Music and visual art go hand and hand, and there is usually a soundtrack that accompanies the artwork that we visual artists create. The prompt for this article is selecting album cover art that has influenced me, and for the sake of making this manageable, my selections will focus on cover art I have been exposed to throughout my life and not on the music that the lies between the covers. Some of my picks are nostalgic and based on my development as a young man, while others have to deal with the visual impact.
Photography: Dick Zimmerman
Many of my selections come from the collections of my parents and my older brother, who greatly shaped my taste in music at a young age. And this album was in both of their collections. Michael's Thiller sits at the top of this list because it is seared in my brain. This image has shaped generations of fashion, art and swagger. It was just a glowy Michael staring back at me, penetrating my space and soul. It was flashy and subtle ... intimate and powerful. And yes, when you open the jacket there is a tiger kitten on his leg.
Bitches Brew (1970)
Designed by German painter Abdul Mati Klarwein, Bitches Brew is a close second in context to striking album art. It would be many years before I could appreciate the beautiful complexity and genius of the album, but as a child I couldn't take my eyes away from this cover. It felt like cosmic black magic. Klarwein considered Salvador Dalí his spiritual father, which explains the surrealist nature of his work. His artwork was also used for the cover of Santana's Abraxas album cover as well. This was also in my father's collection, and for some reason I never made the connection until this assignment.
Earth, Wind & Fire
That's the Way of the World (1975)
Photography: Norman Seeff
My parents had a lot of Earth, Wind & Fire. Although their use of Kemetic themes had great influence on much of my work, I feel like the cover of That's the Way of the World had the most resonance with me. I just remember the album looked like they were really having fun, and that no one dressed like this anymore, and it was some kind of artifact of a dope party that was over with. I have always felt like I was born in the wrong decade and wish I were 21 in the '70s. This album captured that for me. As evidence of that, while everyone else was hanging posters of Wu-Tang, Notorious B.I.G., and 2Pac on their walls, I would hang this poster insert and album cover on my dormitory walls at Howard University in the mid '90s.
My Adidas/Peter Piper (1986)
I recall being about 10 years old, visiting my aspiring D.J cousin in New Jersey and being overwhelmed by all the milk crates filled with records. It felt like every other record I came to had this logo or some version of it on the cover. No pictures, just words. At time this was very frustrating because I felt like an album cover should be a teaser for what the music was like ... almost like a read-along book. But this logo was boldly defiant and minimal. It was a billboard. The branding of Def Jam and Run-DMC was sheer genius and quickly started showing up everywhere.
Uptown Saturday Night (1997)
Cover art: Dr. Revolt
My mother was a big proponent of collecting art by African American artists and making sure my siblings not only saw positive images of Black people but also understood the value of supporting and collecting art and culture. We had multiple poster prints of works by artist Ernie Barnes throughout our home. Although many people may not know his name, they might remember him as the artist that created the art for the TV show Good Times and the cover of Marvin Gaye's 1976 I Want You album. When Camp Lo's 1997 Uptown Saturday Night was released, I felt like it was an ingenuous homage to Marvin Gaye, Ernie Barnes and Black filmmaking. At the time I was an art major at Howard University, and the cover reminded me of the origins of my art appreciation and my mother's influence on my choice to study art.
A Tribe Called Quest
Midnight Marauders (1993)
A Tribe Called Quest is hands down my favorite musical group. My older brother introduced me to People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm in 1990 and it changed my world. Although I loved all their album covers, Midnight Marauders was unique in that it served as an archive of the hip-hop community by capturing the faces of so many hip hop artists. Much of my current art focuses on alternative archiving and community documenting practices, so I love that decades later I can return to this album and appreciate another aspect of it. Additionally, I have had the privilege of getting to know photographer Terrence A. Reese (aka, TAR), who was the photographer for this project. Amazing photographer, and when he let it slip out that he took all the photos, I totally lost my shit. Check him out. He has done a lot of album covers.
Black Moses (1971)
Photographer: Joel Brodsky
Hotter Than July (1980)
Cover art: Al Harper
My parents were very aware of the power of images, and as I previously mentioned, made sure my siblings and I had positive images of African Americans all over the house. They also closely monitored what type of images were brought into the house. I had Black G.I. Joes and my sisters had Black dolls. Which is why I chose Black Moses by Isaac Hayes and Hotter Than July by Stevie Wonder from their collection. Whereas the image of White Jesus never crossed the threshold of my home, I was very aware this style of portraiture through looking at the albums. When I used to go to other people's homes and see the white Jesus pictured on the wall, there was always something off-putting about them. This was all due to my parents. I'd be like, "That white guy on your wall look just like Black Moses."
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)
"I'm sorry ... I know, I know. But his music and art is the shit!" I have loved Kanye's album covers since the start. Commissioning visual artists like Murakami, Peter De Potter and Kris Yiengst to name a few. Hands down my favorite being his collaboration with George Condo. The cover is dwarfed only by the album itself. Kanye's commissioning of Condo to create nine paintings based on their conversations during studio visits, which became interchangeable album covers, was brilliant on multiple levels. George Condo is not the obvious choice when it comes to hip-hop album art. And whether intentional or intuitive, I felt like he is sharing his new exposure into the high-priced art and fashion world and at the same time exposing the cracks. Many musicians and artists have followed suit.
Kendrick Scott Oracle
A Wall Becomes a Bridge (2019)
This selection is based on being drawn to the artwork. In fact, the art is what led me to the music of Kendrick Scott Oracle. I am a big fan of the art of Yashua Klos, and I think Kendrick was fortunate to have his art on the cover of his 2019 album A Wall Becomes a Bridge. Yashua's collaged woodblock prints come together to make striking and fragmented busts of Black men that capture our sometimes battered and bruised yet resilient psyche. Yashua is deep, and the work is powerful. Oh yeah, Kendrick is also the shit.
No Time for Enemies (2020)
Finally, I will end by talking about the cover I designed for Gangstagrass's upcoming album No Time for Enemies. Album design is a space I have little knowledge about, and when I was asked by artist and friend Michael Rakowitz to design this cover for the group, I thought it was an unusual request. But I am always intrigued by unusual, unexpected things. I was also bored out of my mind and needed a distraction from the anxiety of the Covid lockdown. My most recent sculptures focus on OSB particle board and how similar its texture is to abstract impressionist painting. You know ... the wood used to board up windows. Sometimes I find it and make things with it, and sometimes I make my own colorful Kool-Aid stained version of it, but the pattern stays consistent. Right now with so much going on, with the George Floyd protests, the pattern is popping up everywhere in the world. No longer is material just in the neighborhoods being foreclosed on, now it is also showing up on the buildings downtown and the businesses in affluent neighborhoods that are being burned down or forced out of business. That is a little bit of why I was approached and some of the concept behind the album cover. I really enjoyed working with band and wanted to give them something that captured the spirit of the album. Shout-out to Miguel Aguilar (aka, Kane One), who consulted and created the spray paint tag.