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Ramon “1000WORD$” Lazo is a photographer, show promoter, and creative strategist operating at the cutting edge of the East Coast hip-hop landscape. “I’m the media for people with no media,” he said in a sit-down interview with The Harvard Crimson. Perhaps best known for his Polaroid film portraits, 1000WORD$ has photographed the likes of Jay Electronica, Mach-Hommy, Nas, al.divino, Chaka Khan, Westside Gunn, ANKHLEJOHN, several members of the Wu-Tang Clan, the late DMX, and the late Nipsey Hussle, to name a few. Over his nearly decade-long career as a photographer, Lazo has built up a formidable Rolodex of artists whom he has called upon to perform at his own concerts and to appear on his 2020 “1000 Words” album that he curated with rapper 38 Spesh.
“Hip Hop Hooray,” the 1992 single by Naughty by Nature, was Lazo’s first introduction to hip-hop as a kid in the South Bronx. After hearing the track on his neighbor’s CD player, a young 1000WORD$ became obsessed with the culture of the emerging genre, but was never really interested in rapping himself. “I enjoy documenting a lot more,” he said. “Seeing everybody’s different talents and different ways of performing. Going to their neighborhoods and seeing things from their point of view for a brief second. I get a rush out of traveling and meeting new artists.”
Before picking up photography, 1000WORD$ was an avid hip-hop vinyl and CD collector. He regularly brought his records to East Coast concerts as a way to collect signatures and get face time with artists like Capone-N-Noreaga and Cam’ron. During this period, a pop-up in New York City hosted by the late A$AP Yams pushed Lazo to pursue photography.
“I actually got inspired because I went to an A$AP Yams auction,” 1000WORD$ said. “There was a signed Polaroid of him and I wanted to buy it. At the time, I didn’t understand that it wasn't an original Polaroid. It was a print, so they wanted a certain amount, but I ended up getting a different painting. After that I said, ‘Yo I could fuck around and do this shit myself.’”
Lazo bought his first Polaroid camera on eBay for $25. The first two images he took were of close friends. His third was of Harlem rapper Smoke DZA. Lazo began to treat his photography like his physical records, using the image as a vessel to collect artist signatures. “Eight wishes come in these film cartridges that I got in my hand,” he said. “I’m gonna make sure that these eight shots count, so that I can get my autographs.”
Instead of his vinyl and CDs, 1000WORD$ started bringing his Polaroid camera to concerts, waiting backstage — sometimes for several hours — for a chance to photograph the talent. Lazo said that this strategy emerged partly from his inexperience. “It’s tough when you try to be a photographer and go to these events,” he said. “You see everybody going to these events and you don't know how and people don't want to share those little connections with you, so you gotta figure it out on your own. What I did was play the wall. I see who I want to take a picture of and then come back to the wall. Go and then come back to the wall. Eventually I became a regular.”
Such an approach led 1000WORD$ to meet Conway the Machine, Westside Gunn, and Benny the Butcher of Griselda Records at their first-ever New York City show at Webster Hall in 2017. As a fan of the Buffalo label’s music, Lazo recognized Griselda affiliate Chef Dred standing outside the artist entrance to the venue and struck up conversation. “I had no access to the show. I didn’t know these guys. But, I see that they're backstage and I go: ‘Yo Mel, Can I get inside?’ He didn't even know me. I said, ‘I'm taking Polaroids.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, come on.’ So shout out to Chef Dred.”
“I went back there to the green room,” Lazo added. “And Conway was like, ‘Yo, everybody get the fuck out the room.’ So I stood there like a robot. Then everybody left and I just started flicking them up. Daringer was there. Gunn was there. I got all of them.”
In the half-decade since the Webster Hall show, Lazo has developed a close collaborative relationship with Westside Gunn and Griselda. His Polaroid of Conway the Machine serves as the cover art for the rapper’s 2019 single “Bang,” which features Eminem. Lazo’s image was used as the tour poster for Griselda’s 2021 “Claire’s Back” national tour. This September, 1000WORD$ enlisted Griselda rapper Stove God Cooks to perform at “The Cookout,” a show organized by Lazo himself. In November, he followed it up with “The Crib,” a concert in Providence, Rhode Island, that featured Griselda signee Rome Streetz as the headliner. When Westside Gunn and Stove God Cooks attended a Celtics game last month, 1000WORD$ was sitting on the floor with the two rappers. Lazo can be seen directly behind Westside Gunn in a post from the official Celtics Instagram.
“Shoutout to Westside Gunn because he inspired me as a kid from the Bronx to sell art, to treat my stuff as art,” 1000WORD$ said. “We listen to music and we all do our part, but some people understand the message. I'm very grateful that I get to see him and all his team elevate. It just inspires me to be great.”
1000WORD$’s photography is part documentarian and part art. On the one hand, his images are historical documents that serve as an important record for hip-hop; Lazo estimates his archive contains between one and two thousand individual Polaroids. Yet, the intimate nature of his portraits, the addition of signatures from his subjects, and the breadth of his coverage places Lazo in an artistic category with critically acclaimed portrait photographers like Annie Leibovitz and Deena Lawson. In 2021, two of his Polaroids featuring rappers Eto and RLX, respectively, were published in a retrospective about the history of Polaroid as an artistic medium.
“I just want to make sure that whenever I go that all my shit goes somewhere special because everybody that I took pictures of is special,” he said. “I want someone to be able to display that shit for the world to see.”
Lazo shared a personal dedication to his work. “I'm barely in my daughter's life right now due to certain circumstances that life hit me with, and I’m just trying to make everything right,” 1000WORD$ said. “I want to be able to leave a legacy for my kid because I have nothing else to leave behind. So, I love you and I hope whenever you get to read this, just know that I always love you.”
—Staff writer Ryan S. Kim can be reached at email@example.com.
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