Chi Modu, iconic hip hop photographer, dead at 54

"You’re gonna go any way, at some point––I’m in no rush, I’m enjoying it––[but] when that day comes––way down the road I hope––I know that I laid enough down that people will remember,” said Modu.

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Iconic photographer Chi Modu has passed away at 54.

Modu is known for taking images of hip hop’s most legendary artists of the 1990s. It was announced via Instagram on Saturday that the Nigerian-born artist had transitioned. According to TMZ, the beloved photographer died from cancer and had only been recently diagnosed with the disease.  

Chi Modu
Chi Modu (Credit: screenshot)

“Our hearts are broken… We continue the fight ©??,” captioned an image of the artist on his Instagram.

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Questlove remembered the icon on Instagram and declared that his pictures “captured the feeling of an era. My connection to @thesource lie in the images he captured. This is not an understatement in saying he was an intricate part of the hip hop renaissance. His images are burned in our memories.”

Modu was raised in New Jersey and is a 1989 Rutgers University graduate. He would eventually go on to study photography at Manhattan’s International Center of Photography and landed his first gig at the legendary Black paper, New York Amsterdam News.

During a 2018 interview with The Hundreds, the photographer spoke on what it meant to snag one of his first roles at one of the oldest Black newspapers in the country.

“I think it definitely has a legacy, and I think it represents probably one of the most prominent black communities in the nation,” said Modu.  “I wasn’t getting paid that much money to do it, but it was worth it because it was the Amsterdam News. I think it plays a role, and the whole media landscape has changed dramatically over the past 10-15 years.”

Modu would go on to become the director of photography at The Source in the 90s and photographed 30 covers for the publication. He was known for his clear and natural images of artists and shot the first professional images for a slew of icons. The 90s birthed many legendary hip hop artists and the publication was at its peak. Modu spoke about what it was like being a part of that golden era.

Chi Modu
(Credit: Twitter/Modu)

“I would say not just caught it, but was very foundational to it. We were the critical elements to how people see the magazine. Not just the magazine, but even throughout the community. That’s what it was.”

The photographer went on to shoot the album covers of artists like Mobb Deep (The Infamous), Snoop Dogg (Doggystyle), and Method Man (Tical). One of Modu’s most famous takes is a photo of Tupac Shakur. He captured the West Coast rapper shirtless and in black and white.

In 2016, he released a photo book of the rapper titled Tupac Shakur: Uncategorized, which features images of the late star from their first 1994 meet up in Atlanta.

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The photographer was asked about his thoughts on death. Many of the artists he captured such as Tupac, Biggie, Nate Dogg, and Eazy-E have passed on.

“As you get older, you realize people die, and when they die it’s tragic, but it’s part of life. So what I look to is: What did they leave behind? Because that’s what defines us, no matter how long we live,” said Modu. “So, for me, a visual artist, you see that I’m very focused on what I leave behind. I don’t really worry about death and things the same way as people that don’t focus on leaving stuff behind. You’re gonna go any way, at some point––I’m in no rush, I’m enjoying it––[but] when that day comes––way down the road I hope––I know that I laid enough down that people will remember.”

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