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Last Saturday night, I was sitting in Philly’s 30th Street Station waiting on a connection. It was a slow evening and the old cavernous railway hub was sparsely filled. I’d missed my scheduled train because it hadn’t been announced. Apparently, the departure of New Jersey Transit commuter lines are occasionally overlooked by the station attendants and only frequent users of those lines have solved the mystery of scheduled departures.

I was on the phone discussing a few creative ideas with The Ab. We hung up and then I saw her. She sat down on the bench in the row in front of me. Her back was to me, but her profile was evident while her head was slightly bowed as she read. White hair, two braids, glasses, simple – bohemian. My heart sped up a bit because I didn’t believe it was her. But it was; like me, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, Patti Smith was quietly waiting for a connection too.

I walked over and asked politely, “Excuse me, are you Miss Smith?”

She said in that unmistakeable raspy voice, “I am.”

I replied, “I’m Gary Harris, I worked in many record companies, and I grew up in the hip hop business.”

Her first records came out while I was in high school. I was too busy keeping up with Earth Wind & Fire, Herbie Hancock, Roy Ayers, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder to pay much attention. Later, in Boston, when I involved myself in the little 10 watt college radio station that would change the course of my life forever, Ray Fallon, a classmate with cutting edge rock tastes, kept our little funk, jazz and soul station honest by being the primary programming ear for our morning rock show. As a result, I gained exposure to the first recordings of The B-52s, The Police and early stuff from Patti. I still didn’t pay much attention to her music because an androgynous upstart named Prince was the dominant new voice that captured my attention.

Later still, I became immersed in the ’80s world of Downtown New York, the bohemian paradise below 14th Street in Manhattan, that was populated by artists, designers, dancers, fashionistas, musicians, hustlers, socialites and rule breakers of every type. An experimental scene knitted together by punk, alternative and hip hop cultures, and where clubs had names like Danceteria, Area, The Roxy, The World and Save The Robots. It was an era when Madonna, Basquiat, Keith Haring, Grandmaster Flash and others made their bones. Due to the ghettoization of the disciplines of all of these artists, we were all forced to hang out in the same spots, and somehow or another, we were all considered punk to a greater or lesser extent. Patti Smith was our predecessor and an architect of the aesthetic that shaped that world. At the time, I was a little busy promoting underground hip hop acts to mainstream radio to have paid much attention to her records.

But I read. Some say a lot, I’d say not enough. There’s never enough time to get it all in, but I make an effort to search out new and interesting authors. A few years back, Patti’s brilliantly observed and exquisitely written memoir “Just Kids” came into my life, and for a little while it lit up my world. Her descriptions of her relationships with controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, playwright Sam Shepard and the music, art, theater, poetry and photography that formed them are beautiful.

We talked briefly, but covered a wide range of topics. I asked where she was coming from. “South Jersey,” she said.

“Do you still have family there?”

“Yes.”

I told her that I’d loved how in her book she’d detailed growing up in stifling working class conditions, and that, “I loved the way you described how listening to early rock & roll gave you creative and emotional freedom,” I said, “I’m from Jersey too. The town where The Isley Brothers and Wilson Pickett lived.”

She asked, “Did Jimi Hendrix used to play with The Isley Brothers?”, and continued, “Johnny Mathis played my high school prom and in a smaller ballroom off to the side, The Isley Brothers were playing. They had this great looking guitarist who was doing splits while he performed and I remembered that they were all laughing at him. Later when I saw him (Hendrix) perform, I wondered if that was the same guy.”

I asked incredulously, “Johnny Mathis played your high school prom? Wow. That must have been some high school.”

“It was a sponsored event,” she said.

“Obviously,” I replied. And then I continued, “Yes Jimi played with them, and in fact, he lived with them when they were all still with their mom in a house right across the street from my junior high school.” I told Patti, “I loved how you referenced (John) Coltrane in your book. He recorded A Love Supreme in the area where I grew up. The engineer who recorded the record (Rudy Van Gelder) still lived there when he died recently.”

“I can’t believe I’m running into you at the train station in Philly,” I said.

“We’re both in our hood,” and she went on, “When I first moved to New York, I walked along 57th Street…”

“When you worked at the book store?”, I interrupted.

