In the latest of our Under the Covers series looking at records and their design, we celebrated the weird, wild world of Liars’ designs. Here, we track down some of those behind Beastie Boys’ record sleeves, spanning two decades.
During the ’80s and ’90s, Beastie Boys were unrivalled when it came to their visual identity, which was cool, surreal, artistic, and hilarious all at the same time. The rap trio made brilliant albums backed up with beautiful artwork, and staggeringly original videos that created new genres of their own. It wasn’t the work of one man exactly, but Adam Yauch, aka MCA, certainly drove that artistic vision.
Yauch gave much of the credit to his fictitious uncle, the European new wave director Nathanial Hörnblowér, an obfuscation who was dreamed up more as a fun sideshow than to create any mystery. Yauch would dress in lederhosen and ginger wig and beard and affect a Swiss accent for interviews. It means we have fewer clues regarding the amazing art direction of Paul’s Boutique and its extended gatefold though—when Yauch tragically died in 2012, aged 47, Hörnblowér went with him.
What we do know is, the picture on the front cover of a corner on Manhattan’s Lower East Side was taken by Jeremy Shatan and not MCA’s “uncle”: “It didn’t really bother me as it really was their idea, but wouldn’t that actually make Mr. Hörnblowér the art director?” Shatan told Beastiemania in 2003. “At least they spelled my name right!” We went in search of other art directors and illustrators who worked with the band, for an oral history of their magnificent designs, which today look like psychedelic altar pieces to hip hop.
Licensed to Ill (1986)
Beastie Boys’ Mad magazine inspired debut, full of schoolboy visual gags to accompany their ironic frat boys persona.
Stephen Bryam (art direction): “Rick [Rubin] told me the idea came to him while flying back from LA. He thought a plane on the front which reveals itself as a crash on the back cover would make an interesting visual. I was in complete agreement. I don’t see it as gallows humor, but more like high-functioning stupidity. A bit of a Dadaist cartoon.
“Dave [Gambale, aka World B. Omes, illustrator] and I went to school at the Academy of Art College in San Francisco together. I immediately thought of him after my meeting with Rick. We talked about the idea and thought about stuff we could stick in there for a laugh. We settled on ‘EATME’ backwards as a serial number, you know, something for the kids to discover. Dave made it and I’m pretty sure I didn’t have him revise anything.
“At the time, Dave’s method was to make a collage of something employing black and while Xeroxed imagery. He’d then irreverently draw all over it in Caran d’Ache crayons. I once walked over to his studio and found him eating a sandwich on top of a piece he was working on, using some leaked mustard as pigment. The prints would be rough and sometimes cruddy. It would intentionally not be assembled with great precision. It was very much fucked-up realism and anti-airbrush. I thought it would be the perfect expression of this particular concept. He FedEx’d the art to me, I said great, and Rick approved it. MCA skateboarded down the hall and into my office once, but mostly I dealt with Rick.”
Check Your Head (1992)
Beastie Boys hooked up with their old Def Jam New York compadre Eric Haze when they all found themselves living in Los Angeles.
Eric Haze [design, art direction]: “With Check Your Head we were all living in California by that time, and I’d established my design studio there doing work for artists like Tone Loc. There were lots of sit-downs, lots of discussions. A number of other ideas were exercised before we landed on the one that was published. I worked most closely with MCA who was the most involved when it came to the visual identity of the band.
“The designer rarely has the luxury of listening to the music before creating the album. The main cue for Check Your Head was MCA telling me they were trying to make the album sound like it was recorded in a toaster oven. I took one original photograph and ran it through my fax machine to digitize it and then made a photostat of that to essentially downgrade the photographic image for the LP cover itself. The typography is my handwriting. It’s not graffiti. It would be graffiti if it was on a train or a wall.
“The collage on the back cover was a major group effort among the entire band, all their girlfriends, their friends—sort of a bouillabaisse of photographs where everybody sits together. I was involved in the process; I was the art director, making sure it was done in the right format, shapes, context, so that it was possible to apply to the assets I was designing.”
Ill Communication (1994)
The picture on the cover was taken by Magnum photographer Bruce Davidson at a Los Angeles drive-thru in 1964, and scaled down for the sleeve.
Gibran Evans (design): “At the point of producing the Ill Communication packaging I was 22 and had been doing desktop publishing full time for about four years, and I believe the primary application used was QuarkXPress. One of my distinct memories was the initial meeting, which was me sitting down at my computer with Adam Yauch, who was holding a large pile of materials, including all the photos seen in the packaging, lyrics, several Blue Note album covers and a Manilla envelope as reference. After the initial meeting with Yauch, I had no additional in-person contact with any of the boys, until I caught Yauch backstage at Lollapalooza months later and found a moment to ask if he’d liked the packaging I’d put together. He responded briefly in the affirmative.
