Joe Conzo Jr., aka Joey Kane, is a New York City Legend, an American hero, and a hip-hop culture pioneer.
A native of the South Bronx, Conzo witnessed the genesis of what is now known as “America’s biggest cultural export.” The legendary photographer captured what the New York Times would call “Hip-Hop’s baby pictures,” as he told the story of an emerging culture’s infancy through the lens of his camera.
Conzo was destined to be revolutionary. His grandmother, Evelina Lopez Antonetty, was a dynamic leader and community activist, while his father, Joe Conzo Sr., was a longtime friend and biographer of the legendary Latin jazz musician Tito Puente.
Conzo fell in love with the art of capturing moments at a young age. Already a gifted photographer at 10 years old, as Conzo would grow up in New York’s Puerto Rican music scene and the civil rights movement, he would learn the importance of immortalizing these groundbreaking cultural moments. “My grandmother was a community activist. When I was young, we demonstrated against Pual Newman,” he explained.
“I brought my camera that day, and the first picture I ever had published was a photo of Paul Newman.”
As Conzo would come of age as New York City youth, he would be an eyewitness and contributor to the emerging cultural movement, built by black and brown kids who would use their incompressible talent as their weapon to take the world by storm. “We didn’t even call it hip-hop back then. We called it jam. Disco Jam,” Conzo explained to me.
“I was just a kid immersed in this new thing that was happening.”
Conzo is a firm believer in preserving the culture. Of course, the DJs, MCs, and B-boys have become the heroes of our culture. But, it’s the documenters who capture these moments, immortalizing them preventing these cultural highlights from ever falling into obscurity. “Photographers don’t get the credit they should get these days. You gotta respect the documenters, the writers, the photographers,” Conzo explained. “The visuals live forever. This is what I bring to the culture, the visuals.”
Joey Kane’s catalog is absolutely breathtaking. Capturing everything from DJ setups in New York City parks to a young Notorious B.I.G rolling dice on a street corner, Conzo’s photos work as a time machine, immersing the viewer in the very moment captured in each image.
“Fab 5 Freddy described my work as a fly on the wall.”
And that’s exactly what he was. A fly on the wall in every important room in early hip-hop history. As he would build relationships with emerging artists and capture the essence of New York City streets, Conzo’s work would become a voice for the voiceless.
“When I graduated from high school, I wanted to be that professional photographer that tours the world.”
After years of battling substance abuse and homelessness, Joe Conzo Jr. was determined to turn his life around. Conzo’s photo archives would be preserved by his mother and his close friends and collaborators, The Cold Crush Brothers, during this tumultuous time. Conzo would turn his life around as he joined the army as a combat medic, where he fell in love with being a medical professional. After leaving the army, Conzo would join the New York City Fire Department as an EMT. It was the bravery during the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, that would change the trajectory of his life forever.
After that horrific day, Conzo would withstand the inevitable pain of survivor’s guilt. “Why was I still alive and 3,000 plus dead?” he posed the question. “The building collapsed on me.
"It was a heavy world to carry.”
His near-death experience would inspire him to pick up a camera again. Now recognized as an American hero, Conzo now had the platform to share his timeless photos with the world. “That’s how I got discovered as far as a photographer,” Conzo explained. After meeting American photographer and videographer Henry Chalfant, Conzo was given the opportunity to have his classic photos of The Cold Crush Brothers in Chalfant’s documentary, From Mambo to Hip Hop: A South Bronx Tale, launching his professional career as a photographer to the next level.
“I licensed an image, and as soon as you know, VH1 and MVT were all licensing photos from me.”
In 2007, Conzo would publish his first book, Born In The Bronx: A Visual Record of the Early Days of Hip Hop, a collection of images taken during his days as a New York City teen in the 70s and 80s.
As hip-hop celebrated its 48th birthday last month, Joe Conzo released his celebration of hip-hop culture, The Elements. “The idea was to reach out to friends and celebrate the birth of hip-hop.” Conzo continues to preserve the culture and tell the stories of the icons and pioneers of hip-hop culture. “I’m a firm believer as a photographer that my work be accessible for everybody,” he explains. A true historian who watched the culture grow since its infancy, Conzo vows to always be dedicated to hip-hop. “If you love the culture so much. Know the foundation. Know the roots.”
“Hip-hop is the youngest genre of music, and it surpassed all music. Hip-hop reinvented everything.”