“…no, before I worked at the book store. And I stopped at a church… I don’t remember the name of the church…”

“And that was when you ran into the elderly couple who looked at you and your friend and said to one another, “Look at those two. They seem so interesting, you think they might be artists?” And you overheard the reply, “Nah, I don’t think so, they’re just kids”.

Patti Smith is a national treasure. She came up as a muse and poet who was convinced by others to record and perform. Reading her memoir was a deeply moving experience unlike few I’ve gotten from a book. I’ve already read it twice, and along with her newest “M Train” I intend to read it again.

Meeting her felt like speaking with an older relative with highly evolved mystic gifts. Her demeanor was quiet and powerful.

I mentioned that I’d seen her documentary on PBS and she shared that it was a labor of love that took a decade to complete. Shot while she was based in Detroit, it covered a period of semiretirement when she grieved over the loss of her husband and brother, while she raised her kids.

We talked about many other things, but when I began to relate the experience to a friend, I became overwhelmed with emotion and began to cry. The force is very strong with that one. I’m happy that we both made our connection.

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For Michael Stipe, Annabella Sciorra, Julie Panabianco, The Ab, Hilly Kristel (R.I.P.) and Ray Fallon

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Jan and Marvin Gaye

After The Dance: My Life With Marvin Gaye by Jan Gaye, Marvin Gaye’s second wife, and David Ritz is a deeply moving account of a love gone wrong, and a reminder that love is seldom enough on its own. At the age of sixteen, Jan met the then thirty-three year old genius, Marvin during the early stages of his recording of the classic “Let’s Get It On” album. Her beauty, youth and presence ignited Marvin’s creativity and secured Jan’s historic role as soul music’s greatest muse. She has written a page turner that I could not put down.

Throughout the book, Jan takes great care to describe Marvin as a loving but confused patriarch who tried to provide for his wife, his children and his extended family. There are passages where Marvin’s love for his children and for Jan is apparent, and her love for him as well. She also depicts the great artist as vain, shallow, manipulative, cruel and indifferent to the wishes of loved ones – you know; a rock star. According to Jan, Marvin’s insecure doubting of her affection for him and his constant taunting drove her into affairs with both Frankie Beverly and the great Teddy Pendergrass. She also gives honest accounts of real and suspected dalliances that Marvin had with both well known and obscure women.

“After The Dance: My Life With Marvin Gaye is not a sensationalized tell all, instead it is a cautionary tale of how insecurity, dysfunction and cruelty can end the greatest of loves while that love can inspire world class art. Her uncertainty and insecurity made the then young girl submit to sexual fantasies of Marvin’s that she now regrets. Her inexperience led her to forego her education, move in with Marvin and in the name of love, abandon any pursuit of marketable skills while becoming financially dependent on a free spending addict. Jan also reveals how she and her late husband shared a deep spirituality as well as a mutual love of top shelf quality drugs. In the book, she has shared as much about her personal struggle with, and triumph over substances as she has shared about anyone else’s.

Her heartbreaking tale describes how the ill matched couple had very little chance of succeeding from the start; she had been raised in an uncertified foster care home where she’d been dumped by her loving but drug addicted mother and became the victim of sexual abuse. He had been the son of a deeply religious, evangelical cross dressing father who’d beaten Marvin mercilessly for questioning the elder’s fashion sense, and daring to raise the possibility that his gender bending attire may have brought dishonor to the family name. Marvin was also a superstar depressive who had lost his way and was using copious amounts of drugs to numb the pain from the break-up of his first marriage. Jan and Marvin never had a chance.

I spoke with Jan, earlier this year, via telephone. She called for the purpose of nervously reading the book’s first chapter to me, and getting my opinion. She hadn’t turned in her manuscript to her publisher yet, so I felt flattered by the sneak preview. I assured her that what she’d written was great, and it was, but in no way had her excerpt prepared me for the exceptionally intimate, personal and poetic work of depth and beauty that she and Ritz have delivered.

