October, 2020, by Mike Goldstein, AlbumCoverHallofFame.com
In my July/August ACHOF news summary, I shared a link to a “Top 10 Favorite Album Covers” article I’d read written by a prominent Chicago-based artist named Faheem Majeed, a sculptor who had spent a number of years earlier in his career as the Director and Curator of the esteemed South Side Community Art Center. My regular readers know that, when I find articles online titled “My 10 Favorite Album Covers” and share them with you, my typical comments are how I find these screeds rather boring and, typically, just click-bait and a general waste of time. Imagine my surprise when, on the Muse By Clio web site, I discovered one written by a prominent Chicago-based artist named Faheem Majeed – someone who had spent a number of years earlier in his career as the Director and Curator of the esteemed South Side Community Art Center. With credentials like that, I was not at all surprised to find this particular article both informative and a well-written and an interesting read overall.
The fact that Mr. Majeed was also a big fan of one of my favorite album cover artists – surrealist Abdul Mati Klarwein, best-known for his covers for Santana (Abraxas) and Miles Davis (Bitches Brew) and others – only wanted me to learn more about Faheem and his artwork. I was also intrigued by his choices for his list (and the reasons behind them), which prompted me to contact Mr. Majeed and ask him several questions about any influences album cover art/artists may have played on his life and career. This then led to a phone interview in which we covered several more topics – including some discussion about his own recent work on an album cover for Gangstagrass’ 2020 release No Time For Enemies, which features a custom collage he created – a synopsis of which will be found in the following paragraphs.
In advance of reading this article, I’d invite you to re-read his original article on the Muse By Clio site – https://musebycl.io/art-album/10-great-album-covers-chosen-artist-faheem-majeed and then visit his own site – https://www.faheemmajeed.com/about – to get some additional background on this talented and fascinating individual.
Note – this interview was conducted in August and September, 2020 –
Mike Goldstein, AlbumCoverHallofFame.com – Faheem, hello. Glad to be able to speak with you today. I called since I’d seen your article about album covers and since I have all my alerts set to let me know when someone talks about album covers – because of that and the fact that you’re also from Chicago – I knew that I wanted to talk to you as I thought your take would be unique based on your background. Also, since we’re both fans of Mati Klarwein…I think that I sent you photos of the three I have in my collection – Annunciation, Time and one other – and had sold his prints in my old art gallery, which I’d sourced from Klarwein’s former solicitor, and so another reason I was excited to talk to you was that we’ve both been influenced by his work.
Faheem Majeed – Sure, happy to do it.
Mike G – My first question to artists is usually about their feelings about album artwork-related design, photography and production you see these days and whether there are any musical acts, labels, art directors, etc. that you think are keeping the field alive or important, but your article has already given me those answers with your top 10 – thanks!. So, while I understand that you have been impressed with a number of different covers over the years – and the talents of the people that made them – do you think album art and packaging, including work for “special products”, box sets, etc., matters much to music fans anymore?
Faheem M – That’s an interesting question. I’d done that “Top 10” but, since I did that article, I’ve been getting a lot of emails from people who suggested that I’d “missed this” or “missed that”…
MG – That’s why I never do those lists – you’re much braver than me!
FM – It’s hard – it could have been a “Top 100” – so when I thought about narrowing the field, I wanted to think about the artwork and not on the nostalgia or thinking about what the music within the covers did for me. Album covers are usually associated with the music and you never really hear “well, the album cover was good, but the music really sucked!” because the music had to be good because, at its core, it was about the music, right?
MG – Did you ever buy an album just for the cover?
FM – No. The majority of the albums that I reference were ones that I knew as a child, so when I wrote about them, it was almost about them being a picture book – I’m looking at my parents albums or my brother having things stapled to the walls in his room – so my foray into music has me looking at this through the lenses of my parents and my older brother. You put on The Muppets Adventure’s “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” and then you look at the book that goes along with it. That’s the moment I first enjoyed album art and how it looked. As I grew older, album cover art became more secondary, so when I mentioned a Tribe Called Quest (in his article) and things like that in my “Top 10”, I really tried to divorce myself from the music. With Michael Jackson, that’s hard to do, so that’s why he was at the top.
