He had more clothes in his silver Toyota near 5th and Kent Streets, but from several outfit changes we witnessed he had at least: a vintage red, white and blue anorak jacket; a red Tommy Hilfiger; a Nautica snapback; a canary yellow jumpsuit with thick suspenders flanking his torso that — with the jacket zipped up over them — made him look like he was wearing Hazmat gear. But most importantly, José Labrador, 38, had pristine white and blue Nike Airs.
Manaure Peñalver, 36, his photographer and friend from boyhood in the mountainous city of Caracas, Venezuela, admits that he isn’t as into clothes as José is. Still, he knows just enough to say that the vintage streetwear — which José, better known as DJ Mad Pee, exchanges for something new in his deep duffel bag every 30 minutes or so — is indeed a big part of the hip hop artist’s “identity.”
José says he has been in hip hop for 21 years and has “holy grail” items that you can’t get anymore, like the Snow Beach Polo Ralph Lauren. It becomes clear, though, that José is sinking his feet into a goldmine, when a kid on a bike zooms past him, yelling “got those off whites on, son!” as he pedals. The sneakers, with mismatched laces, bright orange on his right foot, and crisp white ones on his left, stand out even in the middle of this sweaty cobblestone street under the Williamsburg Bridge.
They have curated the photo shoot so that José and the gritty glam of Williamsburg can work in tandem. Manaure, who does most of the talking, says that they want the shoot to evoke a slice of “old New York.” As Manaure and José shoot in a few locations, starting at the cobblestones, then perched up against a rail overlooking the bridge, and finally on the bridge itself. It is there where José poses by graffiti and barbed wire, an image in particular which takes on a certain gravitas.
In between clicks of the camera, Manaure discusses how quickly Brooklyn has changed. He is an engaging talker, with an eye for history. Fitting, as he used to work as a print journalist back in Venezuela, for El Nacional. He says that Williamsburg used to be so “colorful,” as recently as 2008, and with a lot of “squat houses” and factories. Greenpoint used to have so many “punk rockers.” Now, he thinks Bushwick, his home, is where it’s at.
But the Williamsburg Bridge apparently still has something going for it. Manaure, who used to be a committed skater, says that the bridge is “legendary” for shredding. As cyclists zip by, José admits, breathlessly (in Spanish, Manaure translates into English), that its steep incline reminds him of the mountains back at Caracas.
José doesn’t live in Brooklyn. Based in Miami — among the art galleries and financiers of Brickell — he’s only here, he says, because he was performing a gig scratching at Santa Salsa, a Venezuelan restaurant in Bushwick. He enlisted his friend to do the visuals for his Instagram promo before he flies to Philadelphia the next day for a scratch session on the famed “Rocky” steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. When filming, José likes to pull his drawstring tight around his hoodie, so that you can see his mostly-translucent salmon-colored glasses poke through. Manaure will take shots of José’s shoes, and of José on the phone, and of José pretending to swat the camera away.
Sometimes, José will yell — with a swaggering verve — directly into the camera and it might even look kinda cool. He might stop and take a selfie. But José will melt into a puddle on the concrete when a chubby pug named Butters walks up to his feet, sits down, and all but refuses to get up. True to form, after Manaure and José take their last photo with the colorful graffiti as backdrop, they pack up their equipment, grab their skateboards and fly down the crowded ramp, weaving in between the cyclists, as friends, rather than cameraman and talent.