One of the most anticipated albums in hip-hop history, The Notorious B.I.G.’s 1997 double disc sophomore effort, Life After Death, was supposed to represent a spiritual rebirth for the 24-year-old rapper. Life after the despair of a brilliant but generally bleak (save for the radio hits) debut, Ready to Die; life after the Bad Boy vs. Death Row feud; life after the death of his one-time friend turned enemy, Tupac Shakur.
The tragic events of March 9th, 1997 would brutally quell this rebirth before it began, as a gunman’s bullets claimed Christopher Wallace’s life in Los Angeles. Released two weeks after Big’s murder, Life After Death came instead to represent a memorial, its unforgettably elegiac album cover art and packaging making explicit reference to the specter of one’s mortality. That it was entirely finished before Big’s death makes it an even more haunting piece of work.
Art director Ebon Heath, along with partner in crime Michele Thorne at revered New York design studio (((stereo-type))), headed up the design team responsible for this most iconic of rap LP covers. With this month marking the fifteen year anniversary of the album’s release (and also, sadly, Biggie Smalls’ death) we asked him to share the story of how it all came together, and reveal what Life After Death might have looked like in its originally conceived form.
How did your studio, (((stereo-type))), begin working with Bad Boy Records?
Ebon Heath: At the time there wasn’t a lot of studios out there really doing this type of work independently, and computers were like still a really big secret. [laughs] It was one of those things where no one really knew what we were doing [as far as digital design]. We were doing Stress [magazine] then and that sort of put us more on the formal hip-hop radar. Cey [Adams] at Drawing Board was really the only other studio. Drawing Board was basically doing all the Bad Boy stuff, all the earlier stuff. I think also at the time Cey was just really busy with everything Def Jam – and they were a monster, they were producing so much great work. And somehow it fell into our hands. The Stress team was friends with some of the people at Bad Boy, and they were just interested in trying something different. The first thing we did for them was… like something embarrassing, man. I think a 112 single, and an advertisement for some conference, “How Can I Be Down?” [laughs]
That was when Puff was working really hard [at building Bad Boy]. He was really personable then. It was more of like a mission and he really surrounded himself with interesting heads. Terri Haskins – who was running the creative over there then – she was a really great woman doing a lot of cool stuff with them, and she was sort of our link. So beyond the fact that it was maybe not the music that we were listening to, or the world we were into, just the notion of [Puffy] being on top of the game and us being able to do whatever we wanted creatively, when he could have done whatever he wanted [was appealing to us]…. It didn’t really work out that way. [laughs]
How would you characterize the relationship between you guys and Bad Boy?
Ebon Heath: It was one of those things where we were almost on call. We became sort of Bad Boy’s design house, so whatever little graphic shit they needed we’d just get this phone call. Sometimes it meant going to the studio and showing [Puffy] comp-up [digital sketches], sometimes it meant [going to] other places. There’s one time that like personifies my old perception of Puff. He called us some afternoon or something and was just like, “I got this crazy idea – come over!” And we went over his house and he was just getting out of the shower, he wasn’t even dressed. It was me and my business partner, Michele. And he told us the whole story of him coming on the train from Howard University, and camping out in the bathroom since he had no money for the train ticket, and he had no artists when he got his label deal, just a ton of heart and hustle. He had nothing, he was broke. We were in that same mind frame then of just really working and trying to spread out what we believed in. So it was one of those beautiful humble moments. I mean it was harder to be with him with the whole posse and stuff. But during the one-on-one [meetings] he definitely [showed that he] had a vision back then.
So with the Life After Death project – set the stage going into it. What was your mindset, what did you guys discuss concept-wise?
Ebon Heath: [At a certain point] we’d kind of been beaten up by Puffy a little bit. And I was really young as a designer too and I probably didn’t have the balls as much as I do now to fight for my positions. We really felt with a lot of the work that we were doing [to that point], Puff was happy [with it] but compared to the other work we were doing [outside of Bad Boy] we weren’t really that proud of it. So the Biggie project was really exciting and we were really open for it, because we thought this was the one we could really flex on and really make an art piece. They had the budget to do extra packaging, and it was really like the wet dream project.
In the beginning [of the process] we spoke about the album. Puff was really his [own] art director – it was more of us supporting his vision and coming up with it from the conceptual stages. And he was like, Life After Death is gonna be bright. It’s gonna be about blue skies and green grass. And this isn’t some dark shit, this is really about the life part not the death part. So it was more about clouds and more about bright blue skies, and white suits, and let’s be alive – some positive shit. We were like, all right, cool. So we started doing comps – and we started picking locations, getting ready for the production. We had all these different looks planned. We were gonna shoot not only the album photos, but we were gonna shoot all the [photos for] singles at the same time. So we rented some massive mansion, I think it was in Jersey, someplace.
Then the graveyard location came up where we shot- my partner Michele thinks it was Cypress Hills Cemetery on Jamaica Ave in Brooklyn, but not sure. I don’t know it was weird. Like it somehow switched. We were out there in the middle of the graveyard at the end of the day, and it sort of switched just as a concept just in the process of us shooting in this graveyard. And it was bugged too, because it was a cold day. Big had messed up his leg in a car accident, and he was on a cane. So he was already sort of grumpy. So already that was a weird vibe. He wasn’t his jovial, happy self. And I just remember one moment when we were shooting. [Biggie] was grumpy and Puff was on the side, just talking shit with homeboys or some shit, just not focusing on the work. Puff was fooling around and Big checked him. Big was like the only guy who could check Puffy. I just remember him going, “Sean! Sean!” [laughs]
How did Puff react?
Ebon Heath: He snapped up. And it was the only time I seen the brother snap like that.
So the hearse was planned as part of that photo shoot?
Ebon Heath: Yeah, we had the hearse and the whole shit, son. It was part of the props, it was crazy. Yeah, that was all part of our kit, you know. A lot of this too was the photographer Michael [Lavine]. His prop team brought a lot of that shit in.
What else do you remember from the day of that photo shoot?
Ebon Heath: You know it’s funny, actually – there was another moment from that shoot where [my partner and I] caught a ride with [Big] because everyone sort of jetted really fast, and the truck we were in left ahead of us or some shit. And we just found ourselves with Big and [his friend] – one of these big dudes that always used to be with him. And we caught a ride back – just with my partner, and the two of them driving and stuff. And just again another one of those nice little moments we had with him just one-on-one. Just talking about what we were gonna do next. He was interested in how we took the photographs and made them into an album, and we talked about that a little bit. He was just intrigued – because he’d always seen us around, and he always knew us as “art people,” but he was like, “What do y’all actually do here?” [laughs] He was being sweet about it, he wasn’t being a dick about it. Like, “Tell me again, what do y’all do next with all this stuff?” So you know we just broke it down. Again, a nice little moment.
Continues with MORE unused art on the next page…