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Pen & Pixel: Greatest Hits

June 6, 2010

We’re finally at the end of the road; this is the last Pen & Pixel entry I’ll be doing for awhile. Writing these articles has been an exciting undertaking. It brought back tons of memories not only for me, but for lots of friends and strangers. The most thrilling surprise was receiving kind comments from Pen & Pixel founder and designer Shawn Brauch on a couple of the entries. It was like being touched by superstardom! Although Pen & Pixel is sadly gone forever (there’s an imposter Pen & Pixel out there; don’t waste your time with them), Shawn has a new design firm called Smartface Media. If you’re looking for a blinged out album cover to call your very own, Smartface is clearly the place to go.

Luckily for you guys, I’ve saved the best covers for very last. The following is a compilation of my all-time favorites.

My first favorite is a legitimate classic, perhaps the most widely beloved Pen & Pixel cover of all time. If you perform a Google image search of “Pen & Pixel”, you will find this cover over and over again. A friend emailed me after my first Pen & Pixel piece and regaled me with a story of encountering a poster of this cover in South Memphis; she ripped it off the wall and gave it to a friend, who still has it on his wall today. For the past couple of weeks I’ve heard, over and over again, “when are you gonna do Big Bear’s Doin’ Thangs?” Or, “you are totally neglecting Big Bear’s Doin’ Thangs.” The time, my friends, has come. I proudly present Big Bear’s Doin’ Thangs.

The Doin’ Thangs bears deftly walk the line between “bears” and “ballers”. These bears smoke cigars, wear jewelry and drink from wine goblets, but note the¬†cleverly executed, lavish spread of stereotypical bear food- berries, nuts, and raw fish. Also note the honey-dripped font, and the blue sky beyond the entrance to their cave. This cover is mesmerizing and I could stare at it all day long. I don’t think it’s everyone’s favorite simply because it depicts bears doing hilarious shit; I think it’s so popular because it’s a perfect execution of the lighthearted humor that permeates so much of Pen & Pixel’s work. I mean, how much fun would it have been to keep adding the clever details to this? “Let’s put sunglasses on the bears!” “Let’s splay the raw fish across the entire bottom left of the picture!” The cover of Doin’ Thangs makes people more envious of the artists behind it than Big Bear himself. It is, quite simply, freaking brilliant.

Another favorite of mine is Indo G’s holiday album Christmas ‘N Memphis (Chrismas Will Never Be The Same). Some of the least lewd song titles are “Frosty The Blowman” and “All I Want For Xmas Is My Charges Dropped”. Fortunately, the cover does not disappoint.

He’s like the Grinch, but with more charisma and a long list of priors!

Judging from how he’s admiring his work in his rear view mirror, Black Dave is really proud of having blown up this bus. I’m really confused, though. Why does he hate the city bus so much? It gets people around when they can’t afford fancy convertibles like Black Dave has. Also, the city bus has an ad for Black Dave on it, which features him in the exact same pose. Perhaps he has entered some sort of a parallel universe and it freaks him out so much that he needed to get rid of the alternate version of himself. Black Dave, methinks, is on an existential mission, and that poor hippie on the bike is getting in his way.

I picked this one solely because the title and group name are “so gay”, as is the phallic #1 between them….

…and I love this album cover because the title is so true.

And then there’s this cover, which is baffling. (And a little scary.) What is “monkey” a euphemism for? Please, sweet Jesus, let it be a euphemism for something.

This one is great because it’s a perfectly normal, typical cover, except for the whole bat thing- specifically, that one rabid, angry bat that’s barreling towards the “camera”.

This cover is a great example of the whole “let’s put as much cool ass, bizarre shit on one cover as we possibly can” phenomenon. There are no ostentatious displays of wealth, but there is a rocket car, a flying race horse (complete with a jockey!) and, most amazingly, a hybrid pit bull locomotive. At first I thought the giant dog was merely riding the locomotive, but then I realized that his legs are actually part of the train itself. He may be some sort of one-headed Cerberus-like dog from hell, as his eyes are red. Most disturbingly, this dog appears to have rabies. He is foaming profusely at the mouth and he’s incredibly angry. (What is it with rabies on this selection of album covers? Maybe I secretly love rabies.)

Low Down displays another collage on his album cover. His is seriously compacted, and displays all the important signifiers of a thug life. There’s a cop beating someone with a baton, money, a leg wearing fishnets, one guy smoking a blunt and another toasting something with a glass of cognac, and a toddler holding a handgun. Who’s that guy in the photograph that the giant floating hand is holding up? I really want to hear these Tales Of Da South.

I’m not quite sure why I like this cover so much. Maybe it’s the playground structure with diamonds spilling out of the tube slide; maybe it’s the giant basketball court in the distance, beyond the field of money. Likely, it’s the fact that Lil Flex is wearing one of those NASCAR jackets that were so popular with rappers ten years ago, and his has a tiny Betty Crocker spoon on the arm.

I’m not sure what the hell is going on here. For one thing, there’s no “lethal overdose”; this guy is being put to death via electric chair, which is controlled by a mixing board. And what’s up with the brain scan that other guy is examining so closely?

This guy, meanwhile, has created hipness from both clowns AND juggling. That’s a rare feat, my friend.

…while this guy has made it cool to defile the graves of dead soldiers. (I think.) Happy Memorial Day!

