I have a love/hate relationship with the immediate accessibility of music these days. On the one hand it’s great to be able to access whatever I want to hear from the comfort of my home in under 5 minutes. On the other, with everything available digitally, half of what I love most about music is lost as well.
The downside is when I’m on my laptop, hear about a new project, and my first listen is from the shitty MacBook speakers – what a disservice to the artists who put all of their energy into something that wasn’t supposed to be heard like that. Another downside is when I make a digital purchase and forgo the physical release. That’s bad on several fronts. For one, where are the credits, liner notes, shoutouts and all of the other text that I used to pour over like I was searching for clues to the Da Vinci Code. Before the internet or even Yo! MTV Raps, that info in the pages and folds of albums was what dictated future purchases. And that’s not even touching on the fine art aspect – the photography, cover design and layout. I’d stare at that stuff for hours noticing every little detail.
Music is meant to be held as much as it to be listened to. Two hands on a cassette tape after first opening it. Breaking open a vinyl sleeve for the first time. Pulling out the insert from the jewel case. Some of my favorite purchases came from taking a chance on a dope cover.
Today we talk to an artist and designer whose big break came when De La Soul took a chance on him and let him design, what would become, a classic album cover. We chopped it up with Joseph Buckingham, who’s more widely known in the musical world as Joe Buck. You can catch a bit of audio from our conversation down below and then continue on for more insightful gems from this highly regarded album cover artist.
I don’t want to discount your talent but, from what I understand, you kind of had a lucky break when it came to becoming an album cover artist. Is that right?
X amount of it is being at the right place at the right time, that’s true.
I’d say the interesting part is that I was on the verge of not doing art. I’d always been interested in art from a very young age. I just did it because I liked it but it was never the end game until I went to an art high school in Manhattan – that was a great experience in itself. But even at that point I didn’t have dreams of being an artist, career-wise. And then I got into a really good college for art and I did that for a semester. But I was kind of whatever, I didn’t think I could be a professional artist. I didn’t really know at that point. So, I transferred to another college in Long Island taking advertising and marketing. I started doing flyers for fraterneties and they were all hand drawn. And they were a hit. People loved them. They were always printed in these big formats so everyone was hanging them in their rooms. Trugoy [Trugoy the Dove, Plug Two, Dave of De La Soul] had just left college because their first album was exploding. His brother was still there and he and I became friends – I don’t think I knew it was his brother, we just became friends. Some of them would come up there from time to time. One day we were coming out of a party and Trugoy was standing outside and Mike [Trugoy’s brother] was like “Yo, that’s the guy. He’s the one that does the fliers.” He said, “That’s you doing all these things?” I don’t even know if I necessarily, instantly realized that was Trugoy. And then he was like, “I’m Trugoy from De La Soul, do you wanna do our next album cover?” And I was kinda like, “Um…okay.” Yeah, why not. And that became my first professional industry work.
How do you think that food and eating impact your art and your ability to create and be creative?
I would say that if I was asked this question a couple of years back I wouldn’t have much of an answer. But I really started eating a lot better, due to my girlfriend who’s a vegetarian. Eating good definitely makes you feel better and if you feel good you’re definitely in a better place to create. You don’t feel sluggish. Eating far less meat and eating organic, stuff like that, I’m in a far more creative space than I was before I did that. I always created but I think I’ve progressed faster, if that makes sense.
What do you gravitate towards now?
Far less meat. From a 100% scale, maybe 10% now. A lot more fruit. Vegetables of course. I’ve always liked vegetables. Tofu, I always thought it was hilarious. It didn’t look like food to me. But I can say I eat it now and it’s good. I didn’t know there were so many varieties of it either. We try to eat as much organic as possible. To put it in perspective, I would say, if I eat a hamburger – I’m lucky if I eat one every two months. That’s how seldom I eat red meat. That’s drastic to where I was before.
How does touring impact all of that? [He’s toured with De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, George Clinton]
Touring’s bad. You’re lucky if you get good food. You have to go out of your way to get good food. A lot of times you’re going to eat backstage or you don’t know where to go. Tour food can be very bad sometimes. The way I eat now is the opposite of touring. The better food comes when you’re touring overseas. Especially, with De La. They’ve been over there so many times over the last 25 years, that they know all the good places to eat. So, they make it a point that we get into a cab and go over to so-and-so and go have a meal.
