ANDRÉ LEROY DAVIS
THE STEREOTYPED BLOG Q&A
DW: Share with me the story of your formative years-- your upbringing and background.
ALD: I was born and raised in the streets of Brooklyn, New York. My mother and father are both from Barbados and I am the youngest of four. I spent the first ten years of my life in Crown Heights, Brooklyn and then at the age of ten my family moved to East Flatbush, Brooklyn where I spent two years and then we moved again and I spent another two years in Park Slope, Brooklyn and then it was off again to Flatbush, Brooklyn where I still call home.
"The early days of The Source for me was just work. I occasionally went to a party that they had, or I went to some musical performances... My time with The Source was just a month to month thing. They’d call, tell me the cover, I’d come in, we’d meet and I knew that my artwork would be in the next issue and so on and so on. Month by month it some how evolved into sixteen years."
DW: Do you recall when you first felt drawn (no pun intended) to the visual arts? And what was the art that touched you (a painting, particular comic book, newspaper comic strip, album cover)?
ALD: As an artist I can’t remember when I wasn’t drawing and as a kid I don’t remember when I wasn’t drawing. I have an older Brother, Stephan LeRoy Davis who is a visual artist, acrylics on canvas who does serious, poignant work today, but as a kid he would torture me by drawing caricatures of me with a big head and a little body. He’d draw me crying, he’d make fun of me as a way to get back at me for being a Brat and my mission from all of that was to become a better artist than my brother and to be able to out do him and his sense of humor and skills on the caricature tip. Along with that I loved the animation of the Saturday morning cartoons like, “Bill Cosby and The Cosby Kids” and “School House Rock!” from channel 7.
I seriously thought about becoming an animator, but once I explored it a lil’ in High School and College I really didn’t like the monotony of drawing the same thing over and over again. As a kid and till this day I was a big Marvel Comics fan and though I was a fan of comics in general, I would not buy a comic book even if it featured one of my favorite characters if I didn’t like the style of the artists drawing that particular issue. In my teenaged years and in college I would say that my tastes in artists stretched to Ernie Barnes who did all of the actual paintings in the series Good Times, comic artist Kerry Gammill who drew PowerMan and Iron Fist when I was in High School and of course the detailed work of Norman Rockwell…
"... for the youth who don't have a short attention span and who have been blessed with a vivid imagination, a great story, with stunning interesting characters and brilliant artwork can still outshine modern digital technology every time."
DW: I first came across your work via The Source magazine in the early 1990s. How did you exactly connect with the magazine? And what was it like for you working with the magazine in its early years?
ALD: After I earned a Bachelor's Degree from The School of Visual Arts, in 1987 I started a career as a freelance artist supplying artwork for a diverse selection of magazines such as Emerge, Playgirl, Discover, Players Magazine and etc., but I was enthusiastic about the prospects of drawing subjects that were much closer to home and that looked like me and dressed like me. In the summer of nineteen ninety, August to be exact, while walking around the city, I spotted my first Source Magazine hanging in the window at a Manhattan newsstand. During that time period you had magazines like Right On!, Word Up!, Spin Magazine, even Rolling Stone that would spotlight Hip-Hop in it’s pages on a semi-monthly basis but, quickly thumbing through the pages of The Source Magazine I realized that this was a magazine where every page was totally dedicated to Hip-Hop. A fledgling operation I decided to give them a call and see if they might be interested in utilizing my artistic skills.
A lot of folks were and have been under the assumption that I knew Dave Mays or Benzino and that’s how I got The Last Word column, but that wasn’t the case. Once I got home I called the number listed in the magazine and I set up a meeting for the next day with then Editor-in-chief, John Shecter, (J The Sultan). The next day I went to their one room office on Broadway and we met and talked and I showed him my work… John liked what he saw and after that it was on. John and I had a creative connection and he had an idea to sum up one poignant topic from a given article in each issue of The Source in illustrated form. The early days of The Source for me was just work. I occasionally went to a party that they had, or I went to some musical performances, but for the first year or two I was working on all other aspects of my artistic career and my time then with The Source was just a month to month thing. They’d call, tell me the cover, I’d come in and we’d meet and I knew that my artwork would be in the next issue and so on and so on. Month by month it some how evolved into sixteen years.
DW: You've referred to yourself as “the Al Hirschfeld of Hip-Hop”. Can you elaborate on that reference?