By going into album art and what it is, it’s more of a nuance thing now. I was going to put Jack White in as I was thinking about how he kinda stretched what a record or an album can be along the lines of the design or the function of it, but I think that’s kind of an offshoot – it comes with a premium, right? Now that everything’s digital and that’s how the masses take music in, it’s not an album cover anymore – it’s now a video or a promo on YouTube or some other kind of PR or promotional thing that’s attached to it. Kanye West comes out with something and there’s some kind of video or whatever that’s packaged with the digital download. When Beyonce does something, it’s a movie that goes along with the release of the album. So, the album cover becomes something similar to an outmoded thing like you’d find in the art world but that, in its own way, becomes valuable because it doesn’t happen as often. So, things shift and it gives someone the space to be more artistic – when you don’t have the pressure to think about what an album has to be and can just think about how it can be a throwback in some way. Records went out for a while, right – we didn’t really get records for a while and then people brought records back – not that we needed records, but because it just felt different and that’s something that people will pay a premium for.
MG – yes, and that slowdown also opened up opportunities for these album cover artists to show how their innate talents could be used to their advantage in other aspects of the music business. If your principal business isn’t going to be designing 12-inch album covers any more, shouldn’t you take your talents and apply them to making CD covers or web sites or music videos or stage design? It was interesting to watch a certain percentage of them transition, while the others were like the cold type-setters who never learned how to use a computer and watched their jobs disappear over time. Luckily, you haven’t had to do that as you grew up as a multi-media artist and someone who was aware of all the different options and technologies and could then choose the ones you liked the best.
FM – Yes, it’s a formula, you know – supply and demand and all that stuff – and understanding what you can offer as a specialty service that might be worth more. It has opened up a little bit, and there’s also a difference in how covers are designed now versus how they were designed then – the printing and pressing of records are done differently now. It’s not unique to that industry – it’s always true and, when the prices go up, the opportunities go down. To your point, the nature of creativity and art and design will evolve, whether you want it to or not. It is what it is – these records will go to museums or into record crates – and creativity in music goes on.
MG – On to our next question… Again, while I know that you don’t focus on finding new clients in the album cover world – you did the one you did and maybe more in the future – I’m always interested in when you’re working on an album art package for your own clients, how much of yourself do you put into these projects versus giving your clients what they want or think they want, and do you consider your efforts to be true works of self-expression? What I mean is, do you look to impart something of your own style, or do you take your lead from your client? In this recent project (i.e., the one he did for Gangstagrass – see image, below), I know you weren’t the lead but were brought in by the Art Director as the Illustrator. Were you able to hear the music first, and how much did the music influence the visuals you created for your client?
No Time For Enemies by Gangstagrass (2020)
FM – Well, I’d gone through a bluegrass phase for a while, and this is bluegrass and hip-hop kind of mixed together, but I wasn’t aware of this band at all. It’s kind of a peculiar thing, because I don’t design covers or even design images – I’m primarily a sculptor – and so this cover is made of images that were kind of a mashed together. Initially, when I was approached by a guy named Michael Rakowitz – who is a really well-respected artist – and he came to me with the idea that this image would ideally be done on particle board, which you see on the album cover and is the same kind of wood that is used to board up windows and is inexpensive and you can get anywhere. So he had this idea, after listening to the music, of connecting it to this kind of board.
