Sunday, November 15, 2009



They just don’t make album jackets like they used to. In homage to this dying art form, AMY LINDEN digs up the stories behind 10 unforgettable covers.

An armed KRS-One peering from his window; DMX’s blood-soaked torso; Juvenile’s visage floating in the blinged-out heavens; Mary’s flawed-yet ultimately flawless-profile: The covers of hip hop and R&B albums are often as striking and signifying as the music itself. Whether sketched out by hand or Photoshopped on a Mac, these images set the tone for what pulsates in the grooves and resides in the hearts and souls of the artists themselves. // You can download your music, but you can’t digitize an album cover’s visceral immediacy. back in the day, LP record jackets were a vivid cardboard window into a musician's life and art, an opportunity to experience another facet of their expression. Minus the format and materials, the same holds true, in a smaller and less satisfying way, for CDs. We’ve tracked down the men and women behind 10 landmark urban music album covers to give props to a creative component that’s sometimes unsung but never unseen.

Life After Death

(Bad Boy, 1997)

MICHAEL LAVINE, PHOTOGRAPHER: “It’s a pretty fascinating coincidence that we happened to shoot in the graveyard, and then he died right after that. The shoot was a really intense day. Biggie had had an accident and could not walk very well. He was on a cane, and he was limping around. We shot in a series of different graveyards. I think it was Cypress Hill. And that last shot we did, That was the one I wanted to do. I remember Puffy had originally envisioned it as being all white, with doves and this whole other thing. Then it kind of turned into a graveyard. ‘Cause I think his idea was originally in heaven. Puffy was in charge of that shoot for sure. He pretty much told Biggie what to do. He was in control of Biggie’s image, I’d say, pretty much all the way.”

By All Means Necessary

(Jive, 1988)

ANN CARLI, HEAD OF ARTIST DEVELOPMENT: “Kris (KRS-One) was really against violence. But he said guns are really important to show that you understand that part of the culture and you're not soft. My whole thing was, if you’re going to have a hard-core cover, let it be for a reason. I said, why don’t we re-create the Malcolm X poster, and that’s also where we got the title. That’s a real gun on the cover; it came from a cop friend of BDP. One of the issues for whomever’s apartment we were using was that they didn’t want a loaded gun there, so we had to disassemble it but still make it look real. After RCA’s art department laid out the cover, I was waiting for something to react--but no one did. I went into the offices and said, Are you guys blind? Don’t you understand the significance of what we’ve done? I’m not saying don’t put it on, I’m saying don’t you want answers when the questions come?”


(MCA, 1999)

KENNY GRAVILLIS, ART DIRECTOR: “We had previously worked on Share My World, which showed Mary in sunglasses. This time, she said, ‘I want it to be really clean and for people to just see me and feel who I am.’ When we got Albert Watson’s photos back, They were so powerful. You saw the scar and the contour of Mary beautiful profile. I felt like, wow. When we sent it around MCA., everyone thought it was amazing--and then they saw the scar. The label president didn’t like it. But we argued that if Mary was comfortable showing it, there’s no way we should take it out. Finally, after a two-hour meeting, the president said we could go with it. Mary loved it right away. it was so simple. usually she’s ghetto fab, which is great. but this cover has such honesty. it felt like she went to another level.”

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
(Columbia, 1998)

ERWIN GOROSTIZA, CO-ART DIRECTOR: “The cover pays homage to Bob Marley and The Wailers’ Burnin’ and honors Lauryn’s partner Rohan Marley’s family line. She wanted to do the shoot in a school. We scouted for weeks and we ended up at her Alma mater, Columbia High School in Maplewood, N.J. But the desk actually came from Lauryn. Those old-school desks with pencil troughs are hard ti find. After we determined the best portrait photo (shot by Eric Johnson to use, it was a matter of tweaking the art. It wasn’t that difficult, thanks to a skilled retoucher (major props to Will Kennedy, wherever you are). In one version, there were pencil ‘shavings’ around the portrait, but they distracted from the carving. The final version was cleaner and simpler. “

Fear of a Black Planet
(Def Jam, 1990)

CEY ADAMS, CREATIVE DIRECTOR: “It was the first time we’d worked on a project where the arts wasn’t on the front cover. Chuck D came with a sketch on a napkin--this was before computers. Everything was done by hand. Then (Co-creative Director) Steve Carr and I found B.E. Johnson, who did paintings for NASA. He was not a fan of Public Enemy, but he knew about planets. A lot of the credit goes to B.E. and Chuck, who’s a visionary and gives you a lot of room to be creative. It was one of my favorite projects because I loved working with him. remember when Professor Griff was catching heat for the allegedly anti-Semitic remarks? we were shooting the back cover in Def Jam’s conference room, and 3rd Bass happened to come up and get into a heated beef with the SIWs and Griff. They almost tore up the room. Griff had a daughter who was about 5, the same age as my kid. The two of them were in Russell's (Simmons) office playing while all this chaos was going on down the hall; they were oblivious to the fighting. I remember thinking, Why can’t people learn to get along like these kids?”