“The Davison shot would be the cover, Alex Grey’s Tree of Life [Gaia painting] would be the spread, and the studio photos and lyrics were to be colorized and reflect the look of the Blue Note style. One of the most difficult tasks was their request to use an architectural style font; at the time none existed in digital form. Fortunately I had experience using Fontographer, so requested that Jim Evans—who was the only accomplished illustrator I knew—and draw each letter, which I scanned, cleaned up in Illustrator, and assembled in Fontographer. Graphic design in the ’90s was comparatively primitive. I found it all very fun and fascinating though—I was young and loved computers, and any new requests were a challenge as it was all relatively new.”
Hello Nasty (1998)
The artwork for the Beasties’ epic double album Hello Nasty exudes b-movie energy, with the brilliant video for Intergalactic spoofing classic Japanese monster flicks.
Bill McMullen (design): “A few months after moving to New York, I began working with a company called The Drawing Board, which was the art department for Def Jam records started by Cey Adams and Steve Carr. Keeping it an independent company from Def Jam allowed them to take jobs from other labels and clients. Cey is good friends with Beastie Boys, and when the band was returning to NYC to finish work on what would become Hello Nasty, the band talked with him about creating the packaging and artwork for the album. So Beastie Boys, who had originally been on Def Jam but were now on Capitol, were now oddly having the art department in Def Jam do their new artwork. Cey knew I was a huge fan of the band, and assigned me to work with them, with one warning: ‘These are good friends of mine, so don’t fuck this up!’”
Cey Adams (art direction, from an interview with Complex in 2014): “Originally it was going to be called Another Dimension, and that was the working title up to print. At the last minute they said it was Hello Nasty… They were so smart at thinking outside the box. When we did that cover, as far as the sardine can, it seemed really absurd, but we found a way between Bill [McMullen] and myself to make it work. We spared no expense. It was during the early days of computer design; now you can do that stuff in Photoshop in no time. Back then we had to make a real live sardine can. We photographed them inside that, and then we superimposed the outside out and put the real can on there. So in the photo, they really are squeezed together in a can. I still have the contact sheets!”
To the 5 Boroughs (2004)
The trio’s post-9/11 love letter to New York was stripped back and to the point, which was reflected in the choice of artwork.
Matteo Pericoli (illustration): “In February 2004 I received a very kind email from Adam Yauch’s wife asking me if I would give the band permission to use a portion of my drawings from Manhattan Unfurled for their upcoming album. Manhattan Unfurled was an accordion-format book published by Random House depicting the East and West Side skylines as seen from the surrounding rivers. In her email, Adam’s wife told me she’d given a copy to Adam for Christmas of 2002 and that he was very taken with it. The band was about to release a new album, their first in six years, which would be dedicated to New York, and they felt that my drawings really conveyed ‘a sense of this city in which they were born and raised’.
“The idea to draw Manhattan from its surrounding rivers came to me back in 1998, when I took my first Circle Line circumnavigating the entire island. I was so taken by its energy and by its effect on me that I had to find a way to turn that energy into something tangible. After the first scroll of the West Side was finished, which took me a year to complete, I got the book contract with Random House and quit my day job at an architectural firm. These scrolls are actually very long. In fact, each of the two original Manhattan Unfurled drawings is 37 feet long.
“It took me and the publisher more than a year to develop the production of the accordion format book, and we received the first copies the weekend before September 11th, 2001. I will never forget that. After the following Tuesday, September 11th, we realized that the whole project had become something else. I wouldn’t say political, but certainly an image of, and a tribute to, something that had been tragically and profoundly transformed.”
The Mix-Up (2007)
The band’s slept-on instrumental album peddled a nice line in surrealism.
Bill McMullen (illustration, design): “With The Mix-Up, the band wanted to create a world that felt like many of the older records that had influenced them. Since it was an instrumental record, they wanted visual emphasis on the instruments and the recording process, and something that represented the fact it wasn’t a typical album from them. We started creating ideas that there could be this ‘music machine’, a sort of meat-grinder device that became a kind of Rube Goldberg contraption that spits out funky instrumentals.
“It became this free-form puzzle that they would add pieces to every few days via suggestions in emails or phone calls. I strived to create something like the cutaway illustrations in some R. Crumb or Richard Scarry books, where there were a lot of small details to find, and those guys had plenty of suggestions to make it as detailed as it ended up. The band had massive input on the work I did for them. They are a very visual bunch, especially Yauch, who I worked with the most often on these things.
“The culmination of it all was the interior—we did a photoshoot over at their studio on Canal Street [Oscilloscope Laboratories]. We shot early in the afternoon and there was fantastic light coming in from the windows, and Yauch had installed a roll of paper that could be pulled down to create a seamless photo. The guys went into various poses, pretending to lift a large cable, or hold something above their heads. I combined those photos with the illustrations, creating that surreal vibe of the band crawling amidst the instruments and tangled cables. It all came together very nicely, I think. I’m really proud to have been part of that whole project.”