Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Pen & Pixel — Legends Of The Gaudy Rap Album Covers

An Ode to Pen & Pixel Album Covers

Major labels got you art direction. Indie rappers got Pen & Pixel to photoshop them on to a pile of gold holding a Glock.

Yesterday was great because any day where I spend over an hour looking at Pen & Pixel art is a great day. First my friend Marko put up every Pen & Pixel cover he had, then I found an even bigger archive while trying to track down one Marko didn't have. It is 65 pages of photoshopped flames, lens flares and blinged-out letters from before "bling" was a cliche. It is the best thing you will see all month.

To bring everyone up to speed, Pen & Pixel is a graphic design firm based in Houston who made their name doing album art for rappers, primarily in the South and Southwest. The golden age of Pen & Pixel was the late 90's and early 00's (especially when No Limit had a new album in stores every fucking week). You know the style even if you don't know the name: a typical Pen & Pixel cover involves the artist surrounded by photoshopped cars, weapons and women usually in the hood but sometimes in a graveyard or a church, under grandiose typography depicting their name.

It's actually hard to say what a "typical" Pen & Pixel work looks like because their process is very hands-off; they are more or less happy to do whatever their clients want. Not anything, as they explained in the Ego Trip Book of Rap Lists (nobody goes on the cross!), but their concerns were about politics not taste. No amount of computer-aided thuggin or computer-aided stuntin' was over the line.

And so Pen & Pixel's legacy is some of the straight up silliest album art of all time. South Park Mexican rakes money in his front yard! BG stands amidst a rain of giant bullets! A hundred different rappers gaze pensively into the Earth they hold in their hands, in which you can see the streets they come from! A hundred other rappers loom over their city and/or some luxury cars. The most famous (as art alone) is probably Big Bear's Doin' Thangs. The album itself is totally capable late-90's Bay Area-influenced rap from Omaha. But on the cover, Big Bear sits at a table with two other bears in smoking jackets, enjoying cigars and fresh fruit. They all have gigantic snifters of brandy. One of the bears is wearing sunglasses.

I feel like I have to point out that Pen & Pixel's work graces the covers of dozens of platinum records and classic albums. Doin' Thangs is famous because it's an Internet meme and it shows up on Buzzfeed lists like "15 Album Covers You Won't Believe!" or some shit. And you may have heard of Pen & Pixel through an episode of Louis Theroux's Weird Weekends, which has the smarmy tone of a Daily Show segment where they visit a white supremacist. There's a tendency to write off anyone with a Pen & Pixel cover that isn't famous (and already known to be clownable) as terrible because apparently you can judge gangster rap by its cover (unlike books!). And that's unfortunate because Pen & Pixel thrived at a time when major labels really didn't fuck with anyone who wasn't from New York or Los Angeles.

Small market rappers had to hustle. Major labels got you art direction. Indie rappers got Pen & Pixel to photoshop them on to a pile of gold holding a Glock. Sometimes they sold millions of records, sometimes they were just the hottest thing in Little Rock in 1997. Either way, a gallery of Pen & Pixel covers is a strange trip through rap in lesser-known corners of the map. (It's also not fair to think none of the rappers were in on the joke. I think it's fair to say you are laughing with Big Bear and not at him.)

But anyways, none of this changes the glorious insanity that is Pen & Pixel artwork. Here are five covers that feature rappers in space. — Skinny Friedman | NOISEY

Letter of Recommendation: Pen & Pixel

Snoop Dogg sits cross-­legged in a jewel-­encrusted throne. His right hand dangles a cigar, while his left clutches a gold cane so ornate that it might have been lifted from the Vatican. He’s in the driveway of an unfathomably expensive mansion, flanked by a scrum of pit bulls. It makes quite a first impression, but if you look closely enough, you might notice the artwork’s seams ­— the way the two wings of the house don’t match, the way the dogs seem pulled from different photo shoots. But with diamonds and gemstones this dazzling, why get hung up on the details?

The image is the cover of Snoop’s 1998 album, “Da Game Is to Be Sold, Not to Be Told,” the L.A. rapper’s first with the New Orleans-­based No Limit Records. And the mise-en-scène — its flamboyant and farcical qualities, its digitally simulated grace — places us unmistakably in the realm of Pen & Pixel, the Houston-­based graphic-­design firm that prospered from 1992 to 2003 by bringing just this combination of menacing nonchalance and near-­utopian affluence to the nation’s album covers.

