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Uncle Sloppy Finagles The Hustle


A few days prior Ricky met me on West 8th at Eva’s, a health food café where every busboy knows his name and his photos tile the walls.  He arrives a few minutes late in a bit of a stupor, shell-shocked by the freezing weather.



Ricky Powell – Give me a minute. I can’t really breathe in cold water…or, air. Last night… I thought I was slick, they told everyone in my building that had a fireplace they had to get ‘em shut for some reason, and I bypassed getting mine sealed. But I tried it last night, and I guess they sealed it from the roof. Put a Duraflame in there, and it just…



Office – Smoked you out?



RP – I was buggin’ too, I was like, I gotta get this shit out of here. I live in a little studio and I was just like “Oh, no.” Turned into one of those catastrophes, I put it out, I was trying to shovel it with record cover albums, going out to the back to throw it out, smoke getting in the hallway. The creepy lady in the building came down the stairs, she’s like “Do you know what’s going on?” I was like, “No, go away. Shhh.” I didn’t want the fire department to come, and get reported to the building. Oh my god. I just ducked it, but I woke up feeling… I’ll be alright in a second, sorry. What’s your name again? Nice to meet you. I’ll be ready momentarily. I must be getting…this is embarrassing. Just gonna get some water and a napkin and I’ll be ready to start. [Ricky gets a bottle of water, blows his nose vigorously, and collects himself]



O – So take me back. Born in Brooklyn?



RP – [lifts his left sleeve to show a “Made In Brooklyn” tattoo] Yes. But I’m a Village kid. My mom’s from Brooklyn, but she broke out, and I remember moving to Murray Hill and then to the Village. ’68. Second grade. Union Square. Right around the corner from where Taxi Driver was filmed, so I remember that corner of 13th and 3rd well. I got an early introduction to, uh…



O – “Stuff?”



RP – Stuff. Well said, young scholar. Yeah, then 9th Street, I grew up around the corner. Just me and my mom. Single mom, only kid. That’s how it was with a lot of my friends, we all had it like that. Only kid, one parent.



O – You had a good relationship with your mom?



RP – Uhhhhhh…



O – I see.



RP – Unconventional. Nontraditional. I called her by her first name. I just roamed. Basically I think she just got doinked and got pregnant, manned up and took care of me. At least she gave me a room. But I give her props, because she would bring home stray animals all the time. She was nutty but she had a heart of gold for stray animals.



O – You’ve got a soft spot for animals yourself.



RP – Yes I do. [points to the face of a husky embroidered in his ballcap] I love huskies. I’m vegetarian, I love animals. Almost one of those people who likes animals better than people. Sometimes that’s the case, depends what company I’m in.



O – So you’re a longtime Village kid. I feel like I’ve heard you refer to Washington Square Park as your office.



RP – Ah, yeah. Well I live in a little room, so I don’t host too much for business meetings. I use this spot, Eva’s, it’s convenient. And the park! On the bench, by the arch. Feed some squirrels, and chop it up.



O – With the dudes offering dope to NYU kids.



RP – Oh yeah, some rich girl was in the news a couple years ago, she got busted selling pot out of the dorms.



O – There was once a girl there selling herself as well, along with drugs. One-stop shop.



RP – Really! Entray-preneur. Hmm. Well, you know. Everyone’s into what they’re into. [raises an eyebrow quizzically] SMH. Hashtag.



O – You’re on Instagram, huh? But your account is private…



RP – Dude, there’s mad kooks on there! Tell me your thing I’ll take you past everybody. You want to see how many people are waiting to be my friend? A thousand plus. I don’t just let anybody on. Seriously, I hate when jerkoffs get on there and they put a stupid comment, they think they’re funny. I’m like, “Get the fuck outta here. Go back to your fucking cave, in Wyoming, wherever you are. Get the fuck away from me.” It’s my page, it’s my world, it’s for me and my peoples, who I relate to. That’s how I see it. I’m rather dope. I love Instagram, it’s the latest phase of my photography career. 



O – I was going to ask, because there are photographers who resent Instagram. 


