I’ve known of Ricky Powell since his name was recorded in infamy on the classic Paul’s Boutique track, Car Thief. More recently, I find myself enjoying his Instagram flics of archival album covers, vintage basketball cards and personal photographs of legendary artists. Since we share a love of Lou Donaldson, The Odd Couple and jazz cigarettes, so I thought it would be nice to sit down with The Funky Uncle and talk about some old bullshit.
Nick Santora: You could be the original downtown “blogger” for lack of a better term. Even before the Internet, you were taking street photographs, hosted your own public access tv show (Rappin’ With The Rickster), and were also writing for Grand Royal magazine. What was your inspiration to document this lifestyle back then?
Ricky Powell: I had no idea I was going into journalism, to use a broad name. I was a lazy playground rat all my life. When I was 21 I met some artsy chick. She had a camera, film, paint, all that shit, and we would go around. Sometimes I would try her camera. Right away I remember seeing couples in restaurant booths and I’d be like “Yo, can I take your picture?” I could tell people felt comfortable. They were like, “Yeah we like that you’re taking our picture.” It was just a natural thing. Then the chick dissed me for a dude in tie-dyed yoga pants in the spring of ’85. It was demeaning, dude. I was pulverized.
I was going through some shit in winter of ’85 when I found this bag of her shit, some clothes and a little Minolta auto-jammy. I took it out of the bag and said, “I’m gonna make this beeotch sorry that she played me like a soggy cannoli.” Then I started taking the camera out with me. The Warhol / Basquiat photo was one of the first photos I took during that period.
How did that photo happen?
I was going to a lot of art openings throughout the early 80s: graffiti artists, Keith Haring openings. There would be these Bladerunner chicks with the slanted hairdos there. I would try to meet funky older chicks. That was a big opening, the Warhol / Basquait exhibit with the boxing poster. I was with The Dynamic Duo, Zephyr and Revolt, who did the famous Wild Style logo. So I’m hanging out with them on the stoop across from the opening and there are hundreds of people spilling out onto the street waiting for Warhol and Basquiat. This is Mercer and Houston Street.
I’m psyched taking pictures of Zephyr and Revolt out on the stoop because they’re like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to me. I was shooting pics and they were posing, then we see Warhol and Basquiat coming from Houston Street and I’m like, “Oh shit hold on one sec,” and scadattled across the street. I stopped in front of them with the whole fucking scene behind me. I said, “Hey you mind if I get a flick? Please?” Basqiuat said to Warhol, “Yeah, he’s cool.” I got one shot, said thanks and stepped off. They proceeded and I went back to Zephyr and Revolt.
I shot two dynamic duos in a minute and I was like, I can get into this. I can do this. Then I got them printed and developed and they looked great. Then I got down with Paper magazine, shooting the club scene and they put me on as “The Rickster.” The East Village Eye put me on. Shit was just happening that following spring.
That summer, I don’t know how… Futura 2000, legendary great artist, graffiti artist, put me on his softball team: the East Village Escadrilles. He spray-painted names on the t-shirts and gave everyone one. There was some cast of characters on that team. Our home field was the playground on 11th street between 1st and 2nd. We used to play games on Horatio Street. Matt Dylan was on that team, a couple local Puerto Ricans from the east side, Kylie Jenkins. We would have games and people would show up. Patti Astor of the FUN Gallery was a cheerleader. There were a bunch of bug-outs and famous weirdo’s.
In fall of ’85 the Beasties were playing the Cat Club on the Madonna tour and I went to go see them in late September. I went to go see little Ad Rock from the village who used to play ball. He’s five years younger than me. His older sister was in my grade. I went backstage after the gig and I was like, “Oh shit you guys are pretty dope there, Adam.” I began hanging out with the Beasties and going to night clubs and taking pictures.
In early ’86, these chicks came up to me in this club, The World. They asked if I ever took pictures for a photo agency and I was like no. They said come up to LGI. Lynn Goldsmith. I worked for her for a couple years and she taught me the art of the hustle. She would get me into all the movie premiers and high falutin shit. I never studied journalism. It just kind of happened naturally and what I was interested in. I just developed my own time capsule, that’s it.
When did you know the Beastie Boys were going to be superstars?
That first gig at the Cat Club. They were on some new shit. They weren’t trying to be cute or boy band type shit. They looked like me, jeans, sneakers, t-shirt, tilted hat, sloppy, witty. I’ll never forget waiting and waiting and then it went dark. The lights went out. Whooooo! And then the classic 808 bass drum sound dropped. BOOOOOOM!!! Then they came out skipping, hopping, laughing, slinging beer, cursing and I was like, “Whaaaaaat?! Yo, that’s the shit!”
They started bringing me along, I was “The Rickster,” club photographer from The Village. Anyone who knew me before then never saw me doing anything artistic ever. Then that summer of ’86, I finished Hunter College. First, I was at LaGuardia in Queens and got a BA in Liberal Arts. I really liked that experience. Then I went to Hunter College and I was going to study Phys-Ed and be a gym teacher. I actually won the first Hunter College Triathlon in ’83. It was 30 years ago. Oh shit.
