I came of age as a hip hop fan in the late '90s. Prior to my settlement upon the opinion that the rap music was the greatest musical medium in the world, I had experimented with a wide variety of musical genres. In my earlier days , you could catch me looking particularly dapper in an over-sized plaid shirt and frayed jeans rocking out to the sounds of Cobain and Vedder; perhaps, if you were truly lucky, you might also find me locked in my room singing into a hair brush to the glorious sounds of Ace Of Base's The Sign (the most umm...let's just say "questionable" album that I paid for with my own money. Nullus on the whole enterprise. In fact, I'm tossing in an extra nhjic for emphasis.) Thankfully for the world, I ultimately made the correct decision and decided that I would devote my life to worshiping at the altar of Clive Campbell and the rest is history. Years of confused looks and "You like rap?" soon followed.
The '90s, to me at least (and those with taste), is the decade of my life that I look upon the most fondly. Rap music was new and awesome to me then so I look upon that age with a certain amount of extreme nostalgia. I was way too young to remember Eric B. extorting Rakim but I definitely can remember Suge Knight extorting Vanilla Ice. Perhaps one of the fondest elements of hip hop that I remember from those day is the visionary genius of the legendary grapic arts firm, Pen & Pixel.
For those of you who don't know (like my Dad) or those who don't care (like my Mom), Pen & Pixel are a Houston-based graphic arts firm that designed some of the most horrifically cheesed-out and trashy album covers the world has ever had the pleasure to view. To frame it in the proper prospective, Pen & Pixel are the John Waters of the Hip Hop album art world. Their body of work that has a mystique an aura of their own that can only described as ghetto trashilicious. As a teenager, I can vividly remember browsing the rap music aisle at my quaint little local entertainment mega-store and picking up a No Limit or Cash Money release and being blown away by the collage of badly photo-shopped Bentleys, iced-out dog collars, giant phallic guns, and trashy third-rate strippers that tickled my young prurient mind. I, of course, promptly set those monstrosities of trash genius down and picked up a copy of Nas' latest opus because I wouldn't be caught dead by an album from a...Southern rap group. Ten years later, I stand by my decision.
Distaste for crappy music from New Orleans aside, I want to explore some of the great pieces of art that Pen & Pixel provided the world with this piece and provided much needed critical commentary and context to these often maligned genius of this group of visionaries. I present to you some of my favorite album covers of the Pen & Pixel-ed oeuvre:
I haven't the slightest clue who Lil' Sin is, nor do I know why he is so frustrated by death but this cover is one of the most amazing things ever released for commercial consumption. This looks like Pen & Pixel simply found an old cover of a Cannibal Corpse album and photo-shopped a photo of Lil' Sin performing on Broadway into a skeletal hand and called it a night. Note if you will, the "D" in death. It seems as if somebody forgot to composite the background behind into the D and decided that leaving the interior of the letter black was the right artistic choice. It's inattention to detail like that which makes this piece so visually arresting.
Lil' Sin - Frustrated By Death (????)
Lil' Sin - Frustrated By Death (????)
Eightball & MJG - Coming Out Hard (Suave House, 1993)
Eightball & MJG's classic album, Comin' Out Hard, is not only influential on the Southern rap scene but it features one of the earliest work of Pen & Pixel available. Now on first glance, it appears that it's simply a photo of Eightball and MJG sitting in a Ford Mustang near a city skyline but closer inspection quickly reveals early CGI magic. On a closer glance, our heroes heads are disturbingly over-sized and are not actually sitting in the car at all but instead have being magically photo-shopped into a crappy stock photo from your local car show. A closer inspection also reveals the skyline to be a 3D drawing of the finest quality on par with the graphics of Myst. Simply stunning.
