Recycle of old work. This was originally written for all-round good bloke Mr. Nick Schonberger and ‘Words, Beats & Life’ earlier last year. It  feels more relevant after I made my first legitimate MP3 purchase (the new Alchemist) last week. It was then truly I realised that e-sleevenotes and artwork are no substitute for the real thing, but when was the last time I ever got excited about rap album art?  The late ’90s.

First things first…check this interview with Shawn Brauch.  19,000 covers.

Image is everything. Pen & Pixel’s dominance on shelves in the late ’90s harks back to a time when Southern rap was still taboo – a baffling cottage (mansion?) industry that swerved away from the bookshop owning Muslim MCs or canary yellow Uptowns and shiny suits. Somehow tied in, yet operating like a rogue agent, from the burgeoning Bentley and Jacob jewels East Coasters – bear in mind B.G. coined the term bling, like a rap snob food chain, Jansport wielders could scowl at Harlem World who in turn could chuckle at their country cousins behind their backs. In the rise of indie vinyl a mere razor logo and Staple or Rollins layout could assert identity – for major labels, a moody photo with a Cey Adams rehaul – and for the new breed of entrepreneurs signing heavy distro deals with the big guns? The sky was the limit.

By the time Juve infiltrated your speakers on Jay-Z’s ‘Snoopy Track’, or BGeezy dropped by to baffle on ‘H.N.I.C.’ (“Yo! This doesn’t rhyme! THIS ISN’T HIP-HOP!”) the battle was won. To approach with irony defeated the object – to make Magnolia Projects like the damn Taj Mahal is an achievement, while treating it with a solemn, scholarly approach would be ludicrous. At the exact point when national newspapers were championing the profit potential of hip-hop, there was still a sub-genre that could unite parents, old schoolers and headnodders in the opinion that this wasn’t music. Just in case things had gotten a little too safe.

8-Ball & MJG’s bizarre looking ‘Coming Out Hard’ with its awkward, artificial landscape and background, set the scene, and seemingly unleashing an imitative habit that stuck for Percy Miller, browsing through the now-defunct 4080 magazine, a heavily altered street scene, portraying the Ice Cream Man in action was as startling as any earlier beat-led shocks to the system.

And as the Source continued a perfect-bound tumble from credibility, must-browse status was conferred by the peppering of technicolor fantasies – heavy handed renderings of street dreams, in which gutter and glamour merged. The logical step from the madness of those Pedro Bell Funkadelic artworks, or a hand-painted Sun Ra LP, forget Joe Cool’s atrocious Snoop artwork – the deranged kennel fantasy that opened his short-lived No Limit stint was arguably better – this followed a rich lineage of ghetto eccentricity.

Pen & Pixel satires on Beatnuts, Dr Dooom and A-Trak projects (Sean P is omitted from this – that mixtape cover was both funny and timely) missed the point. Willful laughs couldn’t touch the congested lunacy of Soulja Slim’s ‘Give It To ‘Em Raw’ or that perennial favorite, Big Bear’s ‘Doin Thangs’ – its nice to imagine that Bear was poker faced when he commissioned that masterpiece. Whereas ODB and Kool Keith, the former a drunken master and the latter super-scientifical style master, played up to their court jester roles, much like that other genius, turned comedian, Lee Perry, the characters lifted from photographs and placed in diamond encrusted churches were apparently, as serious as cancer. Well, apart from Mac Dre.

And the reggae references don’t end there. Like the dub vendors and studios recording and pressing a release in days, a rapid artwork turnaround with a near-democratic approach, where a tiered package approach meant everyone could have a piece of the digitally rendered pie. The true ballers could go for broke. And if ‘where are they now?’ tales are to be believed, studio gangsters were in the minority. Like Mannie Fresh’s alleged house-music past drifting into those 808s, there’s a madness that borders on camp in this imagery. The lo-fi matter-of-fact Rap-A-Lot house style, bare bones, but effective that James Prince initially peddled got the job done, but this new bombast from the South’s new moguls was the next level.

You might not remember a single chorus, but Mercedes’ funk in the trunk remains etched in the retina, much like caucasian sensation White Dawg’s optimistic mansion, festooned with platinum platters or Silkk Tha Shocker charging it to the game in hood 3D. Consider those minutes of fame accorded to the likes of Mr Serv-On, Kane & Abel, Trinity Garden Cartel or the Jump Out Boyz. Recognition far beyond their block. Vegas, the Bay and New Orleans going all world, transported by those one-page spots with matter-of-fact listings of label roster guest spots.

Looking at more recent output, Mr Stinky’ s ‘Everything Dead’ summed it up – that and the tired digital fonts, plus nuclear explosions that make Cro-Mags’ ‘Age Of Quarrel’ artwork look like ‘Houses Of The Holy’ by
comparison. It was good while it lasted, and according to rumor, AKA Studios is the new jump-off if you want to shine on your debut. Apparently it houses a few ex-Pen & Pixellers.

Kicking digital media is both counterproductive, and as the new DJ Drama blares from these tinny MacBook speakers, hypocritical, but these lurid masterworks were the last bastion of distinction against the po-faced, self parodying screwfaces that rendered the shelves beige with the same old same. The solution? Take it further than the next man. Cognac swilling wildebeest? Done. Half man, half monster? Not a problem. Oneupmanship. These masterworks weren’t for vinyl consumption – without twelve inches plus of cardboard to fill, you’ve got to get to holler a little louder to be heard behind that plastic screen.

Forget the four elements cliche mumbled by any unsigned MC still cyphering and deeming themselves a contender. This is lurid, unforgettable and frequently hilarious – mad flights of fancy, where anything goes. Busy Bee’s giant ‘B’ from dollars, orgy and the near sawn-off jack move that preceded given the THX, CGI and DVD treatment – Wild Style’s true 15th anniversary digital remaster. Now that’s hip-hop.

All images swaggerjacked from