His wife is an art critic and she’d written a piece about my work, so when he started talking about using colored OSB particle board on this project, she asked him “why don’t you just talk to Faheem, as he’s already doing what you want done?” So he called me up and told me that I should just do this album cover. If anyone else had called me and asked me to do a cover, I’d have probably said “no” but, because he called me, I said “well, OK” and because of COVID, I was bored and hadn’t been doing much work. Initially, they were just going to select one of my pieces and put it on the album cover, but I usually have a lot of text in my work and when they saw it (Editor’s note – a piece called Crosses – see image, below), they said “we really like this, but it says ‘X’ and since it has a big ‘X’ on it, people are going to think that the album’s name is ‘X’”, so I said “let me go back and look at this” and then I thought to myself, “you know, maybe I’m just going to make a commissioned piece, customized just for you guys” and I surprised them with it.
Faheem Majeed’s Crosses – photo by Claire Britt
If you take a look at the cover, every one of those colorful little pieces you see are individual pieces of wood that were collaged together, so those are photographs mashed on top of each other. I don’t work in InDesign or use any of that stuff – that’s not what I do. I’m a sculptor, so this is a total offshoot – even in making art, I don’t work this way. This is a unique thing for me, and I don’t know if I’d do it again. This was a unique set of circumstances – all my projects had been put on “pause” – I was stuck in the house, so I just said “OK, this kind of stretches me…this is kind of an interesting and weird challenge, so let me do this.” I worked with them online and we went back and forth and I said “you guys first said that you wanted to just pick one of my pieces, but you really just want a commission, so I’m going to give you a commission for the ‘pick-a-piece’ price.” It was really something just to keep my mind going. I enjoyed doing it, and I wasn’t expecting to get much from it. They liked it so, well, that was great.
MG – So, where is the “original”?
FM – It doesn’t exist – it’s “in the wind” – it’s gone.
MG – Oh, so I’m sorry – so the assemblage was done digitally?
FM – It wasn’t glued together, it wasn’t made – it was stacked together, like a bunch of loose pieces of paper…the head is one piece – I took a picture of that; the shirt is another piece – I took another picture; the guitar is another…sometimes I re-used images and meshed them all together to make a piece – it was never actually “one thing”. The background is a piece of OSB wood used to board up a house and I asked my friend Miguel Aguilar to give me a tag – he’s a graphite tagger and a muralist – so he made a tag and then I collaged it all together to make it look seamless. So, it doesn’t actually exist.
MG – Wow. That certainly makes it all the more unique.
FM – Yeah, it’s an interesting thing. When I explained to them how it worked, they all went “what – you did all that?” and I said “yeah, I like a challenge.” I made things more difficult than they needed to be (laughs). That’s art! Anyway, the whole thing was a bit strange and so, when you ask me about the influences of the album on my work, until that moment I hadn’t had to think about that, so I had to sit down and take a minute and think about the places of intersection between my work and album art and that was a great exercise…I really had a lot of fun.
MG – Well, in what we’ve discussed up until now, we’ve pretty well covered this next question… Since everything is digital these days – with the possible exception of the resurgence of vinyl and turntables for collectors and purists – and since you and I are both in the arts and yet we’re also music consumers – with however music is “consumed” these days – how do we as consumers ever get a chance to decide what’ll interest us or might interest us? We might have read about it in an article or may have had a friend recommend it or something like that, but when I was growing up, the way you discovered new music was by going to a record store and rifle through the bins and whoever had the coolest cover at least got me to pick it up…So, how does that work today? Or does that work today? Does it help enough that artists should be investing as much or as little time and money in creating imagery and packaging for their products?