ALD: When I said that I meant comparatively I see my self as the Al Hirschfeld of Hip-Hop. So now let me tell you who Al Hirschfeld is and was if you don’t know. Hirschfeld was a renowned illustrator and a caricaturist who thrived artistically with the arrival and flourishing of live theater in America in the nineteen-thirties. He would capture the spirit and the essence of performers with flawless ink strokes. His caricatures graced the pages of The New York Times for almost 75 years. His drawings were vivid, detailed yet simple in their complexity. The name Al Hirschfeld is synonymous with the American Theatre.
Now I think that with my sixteen years with The Source and my over twenty years of illustrating and documenting Hip-Hop in general, that my goal was to capture the spirit and the essence of whomever I was illustrating. With that like Hirschfeld my name (André LeRoy Davis) and my vivid, detailed caricatures and illustrations have become synonymous with Hip-Hop.
DW: In terms of impact, the comic book has lost some its potency in stirring the imaginations of the young. Modern digital technology has seen to that. But in your time growing up, which in reality was not that long ago-- a few decades, comics played an important role in the day-dreams of young kids (especially young boys). Who were some of your favorite comic characters and the specific comic illustrators that you swore by? What about their styles earned your loyalty to them?
ALD: I’d agree with you that the comic book has lost some of its potency with far to many in the current younger generation who’d rather play video games than to read, but for the youth who don’t have a short attention span and who have been blessed with a vivid imagination, a great story, with stunning interesting characters and brilliant artwork can still outshine modern digital technology every time. Now as far as some of my favorite characters and artists are concerned, I’d have to say as an adolescent my favorite characters were The Vision and Captain America. In my teenaged years Luke Cage Power Man, The Black Panther, The Falcon and Wolverine joined Captain America and The Vision into the mix. My favorite comic book artist’s at that time were Kerry Gammill who drew Power Man and Iron Fist when I was in High School and of course the great John Byrne. For me as a kid coming up any artists who’s work that I’d look at and wish that I could draw like usually became a favorite, because even as a kid if I were to open a comic book and I wasn’t impressed or challenged by the artwork, because it looked to me like I could do a better job then I wasn’t a fan and it made no sense for me to pick it up, look through it or certainly not buy it.
"... to get work today, get off your ass. Grind, struggle, call, inquire, walk, mail and just persistence. Nobody gives you anything and everyone seems to have a creative short-term memory, so you have to constantly remind folks of what you can do. But the most important thing is that you have to have a quality portfolio that represents exactly what you can do."
DW: How was your experience at/through SVA? What did you come away with after graduating from the school that you'd not had when you first enrolled? What did you learn there?
ALD: Let me first say that I graduated from the High School of Art & Design and that was an artistic wake up call for me. I had come from Brooklyn and received the best artist award at my Junior High School graduation so I knew I could draw, but attending Art & Design let me know not to take anything or anyone for granted, because there were Brothas and Sistas there from every borough who were as good as me and better than me in the genre of art that they had chosen. Art & Design made me step up my game especially in my Junior and Senior years where I think that I finally got comfortable and found my niche. With SVA I came in with a confidence, but not a cockiness… I was there hopefully to learn and I was extremely open.
I don’t really think that anyone can learn how to draw, I think that you can learn to enhance what you do already and that you can creatively get better by opening yourself up to learning new techniques, new styles and skills along with the usage of new medias and experimentation until you find that thing that works best for you. For me I went there with an idea to be an illustrator and my Freshman Art illustration teacher showed me a technique of shading that utilized cross hatching that I still use till this day when I draw. I knew that I could do the realistic thang, but the desire to be funny, creative and still capture a tight illustrative likeness took me right back to being a cartoonist and caricaturist. I learned little pieces here and there from some of the best artists and teachers and I took from them what worked best for me and combined it with what I already was doing and I just kept honing my skills and perfecting what I do.
DW: How did you land the gigs at the magazines? There was no internet back then, digital portfolios, e-mail, etc. What were some of the steps back then that you had to take as a freshly graduated SVA student to make the moves into transitioning into a pro artist?
ALD: You had to do exactly what I still have to do to get work today, get off your ass. Grind, struggle, call, inquire, walk, mail and just persistence. Nobody gives you anything and everyone seems to have a creative short-term memory, so you have to constantly remind folks of what you can do. But the most important thing is that you have to have a quality portfolio that represents exactly what you can do. Nowadays you can accomplish that online, but back then you had to have a well put together portfolio that you could carry in your hand and be able to show it at the drop of a dime. I would pay monthly visits to magazine stands with pen and paper in hand. What I used to do is pick-up any magazine whether they be musical or entertainment mags and thumb through them to see if I saw any usage of illustrations.
