The Architect: Interview With Brent Rollins
If you’ve bought any good hip hop albums in the last 15 years, chances are you have some work by Brent Rollins sitting in your collection right now. Rollins is the design mastermind behind classic album covers by the likes of Gang Starr, Blackalicious and Black Star. His most recent work was the album packaging for Freeway & Jake One’s Stimulus Package LP.
We sat down with the man to find out about the difference between working for majors versus independent labels and his design aesthetics. And who’s that kid wearing orange socks on Spike Lee’s ‘Do The Right Thing’ film poster?
TRU: When did you decide to become a designer?
Oh man, I think in high school, believe it or not. I was the kid in school who liked to draw and everything and my mother was more the kind of person who was like, “You need to make money, you need to get a job”. So, I was lucky I was exposed to graphic design in high school, I had a class that taught it.
TRU: Were you exposed to graphic art in any other ways early on? You did a lot of mural artworks and installations for exhibits but did you ever do any mural art of the less legal kind?
Haha, nah, you know what? I’m not one of the graffiti dudes. I have a lot of respect for people who do that or have done that in the past but that was never my thing. I grew up in Los Angeles and there’s graffiti in LA but I never really had that ability to do so because in LA, you gotta drive everywhere. New York has the subways and public transportation but in LA if you wanted to do that stuff you had to really, really go out of your way and that was never my thing. My influences are really kind of traditional, graphic design, you know, like Milton Glaser and people like that, that school of thought. That’s my base but when I learned about hip-hop, that sort of changed things and I tried to put the two together. I want to take the street culture elements and fuse that with the design basics that I’ve learned.
TRU: Tell us a bit about those basics, what makes a design a distinctively ‘Brent Rollins’ design?
Oh man, I wish other people could tell me because I don’t know. I’ve been lucky that people respond well to the album covers and stuff that I’ve done. You know, it helps to have a good client, a good project. I just want to present people in an interesting light. I used to do stuff for Quannum from the Bay Area in California.
TRU: Did you do the NIA album by Blackalicious?
Yeah, stuff like that. For that record, Chief Xcel from Blackalicious said, “I want you to do something that other people won’t let you do.” And this somewhere like ‘97 I think… ‘98, ‘99 maybe. You have to think about what the environment was like, what album covers were like. Our whole goal was to make album covers that didn’t look like what previous hip hop album covers looked like.
TRU: That was in the middle of the shiny suit era.
Exactly. But even like, and I’m not trying to knock anyone, but you see a lot of guys putting graffiti elements into their design and stuff like that, and I respect that stuff, but I didn’t want to be locked in with that. Everything I did, I wanted to take a more classic, album cover design to it. Something that didn’t necessarily look like hip hop but was hip hop because of the approach and the thought process behind it, not because I’ve put some graffiti arrows behind it.
TRU: So, in moving away from what’s seen as traditional hip hop graphics, you’re creating new hip hop graphics, giving it some new blood. Having done that, you’re often influencing hip hop design that came after you. Where do you draw the line in people being influenced by your style or simply biting it?
I’m flattered when people tell me that, sometimes for me it’s hard to see that in other people’s work. I’m sure there are people who are influenced by that sort of approach I think… You know what man? It’s like this. When you create something, you don’t create something to hold on to it. You create something to share. And as long as people respect and acknowledge where they get their ideas from then that’s a great thing. When I do stuff for people I do it because I have stuff that I want to show other people and that I want to share. You can’t really control something once you’ve put it out there. It has a life of its own, you know what I mean? Sometimes people bite, but sometimes people take an idea and develop it. If you take an idea and push it further, then that’s what it’s all about.
TRU: That’s a healthy attitude to have.
Haha, just pay me too!
TRU: You’ve designed logos, books, shirt prints, magazines, album sleeves and TV show graphics. What kind of media are you still itching to work with?