Basquiat and  Warhol, Mercer Street Soho NYC, 1985

Oh these two. Yeah, you know, you could kinda say I hit a grand slam in my first at bat. Pinch hit. Ninth inning. Game-winning. Yeah man, took this spring of ’85 when I first started to be a photographer on the real. I was working through some difficult adversity emotionally. This chick ditched me for a dork, it was not easy to deal with, I wanted to kill them. Anyway, these two were on my dick, so I thought ‘I’ll let ‘em pose for me.’ They were superstars too, I don’t know, I don’t follow that. But look at this, it’s one of my most—I hate to use the F word— famous shots, fuck it. That’s Houston and Mercer.

RP – I’m not a photographer, don’t group me in with those jerkoffs. Fuck them. I’ve heard the complaints about Instagram, now everybody thinks they’re a photographer. But a lot of photographers think they’re cool, so… I prefer to identify myself as an individualist. I do different things, you can’t really categorize me. That’s how I prefer it. A lot of photographers are legit, but a lot of cornballs put a camera in their hand and go around calling themselves a photographer just to give themselves entitlement. That’s why my business card says ‘Individualist’ because taking pictures is only one thing I do. I have like eight hustles. Photography, writing—I’ve had several columns, What’s Up With That?, The Rickford Files, The Doloist—I did the talk show in Washington Square Park, Rappin’ With The Rickster, videography, clothing apparel, entertainer with my live slideshow, curating shows… [watching a curvy young woman walk by the window] This girl, I’m about to stick a fuckin’ Lazy Hustler falafel burrito in her mouth… I’m curating a group show entitled If You Ask Me, It’s About The Soul. Some young artists, some older, all of them have a good heart. No gassed-up cornballs, there’s no names on the flier, but I got some heavy hitters in there. Ron Galella, legendary photographer, Crash, he’s an artist. Young folks. I run into young people a lot and they’re so nice, I wish I could help them out. Being young, in your twenties, trying to be an artist of some type, and trying to make money? Oof. It’s tough out there. I’m fifty-three now, I want to flourish in my fifties. Part of that is just contributing, helping young good folks, giving them some shine, giving them some encouragement. [recognizing the man behind the counter] Oh there he is, the Zen masterrrrr! That’s Steve, he’s the owner. One of Eva’s three sons. I’ve been coming here since ’78, we kind of grew up together, either side of the counter. Now he looks after me, he’s such a great, positive man. Beautiful dude. I have it good, with some of my hookups around the Village. I’m lucky. As a freelance hustling bohemian, it sure helps to have your connections here and there. Kind of like Baretta, on TV, he had his informants around the city. I’ve got my little spots I can duck into.



O – I’ve heard you lament some of the bullshit in this neighborhood too, though. But your heart’s still here?



RP – You know, where am I gonna go? Being a freelancer, even with all my experience, still checks come in sporadically. It’s never a set thing. I live in a little rustic studio, and I have an eccentric lifestyle, it works for me. I think I’ll probably live there until I move on to the next dimension. Til then, yeah the Village…it’s been invaded by new jack cornballs. Now, I’m not opposed to new people whatsoever, that’s not it. It’s just new people who come with this stank attitude, they’re gassed up and they’re socially retarded. So if someone looks at me the wrong way, they provoke me to act back, like “Yo, what the fuck you lookin’ at, bitch? Where do you come from? Who do you think you are? You just came out of a movie, you think you’re that guy in the movie? You think you’re on Sex and the City or some shit?”



O – It’s a lot of snotty rich people?



RP – Yeah, a quotient. But there’s a lot of good ones. You know, the people that act right, that act proper, I embrace them. That’s all. I think that’s pretty natural. There’s been a big infestation, I’m not the only one that thinks that. But everything changes. Live with it. Deal with it. I don’t want to grow old miserably, shouting on a street corner while I’m leaning against the lamppost. I got it good where I am.




Lenny Kravitz and Lisa Bonet, De La Soul - 3 Feet High And Rising release party, NYC, 1989

“Oh, dip! My homecorn. Lenny K. We hang tough. I gave him some pictures for a big book on him, and he recently posted a picture to his Instagram and put ‘Photo by Ricky Powell,’ he didn’t forget. I was like “Wow! That’s nice.” So that’s my duke, whatever, I know people like that. I know, hard to believe.”