Jan describe how life at the side of a glamorous ’70s sex symbol was like living in the eye of a hurricane. She writes of the unscrupulous promoters, Marvin’s ambivalence about performing, and his stage fright. She writes of Motown pressuring the superstar for bigger and more frequent hits. She writes of Marvin’s loyalty to Motown chieftain, Berry Gordy, and Marvin’s bitter resentment of Gordy’s lack of appreciation for his artistic ambitions. The book insightfully examines the complications caused by Marvin’s marriage to, and ultimate divorce from Gordy’s sister Anna. There are also recollections of delusional managers who could not manage the great but unmanageable talent, and vignettes about accountants and business managers who could not convince Marvin to spend less frequently, save more often or pay his taxes. She has written beautifully about the gorgeous messiness of love in the shadows of stardom while it’s shrouded in the fog addiction.

Recently Jan and her children have been in the news as a result of having won a seven figure judgement against Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke, in a copyright infringement lawsuit, over the contention that their “Blurred Lines” record of two summer’s back too closely resembled Marvin Gaye’s dance floor classic “Got To Give It Up”. It has been said that the landmark decision will put a chill on musical creativity, and that a business built on sampling the work of others has been rocked at its core. Time will tell.

Of course, for me, the most interesting portions of the book are the ones where Jan describes the creative process that Marvin, the hit maker, went through to come up with the albums; “Here My Dear”; “I Want You”; Let’s Get It On” and the smash single “Got To Give It Up”, and the subtle way that she inspired and guided Marvin to the expression of his best and higher artistic potential.

This book is her love letter to her mentor, partner and former husband who was tragically murdered by the hand of the cross dressing father who vied for control of the Gaye clan with his strong willed son. It is her deeply personal confession of the adoration, confusion and regret that she felt as a result of falling up to her eyeballs in love with one of the most creative figures of the twentieth century. It proves that Marvin’s spirit still speaks to all of us through his music and through this tremendously written work. For soul music fans and those who are interested in black creativity and pop culture it is a must read. Jan Gaye hit this one out of the park.

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THE BLACK MESSIAH

Interesting moment we’re living through; just last weekend, Chris Rock returned to the big screen with his self-written and directed starring vehicle “Top Five”, a sweet, funny and romantic tale that co-stars Rosario Dawson, and has been deeply influenced by Chris’ love of Woody Allen films. My love of Woody Allen films has given me the lens to see Chris’s work in its proper light, and I have to recommend ‘Top Five” wholeheartedly. Not surprisingly, audiences are responding enthusiastically and have given the top banana two thumbs up to the tune of a $7million opening weekend-good enough to place it in the top five of all films that played last week in the US.

Sunday night, I finished reading an excellent book by former Huffington Post editor, Marcus Baram. His debut effort is a biography on the activist, poet, blues, jazz, and soul man, Gil Scott-Heron entitled, “Gil Scott-Heron: Pieces of a Man” and it’s stellar. It is the perfect companion to Scott-Heron’s own 2012 memoir “The Last Holiday”. Baram’s book gives great insight into Gil’s eccentric ride in the music business, and his battles with commercial and corporate expectations, family responsibilities, the press, band mates and addiction. It also gives political, cultural and historic context to Scott-Heron’s poetry and political activism. It is a must read for these revolutionary times that we’re living through.

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CHRIS ROCK and ROSARIO DAWSON

The day before I finished Baram’s book, word of another troubled Black genius came across my Facebook newsfeed, Bad Boy/Soul Man, D’Angelo has returned to the fray with a flurry of excitement. News of his first full – length studio project in 15 years broke the Internet when “Sugah Daddy”, a set up track from “Black Messiah”, the highly anticipated album, was made available for streaming, and as a free download for a limited time. The buzz was deafening, I followed, and I went to hear it.

I’d heard “Sugah Daddy”, when I last saw D’Angelo perform, he was here in Charlotte, and he came through in September of 2012 as an opener on a Mary J. Blige tour in support of her “My Life II” project. D played “Sugah Daddy’ that night, and later at an impromptu backstage meeting with D and veteran Soul Music player, Alan Leeds, I expressed my support for “Sugah Daddy” as a lead single. My thinking was that even though it may not be a home run radio charter, it would serve well as a set up single. I remember saying, “Stop bullshitting, put the motherfucker out.” We all laughed at how easily my old promotion man’s humor and swagger could be called upon in the right circumstances.

