In an era dominated by digitally distributed music – where album artwork is too often an afterthought or no thought at all – Traffic Entertainment’s reissue arm, Get On Down, has released some of the coolest special edition album packages to come down the pike in recent years. If the words “Fat Boys’ pizza box,” “GZA chess set,” “ODB wallet and food stamp card,” and most recently, “Purple Tape deluxe box” mean anything to you, you know exactly what we mean. Art director Trevor KARMA Gendron is the man responsible for these very special special editions, his handiwork representing a welcome double down on creativity in the mp-free era. We recently tracked him down to discuss the stories behind some of his most memorable creations.
Raekwon - Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... Special Edition "The Purple Tape" Display Case (Get On Down, 2012)
Explain the thought process behind creating this. What was the initial inspiration?
Trevor KARMA Gendron: Get On Down and I were all so excited to even get the job. Basically it was just to do a really high end, almost trophy case to display this iconic album in a now antiquated format. This record really changed the landscape of hip-hop at the time, both sonically, lyrically and with just the overall slang and style that they were rocking on the tracks and in the videos. Hip-hop truly hadn't seen or heard anything like this before. And then with the "purple" shell? That was just the icing on the cake.
I just remember fiending for this [when it was originally released]. I was still buying everything on cassette anyway so it wasn't a special purchase for me or a gimmick to get sales in a different format or demographic - people bought cassettes - DJ's bought vinyl - it was just how it went. The purple cassette was almost like a gift back to the people buying it - it was cool and set it apart and was all part of the greater story with that album. It did what it was meant to do - it set it apart and made it historic and iconic. I mean dudes literally thought the album was called "The Purple Tape." Ghost even called it that. So the display case was just a means to just put this thing up on another level and pedestal that it deserves. We wanted to give it a Rolex look and feel, so that's what we did.
Were there ideas that were scrapped that didn’t make the cut?
Trevor KARMA Gendron: Well there was going to be a more retail friendly version that would have gone in a more normal sized box and with less upscale packaging. It would have fit in line with the size and style of the ODB wallet and GZA chess box so that would have been cool just to have a little series going. I guess in the end the budget wasn't allowing - I'm honestly not sure what Get On Down decided to do with that version. Like I said everything else was pretty straight on. One thing I wanted to do was to laser etch the logos into the piano laquere rather than printing onto it. I really thought that would give it the most upscale and prestigious look. Unfortunately the pricing and actual time it was going to take just wasn't lining up so I had to bow out of that idea.
[Otherwise], this one honestly wasn't that challenging because everything was just so innate and obvious about where to go. I think we went back and forth on the size and the actual final textiles that were used but overall it was pretty straight forward from initial concept to final execution.
Is this your first special packaging project specific to a cassette?
Trevor KARMA Gendron: I designed cassette packages for LandSpeed and Brick Records back in the day but those were for legit cassette releases. In the late '90s and early 2000s penitentiaries would only allow cassettes so they were a necessary format still. In this case it was the obviously and immediate choice, there was no debate or second guessing. We were going to re-issue "The Purple Tape." I think the people at Sony thought we were nuts but in the end I think they appreciate what we did with it.
Did you consider doing something related to Ghost’s famous skit about dying Clarks, or can we expect that in a future Ironman reissue?
Trevor KARMA Gendron: I never considered the Wallabees aspect for this one - seems more fitting for 'Ironman' right? Plus I had some insider information that Clarks and Ghost had worked on something in the past but it could never get out of the sampling stage so that might not be the easiest task.
Any reaction to the box from Rae or RZA?
Trevor KARMA Gendron: I haven't actually heard from them as of now, but I mean it's Rae and RZA soooo... I just hope they like and appreciate it and think that we did their ground breaking release justice. Power and RZA both did compliment me in person on the OBD wallet so that was a very gratifying and humbling experience.
