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Bronx native Joe Conzo Jr. reflects on photographing hip-hop history

Bronx native Joe Conzo Jr. reflects on photographing hip-hop history
Bronx native Joe Conzo Jr. reflects on photographing hip-hop history 03:20

NEW YORK -- As we celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, CBS New York is shedding a light on the culture and the people who made significant contributions to New York City.

CBS New York's Jennifer Bisram recently sat down with the man known as hip-hop's first photographer, who also takes great pride in being Latino.

For the first time, a camera other than his own was allowed into Joe Conzo Jr.'s man cave in Orange County. It has everything from his cameras and negatives to his books, digital photo lab and historic hip-hop snapshots.

"I'm just an ordinary guy from the Bronx that took some pictures and has been traveling the world ever since then," Conzo said.

The Bronx native, who was born in Puerto Rico, even gave CBS New York a look at the lens he used in the 1970s when he captured hip-hop's baby pictures.

"I was a junior high school photographer, high school photographer and next thing you know was befriended by some high school classmates who are some pioneers of the culture of hip-hop and I got invited to go to a 'jam,'" Conzo said. "And next thing you know, I'm traveling with throughout the borough with the Cold Crush Brothers, and the rest is history."

Hip-hop icons like Fat Joe credit him for documenting the music, the battles, the breakdancing and the art.

"It went from the streets and school gymnasiums and PALs down to nightclubs, clubs in the city and downtown, and then eventually around the world," Conzo said.

These days, Conzo's work is so sought after, people pay anywhere from a few dollars to a few thousand dollars for just one of his hip-hop photos.

But that's only part of his story. The father, husband and advocate is also an Army veteran and retired EMT with the FDNY. He was a first responder on 9/11.

"The most vivid image that I have is driving down the West Side Highway and seeing thousands of people running away," Conzo said.

The documentarian photographer developed a 9/11-related cancer and has been in remission for four years.

"I was diagnosed with pancreatic and liver cancer," he said.

But that has not stopped him from filming or working. He just released the third edition of his book "Born in the Bronx."

"I call it a family scrapbook of hip-hop," Conzo said.

He travels around the globe for exhibitions showcasing his work, and more than 10,000 of his negatives and prints can be found at Cornell University's hip-hop collection.

"When I take a picture, I want to be able to capture a moment that will bring somebody back to that moment," Conzo said.

But what means the most to him coming from a family of Hispanic advocates and historians?

"I'm proud. I am proud to be a Latino, that's the word I grew up on. I'm proud of the contributions we've made," he said.

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