making fun of it, she was embracing it. And those two pictures to me are obscene because they evoke so many things about race that are horrible and terrible.
You’re a Cree Native American, but you were born and raised in Brooklyn. What about your identity as a Native American informed your style of photography?
Being poor was one of my biggest influences, not race.
What is the biggest challenge of many that the Native American population face today?
Being typecast, being stereotyped, seeing the land you love governed by people who defy decency and humanity by running oil pipelines over sacred burial grounds.
In my next book, I want to use these photos and also the ones I have of Cher, the Dalai Lama, Frank Sinatra, all those people that could not be included in this Hip Hop book. I have a whole wealth of dimensions of people. I documented punk culture, I documented graffiti, I documented the Black Power movement, I have pictures of Dick Gregory, there’s just so much more. I have Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, John Travolta. That’s the book I’m looking forward to.