I’m curious about any routines that you may have.
Exploration. Research and learning new things, techniques or new ways to go about something. I try and put as much time as I can into that. Eating well is always part of that. And working out is part of that.
When you’re creating whether it’s design or fine art, do you have to wait to be inspired or is it always something where you know what direction to take?
Well, let’s talk about design. Sometimes you have no idea. You talk with a client and you get the information but sometimes still have no idea what direction you’re going to go. I’ll kind of sketch, draw and write and something might come out of that. Other times I might just be dead in the water and I could just be grocery shopping, see something and be like, “that’s it.” Sometimes I’ll just have a conversation and know exactly what I’m going to do. And those are the best times because a lot of that has to do with how much the client knows themselves and what they want. It’s never the same.
I once got a project to work with this group called Rough House Survivors. And I did a logo for a sticker. This was a long time ago and I was working in a photo room type of thing. I just kinda quickly drew out this thing with these interesting photo markers that are these markers filled with black ink but there’s no felt in it. The ink, you can just shake it. It’s got a screw on tip. So, you can really make it come out real heavy. I used that and just drew on this unprocessed photo paper. Just sketched it out and sent it to the label and the next thing I know he says, “Great, send me a bill for so-and-so.” And I was like, “Wait. It’s just a sketch.” And he was like,”No. This is exactly what we want. Just like this.” I was like, “I kinda wanna fix it.” He said, “No. No fixing. Perfect.” And that’s how it went to print. So, you never know. I kinda let it happen. I never expect it to happen any way.
Do you always get a chance to hear the music before you work on the art?
Sometimes. I’d say in my present situation, most of the time. With De La Soul, I always got an advance copy. Which was just a raw, generic cassette tape. I will say that, a lot of times – this is an unfortunate thing – a lot of times the music doesn’t help at all. Some artists are very interesting. Their music is very interesting, it says a lot. Most people are regular and they’ll create something and think it speaks volumes. They’ll come in and say, “Here’s the album. Come up with a cover.” No. This doesn’t mean anything to me. It’s not that it’s good or bad but the songs aren’t going to provoke me to come up with a brilliant cover. A lot of times it’s not like that. Cool. I don’t want to hear the music, I just want to talk to you. Because that’s what it’s really about. A lot of people can interpret it a different way. What we need to happen here is we need this cover to reflect what you’re trying to say and resonate with your audience. That just has to do with the artist. A lot of times they don’t know what they’re trying to say. They just made something because they wanted to make it. It can be great but they don’t necessarily have a hardcore reason why they made it other than they had to make another album. It just depends on the caliber of artist you’re working with.
Have you created artwork for artists you weren’t really that in to?
Oh, tons. Well, most of the stuff on Redef[inition Records] I like. I know it doesn’t have to be all of it but that’s just me, I’m a very picky person when it comes to music. If certain things don’t exist with what I’m listening to I kinda don’t want to hear it. It doesn’t mean it’s not good. It can be great for someone else. It’s just not what I want for me. But outside of Redef and De La I’ve worked on tons of things where the music was awful. Sometimes you don’t want to hear it. It can cloud the way you think about things. If you don’t like it, it’s like, “I don’t know if I even want to work on this. I don’t care where it’s going right now.” Work is not always about loving it. You have to care about it so you can do the best you can do. Like if you have to write a review for a movie and ten minutes in you’re like, “this is awful. I don’t even wanna see any more.” You still have to write the review but the music isn’t helping at all. Sometimes I don’t like it.
If I asked you to make me a mixtape with 5-10 tracks what would you include?
These are tracks from anything. Some of the stuff that are presently in my rotation and not necessarily in the order I’m going to give it to you but…
Stakes is High – De La Soul
Ego Trippin – Ultramagnetic MC’s
Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana
Down By Law – Fab 5 Freddy (Wild Style Soundtrack)
Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst – Kendrick Lamar
Act Like You Know – Fat Larry’s Band
Fight the Power – Public Enemy
What it is – Pharoahe Monch
Apache – Incredible Bongo Band
Ashley’s Roachclip – The Soul Searchers
Are there any artists that you’d like to be approached to do an album for?