Swagger and humor that I earned during my battles in the radio wars. You see, I spent nearly a decade as a promotion man during the period when Hip Hop bubbled up from the underground and became Black oil for the corporate multi-nationals. After that, I became an A&R man, the A&R man who signed D’Angelo to his first record deal. The one who rocked with him during the writing of his masterwork, “Brown Sugar”. So you see, I’m somewhat familiar with the “D’Angelo sound” and its roots.

It starts in the South and in the Black church. His granddaddy was a preacher, and his daddy was too, D was the director of the Senior Choir at his granddaddy’s church at the age of seven. All churches have hierarchies and Black churches are no different. The senior choir in a Black church is populated with the voices that are most steeped in the Black gospel tradition and feeling. They are entrusted to deliver all the show-stopping, house quaking, spirit invoking hymns on the Sundays they sing. Usually, after they have made a joyful noise, the collection plate gets passed around, and if they have done their job well, the congregation will shell out the cash in support of the lord. When you witness this as a young child, the connection between purity of expression, art and commerce is forever embedded in your psyche.

Like Gil Scott-Heron, D’Angelo is a gifted southerner who is deeply steeped in the Black arts of Blues, Gospel, and Soul, and his “Black Messiah” reflects it. Also like Scott-Heron’s work, it reflects his disdain for corporate interference and commercial considerations. The album is deep, Black, funky, exquisitely performed and confused. It has no clear direction and the songs are sung with muted and inaudible vocals. Lyrics have surfaced on various sites on the Internet – somebody over at RCA is really thinking. The project has inspired online debate as to whether or not it is an instant classic, unfinished or even good. As my friend Chris Rock shared with me, “It’s a beautiful mess”. I would agree. Projected first-week sales have been quoted at the 100,000 mark. D’Angelo, and all of the attendant controversy that comes with him is back.

In May of this year, here on this blog, I wrote an open letter to D that (amongst other things) chided him for fostering a hoax on the public as the self-anointed “future of the funk”. I stand corrected; he is funk’s last best hope of survival. “Black Messiah” is a miracle born out of resistance to corporate interference and an unwillingness to assimilate into a Black Music marketplace filled with compromised synth based juvenile love songs, and pre-fab white rappers. It is the music of struggle, of pain and woe. It is uncompromisingly and authentically Black, and quite funky.

Many have inquired about my thoughts. Frankly, it is not a record that I would have helped him make. As a creative businessman with an ear to the street and an eye on the bottom line, it would have been irresponsible to encourage an artist to release a record in this form. However, I may have been wrong. Part of what an A&R man must do is to support courageous experimentation. In this regard, apparently, D’Angelo’s courage knows no bounds, and his uncompromising resistance to creative guidance may pay off well. And this may be the ideal soundtrack for the chaotic and unpredictable moment that we are living through. I hope it ends differently for him than it did for Gil.

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Glen E. Friedman has been a friend for nearly thirty years. He is a world class photographer with a new coffee table book out on bookshelves right now. I have written the afterword for the book. Here it is…

Game Recognize Game

For many of the players found in these pages, a Glen E. portrait, magazine shoot, publicity photo, album cover, t-shirt photo, or poster coincided with the moment when the subjects were breaking through from one level of the game to the next. From a singles deal to an album, club act to arena opener, from an opener to a headliner, from gold to platinum sales status, from releasing a string of important recordings to booking their first film role, from hanging with their clique to being outta here. Whatever the next level was, Glen was there with his vision to present them as they were precisely at that moment: ascending.

Because more often than not, Glen was there when their demo was moving around the hands of the few tastemakers who were empowered to sign them or when their first 12-inch single dropped and he heard it. He was there early because he was not merely an outside observer or on an anthropological expedition—he was a member of the movement and the community that he captured so dynamically and promoted relentlessly.

That’s how we met. I was there too, and, like him and many others, I was engaged in the day-to-day struggle of building the small but tight hip-hop nation into the international hip-hop culture and global business force that it has become. We were both living in New York and we’d see each other around campus. I had been the head of promotion for Def Jam, moved on to work at several other companies but kept close ties with my man Russell “Rush” Simmons. Because you could generally find Glen where the action was, he rolled with Rush too, and we were all friends and members of each other’s extended families.

In fact, “Rush” had a four-hundred-square-foot “mini” duplex, a walkup apartment in the dead center of Greenwich Village that Glen and I had keys to, crashed in, and where we all operated as unofficial roommates for a time. The place had a sky-blue facade with illustrations of pigs and elephants descending to the ground via parachute. Man, if those pigs could talk.