Silkk The Shocker - Charge It Da Game (No Limit Records, 1998)
Master P's weed carrying brother's, Silkk the Shocker, album, Charge It 2 Game is vintage Pen & Pixel at it's finest. Their signature style of glossy box letters, horrifically photo-shopped status symbols and generic Microsoft Word-esque fonts all are present and gives this album cover the classic Pen & Pixel look. What I'm particularly enamored with is the font for the album title. It looks as if they completely forgot to place it in the original design and had to quickly stamp it over on top the album, in order for it to be not a self-titled Silkk the Shocker CD. No one needs that.
Mercedes - Rear End (No Limit Records, 1999)
Mercedes was an R&B singer signed to No Limit Records who released one record in the late '90s. I can't say I remember anything at all about her (hence the one record...) but I gotta say this particular album cover is umm... "stimulating." The cover out manages to miraculously out-ghetto Adina Howard's cover for Do You Wanna Ride? But what's most striking about this album... the class.
Lil' Flip - The Leprechaun (Sucka Tree, 2000)
Lucky Charms! Leprechauns! Lil Flip! Do I need to say more?
Eightball - Lost (Draper Inc, 1998)
This is just a cornucopia of photo-shopped crappiness. Pyramids sit next to crashed space shuttles. Vultures stalk used Chevy Cavaliers. Mysterious floating direction signs. The secrets of the Illuminati can be discerned from studying the mysteries of this cover.
Soulja Slim - Give It 2 'Em Raw (1998, No Limit Records)
Soulja Slim brings an overt military theme to his album. I guess he was going the obvious root.
Young Bleed - My Balls & My Word (No Limit Records, 1998)
Pen and Pixel channel the pleasures of air-brushed unicorn t-shirts and a ghetto heaven for Young Bleed's seminal debut album, My Balls & My Word. Those are some glorious tigers! Glorious tigers!
Juvenile - 400 Degreez (Cash Money Records, 1999)
One of the more noted aspects of the Pen & Pixel covers is that the often literal interpretation of the album title. This classic cover for Juvenile's 400 Degreez is the epitome of the aesthetic; Blinged out fonts, melodramatic brimstone, and gyrating women all contribute to a classic cover but it's the flaming walls of the fire that make it unforgettable.
Snoop Dogg - Da Game Is To Be Sold, Not To Be Told (No Limit Records, 1998)
Snoop's ill-advised move to No Limit Records after Death Row's implosion produced pretty universally awful music. However, this album cover maybe the one good thing that ever came out of the whole debacle. "Da Game Is To Be Sold" personifies the bling-bling aesthetic of the period as the iced out dog collars and European style mansion can attest. Snoop World indeed.
Lil' Wayne - Tha Block Is Hot (Cash Money Records, 1999)
Even at the genesis of Lil Wayne's career, Dwayne Carter had the creepy homo-eroticism down to a science. It's good to know that in the ten years since the album's release that Lil Wayne has neither put on a pound nor gained any muscle definition whatsoever. Put a shirt on, son.
Master P - MP Da Last Don - (No Limit Records, 1998)
This is perhaps the most iconic Pin & Pixel cover in the history of their work. It features Master P, The Originator Of The Style, sporting a black pimp suit, flashing his gaudy jewelry, smoking a large, phallic cigar in a large gothic cathedral. It represents the epitome of all that Pin & Pixel represents to the public. Note: While researching this piece, I came across a story of how Master P and Pin & Pixel became so inextricably linked. P&P had produced a cover for one of Master P's rivals in the early '90s featuring a cover of an Ice Cream truck being blown to smithereens by an explosion. Master P caught feelings over this image, as one of his earliest hits was the seminal "Ice Cream Man", and decided that he would pay visit to the graphic company and beat the shit out of the artists. Pin & Pixel were surprised to learn this and claimed they had no idea what the imagery meant but instead of getting their ass-kicked by an enraged Percy Miller, they offered to help re-brand his fledgling company. The rest they say is history. And to think if this hadn't happened we might not be treated to...
Big Bear - Doin Thangs (Tru Game, 1998)
The Sistine Chapel Of The Genre... .