Sometimes even if there weren’t any illustrations, then I’d copy and write down the name of the magazine, where it was located, their number if it was listed and the name of the art director. I’d copy down as many names as possible before the folks behind the counter could start beefin’ about me reading the magazine in the store and not buying the magazines. I’d do the same thing when I would visit Tower Records or whatever store was selling music at the time and copy down the label name and address. I then would set aside a whole day to call up these magazines and inquire if they had what was called a portfolio drop-off day…That was a particular day when you could drop-off your portfolio for the art director to look at and if they were interested in using your work they would take a card with your number and call you up when a job that they felt fit your style was available. I would get a group of drop-off days and listings and coordinate them, then hit the road with my two portfolios.
To give you an idea, let’s say that Sports Illustrated accepted portfolios on Thursday by 9:00am and then you’d have to pick up your portfolio from them by that following Monday and I knew that Time magazine looked at portfolios on Mondays only and they were located in the same building, so I then would make sure that I could hit them off with my portfolio while still dropping off my other portfolio at a near by record label as soon as I left Time magazine. It was all about walking and grinding. I mentioned earlier that I first saw a Source magazine in the window of a newsstand in Manhattan and I copied the information down and called them and set up a date to show them my portfolio… The rest is artistic history…
DW: Writers, not just those working for The Source, but other mags dedicated to covering rap music and hip-hop culture, were known to have had run-ins with rap artists who were not happy with an album review or the angle that a particular story on them took. I've seen your The Last Word images for years and a picture is worth a thousand words. Some of the illustrations you created were very funny. I know that some rappers were quite sensitive as to how they were perceived image wise. They did not always have a sense of humor about things. Were you ever concerned about getting some blow back from any rappers depicted in your The Last Word illustrations?
ALD: If you really think about it, nobody poked, jabbed or made fun of rappers in the Hip-Hop community until The Last Word. Yeah the white press and media who didn’t know or understand the culture made stupid comments about the thick ass gold chains, gangsta rap, the attire, the lifestyle and the over indulgences, but I came from an angle of being an M.C, a writer, a journalist and an artist. I was a part of the culture when I was in Junior High School, I was a part of the culture when I was in High School, I was a part of the culture when I was in College. I was a part of the culture when I graduated from college and decided to become a professional artist. I still am a part of the culture and in my mind my column (The Last Word) was never intended to purposely demean anyone, for if it was, demeaning is a task that I could easily without any real vision towards thought or concept, consistently and venomously accomplish. So in the early years of The Last Word when artists like DJ Quik, Rakim and Professor X were not pleased about how I drew them, or the situation that I placed them in and they would call up The Source offices or they’d have a representative reach out for them, I’d tell heads up at The Source to give whomever my number and they could talk, beef or communicate directly with me.
As the writer and the illustrator of The Last Word for 16 years, the owners of the magazine might have occasionally had suggestions on what I should draw, but I never drew an idea that I didn’t come up with myself, or that I collaborated with and no one ever told me what I had to draw. In other words, I had no problem saying “NO”… after all it was my name attached to the illustration. So with that being said I had no plans or desire to hide from anyone, because I never came up with an idea, joke or illustration that I didn’t believe in, that I felt wasn’t funny or that didn’t say something, so there was no reason for me not to stand my grown and back up whatever I illustrated… As the years passed and new rappers came on the scene, call this cocky or however you see it, but my view was I have drawn, poked fun of, jabbed, pulled the card of legends the likes of Rakim, Eazy-E, KRS-One, Ice-Cube, Snoop Dogg, LL Cool J, Dr. Dre, Ice-T, Slick Rick, Tupac, RedMan, Biggie, Jay-Z, Nas and the entire Wu-Tang Clan and if they could handle it and deal with it then you youngin’s new on the scene better not have shit to say to me…Lol!!!
In most cases, one on one I found that the individual artist after talking to me had a real good sense of humor and they could often handle my jabs, the problem usually came from their crews and friends talking things up in their ears and getting them all excited and heated about the illustration, but I never went after folks even if I didn’t like them, I took the same jabs at my favorite M.C’s that I took at the ones that weren’t as appealing to my Hip-Hop musical sensibilities.
View more of Andre Leroy Davis' work below.