I made a living by putting records on the radio for labels that were cool enough to sign dope joints, but had no clue about how to get them any exposure. These small indie, mom-and-pop labels that were the first to develop hip hop and turn it into a cultural force, before multi-national corporations turned it into an economic one, were also the ones that consistently hired me and Glen. I got their records played, and he directed and shot their artwork.

So we weren’t only members of a community that was still getting most of its juice from the underground—a movement that had yet to be fully recognized by mainstream media, and a culture that at the time, very few referred to as such. We were also part of a loose network of young folk mixing shit up every which way we could, hustlers who made their way in Ronald Reagan’s America and Ed Koch’s New York, who attempted to instigate change in the status quo and use art to improve our lot in life.

Hustling times call for moves to be made, so while I was on a mid-’80s business trip to LA for a Black Radio convention. I ran into Glen, who was still based in Cali, and looking out for Def Jam and Russell Simmons’s acts when they were in town. I was there networking, raising my profile and looking for checks. Glen was passing through with Lyor Cohen. Glen and I didn’t know each other well then, so I hit him with it, “Where you from?”

Homie told me he grew up in LA, but started school in Englewood, NJ, and was born in Pinehurst, North Carolina. Later, he told me he really was a bicoastal kid who shuttled back and forth to see his dad on the east coast. He said living in Englewood at a young age really opened his eyes to racism and discrimination. He relayed a story about his best friend, who was two years older than Glen and Native American, and who was assaulted in a barber’s chair when his mom took him to get a haircut from white barbers! They fucked his hair up, and when they cut it all off, it left a mark on Glen that he never forgot. He also was living in Englewood when Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, which also left a huge impression on him.

Pinehurst was my own mother’s birthplace, and Englewood—less than a mile outside of Manhattan—was home to the first fully integrated school system in America. The city has produced artists like John Travolta, Brooke Shields, Richard Lewis and Karen O. It is the place where Sugar Hill Records was based when they signed Grand Master Flash, and got the hip-hop ball rolling when they dropped “The Rappers Delight” by the Sugar Hill Gang. It is a place where creative freedom flourished, and many artists who benefited from it called it home. It is the place where jazz greats Dizzy Gillespie and Sarah Vaughan once lived and Thelonious Monk died. Soul Man, Wilson Pickett lived there along with Rock & Roll Hall of Famers, the Isley Brothers. I know the town well; I was born there, grew up there, and broke into the record business by working at Sugar Hill. I was actually a classmate of Glen’s Native American friend from grade school. But Glen and I would not discover how closely we were tied together through our shared background until much later.

It is in that background where you may find clues as to why Glen, a kid of Jewish descent with a vegan diet, and far-left-leaning political tendencies; a kid who was already a graduate of the nascent skateboard and American punk scenes, rolled so easily with black folks on the come-up. It may explain why he relentlessly promoted the demos of eventual Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Chuck D and Public Enemy to countless tastemakers with the following prediction: “These guys are going to do for hip-hop what The Clash did for rock & roll.” Why he was the one to put me up on the first double sided De La Soul 12-inch, “PlugTunin’”/”Freedom Of Speak.” And why on the night after he first played the record for me, we went to see Queen Latifah’s first show ever, in an abandoned junior high school gym that on weekends doubled as a space for an underground party called “Amazon”; and why he walked around in the dead of winter with a self-recorded cassette of the De La joint with the hopes that he’d run into someone with a tape recorder and he could put them up on it too.

Glen was also the guy who shopped the first A Tribe Called Quest demo to that small group of cutting-edge labels that comprised the early rap business. And the one who first played Ice Cube’s Amerikka’s Most Wanted for me, with its early example of east-meets-west collaboration between Cube and the production team that laced the Public Enemy records with all that heat, the Bomb Squad. He dated beautiful black girls who wound up as doctors who graduated from Ivy League schools, and this may have been where he first learned that talent has no color and can never be held back by arbitrary boundaries.

