Glen E. Friedman has shot some of the most iconic skateboarding, punk rock and hip-hop images you've ever seen. He’s captured classic photos of seminal acts including the Beastie Boys, Run DMC, Public Enemy, Black Flag, Minor Threat, Bad Brains, Fugazi, and enough old-school skate pics to earn him a co-producer credit on the landmark documentary Dogtown and Z Boys. Friedman’s in-your-face imagery spotlights the unmistakable vitality inherent across all three subcultures, making him a veritable Weegee of the early skate, punk and hip hop scenes. The NYC-based photographer’s best-known book is the indispensable Fuck You Heroes, but his latest, My Rules, is just as compelling. Maxim talked to the legendary lensman about the methods behind his art, mashing up punk and hip-hop, and why today's music just doesn't make him want to reach for his camera.
What’s the commonality between punk rock, hip-hop and skateboarding?
Well, everything is really about attitude, right? It was just people full of integrity wanting to express themselves in their own way. I happened to be there, in the golden era of skateboarding, punk rock and hip-hop. Those moments in time are different than what comes after. They're different than what came before. It was all about incredible creativity, and a lot of heart.
Like a lot of people, I first became aware of your work with Fuck You Heroes. What is the linkage between that book, which really blew you up as a photographer, and My Rules?
The film from Fuck You Heroes was beginning to deteriorate and they told me that after this printing we would have to start all over again. My Rules was just an opportunity to do it bigger and better than ever. The technology has improved so much, it’s incredible. I really wanted to show people how photographs were meant to be taken. You know, not just with the enthusiasm and the radicalness, but also the composition and the artistry of it.
In My Rules there are so many great album photos, whether it's Public Enemy or Minor Threat or Suicidal Tendencies. What was it about those images that made them special to you?
All those people were inspiring me. And I thought they were creating really incredible art and I just had to step up and keep up with them, you know? I felt this profound responsibility to do their art justice. I wanted other people to be intrigued and excited and inspired by it, too. So with the album covers, when it came time to do Suicidal Tendencies’ album cover, you know I produced the album as well, so it was like family to me. [Singer] Mike Muir’s older brother was Jim Muir, one of the Dogtown skaters who looked after me when I was 13 or 14. So when I met Mike at Santa Monica College, and he gave me his demo, it was like a family thing. But I also thought they were great! I really liked what they were doing and I wanted everyone else to feel it because at the time, everyone in Los Angeles hated them. They were voted biggest assholes of the L.A. punk scene in a local fanzine called Flipside.
And yet some of your most recognizable photos are of hip-hop artists--Beastie Boys, Run DMC, and certainly the first two Public Enemy album covers.
I mean just from hearing the first Public Enemy demos to meeting Chuck D, I knew that was going to be an important album. I always thought this is gonna be akin to doing The Clash’s first album cover or something. It was going to be important. I just knew that it was. And Chuck had a very specific vision for that cover, too. He actually made a sketch for me of what he wanted the front cover to be and we collaborated on that pretty heavily. His sketch was really tight, and we got input from Rick Rubin as well and made what is one of my favorite album covers that I’ve ever done. I mean, what a fucking phenomenal album debut and to be a part of that. I’m honored to be a part of it. And I had to because I was feeling it! Because it was moving me.
I really love the cross-pollination of cultures in My Rules, where you have Public Enemy wearing Minor Threat shirts, and you have the guy from the Fat Boys holding a skateboard. Was that a conscious effort to blur these cultures together?
There was cross-pollination going on all the time. You gotta understand, if I’m hanging out with these guys, I’m not just there to shoot pictures. We’re communicating, we’re discussing ideas, we’re inspiring each other. I remember driving with Jam Master Jay one day out west, it was one of my first times hanging out with him. I was like, “I want you to see this is where I come from, and you should understand it.” I played him the Bad Brains. I said, “Not only is this a punk rock band, but it’s an all-black band.” And he was fucking inspired and blown away. He was super excited. He started going to some punk rock shows. There’s even a video of him where you see him stage diving off the Beastie Boys’ stage or Murphy’s Law or something.
That sounds amazing. I'd love to see that.
He just got into it! Certainly a lot of the punk rock bands were inspired by Public Enemy. Just throwing those Minor Threat shirts on Chuck and Flavor, I just thought it was something they could relate to – being the black sheep and you know Out of Stepwith what was going on in hip-hop at the time. And I explained straight-edge to him, and even about his thoughts of the Minor Threat song “Guilty of Being White.” And Chuck just thought it was all good. He had admiration for that shit. You gotta understand that Chuck D is a record collector, he's a music fan.
You've also photographed radical thinker-types, like Noam Chomsky, Pussy Riot, and Cornel West, for the newer images in the book. How do they relate to your other subjects?
Those are people that are still inspiring me, and that's why they're in the book. I’m mostly inspired by the older music. I got to live through a pretty incredible creative era of music and I’m a pretty particular guy, too. I don’t like everything. So most of the new bands are boring and not interesting to me.
So I guess we can't expect to see you shooting any current bands anytime soon?
I can’t say that there’s a particular band at the moment where it’s like, “Fuck, I want to work with them.” Because there aren’t. There are good bands and there’s some good music, no doubt. But it’s just not inspiring me the way it used to. I really need my ass kicked to take out my camera. Whether it’s by beautiful images or architecture, or an incredibly charismatic person that I want to photograph. I’m not the guy who carries a camera and walks around with it all day long. I don’t even have a camera on my phone. When I was doing all this stuff, I needed to spread the love and the inspiration and inspire the rebelliousness. That's what it was all about.