No Limit rapper Crazy, whom you may remember from my post about Pen & Pixel storytelling, goes the anti-choice route for his album cover “Please Don’t Kill Me”. While the window to the abortion clinic says “it’s a woman’s choice” on it, there are babies protesting outside with signs, one of which says “Executions Place For Babies.” I mean, yeah, totally. Who gets the anti-abortion agenda across better than angry babies? Obviously, the official platform of babies everywhere is that abortion is morally wrong. Babies are all like, abortion is bad, Cheerios are good, goo goo ga ga mama dada hewwo bye-bye.

So yeah, Crazy is trying to stop this woman who is nine months freaking pregnant from getting an abortion, which is illegal or prohibited in most states anyway. Because he’s such a persuasive motherfucker, in order to stop this pregnant woman from aborting her baby Crazy gets down on his knees and uses 1. his outstretched palm and 2. a fucking rosary. Ten dollars says once this baby is born and the Maury Povich paternity test proves he is the father, he will run out the door forever. Based on his album covers alone, Crazy appears to be a pompous guy with a God complex. Consequently, this shit is amazing.

The whole dogs playing poker aesthetic is taken to a new level on CMP’s Da’ Game. These dogs play craps with diamond-studded dice, and are so good at Da Game that they have amassed piles of money and gold doubloons. Curiously, they have a human maid; thankfully, she’s not particularly sexy. I’m glad we don’t have to deal with that whole can of worms, a la Monkey On Da D$ck.


For the final cover I’ve chosen $hot Caller$’ Ya Only Live Once, as it exemplifies everything that the Dirty South rap lifestyle championed in the late 90’s. These guys live in a gold cathedral, and one of them wears a crown. They control a tiny city with their fingers, including a mansion with hedges made of giant tomato plants. Decorative orange slices and parsley sprigs figure prominently here, as does a tiny woman in a bikini offering a giant diamond to the guy on our left.

This cover is at once everything that was horribly wrong and totally right about Southern rap during this era. While these grandiose displays of wealth were entertaining, amusing and impressive, in mid-Recession retrospect they’re a little depressing. Flipping through all of these album covers has been fun as heck, but it’s a bit sad to think about how most of these people never became remotely famous, and certainly never lived up to the ridiculous standards they set for themselves on their album covers. I only know where a handful of these folks are today.

I don’t think there’s a lesson to be learned here, or anything all that serious. I wouldn’t take it upon myself to find one, as my life has been dramatically different from most of the folks’ who recorded these albums. Mostly, it all just makes me feel kind of depressed. As awesome as these covers are, there’s little that’s sadder than seeing scores of squashed dreams on display, one after the other.

Nevertheless, it’s been fun, friends. Think of me next time you see one of these covers in the used CD bin at your local record shop, and don’t forget to pore over all the tiny little details. I’ve found that it’s the best part of all.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. June 6, 2010 11:03 PM

    I want BET to read these posts and do a “where they are now” special.

    • msjacks permalink*
      June 6, 2010 11:56 PM

      Well, the thing is, most of these rappers never became remotely famous. Like, back in the day you and I could have started a rap group, pooled together a couple of thousand of dollars and hired P&P to make one of these covers made for us. Pen & Pixel was a very accessible organization.

      Shawn Brauch said he made 26,000 covers. Can you imagine? Especially when you consider that most of the covers had more than one person on them. That means that, like, the equivalent of the entire population of Jackson, Tennessee had a Pen & Pixel cover.

  2. april permalink
    June 7, 2010 8:35 PM

    I literally laughed out loud at the “Christmas in Memphis.” His face!

    I’ve really enjoyed these. :)

    • msjacks permalink*
      June 7, 2010 8:38 PM

      I know right! It looks like he busted through the wall, Kool-Aid Man style.

  3. Kristin permalink
    June 11, 2010 10:13 PM

    Ah, finally got a chance to read! And you didn’t disappoint! Natch, Big Bear “Doin’ Thangs” is likely the masterpiece and I still to this day often use the phrase “doin’ thangs” when I’m particularly proud of a task I accomplished or when I’m mocking someone who has seriously fucked up. It’s a classic in every way.

    “Christmas In Memphis” gets the longevity award, mostly because it’s so apropos if you have ever lived here and has a sense of humor rivaling Dolemite…well, maybe not rivaling, but influenced by is fair, right?

    The surprise hit for me in this collection of brilliance was 615’s “Ain’t No Stopping Us”. The reasons are numerous, but numero uno is that damn rabid bat. Bravo P & P! Numeros dos-thru-infinity begin with the simple fact these dudes were from Nashville…and are proud of this. I mean, HA HA HA HA and HA again ad infinitum. From their boring-ass Nashville area code name, their tired bragging about not being able to be stopped when there ain’t no way they’re ever getting started (being from Nashville & all) and the proud flaunting of crispy new jerseys for what was then a brand-new Titans team just crows how very lame Nashville is. When contrasted with our own comic genius, Indo G, dressed as a ghetto Santa and making the leisurely claim that “Christmas Will Never Be the Same” with 2 9MM in his face, their can be no more questions posed about which of the two cities–Nashville or Memphis–run it.

    • msjacks permalink*
      June 11, 2010 10:18 PM

      You know who’s stopping 615? Bats with rabies.

  4. October 4, 2010 6:42 AM

    This has been a entertaining and educational read. MeFi linked to your original post; I’m coming away now with a new sense of history of American music!

  5. kitsa permalink
    January 19, 2011 9:43 PM

    A beautiful job representing the brilliance, joy and ancien regime that is Pen & Pixel.

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