With the exception of his confusing and misplaced love of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Glen has always been on point, but if you dig a little deeper, more facts can be unearthed. Pittsburgh was the team where MLB executive Branch Rickey landed, after he brought Jackie Robinson to the Dodgers, thereby breaking the color line. Rickey continued his progressive and contrarian ways when he built an organization that not only signed the Hispanic legend, Roberto Clemente, but would eventually be the first Major League team to start an all black lineup. Of course, to Glen, this was baseball like it oughtta be.

The late Dock Ellis was the pitcher who took the mound on the day the team sent that first all black lineup on the field. The legendary right-handed pitching rebel and malcontent threw smoke. Ellis would evolve into a symbol of black rebellion and a counter-culture hero who confounded the front office and baseball’s image-makers with his unwillingness to adhere to the status quo. By chance, Ellis met a loud mouthed, eleven-year-old Pirates fan yelling for an autograph from the stands at a game in Shea stadium. This resulted in Dock developing a friendship with young Glen Ellis Friedman. He was probably the first of many fuck-you heroes to cross paths with my man.

Like the artists that he photographed, Glen E. Friedman was a product of the underground and his commitment to youth culture, progressive politics, art, artists, and artistry is unparalleled among my collaborators, peers, associates, and friends. He is my Senior Vice President of Artistic Integrity, my comrade in arms, my man a-hundred-fifty grand, my Nigga. He made a home among talented outsiders, and by using his talent, his gifts, his contacts, and his power without discriminating, he lent credibility to the efforts of others, and thus greater access to the larger world. He became an advocate for hip-hop at the time when it was most in need of advocacy. He trafficked in authenticity, as well as conceptualized and documented images of rebels at work. He served it fresh daily.

And now you’ve made a move, you picked this book up, and you’re reading an essay in a publication filled with portraits that depict pioneers, legends and stars at important times in their lives and in their careers. You’re one of the smart ones, huh? You know what’s up? You’re probably a leader in your field and a top shelf player in your chosen area of expertise.

A top dog, a don. If not, then you have a book filled with images of people who are and were. And if you’ve got a combination of the right hustle, gifts, and skills, and the time is right, then maybe this book will help close the gap between where you are now and a spot at the top of the heap. Or maybe it will serve to remind you of what it was like when you were last there, and help you to recall the required swagger to get you back.

But remember this: the players in these pages, were not in it for the shine. They did it because they could. Their ethos was art for art’s sake, because it was not apparent that you’d get rich when you put your thing down back then. It was more likely that you’d put out a record that no one but your friends and family would ever hear. These players did it for love. If you got rich or famous, that was a result of a lot of sweat, more than a few tears, and the stars properly aligning in your favor; it was not the objective. They grabbed a mic, spit a rhyme, rocked the party, or dropped a joint because they needed to, wanted to, had to. They got on a roll, and used all of their heart, all of their training, and all of their skills to blaze that moment, and the next one, and the next, until they caught fire. And when they got just hot enough, Glen E. Friedman took their picture.

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the playa’s newest piece for Ebony.com is a Q&A with Hollywood screenwriter, Toni Ann Johnson re: her exceptionally well written debut novel ‘Remedy For A Broken Angel’. S/O to Miles Marshall Lewis and Kierna Mayo.

http://www.ebony.com/entertainment-culture/toni-ann-johnson-talks-black-lit-and-hollywood-111#axzz38yEF6RnW

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Glen's BookGlen's Book 2

My brother Glen E. Friedman is a world class photographer whose iconic images have been the cover art for recordings by Public Enemy, Ice-T and Run/DMC. He is one of the most important photographers to have participated in Hip Hop’s golden age. In addition to his groundbreaking work in Hip Hop, he was one of the earliest to document the American Punk scene, and the nascent skateboarding phenomenon with his incredible eye. He is one of the most gifted people that I know. This fall, he will be releasing a massive retrospective in a coffee table edition through Rizolli Publishing. The 7lbs plus book will be comprised of hundreds of images, of which 80% have been previously available in Glen’s self published, and now out of print, Fuck You Heroes book, and its sequel, Fuck You II. Along with the previously unseen 20% of the photos, will be essays by Rakim, Ice-T, LL Cool J, Henry Rollins and Rick Rubin among others. The book includes a forward from Shepard Fairey and a 2,000 word afterword from the playa. Here are a couple of shots of my two pages in the book. S/0 to Jessica Fuller our editor at Rizzoli.

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