The design firm set the tone for Southern rap’s near-­complete takeover of the genre — to the point that Snoop would sign with a Louisiana label. It’s easy to forget that even within a genre as historically maligned as hip-hop, music made outside the familiar East and West Coast industry hubs had a fugitive, disreputable quality for many years. From the mainstream’s perspective, there was a profound otherness to these outsiders, with their strange accents and manners and slapdash production values. Pen & Pixel served as the visual counterpart to this otherness; its gaudy, dreamlike album covers were like crass, lunatic vision-­boards, offering vibrant Photoshop collages of palm trees and pineapples, Hummers and helicopters, skulls and city skylines and diamond-­studded goblets. There were nearly always Champagne bottles, lightning bolts and pastel-­colored luxury cars, all of it arranged carefully in graveyards or deserts or swamps, on the lawns of palatial estates or on the moon. The fonts tended to be three-­dimensional, seemingly cast in gold or other precious metals.

Big Bear’s ‘Doin Thangs’ cover, by the numbers:
Bears in smoking jackets: 4
Bears actually smoking cigars: 3
Fruit and nut platters: 1
Letters dripping honey: 2

The firm’s weird, pixelated decadence conveyed fantasies of kitsch and capitalism taken to their illogical extremes. In the South Georgia town I grew up in, as in scores of other economically depressed cities across the Cotton Belt, large areas of stark poverty encircled and coexisted uneasily with pockets of country-­club opulence. This was the disorienting New South that Pen & Pixel seemed to respond to in its own distinctly disorienting way.

What I most admired about the aesthetic was its boundless energy and unpredictability, and the way it let rappers be upfront and extroverted about their desires. The covers also perfectly complemented the music within — onslaughts of bold and abrasive sonic experimentation. Whether for canonical artists (Snoop Dogg, Lil Wayne) or for radically obscure ones, Pen & Pixel covers represented a sort of promise; not a guarantee of quality, exactly, but one of imaginative humor and deliberate, playful surrealism.

The firm was founded by two brothers, Aaron and Shawn Brauch. Aaron had an M.B.A. from Cornell and was a proud lifetime member of Mensa. Shawn was a scuba-­diving enthusiast with multiple design degrees. Originally employed by the seminal Texas hip-hop label Rap-A-Lot, the brothers soon found themselves inundated with outside requests. They struck out on their own in 1992, their operation consisting of a computer and a dining-­room table, and by 1998 they were reporting gross annual profits of $3.7 million. They started their own TV show and, as Shawn told The Los Angeles Times that year, planned a book of Pen & Pixel artwork, “including a magnifying glass, to see all the detail.”

And what detail! Rappers delved into their own psyches and dreamed up scenarios in which they tamed tigers, leveled skyscrapers with laser vision, gaped at alligators or reigned over ruined worlds engulfed in flames. The results may have started out as an affront to mainstream taste, but by the turn of the century they were practically a primary expression of it. The firm decorated the covers of 750 million albums sold, including 12 platinum and 38 gold records. It might be more accurate to say that the firm burrowed into the id of mainstream taste, stripping it for parts in a manic cut-and-paste frenzy. Its success was accompanied by the usual hand-­wringing: The Brauchs were dismissed as tasteless and grossly materialistic by people who probably danced at their weddings to Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want).”

The Brauch brothers have cited Napster and Sept. 11 as the twin harbingers of Pen & Pixel’s demise: Fears of file-­sharing and terrorism alike apparently rendered long-­distance flights to Houston to spend large amounts on artwork (which listeners may or may not even see) a hugely optional luxury. In the company’s wake, rap-­album art has in large part degenerated into a kind of solemn professionalism, a zone overcrowded with nostalgia and self-­serious monochromatic portraits. There’s less room today for the truly unexpected juxtaposition — no pineapples, pet cheetahs or convertibles riding waves like surfboards. What I miss most about these covers is their tendency to transform real-life injustice into a luminous and liberating absurdism; the world of Pen & Pixel was limited only by artists’ imaginations. They shared cigars with grizzly bears, recast themselves as Rambo-­like war heroes and constructed still lifes out of Rolex watches and bottles of Moët & Chandon. And we were all allowed to take part, if only from a distance. — Will Stephensen | The New York Times

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