O – For our last issue we spoke to Michael Alig, who was a big New York clubgoer in the ‘80s, and a lot of the people from his scene show up in your photos, Warhol, Keith Haring. I never would have pictured you two in the same circles, but it seems like at that point in time a lot of circles were overlapping.


RP – In the ‘80s, yeah they were. You know, a lot of people say, “You took such great shots of different scenes, hiphop, art world.” They were all accessible. “Oh, the so-and-so show is going on tonight in SoHo? Alright, I’m gonna walk down there. The so-and-so rap show is on tonight? I’m gonna go there.” I went where I liked, just put my little camera around me and went. [spotting a man of at least ninety hunched over a cup of soup, his face inches from the pages of a tattered paperback] I love this guy right here. Look at that. That’s what it comes down to, at the end. Beautiful. He’s really enjoying himself. What was I saying? Shit, he derailed me. You know my story about getting into photography? Out of spite? Cause this girl dissed me for a dude with tie-dye yoga pants?


O – You took her camera, right? Well you didn’t jack it from her…


RP – [laughs] I jacked her in the stairway—no. She left a bag of shit at my house, I looked through it, and I was like “Ah, I remember this little camera.” So my Scorpionic…instincts…or something, I just said I’m going to take this camera and I’m going to make this bitch sorry she did me like a soggy cannoli, or a wet tuna sandwich. I said I’m going to take pictures with this thing and I’m going to make something of myself. Cause I was just a regular playground rat, played basketball in the yard, had no aspirations. I was going to college to be a phys-ed teacher. Anyway, hit a grand slam at my first at-bat, with the Warhol Basquiat shot. So the camera can open many doors. Say you take a picture, someone can come to you and say, “Oh, can I buy that picture for my house?” Another person, “Oh, can we use that picture in our magazine?” “Oh wow, can we use that picture for our T-shirt?” “Would you shoot a lookbook for us?” So many doors open from photography, it’s weird. You could be a nobody, but when you have a photo credit, you took some pictures of somebody famous, then that makes you sort of famous. It’s like, I always hear sportscasters on sports radio saying, “Oh, your son’s a lefty? Bring him up to be a pitcher, he’ll make zillions of dollars.” Well, I was in the store just last night, Lomography, down the block, and I see a cute kid fuc—finagling with a camera, he was with his mom. I said “That’s a cute kid. You know what? Buy that kid that camera, it’s a good thing for him.” And she did! She Googled me and everything, right there. She was like “Oh my God! I’m getting you this camera Herbert. You’re going to love it.”


Raekwon, Rza and Gza, backstage, Los Angeles, 2006


These guys were playing saloogie, you know, keep-away with my joint backstage.

O – Where did you get that encouragement early on?


RP – Just people around me. Friends, basically. “Oh shit, that’s a good picture,” this and that. But professionally, the photographer Lynn Goldsmith took me under her wing. She taught me the art of the hustle, in photography. Tough cookie, that lady. Also, on the woman photographer tip, Sue Kwon. Good sense of humor, always cracking up. Good-lookin’ lady. Love that lady. She’s gonna be in my show. Oh, another of my hustles, mixtape wizard. Google Ricky Powell mixtapes. I make ‘em with my man DJ Smoke, for TheGoodLife! crew. They’re good, jazzy funk type shit. I like funky jazz. That’s my favorite type shit.


O – You’re big into music, obviously you’ve got deep roots with certain musicians of the last few decades…


RP – Ah, don’t mention them. [laughs] I listen to my transistor radio, you know about that? My Jewish boombox? I listen to WKCR when they play the jazzy funk shows, and the blues shows. I listen to sports talk radio a lot. And Spotify, I love Spotify. I don’t really have a record collection anymore, I dog my records, I’m very sloppy. Television, I’ve got an antenna. Some good movie channels on there, they show a lot of movies from the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s, I’m like “Wow.” And no bill that comes at the end of the month, so I love that. So I’m set, I’ve got my minimal types of entertainment, but I’m happy. I entertain myself. I have my discreet ladies of the night that come see me. For recreation.