FM – Yeah, that’s a good point. You’re right. That was the function of album art – to make you stick out of the stack, which is why that Run-DMC My Adidas record was so good – bold fonts and big letters and lot’s of ‘em. When you talk about the “purists” I think that, once again, someone who remembers that might still enjoy that – the DJs still do that, the hardcore collectors still do that. My younger brother is now into the promotion business – that’s all about taking young artists and getting them online and getting a certain number of views online and taking their video clips and editing them into three minute or thirty second snippets and then charging them per view.. I think that’s where we are with regards to new people coming in – it’s a totally different kind of consumption that mostly has to do with the phone in your hand. I don’t necessarily have a frustration about that – it’s just that’s how it is done, utilizing the online platforms – I’m talking about the masses and not necessarily the “specialists” – the people who go in deep – because the masses aren’t looking for an album cover. They’re just going out and looking for something specific – a name, and when you see it, you download it – so there is no visual in between that other than the “commercial” that gets you to go there. And however that’s spun – “let’s give you a peek into this musician’s bathroom”, for example – and there’s different ways of doing that. It’s totally over my head – it’s a big industry doing this, and there’s a lot of money in it, but I’m clueless. I can only think about how I get to music…
MG – Although don’t you think that it’s funny that people still use album covers to help them find and search through their own music that they’ve downloaded to their phones – when you’re looking for an album…
FM – …yeah, there’s an icon or thumbnail associated with the album cover. You’re right – so, you still have album covers being made, but you may never actually touch the album cover. So it’s kinda funny – it’s just an image, and this generation just associates a record with a square, so there’s still an “album cover”, but you may never actually see the album.
MG – Yeah, the covers aren’t actually covering anything – they’re just there.
FM – So, some of the covers I wrote about – I wrote about Earth, Wind & Fire and Michael Jackson and the albums that used to fold out – I wonder how many new Michael Jackson fans realize that Michael actually had a real tiger cub on his lap? You had to open the album cover to see it. And other albums included posters that you had to pull out and unfold. I’m mean, where did those posters go? I used to have the Earth Wind & Fire poster and I just went online to see if I could find an image of it and I couldn’t find one. There’s no mention of the poster insert, but I know it was there because I carried it around with me forever and now I don’t have it. All those kind of things are still out there, somewhere, but they’ve been forgotten. All those unique things that used to be part of an album you can’t find – all you find now is “the square”, because that’s the only thing left online that is still associated with the record.
MG – Do you remember that really famous psychedelic poster of Bob Dylan that was done by Milton Glaser? That was actually a poster inserted for Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits. Most people – except Dylan fans – think that that was the cover of the album when, in actuality, it was just a nice little Milton Glaser print that you got along with the record.
FM – Yes, it was beautiful.
MG – So, recorded music has been around a long time now and album art – and the world – has gone through a lot of changes, so one of the things I always like to find out from the people I’m interviewing is whether you think that album covers reflect what’s going on at the time or can they, in certain instances, actually lead people to see things in a particular way or say something at a time that something needs to be said?
FM – I think I was thinking about this when I was writing about the A Tribe Called Quest album cover and all of the faces on it and, revisiting that, it became an archive of hip-hop at the time. Whether you call them “collectibles” or whatever, they become a reflection of the times and become something that you can archive. Even by today’s standards, when you go back and look at NWA or Bob Dylan albums…it is an art form, so whether the artist does it or the musician has a hand in its design or not, the music is making a statement and the album cover shouldn’t be any different. I think that, regardless of whatever digital platforms exist, when all musicians come out with a new release, they should all still think about those album covers, even if no one sees them. They have to think “OK, what’s going to be the right image, and what’s going to be the album cover or what’s going to be used in the merchandising”?, so there are still places to make statements, which is why when I did this album cover with Gangstagrass. The band was really interested and thinking about it and that album cover has a lot to do with our current moment – we’re thinking about protests and riots and industry being shut down…I mean, that’s what that whole thing was about.
MG – not sure if you’ve seen lately, during COVID/BLM protests, that there are a number of companies offering band-logo and album cover PPE I’ve seen…not sure if you’re into metal, but I just bought a t-shirt from the Black Sabbath people that used the type and color combination that you found on the cover of Black Sabbath’s Volume 4 to spell out the words “Black Lives Matter” on the shirt, and the proceeds from the sales of this going to the BLM movement. It’s one of those things where you just had to say to yourself “really?” in that this band of British rockers realize that they had something in their portfolio that could be used in a very meaningful way…I’ll send you a picture of mine.
