For Bonafide magazine issue 03 we hooked up with Stones Throw art director Jeff Jank to talk records, films and – when not talking about film – a bit about himself.
Imagine, you’re flipping through records at your local spot when midway through the hip-hop crate, floating about the monotonous sea of Pen and Pixel efforts, a 12″ canvas catches your eye like that cutie you saw on the platform this morning. The colours don’t scream, they merely snap their fingers to the beat. All browns, yellows and off-kilter purples. The illustration is simple but effective, not too showy, not too abstract. You know know the music is dope and you know there’s something in the way that this thing has been put together that you dig. Record in hand, you make your way to the counter when a giant fibrous yellow anteater, frantically scouring a row of 45s, looks up, burps out a lungful of smoke and gives you a conspiratorial wink. And somehow, you know you’ve done right.
Hailing from Lincoln, Nebraska, Jeff Jank is among other things, a film nerd extraordinaire. He eschews the Blaxpoloitative Jackie Brown in favour of the Starsky & Hutch-esque ode to the B-movie Death Proof as his preferred Tarantino flick. He surprisingly confesses to have never seen Bladerunner: “I hate to say it, because every time I do people gasp.” But when asked if he’s seen Sideways, a story of two disappointed and often disappointing middle-aged men on a road trip through California’s wine country the answer is a resounding “Of course!”
Jeff Jank isn’t your typical illustrator, he’s a blunt smoking, badass b-boy illustrator: “I don’t puff. My exception last month was with some bearded guys on the other side of the hill. And the last time before was around 2004 with some Madlib stuff that that made me insane for 24 hours. Even certified daily smokers would come around, smoke Madlib’s stuff, then go hide in corners…”
Undoubtedly one of the most approachable guys in the industry, Jank has gained respect for his notorious abstention from the norm, especially where hip-hop cover art is concerned. Despite this there is the instantly recognisable character in the shape of Lord Quas, Madlib’s pitched-up, alter-ego, famed for throwing bricks and pulling down panties, and it is surely this blasé, don’t give-a-fuck attitude, calling out bullshit while being being wholly comfortable with its own originality, that sets Stones Throw firmly on the front line of artistic innovation.
As one of the alter-ego, would you say that identify with Quasimoto in both aesthetic and musical terms? Did you try to marry the image to the music? The combination of his appearance always strikes me a natty one. Like he’s buggin’ out. Was this something you wanted to achieve when you conceived the character?
I’m not one-half of the Quasimoto alter-ego per se, I think that’s strictly Madlib. But I’m Quasimoto crew.
The pictures are very much guided by the music. It’s now been four years since I drew a bunch of Quasimoto characters set to music, and the previous record was four years before that.
During the first record I felt I perfectly understood the lifestyle Madlib and Quasimoto were writing about. They were writing the music from a Southern Californian perspective – and I was 400 miles north in Oakland at the time, but it’s California living – with a little bit of criminal, a little bit lazy, bored with your mind wandering, anxious, to make music and things.
On the second record it was bit more of adult Quas, dealing with a lot of adult of bullshit that none of us think we should have to put up with. So his life, the music, and the drawings were a little more chaotic.
We’re due for another Quas, but times are different now than eight or nine years ago when it started, so I have no idea what to expect next.
As far as buggin’ out, I don’t think that’s Quasimoto’s style. He’s non-confrontational and sedated, even when he’s talking about stabbing old folks with butter knives.
Right! So how does working with a unique batch of artists help the way you see the finished product? As a consumer we don’t always get a story behind the making of this or that, do you see the story behind a record or does the finished product become a separate entity from the work-in-progress? What’s your best work to date?
I see our DJs, producers and rappers as unique but maybe in a different way.
Madlib and PB Wolf, who I’ve worked with since we were young guys with funny haircuts, are the guys I got into this work with, and they’re the ones I most enjoy working with even when things get difficult.
We started out together, trying to make something out of nothing, with no expectations. It’s always different with the guys who have come around since then. Either they’re experienced and Stones Throw is one of many labels they have worked with, or they’re new jacks struggling to make their own mark within what we’ve built.
What I’m trying to say is that working with a person is a different experience, and it’s always changing. Some guys are a little defensive and unsure of themselves. Others are confident in their role and my role. This always shapes the finished project…but we never know going into a new a project if it will work out positively or leave everyone frustrated.
The easy and fun projects are most often the successful ones, which makes the frustrating flops even more frustrating. And then we start the next one.
My best pice of work to date would be Madvillainy. It’s a companion piece to Madonna’s first album cover. Sort of.
There must be an insane amount of profile pics out there featuring that LP hovering on someone’s shoulders. Was becoming Art Director at Stones Throw an accident of sorts? Or was a job like this always in your sights?
It was never planned out. I mean, when I was 10 years old I was not sitting there drawing up a master plan: “When I grown up I am going to be Art Director of a record label, in the decade after the music industry goes down the fuckin’ toilet.”
I’d like to say I was, but I cannot tell a lie.
We hear you on that. What has been the best advice anyone has given you regarding the way you produce work? In fact, what has been the best advice anyone has ever you, period?
Oh, I wish I home some advice at some point. It’s such a pain in the ass learning by making one mistake after another.
So, how do you respond to creative challenges? Do you take the methodical or maniacal approach, De Niro or Hunter S. Thompson?
Seeing how well De Niro’s psycho approach ultimately worked out for him in Taxi Driver, I’ve always strived to follow that path. Every time Madlib turns a new record over to me, I strap a new buck knife into my boot. Travis Bickle shot pimps and Hunter S. Thompson just shot at typewriters in the snow, and his own head. I love the books, but I don’t emulate.
Do you have a connection with other creative heads in the field or is it more a case of artistic individuality? Is there any beef?
I’ve been a fan of George Dubose since the B52s, and Klaus Voorman when I saw his name written into strands of hair on Revolver. Gee Vaucher from Crass is my personal favourite in the world of album cover art by a long shot.
Props as well to Cat Schenkel (Zappa), Warhol, Francis Wolffand and Reid Miles, Richard Hamilton for his stunt known as The White Album, Ray Pettibon (SST), Push Pin graphics, whoever it was that invented the black metal logo style, Peter Beard who has never done an album cover but who set my imagination on fire with the inside sleeve of some late 70s joint, dozens of nameless dub records designers…and perhaps most of all to Alex Steinweiss, the man who was a 23 year-old employee at Columbia Records in 1938 and suggested that they start putting pictures on the covers of records instead of just cardboard.
Props to Mr Steinweiss! You seem like a nice guy, almost like Papa Smurf of Stones Throw. Letting DOOM crash at your place, looking after HQ, opening the door for Madlib at 5am…is that the reality?
I wouldn’t say I let him crash at my place. I mean, if the door’s locked, he gets in through the window.
Actually, one time he got in through the window when the door was open. The Madlib incident at 5am – as depicted in Strip Club – is true, but he was knocking at Egon’s window back when we all lived and worked at the same house. Madlib’s a great guy, but living with him takes a lot of love.
Words: John Whybrow