The cover art for Midnight Marauders may have been its most important element. Sure, the songs on the album were a near perfect body of work. But before the music and the rhymes, the first thing potential buyers laid eyes on in stores was the album’s artwork filled with a cast of faces composed of a who’s who in rap at the time. That cover went on to become one of the most iconic ones in Hip-Hop, still easily recognizable over 20 years after its 1993 release.
One of the minds behind the cover was Nick Gamma, who was an art director at Jive Records at the time and still works in design today. Luckily, we were able to catch up with Nick to talk how an unforgettable piece of artwork came about, working side-by-side with A Tribe Called Quest, how the creation process went and his lasting impressions of Midnight Marauders, a project he had a hand in shaping, on the 20th anniversary of its release.
TSS: How did you start at Jive and what lead you to designing record covers for Tribe?
Nick Gamma: I originally found the job at my college’s job bank. That was in August of 1989. Jive had just started its own art department. They had been previously having their design done through the RCA art department, which they had a distribution deal with. I used to design, do mechanicals, shoot stats, spec type, sweep the floors, what ever they wanted me to do! This was all pre-computer. When I got there they were in the middle of designing the art work for People’s Instinctive Travels and The Paths of Rhythm and had just release the 12″ for “Description of a Fool.”
Since the art department for Jive was brand new, I was only the third person hired. The department was made up of Jean Kelly, Dave Scilken (who grew up with the Beastie Boys and designed The Source mag logo) and myself. For years, Jive had a policy of not giving out album credits to employees. Which was really messed up. Pleading our case the art department managed to get minimal credit. Since Jive was owned by the Zomba Recording Corporation, we were allowed to credit ourselves as ZombArt. Jean Kelly was ZombArt JK, Dave Scilken was ZombArt DMS and I (Nick Gamma) was ZombArt NG.
The very first Quest – which is how we referred to them at the label – project that I was involved with, was helping out Dave Scilken with the 12″ art for “Can I Kick It.” I didn’t really start designing any Quest art until The Low End Theory. That was when I was first asked to work on some lettering for the cover. I ended up doing all of the lettering for the album, front, back and liner notes. After that album blew up, it then became known as the Quest font, so I was asked to apply the lettering to the Midnight Marauders cover.
TSS: Explain what the process was like for designing an album cover in the early-90s. How was this specifically applied to making Midnight Marauders?
NG: Well, it was a time when as a designer we were on the cusp of the computer revolutionizing graphic design. We had purchased our first Mac in January of 1990. It was a Mac II X with a greyscale RasterOps monitor and an Apple 1 greyscale scanner. That’s right, NO color! We used it like a type setter would, simply laying out text and pasting it down on to mechanical boards. When I did the lettering on The Low End Theory, I would write out all of the letters by hand using a brush marker, on very large sheets of paper, then shoot them down to size on a stat machine.
When working on Midnight Marauders we had a better computer with a color monitor and a better scanner by that point. The art director and main designer on Midnight Marauders was Jean Kelly. It was her wrist watch that we scanned and used as the clocks that adorn the border of the album and behind they guys in their interior photo. We had a better computer, but not powerful enough to do the “high-end” retouching work that we needed. We ended up sending the high end photo scans out to a guy that had a beefier computer to do all of the head silhouetting, drop shadows and retouching. It was quite a process at the time.
TSS: How much say did Tribe have in designing the cover compared to your team, and where did you all agree and differ in what it should include?
NG: Q-Tip was the mastermind behind the visuals of all of the Quest albums. I believe he had even designed the circle logo with the stick figures in it. His first idea for Midnight Marauders was to have a bed in a loft in which you could see the skyline of NYC out of the window. Blue light would be emanating from the window on to a beautiful woman on the bed. She would be wearing headphones listening to music. He also wanted her hand on her crotch. That’s where the label rejected the idea.
The next idea was very challenging. Q-Tip wanted to have the striped lady walking in front of the Flatiron building at night. She would have headphone jacks coming out of her head. The connected headphones would then be worn by a large group of people following behind her. She would be like the pied piper of Hip-Hop. We actually went out to the Flatiron around midnight in the freezing cold to shoot this. As we were standing on top of a cargo van, with the photographer shooting, it started to snow. When we went back and reviewed the contact sheets it was very apparent that the idea just didn’t work. With today’s technology it would be a lot easier to have created the scene as Q-Tip envisioned it.
