A new book explores the work of five designers who defined the illicit aesthetic of 00s rap subculture
Open Damn Son Where Did You Find This? to any page and you’ll be hit with excessive and outrageous imagery from a brief moment in hip hop history. The black hardback showcases a loose, ten-year period between 2002 and 2012 that saw rap mixtapes adopt increasingly illicit cover artwork – a living, breathing counterculture birthed outside of the mainstream. Authored by Tobias Hansson and Michael Thorsby, this book is a striking visual testament to the short flowering of reality-transcending artwork and designers who took creative expression to the extreme.
Damn Son Where Did You Find This? looks at a time when explicit, in-your-face artists like Lil Wayne, Rick Ross, and Young Jeezy took centre stage. Mixtape subculture always existed alongside mainstream releases, and these artists often rose to fame thanks to the outrageous, unfettered mixtapes that they released locally – and which they didn’t stop producing even after they’d been snapped up by major labels and hit the bigtime. As Tobias Hansson explains, “Official hip hop albums had to have two songs for girls, three songs for the white audience, radio-friendly tracks. But mixtapes meant total freedom; artists could put out whatever they wanted.” And that music was big: harder, more raw, and less aimed at the clubs, hip hop of this era was reflective of American society’s darker side, with reference to beefs, violence, and drugs. Hansson and Thorsby also noticed the music of the era reflecting a broader societal shift towards hypercapitalism: “Hip hop was bombastic,” says Hansson. “This was the peak of trap rap, coke rap, drug dealer rap – the bigger and more outrageous, the better.” The music needed equally big and outrageous artwork to represent it, so mixtape covers transformed into ultra-condensed, totally uncensored, and often bizarre collages of ideas. “Run any of these covers through a legal department and they’d have been killed,” laughs Thorsby. “They’re without restriction and they reflect the music’s culture of loudness.”
This culture of loudness had a secondary use, too. Thanks to a dramatic change in music technology at the beginning of the century, CDs replaced cassettes and online mixtape platforms like DatPiff sprang up. Mixtape culture was booming and the sheer amount of product available meant that covers had to grab attention. “There were so many mixtapes, people would choose them depending on the cover design before they even looked at the artist,” Hansson explains. “As long as the artwork turned heads, it could be as weird or explicit as the designer wanted.” The covers also let people know which mixtapes were the freshest. Absurd covers – a crossbreed of hip hop culture and 24-hour rolling news – flourished. “Two days after the (2008 US presidential) election, you’d check the mixtapes and there’d be a cover with a rapper looking like Obama,” says Thorsby. “That’s how you knew it was the latest.”
Mixtape covers went hand-in-hand with the music, but they also took on a life of their own, becoming channels of expression for the Photoshop maestros responsible for creating them. The majority of the artists featured in Damn Son Where Did You Find This? had very little formal training, but Thorsby – who has a long career in art direction and graphic design – is astounded when he talks about their work. “The way these guys put together such widely different elements and make it fit in perspective, colour and structure to make it seem like such a perfect image – it’s unbelievable,” he says.
Damn Son Where Did You Find This? is a snapshot of something transient – cover art has gradually become less important over time, with hardcopy practically discarded and many blogs and servers having shut down. The period of extreme visual culture started to peter out around 2012 as everything moved online, streaming became widespread, and hip hop started to change. Of course, mixtapes aren’t dead, and prolific artists like Gucci Mane continue to put them out, but the appropriation of mixtape culture by the mainstream – with established artists and major label-signed newcomers alike putting out their own versions of the mixtape – means that the independent visual has been diluted and the graphic, uncensored images that once adorned mixtapes can no longer exist. This is what compelled Thorsby and Hansson to start their project. From a dizzying 5000 images, they’ve whittled the book down to a fascinating showcase of five of the most skilled and influential mixtape cover designers of the time. We spoke to the pair about why they chose these artists and found out a little more about the mysterious men behind this wild art form.
Tobias Hansson and Michael Thorsby: Miami Kaos is an old school head. He’s from the Bronx – he got the nickname because he wore these flamboyant shirts and drove a Cabriolet. He’s special because, out of all the artists, he can really draw, which makes his covers unique. They look very airbrushed and they’re a mix of collage and photoshop painting, so he isn’t restricted to just using images that he finds. His covers are a lot freer and more far-out and he's by far the most dark; his work can be really shocking and very violent. It’s an influence that comes from his love of comic books where there’s often no limit to how violent or explicit you can be. He’s also deeply Christian and he struggled with some of the images during his career – he used to do religious iconography and a lot of hardcore covers but he won’t touch them anymore because of his beliefs.
Tobias Hansson and Michael Thorsby: Mike Rev is from Brooklyn and what we love about his work is that he took a lot of inspiration from movie posters. Before he started doing mixtapes he had ambitions to do movies and he told us that he always tried to look at the mixtape cover like a cameraman might. There are so many layers and so much depth to his work. He said it was almost like a substitute to being a cameraman: he thinks about the cover in terms of looking at a big picture and zooming in to condense the scene into one frame.
Tobias Hansson and Michael Thorsby: Kid Eight is incredible. He’s from Stoke-on-Trent (in the UK) and he did all this work for huge rappers through hip hop forums. It’s crazy. His colours are super consistent and he really makes them pop, which creates so much depth to his work. If you look at this image of Lil Wayne in the car, it's a pretty generic theme: the shootout, the dollar bills. But if you look at how deep and how complete it is as an image – the reflection in the car, the bullet holes, the plane in the background – it's surprising that this image actually stands still. His attention to detail and perspective is amazing. His work is so clean and precise. Can you imagine how bad an image like this would look if it wasn't perfect?
Tobias Hansson and Michael Thorsby: Tansta is from Brooklyn, too. His visual is very raw, more unpolished and sometimes quite absurd. He’s very old-school and he often connects to a history and something a little bit older. It's tricky to put your finger on his work – he builds scenes as complex as the others but he doesn't do the extra retouching. Things aren't as unified in his designs, there's more of a raw power behind his motivation for doing stuff. Tansta’s story is a beautiful version of the classic hip hop fairytale. He was getting into a lot of trouble as a teenager and he had friends who ended up in jail or dead, but he found photoshop elements like other kids found the mic and it gave him a gig that allowed him to pay the rent and live a good life.
Tobias Hansson and Michael Thorsby: All these guys are all quite influenced by each other in a way. Skrilla is a little bit of Tansta, a little bit of Kid Eight and a lot of himself of course! His work is very, very deep. You get this extremely intricate typography in his covers and tonnes of elements. He makes some quite absurd images, too. One of our favourites in the whole book is this one where 2 Chainz is sitting on the throne from Game of Thrones with Wiz Khalifa beside him. It has the same function as those covers with political themes – it shows the mixtape is the most current. Like Kid Eight, Skrilla is from the UK, so his work is an imagination of the music and what the American hood might look like. It's quite funny, really.
The second edition release of Damn Son Where Did You Find This? is available online in Europe from Buchhandlung Walther König and Amazon and is on pre-order for Amazon.com, due to be released Tuesday February 28