Published Sun, March 12, 2023 at 2:52 PM EDT
Perhaps Bill Adler said it best: “Trevor ‘Butch’ Greene was a complicated dude.”
As Def Jam Recordings’ first publicist and documentarian, Adler bore witness to the hip-hop explosion happening in New York City in the 1980s—and Greene was a part of that. In 1983, Greene shot the album cover for Run-D.M.C.’s self-titled debut, an image that captured a rare moment in time. Shortly after the photo was taken, Run-D.M.C. would blossom into Hip-Hop juggernauts, becoming the genre’s first act to land both a gold and platinum record. But in that instance, standing before Greene and his lens, they were just two wide-eyed kids from Hollis, Queens unaware of what was about to hit them.
Greene—who also went by the alias Talib Haqq—never would’ve predicted his path either. Ravaged by drug addiction for years, it wasn’t until the last two decades of his life that he was able to break away from its shackles. Greene, 67, quietly passed away in Los Angeles earlier this month, prompting Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons to reach out to Adler to remember their fallen friend.
“By the time I first met Butch in 1984, he was already dedicated to what he called the ‘two basic loves’ of his life: photography and Black history,” Adler tells ROCK THE BELLS. “He saw the former as a way to document the latter, describing the process as ‘making time stand at attention.’ He had also already created what are likely his most iconic images—the ones that adorn the front and back covers of Run-D.M.C.’s debut album. There’s almost no way to exaggerate the importance of those portraits. They’re shot on the street, not in a studio, and they capture Run and D sporting the hood-favored gear that simultaneously defined them and set them apart from the rappers who’d preceded them. From that moment on, Hip-Hop style was devoted to brothers from the Black community, not brothers from another planet.”
As for the complicated part, Adler admits he “was not the happiest guy in the world.” A bit tattered around the edges, Greene often came across as disgruntled.
“He had a sharp sense of humor, but he was angry a lot of the time and he ended up addicted to drugs,” he explains. “Eventually, he’d free himself of his addiction. In a conversation not long before he died, he told me proudly that he'd been drug-free for 23 years. We were friends and I’ll miss him.”
A rather enigmatic creature, not much is known about Greene’s personal life. Adler says he “was married for a while and then he wasn’t.” He continued shooting photographs throughout his life and began to “meticulously preserve” and curate his body of his work. A couple of years ago, Adler says Greene reached out to both Cornell University and the Smithsonian Institution to weigh their interest in his archive while simultaneously building an effortlessly engrossing website of his photography. Early images of music exec Larry Smith in the studio, Run-D.M.C. (including Jam-Master Jay), Russell Simmons, Madonna, LL COOL J, Whodini, Kurtis Blow, Adler, Oran “Juice” Jones, the Rush Productions offices and scenes from the infamous New York City nightclub, Danceteria, flood the page, undoubtedly whipping up nostalgia for anyone who was there to see it.
While the Hip-Hop community has certainly been rocked by a seemingly endless stream of high profile deaths in recent years—from DMX and DJ Kay Slay to Coolio and Migos member Takeoff, to name a few—Greene’s death is as significant and shouldn’t be understated.
“Butch was a great man and friend,” Joseph “Rev. Run” Simmons tells RTB. “He did a great job shooting Run-D.M.C.’s first album cover, among many other great artistic contributions. He was loved! To Butch, may the Lord bless you and protect you. Maybe the Lord smile on you and be gracious to you. May the Lord show you his favor and give you his peace. RIP Butch Greene.”
Run’s brother Russell Simmons felt similarly about Greene, adding, “I grew up with Butch. He became fascinated with photography. Because of Hip-Hop, we survived. He shot the first Run-D.M.C. cover and curated so many other amazing moments for us to remember. We were close friends until the very end. I’m deeply hurt by his passing. His legacy is his art. In it, we see his humanity and love for the culture. RIP big bro.”
Alan Elliott, who introduced Greene to music business veteran Renee Pappas, the woman responsible for his deal with Global Image Works, was close with him until his death. He says, “Butch was a fantastic photographer and documentarian. His work covering the seminal days of Hip-Hop are important. In his connection to the subject, Butch was not only there, he was in it. His spirit, determination, intelligence, dedication and more than anything his friendship is something I am grateful to carry with his memory. God bless Butch! Let ‘em know!”
Greene was born in Harlem on January 5, 1956 and eventually moved to Queens with his family. In 1973, Greene graduated from Andrew Jackson High School where he was the self-proclaimed “Deffest 5’3” player on the basketball court.” By 1976, he’d fallen in love with photography and later “lived in the darkroom” at Long Beach Community College. Through his friendship with Russell Simmons, Greene gained access to Run-D.M.C. He captured images of the legendary trio at their very first show at Lola’s in the spring of 1983 and continued shooting them at Disco Fever, Danceteria, The Ritz, Rosalind, The Fun House and The Roxy. He ultimately joined Run-D.M.C. on a massive 32-city Hip-Hop tour, the first of its kind, where he was able to snap candid shots of Kurtis Blow, Sparky D, Spyder D, Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, The Fearless Four, Busy Bee, The Crash Crew and Whodini.
“I became known as one of Hip-Hop’s first photographer documenting the birth of Hip-Hop well into its formative years,” Greene wrote on his website. “Although the financial rewards have manage to allude me, I have succeeded in my sole purpose to record, preserve and archive the creative Spirit in Black art and music, as well as immortalizing the essence of my subjects. I pride myself on capturing the character and shadow of available light, which is embodied in all my passion-filled images. My solemn promise is to ‘always invest the total weight of my intellect and passion into the images I co-create.’”
And he did.
header image courtesy of Sunny Bak