Major labels got you art direction. Indie rappers got Pen & Pixel to photoshop them on to a pile of gold holding a Glock.
Yesterday was great because any day where I spend over an hour looking at Pen & Pixel art is a great day. First my friend Marko put up every Pen & Pixel cover he had, then I found an even bigger archive while trying to track down one Marko didn't have. It is 65 pages of photoshopped flames, lens flares and blinged-out letters from before "bling" was a cliche. It is the best thing you will see all month.
To bring everyone up to speed, Pen & Pixel is a graphic design firm based in Houston who made their name doing album art for rappers, primarily in the South and Southwest. The golden age of Pen & Pixel was the late 90's and early 00's (especially when No Limit had a new album in stores every fucking week). You know the style even if you don't know the name: a typical Pen & Pixel cover involves the artist surrounded by photoshopped cars, weapons and women usually in the hood but sometimes in a graveyard or a church, under grandiose typography depicting their name. It's actually hard to say what a "typical" Pen & Pixel work looks like because their process is very hands-off; they are more or less happy to do whatever their clients want. Not anything, as they explained in the Ego Trip Book of Rap Lists (nobody goes on the cross!), but their concerns were about politics not taste. No amount of computer-aided thuggin or computer-aided stuntin' was over the line.
And so Pen & Pixel's legacy is some of the straight up silliest album art of all time. South Park Mexican rakes money in his front yard! BG stands amidst a rain of giant bullets! A hundred different rappers gaze pensively into the Earth they hold in their hands, in which you can see the streets they come from! A hundred other rappers loom over their city and/or some luxury cars. The most famous (as art alone) is probably Big Bear's Doin' Thangs. The album itself is totally capable late-90's Bay Area-influenced rap from Omaha. But on the cover, Big Bear sits at a table with two other bears in smoking jackets, enjoying cigars and fresh fruit. They all have gigantic snifters of brandy. One of the bears is wearing sunglasses.
I feel like I have to point out that Pen & Pixel's work graces the covers of dozens of platinum records and classic albums. Doin' Thangs is famous because it's an Internet meme and it shows up on Buzzfeed lists like "15 Album Covers You Won't Believe!" or some shit. And you may have heard of Pen & Pixel through an episode of Louis Theroux's Weird Weekends, which has the smarmy tone of a Daily Show segment where they visit a white supremacist. There's a tendency to write off anyone with a Pen & Pixel cover that isn't famous (and already known to be clownable) as terrible because apparently you can judge gangster rap by its cover (unlike books!). And that's unfortunate because Pen & Pixel thrived at a time when major labels really didn't fuck with anyone who wasn't from New York or Los Angeles. Small market rappers had to hustle. Major labels got you art direction. Indie rappers got Pen & Pixel to photoshop them on to a pile of gold holding a Glock. Sometimes they sold millions of records, sometimes they were just the hottest thing in Little Rock in 1997. Either way, a gallery of Pen & Pixel covers is a strange trip through rap in lesser-known corners of the map.
(It's also not fair to think none of the rappers were in on the joke. I think it's fair to say you are laughing with Big Bear and not at him.)
But anyways, none of this changes the glorious insanity that is Pen & Pixel artwork. Here are five covers that feature rappers in space.
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