A record label virtually synonymous with ’90s underground hip-hop (and enthusiastic young fans prone to brandishing the finest in JanSports), Rawkus Records released some wonderful recordings during its years of operation. But maybe the most Rawkus-est of ’em all was Mos Def and Talib Kweli’s debut album together as Black Star. Sure, other efforts bearing the label’s razorblade logo may have been more enjoyably challenging (Company Flow’s Funcrusher Plus), conquered clubs and radio (Pharoah Monche’s “Simon Says”), or took home the sales certification hardware (Mos’ Black On Both Sides; Big L’s posthumous The Big Picture). But Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star managed something even more elusive. It defined a sensibility, and thus an era – this as much by virtue of what it was (i.e. smart, loose, earnest, proud), as what it made abundantly clear it wasn’t (i.e. Bad Boy, Death Row, No Limit, Pen n’ Pixel).
Visually remarkably keyed in with Mos and Talib’s post-Native Tongues earthiness, Brent Rollins’ design for the album cover remains one of his most acclaimed works. (Noteworthy for a guy whose resume includes everything from the Boyz In the Hood motion picture logo to the works of a certain band of hip-hop journalistic gypsies.) But what may come as a surprise to some is the story of Brent’s original design concept for the LP (EXCLUSIVE unreleased art included herein!), and how it eventually changed. Find out how xerox-ed 'zines, ads in ego trip magazine, and vintage Pepsi signage all played a part.
How did you come to work on this project?
Brent Rollins: We had been working on the last issue of ego trip magazine, and since we were really, really late with the issue we decided to make a little quick xeroxed 'zine called the After Dark Special, and send it to all our subscribers as a thank you for being patient. The cover of the 'zine was done in my version of 1970s collage style. A little psychedelic. That was my vibe then. So Tim Ronan, the art director at Rawkus, was working on Black Star album and saw that cover and gave me a ring.
So I went to the Rawkus office which was on Broadway by NYU. The elevator had an original Keith Haring painting on the ceiling. And some dumbasses who probably didn't know who Keith Haring was put some Shabbam Sahdeeq or whatever Rawkus stickers over it! That place was a like an indie-rap zoo. [Label owners] Jarrett [Myer] and Brian [Brater] in charge of all these 18-year-old interns buzzing around in Triple 5 Soul hoodies. Chickenheads packing t-shirts. It was buzzing. So Tim sits me down by the window overlooking Broadway and shows me some printouts of concepts they'd tried in-house that they felt didn't work. They liked the feel of the cover of the After Dark Special.
There's also a back page ad on ego trip magazine issue #13 with a Rawkus/Black Star ad/faux ego trip magazine cover that utilized the same image that eventually wound up on the Black Star LP cover.
Brent Rollins: Those images came first. Yeah, you know around the time that they approached me I saw the ad and I'm like, "Hey, looks good to me! Done!!" [laughs] But really to me it just seemed like the right thing to do. It just made sense to me that if they are already doing advertisements with these photos that things should, you know, carry through for the project as a whole to look consistent. Mos and Talib had the right sort of heroic and purposeful looks on their faces — like they were carrying the weight of Brooklyn on their shoulders — so if it works, it works. Why should I change it for the sake of changing it? Where the idea came from wasn't so important 'cause to me it became a shared vision, and if you wanna get picky that decision actually was, up to that point, put in my hands.
What did Rawkus tell you as far as what they were looking for design-wise?
Brent Rollins: Nothing specifically. After Tim showed me what they rejected they basically said, "This is what we are trying to go for, do you."
What was the original inspiration for your design?
Brent Rollins: There were some loose things. Bob Marley was an inspiration, but not specifically the Burnin' LP. Something else which escapes me now. I think Stevie Wonder's Innervisions was maybe a reference, but it was kind of loose. Definitely a raw '70s reggae feel. That is for sure.