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The Man Who Took Hip-Hop's Baby Pictures

Published: October 4, 2005

Joe Conzo Jr. clocked his 15 minutes of fame one-sixtieth of a second at a time. As a teenager, his friends in the Cold Crush Brothers invited him to tag along to photograph the pioneering days of hip-hop. His family's connections in community activism and Latin music led him to chronicle the giants of salsa and the South Bronx.

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Joe Conzo Jr.

D.J. Tony Tone of the Cold Crush Brothers and a young D.J. Red Alert in 1980.

Joe Conzo Jr.

"Popper" doing a routine at Roseland Ballroom in 1981.

Those thousands of images almost vanished, lost except in the memories of the lucky few who witnessed many of the fabled rap battles that took place at school gymnasiums and neighborhood discos.

But Joe Conzo Jr. a k a Joey Kane, lives on, and his work does, too. His mother, Lorraine Montenegro, saved his negatives when he could barely save himself from drugs. Thanks to her, and some friendships from the days when Puma sneakers were the epitome of street fashion, Mr. Conzo's photographic record of the Bronx in the 1970's and 1980's is now being hailed as a unique contribution to that era's history.

Despite whatever personal crises he was fighting - and despite the devastation that was sweeping over the borough during those years - his photographs exude a tender, almost innocent love for the music and streets of his boyhood. During the days of furry Kangol caps, fat laces and white-gloved b-boys, he was never far, snapping away in the wings while rappers dueled with tongue-twisting rhymes set to dizzying breakbeats.

He was there during protests against the 1981 movie "Fort Apache, the Bronx," catching Paul Newman glaring at him while a production assistant tried to block the shot. And he was there when Latin music greats like Tito Puente and Machito relaxed over drinks at a farewell party for their friend and fellow musician Charlie Palmieri.

"I've been blessed," he said. "I always knew I had a treasure trove of photos. Now I'm being called the first hip-hop photographer. I'm not interested in titles, but yeah, I was there at the beginning."

Mr. Conzo might have been fated to do this. His grandmother was Evelina Antonetty, a legendary activist for better schools and housing who was known as "the Hell Lady of the Bronx." His father - who was divorced from his mother - was such a close friend of Tito Puente's that he came to be considered the leading expert on the man and his music.

Mr. Conzo took up photography in elementary school, he said, at the urging of his stepfather, Michael Kane. He found out he had a knack for it. He carried his camera to South Bronx High School, where in 1978 he befriended several members of a rap crew that would become famous as the Cold Crush Brothers.

"I was into disco, I didn't know anything about hip-hop." Mr. Conzo said. "But I was invited to take pictures of the Cold Crush, and one thing led to another. We played the T-Connection, Disco Fever, the Ecstasy Garage, the Hoe Avenue Boys Club, St. Martin's."

That last venue was not the Caribbean island, but a Catholic school gym close to the homes of several members of the group.

"I was part of the group," he said. "The Cold Crush were the first to have a personal photographer. They were the first to have a tape master recording their music at all the shows. They were the first to use fog machines."

Charlie Chase, the group's D.J. (along with Tony Tone), said nobody knew at the time this would make serious money - for other people.

"Joey was a friend who had a camera and took pictures of the good times," he said. "We did this because we wanted to have fun and get girls. But if it wasn't for the pictures, nobody would know we existed. And nobody would believe we did what we did."

Among the photographs Mr. Conzo took were several from the 1981 Harlem World battle against the Fantastic Five, where the Cold Crush Brothers stepped out gangster-style in suits and fedoras, toting plastic guns. To this day, aficionados - including some millionaire rappers who weren't even old enough to stay up for, much less attend, the show - speak in awed tones about the face-off.

Drugs had also been a recreational thing for Mr. Conzo, but by 1984, soon after his grandmother died, they were the only thing. He sold his cameras. His mother saved his negatives.

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