Pen & Pixel: a hand in superstardom.
While my last two Pen & Pixel retrospectives were silly and covered the humorous aspects of their work, this one is a bit more serious. It is important for me to acknowledge (and for folks to understand) that Pen & Pixel had a huge hand in the work of many future rap superstars. They did album covers for everyone who was anyone back in the day, some of whom have blown up big time now, or who are remembered as dirty south pioneers today. (For the Pen & Pixel back story, check out Wednesday’s piece about the history and general background of the company.)
While I posted covers from most of the uber-famous No Limit artists, I left out Mystikal. He was huge in the early 00’s with singles like “Bouncin’ Back” and “Shake Ya Ass”- maybe bigger than Master P himself. Here’s his cover for Unpredictable, which was the last one he made before he blew up big, as well as his first for No Limit Records. His career was pretty much derailed once he entered prison for raping a woman (he was released earlier this year), but at the time he was the man.
Houston was where Pen And Pixel was based, and most of their early work hails from rappers and record labels based there.
The legendary DJ Screw, who is the reason why every rap radio station in the South plays songs more slowly than they actually are:
Hilarious stoner rapper Devin The Dude (oh, to be a fly on the wall in the room when he was describing what he wanted for this album cover):
Rap pioneers Geto Boys, clearly not without a sense of humor:
“Game Over” rapper and perennial guest contributor Lil Flip, who… well, this one really speaks for itself.
Lil Boosie, who has never had a hit of his own but had starring roles in Webbie’s “Independent” and the truly hilarious remix of Foxx’s “Wipe Me Down”, went to Pen & Pixel for his first album cover many years ago. As the “youngest of da camp”, perhaps he wished to reflect his love of choo choo trains? I’m not sure, exactly. But I love it!
Winning an Oscar was not my hometown heroes Three 6 Mafia’s first coup d’etat; in 1999, after many years on the grind, they finally had their first international hit with “Sippin’ on Some Syrup”, featuring a Marvin Gaye sample and a video with girls sipping cough syrup from baby bottles. (Those were some wild times.) The song came from this album, with cover art by (surprise!) Pen & Pixel.
Artists from outside the South also came to Pen & Pixel for their services. Prolific Bay Area rapper E-40 went that route on his critically acclaimed Tha Hall of Game.
One of the most famous Pen & Pixel covers of all time is Snoop Dogg’s Da Game Is To Be Told, Not To Be Sold, from his brief tenure at No Limit Records.
Perhaps Pen & Pixel’s most important and long-standing contribution to rap culture will eventually be recognized as their work with Cash Money Records. Cash Money spawned a plethora of stars. There was BG, who had a hit with “Bling Bling”. He claims to have coined the term, but I’ve also heard that Pen & Pixel founder Shawn Brauch came up with it to describe the sparkles he put on the finished copies of his work. “Bling Bling” wasn’t on this album, but it’s easily my favorite BG cover. (How is he impervious to all of those missiles?)
Then there were Big Tymers, which consisted of Cash Money label head Baby (later known as Birdman) and in-house producer Mannie Fresh. This is the cover of their first album, which also happens to be one of my all-time favorite P&P pieces. If you know the public personalities of Mannie Fresh and Baby, this album cover will make you smile. (Who is that standing behind the stretch Hummer, Juvenile?)
At the time Juvenile was the label’s biggest name, due to the success of his album 400 Degreez. This record included the singles “Ha” and “Back That Azz Up”, the latter of which was one of the biggest singles of 1999 across all genres and remains a pop cultural touchstone today. Check out those sexy ladies in the library!
…but it would be this guy who would eventually eclipse the rest of his labelmates and become one of the biggest superstars of our time. Those of us who loved Weezy back in the day defended the hell out of this album, particularly the title track. I remember it well. (I also fondly remember making a glittery Lil Wayne refrigerator magnet.)
Pen & Pixel also designed the covers for the Hot Boys albums, which was a rap super group cum boy band that consisted of BG, Juvenile, Lil Wayne and a rapper named Turk (in case you’re wondering where he went, Turk just got out of jail in Memphis and is working on his next album). Hot Boys was all the rage amongst teenage girls in the late 90’s; in my city, there was no escaping girls who graffiti-ed their backpacks and t-shirts with “Juvie is my boyfriend” and “My husband BG”, etc. Let ‘Em Burn isn’t one of their best albums, but it’s definitely the one with the best cover.
Pen & Pixel also designed the cover for the Cash Money produced-and-acted Baller Blockin’, which was Cash Money’s contribution to the straight-to-VHS bad rap movie fad of the late 90’s/early 00’s. I bought a used VHS copy from Blockbuster in the early 00’s, and I pray that it’s in a box somewhere at my parents’ house.
Just so you know, that cover pretty much sums up the plot (although there is a lot less bling in the movie). Look at all those golds!
Stay tuned for still more Pen & Pixel discussion, because I, as Weezy would say, can’t stop, won’t stop. Meanwhile, if you want to read more of my Pen & Pixel posts, click the corresponding tag on the right, y’heaaaard me? Next time: album covers that weave a complicated (or bizarre) tale.