If you asked me that question 15 years ago, I’d probably have a massive list of people but at this point and time, the one constant is always working on stuff with De La because we just know each other. It’s always interesting to work on things with them. Aside from that, no. I take it as it comes. The one thing that I’ve learned is that when you start somewhat targeting artists that you think you’re going to enjoy working with. It’s just not always the case. Sometimes it’s horrible. Because it’s not who you thought they were. What you thought was gonna happen with the cover, is not gonna happen. Album cover art, it’s not a big part of what I do anymore. It’s a fun part of what I do. I don’t think about I want to do something for this guy or that guy. I don’t target people for album art work anymore. The business isn’t what it used to be. Working with De La, working with Redef is interesting because of the relationships that we have. That’s where I’m at with album covers. Also, what most people would pay for album covers in not great. I’m choosey. It’s more of a hobby. It’s unfortunate.
Yeah, I talked with KEO awhile back who’s done his share of album cover artwork and he said the same thing about they pay.
That’s right. People will say, “Well, it’s only a digital cover.” But I gotta do the same amount of work, man. It doens’t matter what you do with it. You can make a billboard with it or print it once. I still have to do the same amount of work to come up with the end result. I’ve had people come up like, I got fifty dollars. No. It just can’t happen. Even for $300, the only way we’re gonna do this is you have to know exactly what you’re gonna want and I’ll just do it my way. It always ends up being way more than that and I end up like, dammit, I should have never done this. I should never compromise on that because now this person is driving me nuts, the minute you say yes they’re like, “You work for me. We’re gonna do it like this. I was hanging out with my friends, getting high and they were like ‘I don’t know about this cover anymore.'” Dude, I’m not working for your friends. I don’t care about your friends smoking weed and what they think when they’re high. That’s not my problem.
So, it’s not fun anymore. It used to be great. There were a lot of perks. If you could get to do something for a major artist like Eminem or Drake or something like that you’ll get a lot of money. But 9 times out of 10 what you’re gonna end up doing for them is boring as hell. Because major labels have their own formulas about art. We could even talk about De La Soul is Dead. What I found out – I never knew this – talking to Trugoy, Tommy Boy [Records] never wanted to use that De La Soul Is Dead cover. I didn’t realize that the group and Tommy Boy fought over that thing for quite a bit of time. Tommy Boy just wanted to use photos of them. Because photos work in Hip Hop and no one was really doing conceptual covers in Hip Hop at that point. And finally they got Tommy Boy to agree and it became a very, very classic album cover. Most labels want faces, they want a photo. Only certain genres allow for abstract. So, it’s a hit or miss kinda thing. It’s definitely not that fun anymore. It’s fun when you know the people and you can have fun with it. It’s becoming a very pedestrian artform. Which is a shame because it’s such a big part of what people pay for and now it’s been reduced to a 200 by 200 pixel square on iTunes.
I have album covers that I could just stare at all day and just spend time dissecting and you can’t do that anymore.
That’s right. You can’t do that anymore. Album covers were an additional medium to show more about the artist. You didn’t have to do a photo. I remember when I was younger looking at the George Clinton and Parliament covers and asking my friend, do you think they’re playing in some underwater thing? This is crazy! You could really just let your imagination go. And to me, covers should expand what people know about the artist. Album covers and the packaging should do that. I have the packaging – it’s my pride and joy of my vinyl collection – from Jefferson Airplane and it is an album cover that can be taken apart and can be folded up into a cigar box. And the inner sleeve, which is a shot of marijuana spread out, is what you’re supposed to put at the bottom of the box. The level of design and engineering that went into that is just nuts. People just don’t do things like that anymore. You’ll never forget that. With music being digital it’s so easy to forget things exist. It’s a lost thing. The labels struggle to get people to buy music. For $14 a pop you could give them some kind of interesting packaging. Something that people could sit back and enjoy while they’re listening to the music. But business is business and everyone’s cheap so here we are.
What are some of your favorite album covers?
