This Saturday, November 9th marks the 20th(!) anniversary of the release of A Tribe Called Quest ‘s Midnight Marauders . The third in the trilogy of classic LPs that kicked off ATCQ’s recording career – after 1990’s People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm and 1991’s The Low End Theory – MM also possesses one of the most iconic album covers in hip-hop history. Featuring the group’s signature striped female figure amidst the floating, headphone-clad heads of dozens of hip-hop luminaries spread over three different (red, black and green bordered) incarnations, Midnight Marauders ‘ unforgettable cover design was the creative brainchild of Jive Records head art director Jean Kelly with assistance from fellow art director Nick Gamma. This, after the ambitious original cover concepts from Quest leader Q-Tip were abandoned.
The following is the brief transcript from the phone conversation I had with Nick from 1999 while doing research for ego trip’s Book of Rap Lists . At the time I was actually just fishing for any interesting little factoids for the book, and the discussion of this album was just one of many art related subjects that we covered (including a very, uh, let’s say “colorful” recount of a UGK photoshoot — but that’s another tale). Now, here we are years later and you’ll notice that I just straight up neglected to ask some things that would be really cool to know for the album’s 20-year anniversary. Things like, why do three different covers – particularly during a time when record labels wouldn’t spend an extra dime on rap album packaging? Or even, who was the model? Lessons learned. Still, I’m happy to share this snippet from the vaults.
The cover artwork was released in 3 different variations, with different rap stars featured on each; One black frame, one red frame, one green frame.
Let’s talk about Midnight Marauders . You said there was another cover idea different from the iconic cover we all know. What was that all about?
Nick Gamma: Yes. There were two original concepts before that. One was going to have this woman — I loved this, but Q-Tip nixed it – he came up with it and then nixed it. There was gonna be a woman. Imagine an all-blue shot, not a duotone, it was just like a blue c-print, deep blue. A woman in a big window of a loft [with the] Manhattan city skyline behind her, full moon. She’s in the window, in bed. Satin sheets, so you get the glistening moonlight off of that. She’s got headphones on, and she’s naked. And you can kind of see the stereo lights on but not see the stereo. She’s got her left hand on her ear and her right hand in her crotch, supposedly listening to Quest.
Wow. Well, that would have been pretty provocative.
Nick Gamma: Yeah. And [Q-Tip] nixed it. Then, the second idea was the famous striped lady was going to be like the pied piper. And all of Tip’s boys were gonna have headphones on and those headphones were going to be jacked into [the model’s] head. And they were all going to be walking in front of the Flatiron building. [Why the] Flatiron building? I don’t know why. But we actually attempted to shoot his. Like, in the snow. We had a woman dressed up in a suit, and this is like in February, on the streets like in a jumpsuit, painted.’Cause Photoshop and everything was happening but we were not really proficient at it at the time. So right now, we could have probably done those concepts. But back then, we were trying to shoot it. And we had headphones. [But then with] the headphones that we had it was like, “These aren’t the right headphones…”
So you guys actually have these photos?
Nick Gamma: Yes, we do! And then with the actual cover, [Jive Records art director] Jean Kelly came up with that concept. [Q-Tip] wanted all the [guests with headphones] and we were trying to figure out how were were going to incorporate all these people into the cover. And Jean Kelly was the person who came up with the concept in which to do all the faces, you know, and she did various layouts. And that was the layout that they picked. And that watch that’s all around the edge is her wristwatch that she scanned in and made [the hands on the dial set] to midnight. And we had a guy at the time who was proficient at Photoshop at the time do the shadow work and silhouetting ’cause those were huge files, they were considered huge and we must’ve had like six 88MB Syquests worth of stuff.
That photo idea is kind of interesting to me ’cause it’s so bizarre. The one in front of the Flatiron building.
Nick Gamma: Oh, yeah. It was crazy. That’s what he wanted, yeah.
[Purely conjecture, but in retrospect this Don Patterson with Booker Ervin record jacket may possibly have been a source of inspiration for the unused Midnight Marauders cover.]
And then you guys just x-ed it, it wasn’t happening…
Nick Gamma: Yeah, it was not going to be able to be pulled off. So Jean set up these photo shoots with Linda Simmons, who did our video [work]. She was doing photos at the time as well. And she set up [shoots] on the East Coast and one on the West Coast. And Kimmy Mason in our office did this major faxing to all the labels and that’s how they enlisted all the people and it was just like, whoever shows up [made the cover]. And for some reason, Run-DMC couldn’t show up. Like, there were other people [who couldn’t make it too] but I remember them in particular not being able to make it for some reason. I think their song “What’s It All About?” was out at the time.
Why is it that some people don’t have headphones on?
Nick Gamma: I have to see it. Most of them should. If they don’t it’s simply because they didn’t put them on. [ laughs ] I mean it’s as simple as that and then Q-Tip wanted to get everybody in there. There’s no [hidden meaning] — it’s not like, “Why does Paul McCartney have no shoes on?!” [ laughs ]
Contact sheets from photographer Terrance A Reese’s a/k/a “Tar” (as unearthed by Cocaine Blunts )
The cover of Low End Theory (1991) is where the lady first showed up. Where did the idea for her come from?
Nick Gamma: Q-Tip. I mean the guy’s a genius when it comes to that stuff. He wanted to do an Ohio Players-type cover. It was based on that idea but [with the idea of] taking it to a whole new place. And the cover of The Low End Theory is an actual naked woman, painted. For the Midnight Marauders cover, she’s actually in a body stocking.
Album covers by the Ohio Players provided the inspiration for ATCQ’s covergirl .
But with Low End Theory , there’s several different versions of [the cover image] in different colors because we painted her in neon body paints and then shot her in the dark with neon light. I wasn’t allowed on that set with the naked woman. I wasn’t there for that, but Jean Kelly was in charge at that time. [And because of the neon], there are pictures where the Low End Theory woman looks like a zucchini. Yeah, so we got the zucchini woman. That’s what kinda went down.