GZA - Liquid Swords Deluxe Edition Chess Set (Get On Down, 2012)
A classic album cover to begin with. How challenging was it to try to reinvent something like this? And were you already a fan of Denys Cowan’s - the comic book artist who did the original cover illustration?
Trevor KARMA Gendron: I was always a huge comic fan growing up so anytime they two blended it was great for me. I remember when EPMD used Bill Sienkiewicz (New Mutant's fame) for their first Def Jam album - that was epic. So when GZA came out with the Samurai Chess battle by Cowan I was blown away. Those covers stand the test of time and have as much importance to me as what the first singles or videos were.
How did you arrive at the idea of the chess set?
Trevor KARMA Gendron: I was brainstorming with Rob and the guys at GET and just spit balling and I think he actually said - what if it came with a chess set? almost as a joke I think. So I went to work trying to make that happen. This was following up the ODB wallet so we knew we needed something smart and edgy but at the same time keep the theme and format that we started with the ODB. I figured out the the actual board wouldn't have to be a seperate piece and could build it right into the structure of the box. Paul Williams was instrumental in sourcing and sampling with the pieces and sizing etc. and we decided on the stained wood with the felt bottoms. I think it came out really nice and classy and those guys are able to sell it for a good, fair price at retail. I also have to give a major thank you to my man Luca Iannino who was invaluable helping me with these sets. He did a bulk of the photoshop retouching on the covers and illustrations ect. People don't realize we are scanning in original items (12" covers, vintage posters, record labels) as our source material as the og files are long gone or no longer accessible. So I need to include and thank Luca for hours of scanning and retouching work.
GZA did a lecture at MIT recently – did you get to meet him and get any reaction from him on this?
Trevor KARMA Gendron: I did go to that. It was a really cool, powerful thing to see him up in front of a giant lecture hall at MIT. Really makes you remember and consider how far this culture has come. He is just a really cool, smart, down to earth guy so he has been really supportive from the get go. It's always nice to get people of his stature to be happy with the product you have created for them.
So what percentage of people who buy this will in fact play chess with it?
Trevor KARMA Gendron: Obviously 100%!!! Hahaha, nah, not sure but even if people just take it apart and set it up on a shelf or bookcase with the pieces up and correct, that's good enough for me!
Fat Boys - S/T Deluxe Edition Pizza Box (Get On Down, 2012)
Was the pizza box your first choice, or were there any other food related motifs you considered?
Trevor KARMA Gendron: Yes, the pizza box was actually my first and only choice. It just lends itself to the specs and format easily. Plus that [first] album cover has them with the pizza on the front. It's hard to fit a CD into an ice cream cone, ha.
How exactly does one go about getting a pizza box the size of a CD jewel case made?
Trevor KARMA Gendron: It's actually not as bad or crazy as you think. There are vendors that offer that type of thing - for special promotions etc. The hard part was getting the right board that I wanted at a good enough cost. I have to again give thanks to Paul Williams - who actually did the sourcing and sampling for this and the Rae and GZA boxes. He does an excellent job and is seldom recognized, so thanks Paul!
The Fat Boys were considered kind of a novelty act by those not really familiar with their music, but people who know understand how dope they actually were - especially the first album. Was any of that a consideration when designing the package?
Trevor KARMA Gendron: It was a huge consideration - especially for Noah Uman who was the A&R behind this. They were one of the first legitimate rap acts. People don't realize how good that first album and the [group's early recordings as the] Disco 3 truly is. They have kind of become a novelty act just for the movies and covers etc. that came later. We wanted to keep all the integrity and not push that novelty aspect any further. I think the result is a good mix but not too much on the quirky, corny side - I hope not at least. I haven't heard any negative reaction to it.
Any reaction to the reissue from Prince Markie Dee or Kool Rock Ski, or their old manager, Charles Stettler?
Trevor KARMA Gendron: Noah was the one who was in touch with those guys. I know Charles and his wife Linda were a huge help putting this all together so I would like to again, thank them and Noah for their great work on this re-issue.
