"It's weird how things have evolved," says Powell. "I'm lucky. I consider myself very lucky to be working for myself, but I created it, and hopefully I'll keep it going."
In 1985, Powell had finished six years at Hunter College and was about to become a gym teacher. But it just so happened that he had gone to elementary school with Adam Horowitz's little sister. Young Adam's new rap group was playing a show, and Powell thought it would be cool to take pictures. After hanging with the Beasties backstage that night, Powell began touring with the band and accumulating photos of rap stars and other celebrities, including Doug E. Fresh, Eazy E, the Coppolas and Spike Lee.
Powell's photos can be seen not only on the Beastie Boys' vinyl and CD sleeves, but also on those of Run-DMC and other rap powerhouses. His work has been compiled into two books: Oh Snap!: The Rap Photography of Ricky Powell, comprising pictures taken during his time touring with the Beastie Boys, and The Rickford Files: Classic New York Photography, a collection of Powell's photos of celebrities and the everyday carnival that is New York.
The photographer's timing was dead-on. The photos capture the early days of hip-hop, before it was infiltrated by "bling" and "shizzle." Many are candid shots, capturing stars on the road, signing autographs or hanging out. They're the kind of photos you wouldn't see in spreads for glossy magazines.
The Rickford photos show New York in the early '80s, when Powell was a nightclub busboy and bike messenger. He rode around town with his camera, spotting people like Method Man, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol, and generally chronicling an era.
This weekend, the photographer's travels bring him to Houston, where he will display photos of fallen rap icon Jam Master Jay and other greats at The Proletariat. He'll show his photographs of New York and other subjects at Dramos Studios as part of an exhibit that also features local photographers Jeanette Marie Degollado (the curator of the event) and Melinda Mosheim.
When Powell reflects on his career path, he gets a little philosophical. "I mean, a lot of people took pictures of the people of I took; I just put them together a certain way," he says. "I was just one of many."
But how many photographers have been mentioned by name on a Beastie Boys album? In "Car Thief" from Paul's Boutique, they rap, "Homeboy throw in the towel / Your girl got dicked by Ricky Powell." And maybe even photographed, too.