This is the third in our series Under The Covers, in which we shine a spotlight on a significant album with a seminal design approach to match. We kicked off the series with Kraftwerk, and the krautrock band’s iconic, mysterious Autobahn motorway graphics, followed by M.I.A’s Arular.
Over the years, greatest album artwork lists in magazines have tended to focus on classic rock: the gatefold sleeves, the high concepts, and the intricacy—think Barney Bubbles’ baroque psychedelia or Hipgnosis’ neo-surrealism. Hip hop, however, has its own gallery of golden greats: NWA’s Straight Outta Compton, Nas’ Illmatic, De La Soul’s 3 Feet High And Rising, to name a few. And then there’s Run DMC’s seminal 1986 classic Raising Hell—a striking sleeve for what was a then-burgeoning genre. It’s fresh, in both the traditional and colloquial sense, made in the spirit of the times when Joseph Simmons a.k.a Run, Darryl McDaniels a.k.a DMC, and DJ Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell rode the zeitgeist into people’s living rooms around the globe.
“I hate to admit it but there wasn’t a ‘concept’ concept for that album,” says Janet Perr, an award-winning art director based in New York, who was charged with putting the visuals of Raising Hell together. She teamed up with the photographer Caroline Greyshock, who she’d worked with several times previously, including on Cyndi Lauper’s 1983 She’s So Unusual which won Perr a Grammy. “I loved Caroline’s style,” she says. Greyshock’s vast portfolio includes Carole King, Brian Wilson, Tom Petty, Robert Smith, and many more. “She has a relaxed and easy going way with her subjects,” says Perr. “Her black and white technique at the time was soft but showed motion.”
Concept or no concept, Raising Hell appears to subliminally echo an album that is arguably the foundation stone of the modern pop era. The use of black and white prints (albeit tinted), as well as strong fonts with greens and purples colliding, seems to nod to Elvis Presley’s self-titled 1956 debut album, a record that was as seismic for rock and roll as Raising Hell was for rap. It’s not a straight pastiche like The Clash’s 1979 punk classic London’s Calling, but it could almost be part of an unofficial trilogy of records that changed the world. Was this Perr’s intention? Was she thinking of the King when working with the Kings from Queens?
“Not at all,” admits Perr. “I didn’t make that connection.” The lettering decisions were a result of what she calls her “Russian Constructivist phase.” The album title is written vertically, juxtaposed against the group’s horizontal name, with ‘DMC’ carrying ‘RUN’ on its shoulders, framed with horizontal parallel lines. It appears to be the incipient basis for a logo that would go on to sell a million T-shirts: “That Run-DMC logo came from someone in England, as I recall,” says Perr. “I’m not sure who influenced who, but it’s pretty obvious that the letters RUN look great stacked on top of DMC. At the time I was big on using bars with clunky sans serif type.”
The rising, Hollis-based, fellow New Yorkers had released two records which had landed on the lower reaches of the Billboard Hot 100 in 1984 and 1985 (Run–D.M.C. and King of Rock, respectively)—great numbers for rap-based LPs at the time. The Grammy victory had opened doors, and Run-DMC’s label Profile Records had some money to spend thanks to these successful campaigns. Their next album was tipped for even bigger things, though nobody at the time could have guessed just how big. “I think they were successful right from the start, though maybe they achieved megastardom from the hit singles on Raising Hell,” says Perr. So what was the brief? “That’s funny. There were no briefs back then. I had meetings with the Profile executives and they wanted the band on the cover, so I presented them with photographers’ portfolios and recommended who to use. That was kind of it.”
“There were no briefs back then…they wanted the band on the cover, so I recommended photographers to use. That was kind of it.”
The shoot itself took place at Greyshock’s Lower Manhattan studio with the help of a strobe light, a huge window that they stood in front of, with Dutch angle snaps by the photographer to help give it an achingly contemporary feel. The filtering, too, feels very à la mode. “I know, right?” says Janet. “Back in the pre-digital days everything had to be done in the processing, the darkroom, and the printing. Actual film was used. Actual paper. And if there was retouching, it was done by an artist with an airbrush who painted right onto the photograph. Now anyone with a good eye can create any look they want in their iPhone in two seconds and it looks great.”
The filtering of black and white photos in opposition to the type was carried out across two different versions of the sleeve, both with an alternative adjacent flipside, meaning two photographs with four different color schemes in all. “As I was designing the cover, I decided to have the black and white photos printed in flat colors, with two different color schemes for two completely different packages: a purple photo with green type on the front with a red photo with blue type on the back. The second one is a green photo with magenta type on the front, and a blue photo with orange type on the back. Though the shoot was done in black and white and the photos were beautiful, I wanted to show the dynamics of the music with color.”
Furthermore, Jam Master Jay appears on the back sleeve, but not on the front, as was the case with the first two records. At the time the guy on the decks wasn’t contracted to Profile, though he would be present on all subsequent artwork, two of which Perr would also later design (Tougher Than Leather and Back From Hell).
“They were great guys, professional, charming, all round fun to work with,” remembers Perr. “They knew exactly how they wanted to look and had their look completely down. That made it easy for me and the photographer. Joe, Jay, and Darryl showed up in their own clothes and they looked fantastic. Usually at photoshoots we have an entire wardrobe for bands to pick from.”
The look was what Run’s older brother Russell Simmons—manager, producer and later head honcho at Def Jam alongside Rick Rubin—called their “outlaw” image. The b-boy simplicity was adopted from Jam Master Jay’s real life crepuscular street attire: Kangol hat, Adidas trainers, gold chains. It was a reflection of where they came from, rather than the braided hair and white boots of the Fearless Four or the leather, chains, and fur of Grandmaster Flash. Their decision to dress like they’d come in off the street wasn’t because of a lack of stagecraft, it was political. They were dressing for themselves.
Their decision to dress like they’d come in off the street wasn’t because of a lack of stagecraft, it was political. They were dressing for themselves.
In Bill Adler’s Tougher Than Leather: The Rise of Run-DMC, McDaniels remembers going to see Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five in 1984. “I was so disappointed. These ain’t the guys I was always worshiping! They came out dressed in their braids and shit. Corny! I thought, ‘Don’t you know? You’re Grandmaster Flash, you knucklehead! What are you doing dressing like this and disappointing me? But it just gave me the confidence to think, ‘Fuck it! Me and Joe and Jay are gonna set an example.” By the time they met Janet Perr they were ready: “They knew how to stand, they knew how they wanted to walk. They knew the image they wanted to project,” she says. “They were perfect from the moment they walked in the door.”