You know what, doing some kind of public space would be really fun. Like a nightclub, doing something where people can walk in and get taken to someplace else. That’s an exciting idea, something physical, especially now, man, everything’s digital. It’s wack, no one has stuff anymore. No one touches things, experiences things, you know? I think it’s about giving people a real experience.
TRU: Yeah, we’ve gone from the vinyl album sleeve to CD cases to a tiny picture on an iPod…
Yeah, that’s wack! I mean, I can’t front, I love my iPod, my iPhone, all that stuff, it’s handy, but at the same time record labels are greedy, man. They forgot to care about the fans. The smaller labels understand that and it’s ridiculous that the larger record labels, they complain about losing audience members but that’s because they care about making as much money as they can, they don’t care about the audience.
TRU: When done right the packaging can actually add something to the overall experience of the album. like the Freeway & Jake One album packaging, that seems like something that would rarely happen on a major label. Why do you think majors aren’t trying to work an album like indies do?
It’s funny man, people who work at record labels… I’m gonna generalize ’cause I’m sure there are people at record labels, especially those that have been there longer, who remember the old days when record covers were an interesting product. But I think a lot of people that are newer to the record industry get in because they are more attracted to the glitz & glamor of it versus actually thinking about the artist and the relationship of the fans. I don’t really understand it, large labels got more money than anybody.
TRU: So they should be able do it more easily than Rhymesayers does.
Yeah, on a much larger scale. When I work with large labels it’s like pulling teeth just getting them to use something like a metallic ink on an album cover. Sometimes they talk about something like 5 cents out of a dollar extra to do something. I know that adds up when you’re printing a lot of them, but we’re talking about giving something back to people. You know, before, back in the day in the 70s, early 80s, there were no music videos. Music videos took away the money that was allocated towards record packaging, they became the primary way of letting people know about an artist. Now at a certain point, they started spending all this money on music videos and not every music video could be seen. No one was really thinking. They got into this robot, auto-pilot mode where it’s like, now we’re doing music videos and that’s where all the money goes. No one was really thinking about how we get people’s attention when people don’t even watch music videos anymore. Record labels, any kind of big company, they get slow and they get out of touch with people. That’s what happens.
TRU: I personally know people who might’ve bought the album regardless, but were definitely pushed over the edge because of the packaging.
The response to the Freeway & Jake One packaging has been really crazy. I’m happy Rhymesayers wanted to do something really different. They gave me the option to do something different that people might respond to just leaving that ability open. My responsibility was to say, “Okay, let me try to come up with something that’s not too expensive, but interesting.” You know, if more people tried that approach, maybe that would work for the industry. The cool thing about it though, that record, when I first heard it, I was like, yeah, it’s okay. And the more I listened to it, the more I liked it, because it’s an album. You have to sit down and take the time to listen and enjoy it, and you don’t do that very much anymore. With the speed of today, people forget to do that.
Going back to the packaging, since people responded so well to it, it becomes a whole thing. it’s not just listening to the album, it’s a whole experience. And I think people are responding to that because they don’t really have those experiences anymore. It’s nice to be a part of that.
TRU: Your work often combines photography and illustration, what’s the most essential element of those two?
For me, it starts with the idea, the photography and the collaging and stuff, that’s what it’s made of but it has to start with an idea first. A lot of people, when they see something, they look at the surface and don’t see the thought process behind it. For instance, people that diss Apple computers, they say “Oh it’s just about the design, they want it to be cool” and yeah, maybe it looks nice, but the design is really well thought out. It’s not just that it looks great, but it works great. The design helps you work with it, interact with it. People look at the surface without thinking about the function. So with album covers, the function of the design is that it has to communicate an idea. it’s not just about the style, or the collage, or I’m a take a photograph and put this color on top of it, it’s about “What’s my idea behind it?” first. I think people who bite, they just look at what’s on the surface.
TRU: You did the logo for John Singleton’s movie Boyz N The Hood, which must’ve been a big career boost. How did the producers hook up with you?
