For over two decades, Los Angeles, California-based photographer Michael Miller has shot some of the most amazing covers in the rap music industry, and now he’s put together a new book called West Coast Hip-Hop: A History In Pictures which showcases his work and memories of working with some of rap’s biggest names. With artists like Eazy-E, 2Pac, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Cypress Hill, and many more, this is the perfect coffeetable book offering nostalgia for longtime rap fans and an excellent source of history for younger ones. AllHipHop.com caught up with the famed photographer to talk about his new book, which is also now available in stores and online retailers:
AllHipHop.com: How many years have you been involved in photography?
Michael Miller: Almost 25 years.
AllHipHop.com: Some of these pictures are almost that old, so that means you really developed your skills quickly.
Michael Miller: Absolutely. I moved back from Europe, and I was shooting a lot of fashion. I signed to an agency, and right away, my style was picked up by the music labels. My first job was Roger Troutman for Capitol Records. Herb Alpert, the co-founder of A & M Records, called me one day at home and told me that I was his photographer from now on. I shot a bunch of their covers before the company was sold. I started doing different covers for Heart and then some R&B and Jazz acts.
I did Ice Cube for Street Knowledge, The Arabian Prince for EMI, and then I did the Stussy Clothing campaign – which a lot of rap artists dug because it was “street.” I met DJ Muggs through that and we clicked. Muggs and I started collaborating about his new project, “Cypress Hill.” He had just finished with his previous group, 7A3, and he was telling me about his new group and how he wanted his photos to look. We actually started hanging out and this was all before Cypress Hill became big. I hung out with him on Cypress Avenue and tagged along while he DJ’d.
Muggs also brought me into WC’s first album with Low Profile because he was sharing a place with DJ Aladdin. The only thing they had in their house was two coffin cases for the turntables and mixers. Muggs and Aladdin would just battle. They had no furniture – just some clothes and a couple of beds in the back bedrooms. All they did was DJ against each other all day and night. As a matter of fact, they had just come off of the DMC DJ Championship where they came in first and second [place]. They were the baddest DJs in the land at that time. So Muggs and I did Cypress Hill’s demo photos, and in the book, I even have photos of the group while they were in the studio recording their demo. After they got signed to Ruffhouse Records, I did the cover for the album and “The Phuncky Feel One” and “How I could Just Kill a Man” side A & B single.
DJ Muggs brought me in to a lot of studios, and he hooked me up with a lot of people just be association. I almost got pigeon-holed into rap, but I still managed to do shoots for groups like Pantera and Lynrd Skynrd. Hip-Hop really embraced me, though. I got along with everybody and there were never any issues.
AllHipHop.com: Your 2Pac photos are iconic. They’ve been posted just about everywhere on the Internet, and are usually the first images that pop up when you Google his name. Did you ever imagine those photos would be so huge?
Michael Miller: I knew it was going to be good. First off, 2Pac was already famous. I knew that this job was going to be special. At first, 2Pac asked me not to shoot his face, just his belly. After we started doing a couple of set-ups, he changed his mind and had me shoot his face, too. He knew exactly what he wanted. Plus, I work hard, so I expect every job that I do to be above average. But those shots are iconic because he’s so iconic.
AllHipHop.com: Out of all of the great shoots that you’ve done, have there been any that you regretted because they didn’t turn out as good as you hoped for?
Michael Miller: I think every one [laughter]. I’m a perfectionist. However, now that I’ve put the book together and gone over the shots again, I really like them. I would shoot the cover, the package, and the singles – then keep the film in storage. Twenty years later, I’m putting this book together and going over the pictures, and I was blown away. I came across photos of Nate Dogg and other artists like Mista Grimm – some of which I had forgotten that I had taken. I was very happy with these photos looking at them again. I work hard and do my homework. I prep and search for locations. With the 2Pac shoot that you mentioned, I spent a few days looking for them. It’s not like we stumbled upon it.
AllHipHop.com: Without giving away too much, what is your favorite story from your book?
Michael Miller: The Source Magazine asked me to shoot Dr. Dre in the studio while he was working on The Chronic. When I walked in, Dre told me to wait until he finished what he was working on. Snoop Dogg was in the booth doing vocals, so I just blended in the background for a couple of hours. When the session was over, he gave me a few minutes to get the shot. Dre posed on the mixing board for a quick second and then he left. It’s been a long time since that day, but so memorable. I could draw a diagram of the studio layout.
AllHipHop.com: What about a favorite or most memorable story that didn’t make it in the book?
Michael Miller: Hollywood Basic’s was a record label owned by The Walt Disney Company. Dave Funkenklein, rest in peace, ran the company, and he hired me to do a shoot for the Lifer’s Group. They were a group of convicts serving life sentences in Rahway Prison in New Jersey. These inmates were on a television show called “Scared Straight”, aimed at keeping kids out of prison.
The call time was at 7a.m., and it was a cold and rainy morning when I pulled up to the prison. I was greeted by a guard, and we walked across a yard and then he introduced me to the group. I remember counting 22 people, and that was the most that I had ever shot for an album cover. My idea was to place them under a watch tower with guards holding rifles overhead. After that, we shot in the auditorium where they filmed the TV show and had prison concerts. While they were showing me their recording/rehearsal studio, the head guard said that we needed to leave because they were letting the general population out.
The inmates had to be on good behavior in order to be in the group. I asked them about what they did to get locked up. One dude told me that he kidnapped the Governor’s son, chopped him up, and left him in the trunk of his car for a few days before getting arrested. I knew it was time to leave when the leader of the group told me that I looked like Denzel Washington! Before I left, I asked the head guard who had worked there for over 20 years, if I could see the weapons that he’s confiscated from the inmates. He took out a box and placed it on the floor of the office. I took a shot of it and included it inside of the CD package.