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Boston, ’80s hip-hop, and the previously unseen photos that documented the scene

Rusty the Toe Jammer, who scratched records with his feet, performs at a show at the Bromley-Heath housing project in 1985. The photo is one of dozens taken by John Nordell that will be auctioned by Sotheby's.
Rusty the Toe Jammer, who scratched records with his feet, performs at a show at the Bromley-Heath housing project in 1985. The photo is one of dozens taken by John Nordell that will be auctioned by Sotheby's.John Nordell

Back in the mid-1980s, when the world was just beginning to recognize rap music as an art form that might have some legs, one of the biggest draws on Boston’s underground scene was a DJ who had an unusual method of scratching records: He used his feet.

Rusty the Toe Jammer, as he was then known, had no real thoughts of becoming a star, he says today.

“We were doing it because it was brand new,” says Rusti Pendleton, a longtime hip-hop shop owner in the former Dudley Square who still spins records on his show “Funky Fresh Radio.” “That was fun to us. It wasn’t business.”

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Hip-hop, which long ago kicked open the door of big business, is about to climb into another ivory tower. On Tuesday Sotheby’s, the venerable auction house established in 1744, will conduct its first-ever hip-hop auction.

Among the items are two lots of previously unseen photographs — 42 images in all — by John Nordell, who documented the grassroots Boston hip-hop scene. One set of pictures memorializes a Rusty the Toe Jammer performance at the former Bromley-Heath housing development in Jamaica Plain.

For Nordell, it’s an honor to have his unheralded work included in a high-stakes auction that will feature the Notorious B.I.G.'s crown, Slick Rick’s diamond eye patch, and Tupac Shakur’s high school love letters, to name a few of the many items for sale.

“I’m extremely excited about this opportunity,” says Nordell, a visual arts professor at American International College in Springfield. “It doesn’t quite seem real.”

A few days ago he visited the Sotheby’s site and began to type his name into the search bar.

“It prompted me with ‘John Singer Sargent,’” he recalls with a laugh. “That’s pretty exciting company.”

Nordell’s photographs, which also document a Maurice Starr “Hollywood Talent Night” in 1986, capture an age of innocence, says Monica Lynch, a consultant on the auction.

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“They’re very sweet and charming — teenagers all ready for their close-up,” Lynch says. “There are some really great stylistic elements — a lot of Adidas shoes, a lot of fresh, brand-new sweat shirts with iron-on Old English lettering, the high-crown caps with the mesh backs, track suits, headbands. Just the things that all say ‘mid-’80s.'”

A photo from Maurice Starr's "Hollywood Talent Night" in 1986.
A photo from Maurice Starr's "Hollywood Talent Night" in 1986.John Nordell

Lynch, the onetime president of Tommy Boy Records, has spent the past two years working on the auction with Sotheby’s specialist Cassandra Hatton.

“This is one of my personal passions,” says Hatton, who grew up in the 1990s in Los Angeles listening to rap. For Hatton, who has also inaugurated sales of rare manuscripts and the history of science and technology, the various facets of hip-hop culture — the music, of course, but also the art, the fashion, the design — constitute a complete aesthetic that should appeal to veteran bidders and first-timers alike.

“I love it when I’m talking to someone and I show them an object, and their eyes light up,” she says. “My eyes always light up when I’m talking about hip-hop.”

To prove the point, she uncorks a gusher of brief descriptions of some of her favorite pieces in the auction — a graffiti-style wood sculpture by the late artist Phase 2, a four-knuckle ring dedicated to a “Mount Rushmore” of female MCs (Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Lady of Rage, and Roxanne Shante), a working installation of 32 old-school boomboxes called the “Wall of Boom.”

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Nordell’s photos offer early glimpses at what would become Boston’s hip-hop legacy, including pre-fame New Kids on the Block and the Almighty RSO, the hard-edged rap group that featured Ray “Benzino” Scott, who later became a co-owner of the pioneering hip-hop magazine The Source.

“I think they really are a great encapsulation of what hip-hop is,” Hatton says. “It’s about people making their own thing. You can see that vibe on everybody’s face, and I think that’s probably the most beautiful thing about it.”

Nordell grew up in Cambridge. His father was a longtime journalist for the Christian Science Monitor who served for a time as the paper’s jazz critic. Nordell’s family joined his father on trips to the Newport Jazz Festival and to see Count Basie’s orchestra at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City. The trumpeter Don Cherry once visited the Nordells for dinner.

“I think that’s where it all started,” the photographer says of his musical interests. While an undergrad at Stanford University, he had a reggae program on the school radio station, billing himself as “Johnny Rebel.”

But photography was always his calling. As a teenager, Nordell had pictures published in the Duxbury Clipper and the Harvard Gazette. Back in Boston after college, he befriended the late Magnus Johnstone and began hanging around during the broadcast of Johnstone’s WMBR hip-hop program, “Lecco’s Lemma,” where up-and-coming rappers often appeared live. A few of Nordell’s images of the local hip-hop scene appeared in the monthly Boston Rock.

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Eventually, Nordell found work as a photojournalist, for Time magazine and other prominent publications. When Brian Coleman, author of the authoritative “Check the Technique” books about classic hip-hop albums, contacted Nordell about one of his photos a while back, it had been years since the photographer had thought about his archives from that era.

“This is the tip of the iceberg,” he told Coleman.

In need of a scanner, Nordell traveled to a friend’s place in upstate New York, where he printed a couple hundred of his hip-hop negatives. Then he took the opportunity to head down to New York City, where the first thing he saw in Times Square was a massive billboard featuring Jay-Z and Beyoncé. The connection was not lost on him.

The young people in his Boston photos “gave it their all,” he says. Like the rest of the unknowns and future players in the regional hip-hop scenes across the country at the time, “they made it possible for the worldwide exposure for people like Jay-Z and Beyoncé.”

The crowd at a Rusty the Toe Jammer show at Bromley-Heath in 1985.
The crowd at a Rusty the Toe Jammer show at Bromley-Heath in 1985.John Nordell

The Sotheby’s auction represents one more marker of hip-hop’s growth from homegrown expression to massive industry.

“There’s always been an uneasy alliance between the hip-hop community and institutions, be it the Grammys, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, what have you,” says Lynch. "One the one hand, my belief is that the hip-hop community I don’t happen to think really needs it.

“On the other hand, hip-hop artists do enjoy getting that recognition, and rightly and understandably so. Everyone wants to get their propers, their flowers. Given the huge cultural influence they’ve had, they deserve it.”

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For Rusty the Toe Jammer, Nordell’s vintage photos have been a welcome trip back in time.

“A lot of those people I still see to this day,” he says.

Email James Sullivan at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.