LL COOL J, journalist/photographer Vikki Tobak and Rock The Bells editorial director Alec Banks released the new coffee table book, The Streets Win, earlier this month. Published by Rizzoli Books, the 336-page book contains dozens of essays and interviews by Hip-Hop’s elite and images from some of the culture’s most celebrated photographers—from Grandmaster Flash, Kurtis Blow, MC Sha-Rock, Chuck D and KRS-One to Nas, Eminem and Dr. Dre. Tobak made sure to sprinkle multiple never-before-seen photographs of legendary artists in between pages, including one of Nas.
“The Eminem, Nas and Dr. Dre essays are almost like their own books because they don’t talk to the press that often,” Tobak tells AllHipHop. “They also don’t talk to the press about those really personal moments. I feel like they got really vulnerable in this book. I also tried to make sure that the photography for all the artists—but especially for those really vulnerable essays—really matched.
“With Nas, for example, the photo is one that’s never been published. It’s by this Japanese photographer who lived in New York in the ’90s. Nas is sitting on this brown couch with his headband askew. I thought it really embodies perhaps the uncertainty of that time. Someone said it looks like he’s playing a video game, but in my mind, I was like no, it looks like he’s pondering life and in deep thought, instead of playing World of Warcraft [laughs].”
The book also contains several rare pieces of ephemera, including vintage Hip-Hop flyers and handwritten lyric sheets. While the final product came together beautifully, there were some hurdles. As Tobak explains, “In the year of Hip-Hop 50, everyone was being pulled in a million different directions. Everyone was kind of saying no to most things.
“There was a lot of debate about who gets celebrated, who gets left out and who needs to be brought back into the conversation. So all of that was happening while I was doing the book, and that’s why you see a really good mix of big name and some obscure names. Creating this in a year of a lot of noise about the history and storytelling, and who gets it and who is left out was definitely the biggest challenge.”
Having LL COOL J behind the project, however, was a huge asset. He was able to connect Banks and Tobak with people who perhaps they couldn’t have reached on their own—like Eminem and Dr. Dre. She believes it’s a testament to who LL COOL J is at his core.
“People sometimes say don’t meet your heroes, but I think he’s an exception,” she says. “I only just met him recently, even though we’ve been in the same rooms and stuff for a long time. He, of course, was like a childhood hero of mine, and he’s just one of those really special people where you understand how he became the first artist signed to Def Jam at 16. I see what it was because it’s still there. It’s that thing you can’t quite put your finger on; you’re born with it. He is a performer and a big idea person in every way. He approached the book in the same way.”
LL COOL J Presents: The Streets Win is currently available here.