Pen & Pixel: the aesthetic of an era.
Even if you don’t know them by name, every rap fan and/or former teenager who lived in the urban South during the mid-to-late nineties is well familiar with the work of graphics design firm Pen & Pixel. Although exact numbers are hard to come by, they were responsible for creating the cover art for literally thousands of rap albums during that time. Pen & Pixel was the official in-house design studio for Master P’s No Limit Records out of New Orleans, and unofficially for many other labels, most notably New Orleans’ Cash Money Records, Memphis’ Hypnotize Minds, and Houston’s Suave House. But what is most interesting about the P&P work philosophy is their apparent willingness to work with just about anybody who showed up at their doorstep with the right amount of money. For every Juvenile or Three 6 Mafia album cover there are about fifty by rappers that even the most schooled Southern rap fans have never heard of. At first I had planned on researching and writing a history of Pen & Pixel, but I found that it has already been done many times over. There have also been many “top 10 worst Pen & Pixel” blog entries, as well as a plethora articles completely trashing Pen & Pixel- and both of those types of pieces tend toward trashing the South’s rap music, the South’s music, or the South in general. And so, while so many fans of Southern rap music are compelled to defend the genres that the South gave the world via the genres that the South had already given the world (y’know, rock and roll, the blues, soul music), I find myself feeling the need to defend Pen & Pixel, the visual face of the popular genesis of Southern rap music.
Pen & Pixel was great in that they specialized in giving their customers exactly what they wanted via the magic of Photoshop. If a rapper living in the projects wished for his album cover to portray him riding in a Bentley while sipping champagne out of a diamond-encrusted crystal flute as a tiger in a bejeweled collar walks by and a Lear jet crashes in the background, Pen & Pixel could make that happen. Oh sure, he would never actually sit in the Bentley, conversate with the tiger or wrestle with the decision of whether or not to pull survivors from the Lear jet crash, but it would look like he was- and at a tiny fraction of what it would cost to actually set up a scene like that. This was, you must remember, long before the days where Photoshop was a standard part of one’s computer operating system- heck, back in these days having a computer with internet access was still a privilege assigned to people with money.
This explains Pen & Pixel’s origins, and part of their continued success. But the only thing that could possibly explain its ridiculous prominence is that it was simply the cool-ass shit to have back then. I can remember flipping through rows and records and CDs back in the day and it was just like, miles of Pen & Pixel. Whenever you saw one, you knew it- there was no mistaking a Pen & Pixel cover. Every rapper, it seemed, had one of their covers, regardless of whether they were a superstar or they were the guy on your block trying to sell you his latest junt out of the trunk of his car for five dollars. Besides the records themselves, every city in the South was plastered with this cover art via posters, car wraps, and even a few billboards. Whether or not you like their work, the guys at Pen & Pixel reflected and had a big hand in creating the visual aesthetic of the large majority of Southern rap music in the late 90’s, and the picture they proverbially painted had a significant scope. Eventually, I believe that Pen & Pixel will stand as an important visual documentation of Southern urban/rap culture at the end of the millenium. Some smart, well-intentioned scholar will ask the guys at Pen & Pixel for access to their archives, and their work will finally be taken seriously by the world. (Who knows, maybe that scholar will be me.) But for now, we only have 1. what has been uploaded to the internet, and 2. our precious memories. So follow me, friends, as I rifle through all of this.
My first encounter with Pen & Pixel came with Eightball and MJG’s Comin’ Out Hard, which is now duly regarded as a classic album. While Pen & Pixel wasn’t quite as Pen & Pixel-y here as they would eventually become, you can see some early markers of their eventual signature style. Notice the proportion oddness- it is difficult to discern whether it is Eightball or MJG who is driving the car (I think it’s MJG). Also notice how far they have taken the Photoshopping- not only are Eightball and MJG riding through a fake city on a fake road in a fake car, Eightball’s head appears to have been photoshopped onto the jacket he is wearing. Other covers from the mid-nineties reflect a similar philosophy- they were slightly cartoonish, and differently bizarre than later P&P covers. There were lots of people floating or driving through space, rather than jewel-encrusted pimp cups and tables displaying kingly feasts. A sense of humor was usually implied; note the intentional laughs we’re supposed to get from Sexx Fiends’ Let’s Get Butt Naked and the tilted wheels-cum-jet-engines on the space odyssey-styled cover of P.L.U.T.O.’s Players Like Us Takin’ Over.
Pen & Pixel’s early work seems to have been mostly centered around the interconnected Houston and Memphis rap scenes, but they really took off when Master P hired them as the house design firm for his No Limit Records. The legend goes that a rival rap group, in a riff on Master P’s song “Mr. Ice Cream Man”, hired P&P to create a record cover of an ice cream truck blowing up, titled something like “187 The Ice Cream Man”. Master P saw this and was furious, and headed to the Pen & Pixel offices to settle the score. However, once he saw how organized of an operation they supposedly were, he hired P&P to design the covers to all of his label’s albums. The rest was history.
The mid-to-late 1990’s era was the beginning of Southern rap’s crawl towards its eventual cultural dominance in the early 00’s, and Master P and his No Limit Records was the vanguard of this trend. His “Make ‘Em Say Uhh” was a national hit, featuring a video where he and his label signees, or No Limit Soldiers, as they were called, played the most ill-officiated basketball game ever (curiously, there was a solid gold tank positioned in the middle of the court). No Limit Records was a well-oiled machine; despite what misgivings you may have about his music, Master P is a pretty deft businessman and he changed the game as far as marketing was concerned. New No Limit albums came out often, and their release dates were on everyone’s tongue weeks before they happened (the most anticipated event amongst my peers during my senior year of high school wasn’t graduation; it was the release of Master P’s brother Silkk The Shocker’s Charge It 2 Da Game). Pen & Pixel figured prominently into all of this, designing every No Limit album cover during this time.
Pen & Pixel took off along with No Limit; this was when they became truly prolific. The success of No Limit became either the envy or the scorn of seemingly every independent rap label in the South. Both their imitators and their detractors employed the artistic design of Pen & Pixel: if a rapper didn’t want to be like Master P they probably did want to be like Three 6 Mafia, or UGK, or one of the Cash Money Records artists, all of whom had P&P in their employ. Their choice of theme had range, but the style and apparent technique remained the same: layer upon layer of photos and designs slapped on top of each other, accentuated with sparkles.
Over the next few days I’ll be exploring a few prevalent themes in the massive back catalog of Pen & Pixel work, so stay tuned. Tomorrow: how Pen & Pixel translates their rappers into a literal visual of their names and album titles. Until then, here’s a preview.