Notable album covers catch the eye, dribble it around a little, and then snap it back into place, forever skewed. They can be funny, gross, shocking, stunning, or just plain wrong. They can define artists. With Take Cover, we aim to track down the most striking new album covers taking up web space and vinyl bins and get the story behind them.
In this installment, we check in with designer Brent Rollins, who created the incredible packaging for the Freeway/Jake One collaborative album The Stimulus Package. The CD comes packaged in what looks like a gigantic money clip, with lyrics and liner notes printed on what look like dollar bills with Free and Jake’s faces on them. Inside, there’s also a cardboard wallet, which houses the CD and a download card for an instrumental version of the album.
Rollins is part of the ego trip collective, which produced the beloved 90s hip-hop zine ego trip and later went on to produce pieces of greatness like ego trip’s Book of Rap Lists and the VH1 reality competition “The (White) Rapper Show”. Rollins also designed things like the Boyz N the Hood movie logo and Mos Def and Talib Kweli‘s Black Star album.
Our interview is below, as is a video showcasing the Stimulus Plan packaging.
Pitchfork: Did you have any contact with Freeway and Jake One about how this would look, or was this all your idea?
Brent Rollins: It was pretty much my idea. I thought it would be better for me to try to come up with some ideas first. I felt like the title is so easy to play off of, so it wasn‘t really that difficult. The money thing is the first thing that springs to mind, even though money is definitely a cliché in hip-hop. It was more like starting with a cliché idea and just pushing it to its logical conclusion. It’s kind of like the Cheech and Chong Big Bambu vinyl. If you’ve ever seen that, it looks like a giant bamboo rolling paper stack. What else are you going to do?
Pitchfork: Was it fun coming up with all this stuff and seeing if it would work?
BR: Well, you know what’s funny? It almost didn‘t happen the way it actually happened. There was two sort of separate but sort of related ideas that got submitted, and we melded the two ideas together. It was either going to be money wrapped with just a band, or it was going to be a wallet. But even if we just did money with a band, it still needed something to hold the CD. The trick was how to fit something smaller and put it on the outside. You need to cover up the wallet. It just kind of came together over time. Skye [Rossi, from the Rhymesayers label] was able to help visualize a lot of this stuff. I’m the guy who is so used to dealing with labels who don’t want to spend money. Initially, they were afraid that it would cost a lot of money, so I would keep suggesting these ideas that seemed a little easier to do, and he just kept on saying, “Lets do this. Its not going to cost that much more.”
Pitchfork: Is something with this kind of packaging a lot more expensive for the label to manufacture?
BR: Apparently, it’s not that much more expensive. When I would throw stuff at Skye, he never really balked. Even when I went to the manufacturer to have meetings with them, they would say it wouldn‘t cost that much more. It just became an issue of weighing the value of this. What’s the benefit of doing one thing as opposed to another? I used to love the the old vinyl packaging, like the Led Zeppelin stuff and Bob Marley’s Catch a Fire and Big Bambu. All of those packages were made pre-music video-era, so all the money that used to go to packaging went to music videos, and I think that it became the default way to market music. It just seems ironic that people watch music videos less and less, and they keep spending money on music videos, when really the money should have perhaps gone to the packaging. You can have something to have, as a fan. You always like to have some sort of artifact from the artist that you like.
Pitchfork: It seems like in a time when CDs aren‘t really selling, labels should be doing stuff like this to just give people an incentive to own it.
BR: Rhymesayers understands it– as far as the hip-hop world, particularly. Stones Throw understands it. Quannum understands it. Mo’ Wax, back in the 90s, understood it. I went to Other Music the other day. I hardly go into Manhattan anymore. Most record stores are closed down. Kim’s closed. As those places are closed down, I’m stuck at home. I have no real reason to go out unless I’m going to a show or something. I hadn‘t actually bought a CD in a long time because that stuff is usually given to me. But at Other Music, I bought Edan’s Echo Party. It came in a foil booklet, and I enjoyed just that fact– to actually have something. I was at the counter like, “Wow, I’m buying a CD.” [laughs] On the train home, I’m opening the CD booklet, excited about going home and listening to it. That’s an experience I haven’t done in a minute. It was pretty cool. The hip-hop audience has been short-changed in that area. With hip-hop, it was always this money-first mentality– not really trying to give an experience to the audience, some sort of permanence to the music.
Pitchfork: Have you heard any response back from Freeway about this album’s design?
BR: I’ve heard he was excited about it. He had even scanned his driver’s license to be included in the thing. We ended up not using it because the image didn‘t look right, but the fact that he wanted to contribute to the process, it was pretty cool. I haven’t talked to him directly, but I saw a video interview with him as he’s opening up this CD, and he was going, “This was made by my man Brent Rollins”. It’s just funny to hear Freeway saying my name.
Pitchfork: [Freeway voice] Brent Rah–lins.
BR: [laughs] Yeah, exactly. If I’d play that video in front of the guys from ego trip, we’d all be falling out on the floor. I know Free gets asked about it a lot, which is probably starting to get on his nerves a little [laughs]. It’s cool to see people get excited about design, and it’s beyond just an album cover. It’s the idea of the whole package. People want something to get excited about, man. Music is so dead, in a lot of ways. There is a lot of good music, but there is a lot of creativity missing in certain things. People just want to get excited. I want to get excited.
Pitchfork: Are any there more plans for ego trip? Any TV shows or books or anything?
BR: Right now, we’ve just been held up trying to get our website together. It’s tough because there are so many music sites and blogs, and its kind of like, “How can we still do things that are still us and keep people interested?” I’ve just been working with the web program and getting it together. It’ll be a slow launch and build-up, but we just want to re-establish ourselves and our voice. In a weird way, it’s like going back to the basics, going back to when it was a zine. Blogs are electronic zines. For people who care about our take on things, it’ll be a place for that. It’ll have some archive material as well, to provide some degree of reference. Chairman Mao in particular is a real old-school information junkie. The internet is such a free-for-all if you want certain information. There’s still some use for the older stuff. There are still people who care about particular artists and interviews. And if we’re lucky, one day people might be able to see “The (White) Rapper Show”, our pilot episode.
Pitchfork: It would be amazing if that ever came out on DVD.
BR: We’re actually kind of pissed of about that. It should have been on DVD, or it should have been out on iTunes or something. If it ever does come out, it will be cool because it is such a cult favorite. It’s a weird thing; even among people who produce reality shows, they were like, “That was the best show we’ve ever seen.” So maybe there is a bigger audience for that. I don’t know. VH1 needs to get off their ass. [laughs] We really want to revisit them, the cast from “The (White) Rapper Show”. To me, this is an opportunity that VH1 didn‘t take, as far as like…
Pitchfork: “The (White) Rapper Show” reunion show?
BR: Yeah. Look, man. “The (White) Rapper Show” was “Jersey Shore” before “Jersey Shore”, as far as white kids being ethnically white. You don’t see that. I have no problem with the kids on “Jersey Shore” [laughs]. I don’t take them for every white person. At the same time, they’re interesting. They’re kind of textural people. I think the “(White) Rapper Show” cast was textural as well. I think that’s why people responded to them. One of these days, we have to put this pilot out. The pilot was equally funny. We had to do a pilot to sell the concept.
Pitchfork: What was the pilot?
BR: It was the same premise. We cast people. Because they participated in the pilot, they couldn‘t be on “The (White) Rapper Show”. But there’s a couple of people who were hysterical. I want to just start talking about the pilot just to get people interested. Its a lost episode. One of these days, maybe we’ll figure out some way to do it.