The summer of ’86, my first job out of college was selling frozen lemonade off the street and taking pictures while I was working. Just out of boredom. That’s my thing. I used to just take pictures while working bullshit jobs like substitute teacher, bike messenger, bus boy. I always had my camera to battle the mundane. So I was sweltering in the heat around July 7th or 10th and I opened up USA Today and there was a two-page spread for the Raising Hell Tour. The Run DMC, LL Cool J, Whodini and Beastie Boys U.S. Tour. I said, I have to be there. So I walked my cart in, went down to the airport and asked my friend where they were playing. I flew down to Saint Petersburg (Florida) and it’s around 5pm and I’m walking around and it’s some little bum-fuck place and I’m like, “What the fuck?” I call my friend and find out it’s in Tampa and I’m like where the fuck is Tampa? I got like forty bucks on me! It was a Friday night and I’m thinking that I gotta get over to Tampa. How the fuck…? So I walk into a bar with all hillbilly dudes or rednecks and I don’t want to insult anyone who’s reading this or anything like that. I’m just using broad general terms. I walk in and I throw all my money on the bar. Ones, fives, quarters, dimes, nickels, and I’m like, “Can anyone drive me to Tampa?” These two dudes are like, “Yeah we’ll take ya.”
They are country looking motherfuckers and we get in the pickup truck. I sit right in the middle of them in the old school pickup truck and we drive down the highway and it’s nighttime, around 8 o’clock. Then we drive off the highway and on to this dirt road and I’m like, awwww maaaan. Don’t tell me some Deliverance type shit is about to happen. Damn. Then when I’m really bugging, over yonder I see the top of the Tampa Dome. Oh shit, they actually brought me. They drop me off, I said thanks fellas and walk over to the dome. I knock on the back of the dome and a security dude comes out and I’m like, “Yo, go tell Ad Rock The Rickster is here.”
Ad Rock pulls me in and we walk into the arena where Run DMC is on stage and I had never heard music that loud. Packed arena twenty thousand. Jam Master Jay is suspended in the air and scratching the shit out of Peter Piper and just shellacking it. I’ll never forget, I was like this is the big time! They gave me a bed on the tour bus and I went on a couple dates. Tallahassee I think, then Miami and New Orleans. After a week I came back and was a hero at the Frozade garage. I ended up taking some pics that were relevant. The one with the kid with the adidas logo shaved into the back of his head.
I got a job at Def Jam being an office messenger. The Beasties asked me to go on tour. I asked Lyor Cohen if I could go and he goes yeah but you gotta get a replacement. So I went on that tour. I started in spring of ’85 and in less than two years I am on a tour bus going to California with the Beasties and I’m the official, unofficial photographer. Def Jam jacket like wow. I’m in the middle of this musical revolution. I was with Run DMC and LL. Superstars. We’re on tour and looking at Rolling Stone and the album is shooting up the charts with a bullet. In 1987, Run DMC joined for the Together Forever Tour and that was big because it was a white group and a black group hanging tough.
Tell us about the time you smoked dust and had to photograph Public Enemy?
You know about that?! That happened because these two chicks at Oakland Coliseum asked me and Russell Simmons to go into the toilet stall to smoke a joint. I took one hit and I was like, “What the fuck is this shit?” She was like, “Dust!” and I was like whaaaaaat? Russell was like, “Yeah gimme that, I love this shit!” I don’t know. It didn’t affect him like me. I started walking in circles in front of Run DMC on the couch and I remember them cracking up at me. I had to go shoot Public Enemy. I went out there I was bugging. BUGGING! But I did get some classic pictures from that set. I’ve smoked many weird joints.
Can you tell us about the time you interviewed Eazy-E?
I’ll tell you this. Homeboy was at the Hilton on Sixth Avenue and 50th. I knocked on the door and he answered it with a big fucking cannon rolled blunt. At that time, these cognac leaf papers were popular. He said “For you Ricky Powell,” and I said, “Whaaaat? This is gonna be a good interview!” I came in smoking weed together, taking pictures with a camera. I brought my camcorder that I just bought with the money I made from Run DMC’s greatest hits album. Profile gave me $1,000 bucks. I went and got a camcorder in ’91 and used that footage for my public access show I was doing at that time, Rappin’ With The Rickster. Eazy-E was funny. We were passing the camera back and forth and doing weird shit filming each other and I dubbed him the black John Cassavetes. He was cool, very nice. The interview came out dope. Sorry he went so early. He lived buck wild but…
What happened to Grand Royal magazine? What was your role over there?
I was just a contributor. That magazine helped me use my brain and think of things to write. That was an opportunity to discover my writing. It was just a side thing they had.
Why did the Beastie Boys go from Def Jam to Capitol to record Paul’s Boutique?