Jazz covers are probably high on my list – especially Blue Note [Records]. Because of what Reid Miles was allowed to do at Blue Note, those covers are just iconic and really stood the test of time. When you think about the science behind those album covers it’s just amazing because they’ve managed to not just stand the test of time but a way of design traveling through multiple generations – they’ve also transcended beyond that into art. Something someone would just want to hang on their wall. That’s top on my list but then there’s other things like the early Super Disco Break records. They’re very simple but I just love it because it had this super interesting font and it was blown up super huge, diagonally on the cover. It was just so in your face and it just worked for me. I remember buying those when I was younger, a different color for each volume and the same Super Disco Break letters and the little track titles. Public Enemy’s first album cover was clean. Just the way that they shot that. But Blue Note is definitely the biggest. I will say, though, that Stones Throw has great album covers. In addition, I would also like to say that there are tons of fantastic Rock covers by from Pink Floyd, AC DC, Led Zeppelin etc.
There’s a certain timelessness that seems to be missing.
Timelessness is missing. People wanna cram all kinds of stuff on a cover. When people design twelve inch covers, if you were doing it right, you kept in mind that when someone walked into that record store, you asked yourself if your album cover was going to stand out from 20 feet away. Or is it gonna blend in? The other thing is, an album cover isn’t just an album cover. If you play it right, it can make you money for the rest of your life. If you design it right, you can extract those elements and use them in merchandise, etc., etc. If you don’t, an album cover is just an album cover. So, I try to encourage artists to think cleaner, think classic, think long term. You can put this on shirts – a lot of De La stuff was like that. To this day people are still buying that product with those images. It should be timeless. It should be clean. It should be legible. And it should speak volumes about the artist.
What other artists should people be aware of, in any medium?
I’ll say artists of this generation need to be aware of artists that influenced Basquiat becuase they think that everything that has a scribble or a hand written word was developed by Basquiat. That’s the first thing that comes out of their mouth. That’s just like Basquiat. Uh, what about Cy Twombly or Rauschenberg or – you gotta go before him and not just start there. Other than that, what you should know about is relevant to your art taste.
I think respecting the architects and originators or even just the art itself, has kinda died down a bit as a whole.
You know, so often the covers are an afterthought to what art is. It’s like they’re just wrapped up in the music – and this is based on stories I’ve heard – and they haven’t thought about the cover yet and they get some kid that’s like, “Yo, I do art. I’ll do your cover.” Great. Cool. If he understands what an album cover should be, then that’ll work out fine. But if he’s just an illustrator and doesn’t understand, conceptually, that the album cover has to connect in a certain way and provoke certain emotions and that kinda thing well, then you just end up with…
Even like the cover with DJ Premier and Royce the 5’9″, that PRhyme project. I don’t understand that cover at all. Is it a bad cover? No. But why are they falling apart. That, I don’t understand. It just seems like somebody had a cool technique and wanted to use it. The logo’s great. They could have just went with that and called it a day. It just seems to be an afterthought. And that’s a shame. There’s so much money that’s lost in merchandizing.
It’s funny. I’ve always had this kind of romanticized idea about album cover art. Like, what an amazing job that would be to create this art that is in the hands of millions. The “Hip Hop Room” in our house has an entire wall with album covers framed. It’s never escaped me that what I’m holding in my hands when I purchase a record or cassette or CD, it’s more than just a vehicle to hear music. I used to take in every nuance of my favorite album covers and it made me love the music so much more. It’s great to have this insight from Joe and see that it’s just like any other job. It’s got it’s perks as much as it has its flaws. My idea about the art form is still a bit romanticized – only slightly less so, though.
Please direct your attention toward hollispark.com or josephbuckingham.com which are Joe’s print and portfolio sites, respectively. His talents are, obviously, incredible and I look forward to seeing what kind of creations he comes up with as his artistic journey continues. Give him a follow on Twitter to keep up with all of 140 character talk that can go on there. But more than anything, I urge you go give him a follow on Instagram because that’s where he likes to share what he does.
Now, do yourself a favor, give the digital music world a little hiatus and go grab those old albums that you loved when you first became enamored with music. Stare at the little pieces of art that enclose those records. They’re there for your enjoyment. Hold the music and hear the music. It’s a complete package.