The album as it appears today was our version of the piped piper idea. This direction seemed like it made sense and was doable. Quest was on board and we then proceeded to start to shoot everyone.
TSS: What made you do the lettering the way that you did it? Was there a very specific theme behind it?
NG: The lettering came out of the idea that I wanted to create something that felt like Quest. After People’s came out, it really started to change the way the people viewed Hip-Hop. Afrocentricity was just starting to take hold. I wanted something organic, so doing it by hand and using a brush made sense.
TSS: Compared to other Hip-Hop albums from 1993, Midnight Marauders’ art was sort of revolutionary. Instead of a menacing close-up of the group, Tribe kept themselves out of the picture, put everyone and anyone in hip-hop on the cover and used animation. It was fun, essentially. Was this done in response to that charged, violent era of Hip-Hop?
NG: I don’t believe it was done in response to that. If you notice they were never on the outside of any of their albums, with the lone exception of Hits, Rarities and Remixes, which I don’t believe they had a say in. They purposely did not want to be on the exterior of any package. It was their thing. To tell you the truth, at the time, it was extremely refreshing to design packages like that for Hip-Hop. It was all about the concept.
TSS: Can you name everyone on the cover?
NG: Unfortunately off the top of my head, I can’t.
TSS: What was it like getting headshots for all of those people? Are there any interesting stories behind obtaining or not obtaining them?
NG: In order to get this together it started with our publicist contacting all of the labels and managers. We set up two photo shoots. One in NYC and the other in LA. Any and all artists were invited to show up. I went down to the NYC shoot. There were lots of people there. I think Run DMC was supposed to show up but couldn’t make it. Everyone brought their crews with them. It was all kind of a blur.
We also held a third session to photograph the striped lady with photographer Carol Weinberg. The interesting thing with that shoot was the fact that the striped lady actually wore a body suit with a hood that had the stripes painted on it. Unlike The Low End Theory in which the model had black light paint applied directly to her body and photographed in the dark. For Midnight Marauders we had to then go back and retouch out all of the seams from the body suit.
TSS: What tweaks or edits were or were not made to the art before release, and why were these important?
NG: The most difficult thing was keeping track of all of the artists that participated in the shoots. There was a ton of film to go through. Because we had so many photos and Q-Tip wanted to have everyone on the cover, we decided to do three different covers. Trying to work that out was quite difficult as well. We also applied those images to each CD label.
TSS: Any other interesting stories about Tribe, the making of the artwork and/or album that you’d want to share?
NG: Let’s see. The fact that everyone has the same expression was on purpose. They were supposed to be listening to the album. That’s also why all of the artists have headphones on. That also ties back to the original pied piper idea.
As I worked on all of the other elements needed for the album, flats (12″ square sized posters that were used as promo items for record stores), ads, etc., I had to write out a lot of stuff in the Quest style. I then decided to create an actual digital font using the program Fontographer. I’ve never released that font to the public. I also did the same thing with KRS-One’s handwriting; although it was never used.
TSS: What do you see as the album artwork’s lasting impact on hip-hop and cover design? How did it allow you to handle all of The Love Movement’s art?
NG: It’s very cool to have been involved with Midnight Marauders and to have worked with A Tribe Called Quest. Little did we know at the time that we were working such a classic album. It really represents a time capsule of Hip-Hop from 1993, a snap shot in time. As far as its impact, it’s great to see that people are still talking about it and how influential it’s been. I love seeing the spoofs and knockoffs, too. Very cool.
I have to say that I’m very lucky to have worked at Jive when I did. I worked there for 15 years. Hip-Hop was at an amazing crossroads. I was able to work with old school artists like Kool Moe Dee, BDP, KRS-One, D-Nice, Too $hort to new-school artists like Fu-Schnickens, Souls of Mischief and A Tribe Called Quest.
Working on The Love Movement was certainly not the same. It was at a very different time in Quest’s career. That’s a whole other story!