It’s funny, remember Forrest Gump? How he was in all these different places in history? I feel like that sometimes. I was lucky enough. Before I moved to New York, I grew up in LA, and one of my friend’s sisters was a casting director. She did Spike Lee’s movies ever since School Daze to maybe Girl 6 or Malcolm X. Do you remember Do The Right Thing? Remember what the poster looks like?
TRU: The blue backdrop with the top down photo?
Yeah, like a camera looking down on the street, and there’s the little girl with the chalk. So if you look at the top right corner, there’s some feet, like people standing on the street. There’s a pair Air Jordan… 4’s, I think, with some orange socks, right? That’s me!
I was already interested in doing graphic design and at that photo shoot I met the art director who does all of Spike Lee’s stuff. He sort of taught me and gave me some assignments. so before Boyz N The Hood I did the logo for Spike Lee’s Mo’ Betta Blues, that was my first logo that I’d done professionally and I was 18 or 19.
Going back to John Singleton and Boyz N The Hood, one of my friends was going to college at the same time as John Singleton and he was friends with him when they were in school. I was hanging out there, because that university was closer to where I lived than the one I was actually going to. Hanging out there, I became friends with him and when he graduated school he actually got the opportunity to make this film. He called me up and I was working on the art department of the movie.
The big thing back then, Spike Lee kind of set it off with his company 40 Acres And A Mule, he used to do all this merchandise. He used to have these crew jackets, varsity style jackets with the logo for 40 Acres And A Mule and the name of the film. That became the big thing in black Hollywood. So John Singleton, this was his first movie, wants to have a crew jacket too, and he needed a logo to go on the back of the jacket. The reason it was just an outline was because it would cost too much with the stitching to fill in the letters! So i made it an outline. That’s why it looks the way it does. And the studio, they didn’t have any experience marketing ‘urban films’, this was like a new thing to them. They saw the crew jacket and approached me about using that logo for the actual marketing of the film. And I’m kinda laughing to myself, because they don’t have any experience marketing that kind of HipHop film, they saw the lettering and probably thought it was some sort of authentic graffiti style. I’m thinking to myself, I’m not a graffiti writer, but they’re looking at this as being representative of kids coming out of that environment, which it isn’t, but it was something unique and different, I guess.
TRU: With all that stuff happening in LA, why did you move to NY?
I always loved New York, my first time out there was 1988, being in New York in 1988 was like being in San Francisco in 1967. It was incredible. All this great music was coming out, all these hit songs came out in that summer, it blew my mind, you know? I always loved New York, particularly coming from Los Angeles which always felt so isolated. I got a little burned out living and working in LA. I needed some inspiration and finally decided to move to New york. it’s weird that I was burned out and the place I come to is New York, to relax. I didn’t come with any plan, again I just lucked out in meeting people who were doing things.
TRU: You connected with The Ego Trip crew in NY?
When I was working at Rap Pages, which was owned by Larry Flint by the way, so we were walking around the hallway with photo’s from Hustler everywhere, we used to hire writers around the country to do interviews for us. We were based in Los Angeles but so much music was coming out of New York, we would often hire New York writers. Sasha, Elliot and Chairman Mao were some of the people from there we would hire. They were actually doing Ego Trip at the same time. So I already made connections with them prior to moving to NY but it was never my intention to move to NY to work on Ego Trip, it just happened that way.
TRU: A lot of the power of hiphop stems from improvisation and it seems like there was more room for that at Ego Trip.
Yeah, Ego Trip never made a lot of money, so it wasn’t like we had to do articles kissing the butt of an artist. The album reviews could be a little more honest, we had really good relationships with publicists. When Rakim did his first comeback, we had the first cover!
TRU: Do you have any advice for people trying break into design, or just something you want to get off your chest?
Nah, man, just don’t bite. Study your lessons, study the masters and work on bringing your own personality into it. Create concepts and ideas, not just eye candy.