I never really asked them about their business but I heard they had some royalties withheld.
Totally different sound for them when they went to LA…
Well they teamed up with the Dust Brothers who were geniuses.
You took the pictures for Paul’s Boutique?
[Adam] Yauch took the cover pic for Paul’s Boutique. That was crazy, within a year they went from Licensed To Ill to recording in LA in ’88. No one would have imagined that. They used to fly me out to hang at The G Spot, which was this big house. They named The G Spot after the Grasshoff’s, who were an old couple who used to live there. It was a huge house up in the hills and it had a pool overlooking the whole valley. Ad Rock had this room that was built into a hill. Like some bat cave type shit. In it was a window that looked into the middle of the pool, that’s where I took the picture. They jumped in the water and I took the picture from Ad Rock’s room, behind a plate of glass.
Do those guys get enough credit for being style icons?
They got their props. I mean they weren’t about to change their style for nobody and I think they got mad respect for that. They are very intelligent dudes. Very intelligent, well schooled, cerebral…
You’ve said you used to need to have game to wear sneakers and now it’s for cornballs. What do you mean?
Whenever I see a cornball jerkoff rocking high top sneakers with his pants tucked in behind the tongue, I want to push them in front of a bus. I hate that look. Only guy who could rock that and get away with it was that dude from Saved By The Bell. That dude rocked it. We figured that’s how they dress out there, so we’ll give him a pass. When I was coming up, if you wore high tops it meant you played ball. Now it’s just a fashion statement.
There’s that Eddie Murphy skit where he talked about seeing Rocky and then after the movie all the Italians come out of the theater boxing each other. That’s how it is. People see shit on TV and the Internet and say that’s what I wanna be. That’s me. I’m taking that identity and that’s gonna be me.
Early 70s was a rich time in culture. It’s actually one of my havens that I go into when I hear a song on the radio, the CBS oldies station. I was ten, eleven, twelve in the early 70s and I’m very cognitive too. They had the Blaxploitation movies, the kung fu movies, Mean Streets, French Connection, you know what I’m saying?
A lot of that 70s funky jazz stuff was sampled for all the hip hop that I grew up on. You don’t see those samples used at all anymore.
Most of the stuff I hear now for the most part is so fucking boring. It’s predictable and not that dope sounding. One thing I loved about the Beasties first two or three albums is they didn’t over do it with loops. They could change direction in a song on a dime and go another way. If I ever write an autobiography the title is gonna be, The Lazy Hustler: (Wild’n Out Is Part of the Human Fiscal Budget. You Know It. I Know It. Don’t Front Bitch).
If I may share a description of my life? I’m not really traditional or conventional. It just unfolded in a different way. I don’t have the traditional wife and kids and nine-to-five. Day to day projects, scatterbrain, solo, dolo, lone wolf, which I prefer. I’m an only child with a single mom. We have a very unconventional relationship. I called her by her first name: Ruth.
How was there so much cool shit back then? Is shit as cool now?
In 1970, when I was nine, that era was my haven. That music. Rock and soul was really intelligent and genius. The good shit. Not everything, of course. Whoever had to come up in the Bush era, I feel sorry for them. Music and tv and culture at the beginning of the millennium was so horrific. I feel sorry for those people.
Ricky takes out his iPhone and shows me some photos.
You see this pic of me? I used to model. I used to be a swashbuckler back in the day. I used to doink a lot of older ladies. When I lived on 5th Avenue in 9th Street. When I was seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, I used to run into older women in the elevator and they used to just invite me into their apartments. Trust me my young lad friend. It used to be like that. I used to walk into Washington Square Park, my backyard. I would walk up to a chick and say, “Would you care to smoke a joint?” And be walking out the park with my arm around them, back to my place. I used to get blowjobs at will, if I may. Oh boy. You got a good sense of humor.
What are some of your classic all time funky jazz tracks?
Songs to get busy to? Songs to duke your girl to? How about top five songs to smoke bowls in doorways to, while getting your George Jefferson swag on?
Jimmy McGriff – The Bird. That’s a song to get hyped to.
Joe Williams – sings Get Out of My Way Baby? Moving On Girl or some shit like that. It’s like an anthem to me.
The Beat Goes On by Buddy Rich.
Gratitude – Earth, Wind and Fire.
Jimmy Castor – It’s Just Begun.
Songs to get amped to on your way to the gig while smoking a bowl…
Yo. I just learned how to plug my headphones into my iPhone!
Tell me about what you’re working on with Frank 151 right now?
Leave The Guns Bring The Cannolis. That was an opportunity that came my way. They asked me if I wanted to do a weekly photo column and I was like yeah. I got into it and I love it because it’s continuing my lineage of photography, street photography and my columns. I’ve been doing columns now for 20 years on and off, so it helps me keep on my game and for the dummies who ask if I’m still shooting. I’m like yeah dummy, I’m going to keep shooting until I leave the planet. I’m working on the Ricky Powell time capsule.