Beastie Boys.Charles Street Shuffle NYC. 1986

My relationship with the Beastie Boys was a big come-up. I was official unofficial Licensed To Ill tour photographer in ‘87, you may have heard of the album…? What, you guys grow up in a cave or something? They had no idea the album was gonna do what it did. I used to come out during Time To Get Ill, with the Green Acres sample, with a sign that said “Get Busy Or Get Lost.” I was the nerd in the video for Fight For Your Right. How’d I meet ‘em? At a wigger convention. It was for Wigger Nation. No, Ad-Rock I knew from the Village, his older sister was in my grade. He kinda looked up to me growing up, and then I went to go see ‘em in ’85, started hanging with Mike and Adam that winter, and I had just started taking pictures. So I went from Joe Schmuck in the neighborhood, to The Rickster, Photographer Extraordinaire. Well I didn’t call myself that. Only jerkoffs that doink themselves do that.

O – Yeah? No fulltime companion?



RP – Nah.



O – No animals?



RP – No, not anymore. I always took on cats, when they needed a home, but I’m basically a lone wolf. I like it that way. Come and go as I please. I just don’t really have the attention span to get involved in a mate’s ups and downs, with their businesses, of all types. I just don’t. I’m happy with myself. It might be selfish. [seeing another girl pass by outside, Ricky gives a little grunt and hangs his tongue through the crook of two fingers, mercifully out of her view] Sorry. Sorry you saw that side of me.

D.M.C. and Jam Master Jay, in front of Def Jam, Elizabeth Street, NYC, 1988

I used to tell ‘em, “I look up to you, and you’re younger than me.” They were just mad cool, dude, just who they were, first off. But when they became top of the world, they were extra cool. Regular dudes, with a good sense of humor. Very witty. I was very impressed by their snaps, which counts big time with me. It’s a personal thing. I joined the Raising Hell tour, you know that album, with Peter Piper, Walk This Way…? No? Heavens to Murgatroyd. I’d just quit my frozen lemonade job the day before, I said “I’m going on that tour, see you down in Tampa,” went down and knocked on the back of the Tampa Dome and they let me in. Read about it, it’s corny if I tell it.

O – That’s rare though, to feel content being alone. A lot of people feel pressure, they need the validation of another person.



RP – Yeah, I can’t just have one. I like ‘em all. I like variety. And also, this character that I am, this persona, I have to be solo dolo, because sometimes I like to be a little risqué, in my little expressions, and if I have a mate, she might get her feelings hurt, and I don’t want to do that, especially if she’s really cool.



O – Have you taken that freewheeling approach with your work as well?



RP – Yeah some people focus on one thing, I like to do different things. You know what? Between you, me and the lamppost? I’m really lucky, man. I’ve made a career out of just being me. It’s kind of like Jerry Seinfeld, or a comedian. They just make a life of talking about themselves and their thoughts.



O – It’s pretty remarkable for that to be a line of work.



RP – It is, dude. I mean, believe me, it’s had its ups and downs. Sometimes I don’t know where my next dollar is coming from. But it feels good, when people tell me that I inspire them. It fills me with joy, to know that my work, what I’ve done, my travels and tribulations have inspired, besides entertaining people. People still hit me up outta nowhere like “Yo, I’ve been a fan ever since you came out with that and this,” talking about shit from twenty years ago and beyond, it’s like “Wow.” That kinda thing I love. Just the privilege of walking around, and having this instrument in my hand, where I can stop, click, preserve that moment and do what I wish with it, that’s quite a phenom. Just walking around being a man, I guess is nice sometimes. 



Debi Mazar, Sandra Bernhard, and Madonna, party for Futura 2000, NYC, 1988

Oh, shit. These three fucks? Crazy, filthy hags. The things that I heard coming out of their mouths. I was sitting right there, drinking champizzle on the rocks, and I was just taking pictures, tscht, tscht, tscht, that’s called the “act natural” stylee. Debi Mazar and me, we used to hang out. That’s the only way I’m going to put it. Use your imagination. She was hustling, doing styling and shit, she’d just made her debut in Goodfellas. She was just about to blow up. I liked her, man, she never got stank with me. I love that in a woman.
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