09/11/2014 06:11 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Remembering 9/11: The Story Behind Chi Modu's Towering Tribute


Somber. Soaring. Stern. Eerily silent. Chi Modu's breathtaking portrait of the late hip-hop legend Notorious B.I.G. resonates as powerfully as ever on this Sept. 11 anniversary.

"This image helps immortalize these iconic New York City cornerstones in the eyes and minds of our generation," Chi observes. "When I look at the Biggie WTC image, I reflect on what was and am reminded of how what we see as permanent today may not be here tomorrow."

Chi, the former staff photographer in the '90s at the leading hip-hop magazine The Source, tells the story behind this photo:

When the idea came to me to represent Notorious B.I.G as the King of New York, I thought what better setting than to have two of the quintessential New York City buildings in the background. In one of Biggie's earlier songs, he has a line where he refers to the original failed bombing of the World Trade Center with his verse, 'blow up like the World Trade.'

Setting up an image he expected to run as a magazine cover in 1997, Chi chose Liberty State Park in Jersey City for its unobstructed view of the Twin Towers. "Biggie liked the concept," he says. "After postponing the shoot a few times because of scheduling conflicts, we finally completed the mission and I was able to capture all three New York icons in the picture."

The magazine's art director went with another image for the cover, depicting Biggie emerging out of a Photoshop-created New York City. Chi saw a missed opportunity, a position made only stronger, he says, by the events of 9/11. As time passes, "we are all becoming more reflective" about the meaning of the day's tragic events and life's fragility.