Mixtapes have been around almost since hip-hop’s beginning, but in the last decade, their ubiquity and efficacy have made them perhaps the prime way for new artists to be discovered and for older artists to re-establish their bona fides. At the same time, now that they’re everywhere, it’s tough to stand out and win attention.
In this environment, artwork is crucial, a way to stand out on websites like datpiff.com and livemixtapes.com, where dozens of new mixtapes are available free every week. The best covers are a folky pastiche, relying on familiar tropes from movie posters and video games, and applying layers of digital effects and clip art to make something memorable. For a Plies mixtape called “Top Goon,” there’s the rapper Photoshopped into a “Top Gun” setup. For a mixtape released when Young Jeezy and Rick Ross were beefing, the two are illustrated in a fight, with Mr. Ross pushing his hand through Young Jeezy’s chest and coming out of the other side holding his heart.
These whimsical hip-hop daydreams have rarely been truly and fully appreciated. But the art is celebrated in a new book, “Damn Son Where Did You Find This?: A Book About U.S. Hip-Hop Mixtape Cover Art” by Tobias Hansson and Michael Thorsby, released in a limited run on a Swedish press, La Vida Locash. (The title comes from a familiar vocal drop used on Trap-A-Holics mixtapes.)
“Damn Son” features extended interviews with five graphic designers — KidEight, Miami Kaos, Mike Rev, Tansta and Skrilla — along with dozens of examples of their work. As their careers peaked — beginning about 10 years ago — mixtape artwork had been somewhat codified. Each artist, though, has been able to establish signature flourishes in the genre.
Miami Kaos stands out for his illustration skills. Rather than working around a pre-existing photo, he draws his subjects, rendering them even more heroic. Mike Rev is notable for his restraint, as seen in his work for Meek Mill’s “Dreamchasers” series, done in black and green, a sort of modern sepia tone. KidEight is the eccentric of the group, a master of Photoshop and logo reappropriations, with a finely honed sense of the absurd.
The book’s interviews with the artists illuminate what may have been obvious but unspoken: Many rappers and D. J.s ask for artwork similar to things that are already in the marketplace, and only a few are content to let the designers roam free creatively. Some artists have backgrounds in graffiti, and others are trained designers. Surprisingly, two of the five profiled live in England, far away from firsthand interaction with American hip-hop culture. They used the Internet to contact and communicate with potential clients, and some posted their work on message boards for sharing and critiquing.
Hip-hop is too vast to have had cleanly defined eras of cover art design, but over the decades a few movements have stood out, echoing the music’s evolution. In the mid- to late 1980s, the photographer Glen E. Friedman and the designer and graffiti artist Eric Haze created striking, raw, photo-driven covers. From the 1980s into the late 1990s, Cey Adams and Steve Carr oversaw the Drawing Board, which served as Def Jam’s in-house design firm, and strived to import fine art sensibilities into hip-hop.
And in the late 1990s, the Houston design firm Pen & Pixel took the hip-hop album cover psychedelic. Pen & Pixel rightly understood hip-hop as a fantasy of abundance and made its covers into conspicuous consumption cornucopias. On its covers, rappers were street superheroes, surrounded by money, cars, jewelry and women in unlikely combinations and proportions.
This was a turning point — away from realism or classical notions of respectability. And it’s noteworthy that this approach came from the South, a region which had largely been maligned by hip-hop’s coastal elites, and therefore had to develop its own hierarchies of taste.
Modern mixtape art, as captured in this book — fast-moving, bug-eyed, wily — is a clear child of Pen & Pixel. The covers are overstuffed, pseudo-lifelike, disorienting. Rappers are holding babies, or weapons, or ice cream, or cleavers. Aliens might be emerging from their stomachs.
This is a far cry from early mixtape art, which was decidedly utilitarian — the fonts were blocky and simple, and the photos were poor quality. Sometimes the track list took up more space on the cover than the photo. Given the rampant bootlegging that was endemic and essential to the spread of mixtapes, the cover artwork might have been photocopied a few times over. These were, above all, D.J. showcases, and most D. J.s were more or less anonymous, a trusted name without a face.
But in the early to mid-2000s, as artists began to use mixtapes as promotional tools, often sidelining the D.J. in the process, branding became newly important. This book skips that period entirely, overlooking essential mixtapes by 50 Cent and G-Unit, and the Diplomats, releases that are as important to those artists’ catalogs as their official albums, if not more so.
Today, some rappers — say, Future or Gucci Mane — take mixtapes that seriously, too. But for the most part, the impact of mixtapes is waning. In the book’s interviews, almost all of the graphic designers indicate that their heyday has likely passed. Creativity has been squeezed out of the business, they say, a victim of diminishing margins and market saturation.
And that’s to say nothing of the recommercialization of the mixtape. Rappers like Drake are now releasing mixtapes straight to iTunes, redefining the form as something other than a steady source of free music. Given that, the freewheeling era in this book already looks like history.
Repost: NY Times