Holding Court @ 'Upper Playground' with Ricky Powell

By Bret Dougherty

Ricky Powell Holding Court outside Upper Playground in San Francisco, March 6, 2004

Ricky Powell Holding Court @ Upper Playground, San Francisco CA, March 8, 2004

For anyone who wants to drop someone for saying "You never know who you’ll run into", here’s one for you to hold back the knuckles….

On an early March Saturday afternoon trip to Groove Merchant in San Francisco, I stopped through a few stores beforehand to check out what’s going on in the Lower Haight world. After a quick glance into Kate’s Kitchen and a quick sandwich at Estela’s, I went down the Fillmore St. hill to Upper Playground, the hidden gem of the SF skate and hip-hop clothing world.

As I peeked into the store, 'Who do I see holding court by the cash register busting chops?'.....The King of the "Bummy Sophisticate World" and chief preservationist of hip-hop culture, Ricky Powell.

Ricky was in Upper Playground this Saturday as a follow-up to his Friday night gallery show with Sue Kwon and Dylan Maddox, which he calls The Odd Squad, Classic photos on the Hang-Out Tip. His display includes past photos from his vast collection of artists such as Jam Master Jay, Sofia Coppola, and shots of local bohemian New Yorkers.

While decked out in vintage royal blue suede Nike Bruins and a T-shirt with a photo of a 1970 Pistol Pete Maravich Sport magazine cover pressed on the front, he was in the shop to tour his fans around the gallery. While coolly presenting his photos, he intertwined stories of when he took each shot with short simple anecdotes as to how each person was able to develop in their career.

For example, when he arrived at his photo of a young Russell Simmons, he explained. “Russ just got out and hustled…I learned that by watching him. You have to go out and hustle in life, and put yourself in great spots. When someone frowns a bit at Simmons, he quickly defended Simmons with a ‘C’mon now’ type of reply. “Hey, he’s a hustler, you have to give him his due.”

The admiration for hustling in great spots is what Powell has taken on his life as his pastime. In between jobs as a bike messenger, a substitute teacher, and a Columbia University radio DJ (“I was thrown off the air for burning a joint in the ‘No Smoking’ hallway and for calling the women’s basketball team ‘The Lady Bull-Dykes’.…But, hey…Their games kept pre-empting our weekly show.”), he captured the rise of hip-hop into mainstream culture through his camera lens over the past two decades.

His ability to maneuver into great spots led him to photograph performances and action from behind-the-scenes such as the 1986 "Raising Hell" tour headlined by Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys 1992 "Check Your Head" tour, and the club and celeb circuit of New York. However, his notoriety grew most through his New York cable access show, Rappin’ with the Rickster.

The show, which Powell filmed through a video camera, intertwined observances of urban life with funky hang-out sessions that resulted in quirky interviews of hip stars such as Lawrence Fishburne, Ad-Rock from the Beastie Boys, Cypress Hill, graffiti artist, Futura, Spike Jonze, and Sandra Bernhardt. On those days of recording those chronicles, he states “Those were good days…they’re actually thinking of doing a documentary on me based on the show…it’s supposed to be like The Kid Stays in The Picture.

His conversations are as fun as his monthly column at Mass Appeal magazine. His conversational topics move in snippets like upcourt passes on a fast break.

A quick description of watching former Lincoln High point guard, Sebastian Telfair, this past spring on TV is followed by a proclamation that Telfair should stay in school. He then heeds some advice to a fan that has Ricky’s pic of the Beastie Boys emblazoned on a brown T-shirt. “See what happens...You have to follow your ambition, in my case with lab costs and publishing problems, it’s expensive…but it’s more rewarding.”

The conversation continues to flip back and forth. as “Jingling Baby” by LL Cool J booms over the speakers when the attention turns to the front entrance. The beats over the speakers are fitting for the setting because a strikingly cute tattooed Asian-American girl with blonde streaks in her hair begins to play with a small Chihuahua in front of the store. With her in sight, and Ricky leaps quickly to the shift in action.

As he moves outside to the front of the store, he proclaims “I have a shot of LL in a red warm-up suit in Florida with the Beasties in 87… He was young and hungry. You have to give it to him” When the conversation switches to answer the question ‘who is the best point guard from New York City?’, he coolly answers “Pearl Washington...And I have a shot of Pearl, Mark Breland, and Walter Berry at a benefit in Brooklyn. I may have to pull that one out soon.”

His attention shifts quickly back to the action on the street. He looks at the dog and questions the girl, “Can you imagine what you get, if you mixed a Great Dane and Chihuahua?” The girl giggles and blushes as he approaches the dog. He then asks as he steps back to angle his sights on both of them. “Can I get a picture with you and the dog?” With a cool smile as the agreement, Ricky steps back to get the shot.

As usual, he’s always on top of what’s hot.


Ricky Powell has released a postcard book of his photos through Eyejammie Press called Frozade Moments: Classic NYC Photography.

Bret Dougherty is a current graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill. Bret hosts a sports talk show called “SportsRap” and a music show called “Fifteen Feet And In” on WXYC Chapel Hill FM 89.3 & www.wxyc.org. You may check out more of his work and information at www.bretdougherty.com.