Mel D. Cole is a name in hip-hop that most have never heard of, that is, unless you’re one of the biggest names in hip-hop yourself. “I’m complicated,” he says through a devilish grin, sitting across from me one evening at his Lower East Side dining haunt, Epstein’s Bar. Ever since photographing Eryka Badu and Common at a New York City concert in 2001, Mel has become the accidental photography darling of world famous hip-hop artists, such as A Tribe Called Quest, Mos Def, Nas, and R. Kelly. Mel recalls, “There was a no camera policy at that show; I was patient.” Indeed, it was the moment Mel had unknowingly been waiting for his entire life.

Originally from Syracuse, Mel says, “I grew up on the South side, but really, nowhere in particular.; I switched between open doors.” Mel’s parents remained estranged from eachother, never marrying or living together. “It was hard and easy for a young black man in Syracuse –– sell drugs, basketball, or football.” In hip-hop, where credibility is currency, Mel is bankrolling a backstory relatable to many of the hip-hop heavyweights he photographs. At the age of sixteen, he joined up with the local gangs and started selling crack and marijuana, transferring to three different high- schools, before dropping out as a sophomore.

Looking back, Mel says, “I was a bad kid, but I didn’t peak at sixteen, like a lot of my friends; I always had bigger aspirations in life.” Mel had just received an Associates Degree when ?uestlove commented on the photographs of Eryka Badu and Common that Mel had posted online. Subsequently, ?uestlove contacted Mel to be the personal photographer for the Roots. “Concerts are why I’m a photographer,” Mel says.

For the next seven years, Mel continued photographing– honing his skills through trial and error– while working at a pharmaceutical company, before his next professional accident in 2009. At famed NYC nightclub Santos, while trying to snap a photo of P. Diddy at Q-Tip’s birthday party, he got kicked out of the DJ booth.

“?uestlove tweets Diddy with my number, and later Puff calls me to apologize, ‘What up playboy? I was drunk off Ciroc.’” He invited Mel to photograph his annual White Party. “And before he hung up I said, ‘do not bullshit me. ” It’s that straight-shooter attitude that continues to earn Mel favor from the hip-hop community. “My approach revolves around honesty–– ya know, being myself.”

Using a Canon Mark II and Fuji X100, his signature black-and-white aesthetic and the perfected point-and-shoot timing of his images feel as authentic as the lensman himself. It’s a distinct style that’s caught on with a variety of brands, including Coat of Arms, Nike, Puma, Vibe Magazine, Etnies, and most recently, a 10-month brand ambassador sponsorship with Heineken. Despite the high corporate stakes and high profiles of his celebrity subjects, Mel maintains a low-profile himself. “It’s so easy to get caught up in some shit, you gotta be with the shit.”