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Remembering Chi Modu Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

25 May 2021

Chi Modu, who photographed the stars of hip-hop, has died at the age of 54. He had been battling cancer, according to some reports.

Among the legends his lens captured were Tupac Shakur, the Notorious B.I.G., Ice Cube, Diddy, Wu-Tang Clan, Run-DMC, Snoop Dogg, Nas, Ice Cube, Eminem and Mary J. Blige.

He recalled getting into the hip-hop scene, "It was a bunch of young people doing some things that's really, like, world-changing. So I wanted to be a part of it. And I had a skill that was needed -- that I could take a picture, right? And so because of that, I became a part of this movement because I was the one showing people what it looked like."

Modu was born in Nigeria in 1966 but was raised in New Jersey. When his parents decided to return to Nigeria, Modu elected to remain in the U.S. at Lawrenceville, a prestigious East Coast boarding school.

'I want to be known as someone that can look at something and bring the truth out without injecting their point of view into it.'

He graduated from Rutgers University in 1989 with a degree in economics. But while he was attending Rutgers, he began to dabble in photography.

He pursued his interest in photography after graduation when he enrolled at the International Center of Photography in Manhattan. He got his first job as a photographer at the Harlem-based New York Amsterdam News.

In the early 1990s, he joined The Source, a premier hip-hop magazine, eventually becoming the director of photography. Influenced by the likes of Roy Decarava and André Kertész, he preferred capturing candid, unguarded images of artists, many of whom had never been shot professionally before.

He shot 30 covers for The Source during hip-hop’s golden age.

He also shot photography for the album covers of several artists including Snoop Dogg (Doggystyle), Method Man (Tical), Mobb Deep (The Infamous) and Black Moon (Enta Da Stage). And he did work for Rolling Stone and The New York Times.

He described his approach, "For my kind of work, I think empathy is really critical. I'm a documentarian, so I go in with the people. I mean, my hip-hop background is really an example of how I work. I go from people's neighborhoods to the stage to the studio -- every aspect of their lives. So a documentarian -- the only way you can move around in those environments is if you empathize with the people. You don't necessarily have to be from them. You know, so I don't think you have to be from the hood to photograph in the hood, but you must understand it."

In 2016, he published Tupac Shakur: Uncategorized, featuring images of the rapper from their first meeting in Atlanta in 1994 to his signing for Death Row records nine months before his death in 1996.

In addition to his hip-hop images, Modu photographed around the world, including in his native country as well as Yemen, Myanmar and Bangladesh.

"I want to be known as someone that can look at something and bring the truth out without injecting their point of view into it," he told Coveteur magazine in 2019. "For me, that's very important. As long as I do that and I do my job well, then people will remember me."

Memorial services are being planned by his family.

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