art matters

Q&A with artist Harry Allen of Public Enemy

Posted by Meghan Centers on 31 March 2010 Comments

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Harry Allen

Image: Harry Allen, Hip-Hop Activist, Media Assassin, and longtime Director of Enemy Relations for hip-hop group Public Enemy.

Public Enemy comes to Iowa City tomorrow.

The group will participate in a University Lecture Committee panel discussion celebrating the 20th anniversary of the group's groundbreaking album, Fear of a Black Planet. The panel, to be held tomorrow, April 1, at 7:00 p.m. in the Englert Theatre, will include PE frontman Chuck D and the group's co-founders Hank and Keith Shocklee, members of PE's original production unit, the Bomb Squad, as well as Harry Allen, PE's longtime Director of Enemy Relations, who will begin the event with an artist talk on his photography work featured in the current UIMA exhibition, Two Turntables and a Microphone: Hip-Hop Contexts featuring Harry Allen's "Part of the Permanent Record: Photos from the Previous Century," opened March 27 in the Iowa Memorial Union's Black Box Theater.

In anticipation of the big event, UIMA Marketing and Media Intern Meghan Centers has compiled a series of posts for the UIMA's "Art Matters" blog to help you learn a little more about Allen, his work, and the legendary hip-hop group of which he was a part. The first includes a Q&A with Allen about the story his photographs tell:

Interview with Harry Allen

Hip-Hop Activist, Media Assassin and Director of Enemy Relations are among the titles listed on his resume. As a hip-hop advocate, Harry Allen has dedicated his career to supporting the culture he fell in love with during his college years at New York's Adelphi University. There, in an underground student radio station, he met and began working with the members of hip-hop group Public Enemy. Using his writing abilities, Allen mediated between the group and its harsh public critics as Public Enemy helped lead the long defamed hip-hop movement in the 1980s. At the same time, and beginning first as just a hobby, Allen also began snapping photographs of what he believed was history in the making.

These early photographs document the emergence of hip-hop, providing today's viewers with a perspective on the subculture's beginnings. Allen's photography work has only recently become the focus of public attention since his images were displayed in the 2007 exhibition Part of the Permanent Record: Photos from the Previous Century, held at the Eyejammie Fine Arts Gallery in Manhattan, which is owned by Bill Adler, former Def Jam director of media relations. Three years later, Allen's photographs now come to Iowa, where they will be on view through June 27 in the UIMA's Two Turntables and a Microphone exhibition.

UIMA: Tell us a little bit about the photographs. What is your goal in displaying them publicly now after so many years?

Harry Allen: Taking the photographs was originally a two-part thing. The first part was creating an opportunity to photograph, use a camera, and have subject matter by which to exercise photography. That was something I was interested in doing.

The second part was that I chose these particular people and this particular scene, of hip-hop on Long Island, Spectrum City, mobile DJs, and people who would eventually become Public Enemy. It had to do with the effect that meeting those people was having on me as a person, my affection for hip-hop culture, my deep passion for it, and the belief that it was necessary to document. I definitely went at it with a sense that it would in some way be valuable someday; if not financially, then at least in terms of preserving something. There was definitely a sense at the time that I had to record this for whatever ultimate use.

Exhibiting it now is partially because I was asked to do so, and I thought it would be a cool, fun thing to do; the other part is because a lot of the pictures that were exhibited at the Eyejammie had been reprinted. I had shot them and contacted them, but never enlarged them. I always had a sense that certain ones would look really good large. (The photographs in the Two Turntables and a Microphone exhibition range from 11-by-14, 16-by-20, and 30-by-40 inches.)

UIMA: Were those involved in Public Enemy also the people who were associated with Adelphi University and the radio station there?

Harry Allen: Yes—I was a fan of what they were doing on WBAU 90.3, and it was almost like underground hip-hop radio at a time when there was no hip-hop radio. So this was the music I love being played on the radio in a gritty, underground, neighborhood, familiar kind of way, at a time when most of the discussion about hip-hop was that it was a fad, and it wasn't going to last. That was the accepted thought.

What made being around them so refreshing was that it was the only place I could go where people talked about hip-hop as though it were completely real and utterly serious. So it was the first place and these were the first people whose interest and whose focus and whose way of thinking about the culture matched my own. That was extremely refreshing.

UIMA: What are your thoughts on the future of hip-hop and what the current artists are doing with mash-ups and extreme sampling? How does it fit together?

Harry Allen: Well, I don't think anyone can say where it's going to go. That's kind of the way of the whole culture. Part of what makes it interesting is that it is not predictable. I think certainly hip-hop is a lot more commercial. I remember a time as a writer that if you wanted to speak to an artist you would call them at home; that's just what you did. And I called lots of people at home and recorded those conversations, and now that's not the way it works. There's a series of levels you go through to speak to rappers, even new ones who haven't sold anything at all. So it's more professional, more commercial, and more controlled.

I think it certainly has changed the way music sounds and certainly has changed the way people interact with it and the kind of experiences you have around it. I can't say for better or for worse. I can certainly say that it rarely sounds as exciting to me as it did at one time. It is a continuously new thing.

UIMA: What are some examples of things that are happening that you wouldn't have thought?

Harry Allen: I wouldn't have imagined that white, middle-aged residents of Malibu or Bel Air would be listening to hip-hop music. I think most of my surprise has to do with the amount of money connected to it, the transcendence of the culture, the number of people to whom it's normal and the kinds of people. Hip-hop was something that began in non-white communities that were urban and so the fact that white kids in cornfields can say "I connect to this" is astonishing to me. If you're a person who has seen cornfields all of your life, imbibing a culture by people who have never seen cornfields is astonishing to me.

UIMA: What do you think should be happening in hip-hop that is not right now?

Harry Allen: One thing that I think should be happening is more should be done to preserve hip-hop material culture. That is to say its photographs, its records, LPs and CDs, its posters, anything you can put in store should be preserved. I think there should be more documentation of its early history, and there should be more oral history being made.

Allen continues to be an active part in the hip-hop community, following its happenings closely and hosting a radio show called Nonfiction on WBAI-NY/99.5 FM . He also writes for publications including Vibe, the Village Voice, and Spin. His blog, "Media Assassin," can be read at harryallen.info.

-Meghan Centers, UIMA Marketing and Media Intern

Interview with Harry Allen conducted by former UIMA Marketing and Media Manager Maggie Anderson.