The Low End Theory
(Jive, 1991)

JEAN KELLY, ART DIRECTOR: “Jive records executive Ann Carli had one of the original concepts for the album, and there was real strong creative input from the group, though Q-Tip acted as the spokesperson. The image was inspired by those old Ohio Players album covers. We had a makeup artist whose specialty as fluorescent paint, and he originally applied the makeup, but there had to be a lot of touch-ups. Just shooting the model took an entire day of two. the model was nude--though I don’t even know if you can tell that--so the set was closed. It was a really strong image and lent itself well to Tribe’s creative vision. The Low End Theory was totally unique for the genre. The art really stood out, but i didn’t realize at the time the immense impact the music would have.

Flesh of My flesh Blood of My Blood
(Def Jam, 1998)

CEY ADAMS, CREATIVE DIRECTOR: “I was concerned about the similarities between DMX and Tupac with his shirt off, so photographer Jonathan Mannion and I thought we should do something really literal: a blood bath. But because DMX was such a loose cannon, we were afraid to ask whether he wanted to do it. If you present an artist with an idea, especially something that could be perceived as sacrilegious, they could just turn on you--and the record company is not going to protect you. But in the end, he was excited about the idea. Jonathan mixed up this concoction of Kool-Aid , Jell-O, sugar, and food dye to make the blood. I assumed the cover would be really controversial and we wouldn’t be able to rack it in Wal-Mart, but I don’t remember it being that big of a deal. Anytime you’re working with DMX, it’s memorable. You have to earn his trust, and you have to convince the whole posse it’s cool. It’s ridiculous to have to convince the guys sitting around eating craft services that the cover is a great idea, but that’s the way it works in hip hop.”

As nasty As They Wanna Be
(Lil’ Joe, 1989)

FRESH KID ICE, RAPPER: “The concept came from all the members, everybody put their ideas together. All I can remember is how we messed around with the girls. It took a day, and we had a lot of girls there, and we all sort of jumped between some legs. They were aware of how explicit the shoot was going to be, because the cover before (Move Somthin’) had us sitting in a Jacuzzi with one girl over all of us. At that time, most of our albums were being sold from behind the counter, so the images were;nt a problem for us. With the Move Somthin’ cover we had gotten some flak, and this time were just pushing the edge again. It gave a picture of what the 2 Live Crew was all about. We like to have fun, and we’re sexually explicit, it just brought it to the forefront. It drew guys to the record. We did care about our female fans, but the single at that time was ‘Me So Horny’.”

Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version
(Elektra, 1995)

DANTE ROSS, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER: “Dirty designed the cover, basically. I just marched into the art department one day and blew up his welfare card 40 times its size on a color Xerox machine, way before scanners were common place. The Art Director, Alli Truch, got out of our way and let us see the idea through. UB40 did it first with Signing Off (the did an unemployment card in the early ‘80s), so i figured there was a precedent. The photographer, Danny Clinch, and the rest of us didn’t have a clue what the remaining part of the package would be, so we just followed Dirty’s lead. We ended up in 60 Second Assassin’s apartment in East New York and shot the rest of it there in a whim.”


(Cash Money, 1998)

ALBERT MATA, ART DIRECTOR FOR PEN & PIXEL: “A lot of times, Mannie Fresh, Juvenile, and baby would let us run with whatever concepts we came up with. Bling was just starting to blow up. We started the blinged-out type treatment, but the idea came from the clients. We fed off what they were portraying and got creative with that. The title really helped because it was something really hot, but at the same time flashy. It had elements that brought the bling out, but it had a darker, hotter feel, with lots of reds and oranges burning through the actual cover. We had the cover up on the wall at Pen & Pixel, and there was always a crowd around it. Everyone said they wanted certain aspects of it to be on their covers. It influenced a lot of newcomers, and even the old artists said, ‘I like what y’all did.’ You know how Juvenile’s face is up there in the sky--that was something everybody asked for. People loved that.”

The above article was originally published in an issue of VIBE magazine. The date of its original printing is unknown.