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Behind the Scenes of Five Classic Hip-Hop Album Covers

While rappers paint mental pictures of personal stories through lyrics, there is no better way to visualize their concepts than through an album cover. Remember the masked gang pictured on Wu-Tang Clan‘s debut album, ‘Enter the Wu (36 Chambers)’? Thank photographer Daniel Hastings for that compelling image. From the Wu to KRS-One, Hastings, creative director of Atomicus Creative Group, embodied their rhymes and lifestyle in covers that brought their critically acclaimed records to life. Take a trip back to the ’90s as the lensman divulges the secrets behind five famed emcees’ album covers. Machetes and broken wine bottles included.

KRS-One, ‘Return of the Boom Bap’

“I actually never met [KRS-One] before that day, so when he opened the door he had a big machete knife, and was like ‘Welcome to my house.’ He was very playful, very fun. He set the tone for having a playful day. It was his idea to create a hip-hop basement. We wanted to have that feeling of ‘work your music however way you can.’ So by screaming at the headphones it’s like [KRS-One is] recording through them, how more ‘boom bap’ can you get. He started pulling out a bunch of records that he liked, from the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s. He put them all out on the floor. He had all the speakers there, all his equipment. It was pretty organic, he had the hoodie, t-shirt, Timbs.

It was my first album cover. I was anxious and couldn’t wait to start doing things. Here I am getting hired to do an album cover, at the time I didn’t know how historical it was going to be.”

Wu-Tang Clan, ‘Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers’

“This was late 1993, in New York. I went to Wu-Tang’s Firehouse Studio and spoke to RZA. I recall this memory. He said, ‘You know this sweatshirt right here … I’ve been wearing this sweatshirt for three days. But I got beats.’ So I was like, ‘Tell me what you want for the cover.’ He wanted a monastery, sort of like ‘Enter the Dragon,’ an Asian feel. At that time, I found the Angel Orensanz Foundation. It was an old dilapidated synagogue. There were old pianos, an altar and a stage set-up. We were the first people to actually make that Wu-Tang logo out of foam core and carve it out huge and put it in there.

The day of the photo shoot, we waited for the guys to come on the Staten Island Ferry. True story. They didn’t have no cars. They came in, but Method Man and U-God didn’t show up because of some situation. They were like, ‘What should we do?’ If I didn’t see them at an Atlanta show prior, I wouldn’t have come up with that suggestion of using the stocking masks over their faces. We used one of their managers and someone else in place of the missing guys. When it came out, that record and the cover, it was so impactful. I didn’t have a cellphone at the time, this is 1993, my phone couldn’t’ stop ringing. In one year, I did 38 album covers, there’s 52 weeks in a year. An album cover a week.”

Raekwon, ‘Only Built for Cuban Linx’

“This was my sophomore Wu-Tang. They came with money now. Budgets were bigger, expectations were higher. When you see the first ['Enter the Wu-Tang'] cover, Raekwon is wearing a shoestring with a key on it. So the transition from that, to now having jewels, Jesus pieces, it’s a whole different ball game now.

The concept for the album was a Last Supper scenario, where the eight members would be in front of a dinner with jewels and money and wine. Raekwon would be in the center, Tony Starks [Ghostface Killah] would be on the side. They were drinking, smoking, thugging it out. Ol’ Dirty Bastard came very late. He was very upset at the entire Clan because none of them showed to his ‘Brooklyn Zoo’ video. He was yelling at them, and nobody was saying s— back. At the end, Ol’ Dirty Bastard grabbed a bottle of wine and smashed it on the floor of the studio.

Rae’s always been a visionary. I’m gonna quote him, he was like, ‘N—– are stepping to me like I know kung fu and martial arts. That’s not me. This is me, the streets, jewels, money.’ So that was the Wu-Tang chapter.”

Big Pun, ‘Capital Punishment’

“I knew that [Big Pun] was so talented, he was at the top of his game, but I knew that he had a physical problem. I started noticing while working with him, he was already showing signs of lacking breath. However, Pun was super committed. The concept of the album packaging was to represent every borough. We cast this girl to be the Statue of Liberty and painted her green; we went a little too creative. Pun comes to the studio and he’s laughing, like, ‘She looks like a green goblin. I don’t want that. I want her to look sexy.’ I think every guy who has that record talks about that girl, very curvaceous.

The cover itself was shot in front of Sue’s Rendezvous [in Mt. Vernon, NY]. In the 90s, people were wearing the goggles Pun wore. It was more like the attire for hip-hop battle rap. You had the Helly Hansen rain jackets, the goggles, the skully, that flavor. It just looked beautiful because those goggles reflected the sky. I always made Pun look like the Punisher, bigger than life. There’s no Latino that has come and claimed his throne. Rest in peace.”

Nas, ‘I Am … ‘

“Nas wanted to be in the face of King Tut, the sarcophagus. At the time, I was working with this sculptor Dave Cortes, who is now one of the top toy sculptors in the United States. So I was like, let’s get Dave to sculpt the sarcophagus and we’ll do Nas’ face. We put gesso all over Nas’ face to make an imprint of it. Then we made a mold of the imprint, and Dave built the entire sarcophagus around it. From there, the little stones were placed on the sarcophagus. When I went to take pictures of this thing, it was all reflective. It took me 11 hours to shoot that thing to make it look like Nas.

During the making of Nas’ face, we put straws in his nose for him to breath. Then we put the gesso on, and he was like asphyxiating the first time we did it. He’s like, ‘I can’t breathe.’ So we had to clean it all off of him and do it again. That was done in Dakota Studios. I’ve worked with Nas a few times. He’s always chill. Sometimes, I was wondering if he was even feeling it ’cause he’s so chill.”

Compiled and written by Georgette Cline.

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