When Jared Soares decided to document the hip-hop scene in Roanoke, Virginia, he wasn’t entirely sure it existed. But he was passionate about hip-hop music, and wanted to see if it could thrive even in a small town mostly known for bluegrass. He also wanted to try doing a long-term photography project for the first time.
Soares, then a photojournalist at the Roanoke Times, didn’t have to look too far. After stepping into a corner store, he saw CDs for sale at the counter. Most were bootleg copies of mainstream hip-hop artists like Lil Wayne and Young Jeezy, but among them he found three local albums, with contact information listed on the back. He started calling: The first line was disconnected, the second played waiting music, and the third connected him to Terrance Palmer, who designed cover art for a lot of area artists.
“I kind of explained what I wanted to do. He said, ‘I hate talking on the phone. Can you meet me in person?’ I said, ‘When?’ He said, ‘How about now?’ ” Soares said.
Roanoke is a small place, and Palmer turned out to be Soares’ entryway into the hip-hop scene. “It’s a lot of guys doing the weekend warrior type of thing and recording after they get off work,” he said. “I don't know how the guys would respond to this comparison but it’s very much in the style of the DIY punk scene. It’s guys who do their own graphics for their covers, fashion a studio out of a bathroom or basement, record it, burn the CD, hand it off to a guy who will mix it, and then book their own shows.”
Soares’ series, “Small-Town Hip Hop,” which was recently on display at Portland’s Blue Sky Gallery, follows that process, capturing the personalities and music in recording studios, on the road, and at concerts in Roanoke and beyond.
“This was my first real long-term project and I wanted to see how far I could push myself,” he said. “Much of the project is shot in a studio or around a studio. I wanted to capture the in-between, unexpected moments. People know what somebody holding a microphone looks like—I wanted to go beyond that.”
Making music in a small city like Roanoke is like a family affair. Hanging around at recording sessions in the homes of the artists, Soares would be introduced to old high school classmates, family members, and neighbors—all involved in one way or another with the enterprise.
“One guy would build a studio and somebody would bring in a microphone or somebody else might have a hacked version of an audio editing software and pass it around or a hacked version of Photoshop so they could do graphics,” he said. “Everyone was really down to help each other out.”
While none of the photographers Soares photographed are household names, some, like the emcee Poe Mack, have “played New York and Atlanta and everywhere in-between.” The popularity of a given concert depended on the venue: At a concert at a restaurant called Awful Arthur’s, for instance, the room was mostly full of ambivalent diners. In Atlanta, concertgoers there to see Poe Mack were crammed “shoulder to shoulder and people knew the words to his songs.”
Initially, Soares saw his work as just a “straight up documentation of a subculture.” But one day, while driving with Poe Mack, he began to think of the project as more of a reflection of themes in his own life.
“I realized our journeys were kind of parallel. He was trying to put Roanoke on the map as a place of hip-hop and I was trying to make a name for myself with photography. We were about the same age, too—just these two young men on a journey to make something of ourselves.”