Ol' Dirty Bastard - Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version Deluxe Edition Wallet with Food Stamp Card (Get On Down, 2011)
Another classic album cover. You’ve said that this was quite an involved process to get done. What made it so difficult?
Trevor KARMA Gendron: It was definitely one of the most labor and thought intensive projects I have ever done. Thanks to Get On Down, WEA, Dirty's estate and my man Luca for all the extra help out on this one. A lot, I mean a lot of work went into this. I honestly think I worked on this project off and on for two years. A record like ODB is so iconic from the music to the cover artwork and he is such a huge pop culture figure that it needs to appeal to the novice person as well as the hard core Wu-Tang fan. I have to appease the label I'm working for, the major who owns the work (WEA) and again in the case of the Dirty album - his legal affairs and estate. The sampling process alone was staggering. I have a dozens of useless wallet and box samples - all shapes,sizes, finishes and options. This went through so many stages and transitions and re-dos. Plus legally it was very, very strict with what I was allowed to use, when and where. Just when I thought it was a go - something would change or be amended. Again, so many people had to approve and sign off on it. It also had to make sense and fit with who ODB was and what the album and the cover is all about. It's just taking that iconic image to the next level and extending the packaging as far as I could, staying in budget and staying true to the artist and album.
The two toughest things I had to endure was figuring out that I could NOT put the Wu-Tang logo on the actual wallet - this was in the 11th hour and totally came out of no where, so it was adapted super last minute to the repeated icon with Dirty's face - that hopefully represents the same thing to people. The other thing that hurt me was when your man Brent [Rollins] came up with that Freeway/Jake One [Stimulus Package] package - I saw that thing and almost had a heart attack!!! Hahahah. I couldn't believe it, it was towards the end and we were pretty much done and here is one of my inspirations doing a very similar thing - I just didn't want people to think I had ripped that idea off and ran with it.
Dinosaur L - 24 → 24 Music: The Definitive Arthur Russell 4 LP Deluxe Edition (Get On Down, 2011)
Beautiful reissue here from a few years back of the complete Sleeping Bag Records work of Arthur Russell (a/k/a Dinosaur L) - one of the seminal figures in New York dance and experimental music of the early '80s.
Trevor KARMA Gendron: We really went the extra mile on the vinyl box with the hand pulled screens (peace to Jay and Antidesigns, USA). It was time and labor intensive but well worth it. We wanted to reflect that same feel as the original 12" sleeve had been done the same way. It's also special because Arthur's surviving partner Tom Lee had done the illustration. We really wanted to pay homage to the legend and artistry that Arthur left behind. Thanks to Mike at Warlock for the opportunity and Get On Down for seeing the vision. Thanks to Noah Uman for all the hard work and to Janette Beckman and Tim Lawrence for their invaluable contributions.
Various Artists/Peanut Butter Wolf - 45 Live: Classic Rap 45s (Five Day Weekend, 2009)
Folks may not know that you handle a lot of the manufacturing for Stones Throw Records' special packages, but here's a Peanut Butter Wolf-related project where you were in charge of the actual design.
Trevor KARMA Gendron: This was a cool pet project for Peanut Butter Wolf (legendary DJ and Stones Throw head honcho). He basically gave me the track listing and a couple press shots of himself and told me to go for it. His only stipulation was that his logo be used. I even named it. This is right when Traffic was really getting into doing the more deluxe packaging. I came with the round box idea just to set it apart from everything else and to really represent the idea of the 7" vinyl. Thanks to my former right hand man b.i.g. Dan McCormack for the assistance in the label recreations.
Trevor KARMA Gendron would like to thank: Chairman Mao, Brent Rollins and the whole Ego Trip fam for their continued inspiration and support.
To: DJ 7L, Esoteric, Brick Records, Noah & Jen Uman, Brian Coleman, Pase Rock, b.i.g. Dan, Luca, Melissa Frost and my family - thanks for your help always.