From the legendary rappers who created classic albums to the groundbreaking moments that changed the genre, hip-hop’s history is rich — and heralded photojournalist Shareif Ziyadat has captured countless pivotal moments one snapshot at a time. A key cog in the culture for over 25 years, Ziyadat has shot prominent figures including Jay-Z, Diddy, Kanye West and more.
His career started when a high school friend asked Ziyadat to shoot The LOX in Yonkers, New York in the ’90s, to which he agreed , without hesitation. Soon after, a fortuitous moment presented itself when Ziyadat bumped into Joaquin “Waah” Dean, co-founder of the legendary Ruff Ryders Entertainment, on his way home from school.
“I had the camera in my hand and knew this was my chance, so I went to talk to him,” Ziyadat tells Billboard. “I’m 19 at the time. I jump off the bus with no money to go back home and introduce myself to Waah, saying I shoot The LOX all the time, even though it happened [every] so often. He invited me on their tour, and I’ve only been in school for a month, but I had to be there.”
Before he knew it, Ziyadat was snapping all sorts of content for the Ruff Ryders crew to the point that he became their go-to photographer. A love for the culture has always driven the Yonkers native to shoot, which only intensified after meeting DMX for the first time in a studio.
“The first thing DMX tells me is ‘Do you love what you do?’ I told him, ‘Of course I do,’ and he said, ‘If you do, you’ll never have to chase money. It will chase you,'” Ziyadat recalls. “He was the biggest thing in music at the time, so hearing that was so motivating. The energy was so pure, I wanted to be a part of it all the time. When it clicked, I knew there was nothing else I wanted to do.”
All the work and support he got from the Ruff Ryders put Ziyadat in a position to access other artists outside the label — and working with 50 Cent in particular helped Ziyadat see where he could take his passion. “50 has been a blessing in my life because he was a big turning point for me getting into the ad campaign world,” he says. “Me being with Puff and all those guys was great for exposure, but the way 50 vouched for me and made things happen while I worked with him, no one else did.”
These days, Ziyadat is still just as drive by an inextinguishable fire that keeps him in the game. “I’ve never had a moment where I wanted to hang my camera up,” he adds. “I’m at a stage where I want to evolve and be innovative, like Jay-Z, who always does something that turns heads. That’s the energy I want to build off.”
Below, Ziyadat picks the seven best pictures he’s ever taken throughout his career — ranging from music video shoots to brand campaigns and fundraisers — and tells the story behind each one.
Check out the pictures below.
This is when Diddy had Sean John, and it was the biggest thing at the time for him to have a clothing line and a brand. I was working a lot with the Combs team and building with them, and for this job, they called me to be his personal photographer to document his fashion show and the after party, which was a big moment for him, to be part of fashion week. I was so grateful to capture him doing something we never felt we would be in rooms doing.
This one particular shot, he had a team from Paris documenting the whole thing on film, but I got him as he’s walking out of Cipriani’s with the revolving doors and it just represented an iconic guy living a dream — and he was living that vision of what he wanted.
This moment was at his Shawn Carter Foundation Gala where the day before the actual event they do a private party where it’s just family and friends. He was sitting down and Emory was sitting right next to him; As a shooter, you always give everybody their space and you read the room to see if there’s a moment happening so you can capture it, the essence of it.
So Jay pulled out the cigar and as soon as you see a moment is happening, you position yourself. So as soon as I did that, it was like an energy shift where Jay looked up and basically said with his eyes, “I’m about to do something fire, so get ready.” It was like an eye-to-eye coordination thing where we [are] speaking without actually speaking and connected at that moment. When I looked through the lens, I saw him, and you can see it in his eyes like, “This is what we’re doing, so let’s get it.” Even when I took the picture, it hit me on the inside. I looked at the photo and I had to go home.
I got a call from one of his guys that said 50 Cent wants to shoot a music video. I shoot videos, but he never called me to do one. I had to be there, so I went to the studio and everything was set up and 50 tells me the concept where the whole video is a sequence of pictures, and this moment came from that shoot. I don’t know why, but I just love cigars, and this shot just spoke to me. It was motivation for me, because he’s giving off that energy of being a boss.
This was on the set of “Where The Hood At?” We shot two days in Chicago and one day in New York. This shot was on School Street, where X was born and raised. DMX came 10 hours late — God bless him — and everybody was so happy that he came, but it was such an emotional moment because Aaliyah passed and his other boy Kato just passed so his energy was all over his heart. He’s very emotional. I shot him so many times, but this moment… You know, his energy is so powerful, but here was different.
He pulled me to the side to take a picture of him and his girl and he took a few pics with his shirt on. He looked at them then decided to take the shirt off and put it on the car. So I took more shots of him leaning on the car and then he decided he has to crouch down and give blessings. I shot him in that pose where you can see the pain that’s in his eyes, and I knew this was a moment because, as a photographer, you want to capture your subject and what they’re feeling.
This was Rihanna’s album release party for Rated R and it was just her and the anticipation of everybody wanting to be around her. You see everyone in the picture is just feeding off her energy. It was one of those moments where you felt what energy her arrival was about to bring. It’s like when you wait on something, and it finally comes, and this is what happened that night. She came, took her jacket off and commanded the room. I like to document the essence before the setup, so this is more about capturing her getting ready to show the world, “This is me and my album. I’m ready to take over the world.”
Nas is a legend, and for this moment, it was for a birthday celebration and his manager at the time wanted to do a dinner and document everything. I got a lot of dope moments, but this one was at the end of the night, and he had just taken off his jacket and was just chilling. He didn’t smoke any cigars the whole night until this moment when he was ready to unwind.
He sat down, I saw him light it up and I was like, “Hold it right there,” and I caught that moment. He had that look, and I just knew that was the vibe: “We’re here, and we’re celebrating straight boss stuff.” We all strive to be bosses and be content with what we’re doing, that confidence is magnetic. If I create these moments and make them look bigger than life, their confidence shows, and people feed off that.
DRAKE & CHRIS BROWN
This was at Greenhouse, the [old] hotspot in New York. They were both on the rise coming up with great stuff, and ironically, this was like a week before everything happened between them with the bottle-throwing incident. But with this, everyone was having a good time and there was a lot of good energy in the air. It wasn’t like it is now where people have a bunch of security. This night, Drake was coming in and I had tapped Chris for a picture but then he tapped Drake and said, “Get in the shot with me.”
It was a moment where it was nothing but love, and I captured it. Next thing you know, the brawl happened and this was the picture that was being rotated heavily at the time on all the news outlets. I love capturing moments and telling stories with these pictures. I’m capturing the journey of these two, which is also a part of my journey, and it’s like we’re all evolving. With this, you never know what the future holds. Look at where we’re all at now.