Hassan Rahim, T-shirt for Diamond

With a rejection of familiar genre tropes and a keen eye for the dark and unexpected, graphic designer and art director Hassan Rahim is easily one of the most exciting people working in music today.

So where did he develop his innovative approach? Nope, not RISD or Yale. Rahim’s design school was his own computer, which he used to teach himself what he’d later discover was, in fact, graphic design. For him, design was initially a way to have some fun and connect with likeminded folks online. A fervent MySpace tinkerer in his teens, he posted his “just for kicks” work online, and then watched it become his career.

Among the first things he designed in those halcyon days (when we were all friends with a guy called Tom in a white T-shirt) was a design for the skate brand Diamond, which lampooned metalhead and skate stereotypes by marrying the two. Rahim combined a graphic from English metal band Iron Maiden with the Diamond logo, lifting the brand’s typographic aesthetic and distinctly ’70s style of (frankly terrifying) illustration and elevating it into what was to become the defining look of ’00s streetwear.

Here, Rahim talks to us about how it all came to be, the power of MySpace, and why collage isn’t just a medium, but a state of mind.

“This is the first thing that truly changed my practice. I was about 17 at the time. I had a MySpace account and I was obsessed with skateboarding; it was really important to me as it acted as an escape—it was my way to leave the house and forget all about the problems and everything.

“I was really interested in the skateboard industry, so on MySpace I found a lot of people I admired who were skating, but also the people who were behind the scenes, the designers; people like The Art Dump, who ran all the graphics and art department at [skate brands] like Girl, Chocolate, and Fourstar clothing.

“On MySpace I followed this guy called Nick Tershay, who ran Diamond Supply Co., which made skateboard hardware and T-shirts. At the time I was uploading my graphic design work to MySpace, but I was just doing it as a teenager, I wasn’t doing it professionally or anything. Then Nick DM’d me, and was like ‘Hey, why don’t you do some stuff for Diamond?’ I geeked out and sent him some things.

Back then I was doing graphics for myself—I didn’t know you could do them for other people like that.

“Then when I was moving out of Orange County [California], I asked if I could sleep on his floor—I was just a kid trying to get out of a bad situation. We traded graphics for rent for a while, I must have ended up staying there for about six months.

“That was when I made this T-shirt design. It was a huge hit and steered the way street graphics were going. At the time, streetwear was very one-dimensional: it was either hip hop or punk or something, but Diamonds was known for being a lot more street. An Iron Maiden graphic holding a diamond was a real flip on that idea. I was really interested in dichotomies and contrasts; it’s a very rudimentary idea, but when you’re 17, that’s how it goes. It was a literal depiction on how to make it both punk and more hip hop, that’s what I was doing with that graphic. Another example from around the same time was when I took a Prince Purple Rain album cover and made it say Purple Drank… It was really dumb, so I’ll keep reiterating how young I was, but I was into stuff like that. I wanted to take these ideas and flip them.

“I thought Iron Maiden worked specifically because it was strictly about their artwork. There wasn’t a huge online image database then, so I would just go to the record store dollar bin and buy records and scan them. My other trick was to use the Google image search ‘very high quality’ filter and start at page 100, then go backwards to page one. I’d find crazy stuff that was or wasn’t related to the search, and that’s how I’d get images. So I was just finding weird, super esoteric, random stuff.

“With the Iron Maiden graphic though, they’re big enough to have just done a Google image search for a large scan of the cover. The process was really just based on Photoshop. I was just Photoshopping a bandanna onto the face and a diamond in his hand. It’s just based on collage; I was doing collage as a way of thinking, and that’s got me to where I am. Whether I’m making an actual collage or not, it’s more the state of mind—piecing different things together is the process.

Hassan Rahim, Jay Z poster

“The project was crucial in the way I thought about how to have two trains of thought coexist. You can even see that in the merch I did for Jay-Z: it doesn’t really look like Jay-Z merch, it uses another aesthetic. So that early work where I was applying one look into different fields really helped push things in different directions. I was doing that more in my personal work, the stuff I put on Tumblr. But then even this T shirt was personal work: I was working with the intent of Diamond using it, but it hadn’t started from a commission.

“That T-shirt design was a really huge hit. It sold out multiple times (they even got sued, I believe.) It was a very popular graphic and catapulted the direction of streetwear at the time. There were some others working in that sort of aesthetic, but I think it really pushed the needle. Now you see a lot of rappers who are really tailgating the metal and punk thing; people like Travis Scott, they’re wearing Judas Priest T-shirts or Thrasher now, but it’s just something I was doing back in the day. I got a lot of work from that graphic.”