FM – That’d be great.
MG – So, I have just one more main question, followed by one additional teeny question – something that I remembered wanting to ask you after I sent you the preliminary list of questions I wanted you to review…it’s about the whole copyright and intellectual property thing. I think that I told you that I used to work in music television and that I worked with a lot of people who were photographers and videographers and illustrators and designers of all kinds, some who did work for my network, and one of the things that I found was that while many of them were really, really talented, many of them were also horrible business people.
FM – Yeah, that kind of goes hand in hand…
MG – Well, it’s sort of funny in that there were several who thoroughly understood the value of what they do and made sure they had agents and had an attorney look at their contracts and the like. After I started my old gallery, I went to a number of people and told them that I wanted to sell their prints – prints of their work – and asked them whether they did the works as “work for hire” and kept their rights and just licensed them for that particular purpose and they’re responding “you know, I don’t really know”.
FM – Yes, that sounds pretty standard, actually. I did some research on that, too, as I was curious because I was interested in that if I made a “thing” and then that “thing” turns into merchandise and then, if the album takes off, then the merchandise takes off, right? So I was curious about this, and I asked a friend of mine who’d just gone through this about how much is usually charged and the like…you know, this project was totally done on a handshake and I thought well, since this is really an offshoot of what I do, I’m not going to get too deep into the details. But I told myself, “this is a business but well, dude, you don’t own the rights to any of that stuff”.
MG – Do you ever look to see if any of your work is being used without your permission?
FM – No…you know, I make sculptures and I make art and I have these conversations…I used to run an arts non-profit and I remember once when a photographer tried to sue another photographer because he took a picture of Cloud Gate – you know, “The Bean”* – from a certain angle and I asked him “Dude, it’s not even your artwork, so how are you going to sue someone for taking a picture of someone else’s work from another angle?” So, I think that there are extremes to it as well, and sometimes you think “what if someone takes my work and then builds on that work”…me personally, I don’t have any issue with that. My thing is, it’s about crediting and not necessarily about copyright – it’s about acknowledging your influences. We’re all influenced by many things, but there’s a problem if you present something as yours that isn’t yours, that’s just called “lying”. Don’t lie – just be truthful. It doesn’t discredit your genius; it doesn’t discredit your rights to ownership or authorship. I understand that copyright is a big deal – especially in the music industry and also in the art world, when it comes down to money…I don’t spend much time with that and don’t have much issue with that in my everyday life. I don’t deal in multiples, so I’m not putting out massive quantities of images, nor have I had anyone take anything of mine and had a run at it…maybe I should be learning something new, since they know how to make money off of it – maybe I could pay them to show me how to do that!
MG – Well, actually, you do now have multiples…how many copies of this record with your cover are going to be out there?
FM – Well, we’ll see because they’re due to release this soon (Editor’s Note – pre-order the CD here – http://renchaudio.com/store/no-time-for-enemies-cd-preorder). And you know, you’re right – I’m happy to be a part of that. It’ll bring me pleasure since this is a new kind of slant to something I do.
MG – You have to think about an album like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon…I interviewed the guy that did that cover a long time ago and he said it was kind of bizarre that…here’s a guy who has had maybe 40 or 50 million copies of the artwork he did made and there are very few people who know the name of the guy who did the work.
FM – That’s very true – most people don’t know the artists’ names. You know, before this, there was a big conversation in a thread that I’m a part of and people were trying to figure out who did the artwork for Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew album. We all realized that we didn’t know who the artist was, so they started making up folklore about who the “unnamed” artist was. I said, “wait a minute – I’m not going to repeat that”, and I went downstairs and got the album and it was right on the album cover. It’s not like I had to Google the information – it was right there and it turns out that he had an expansive career…but people just never went to look it up. It’s really not a mystery and yet, without Googling it, no one knows the artist was.
MG – So, here’s a piece of Grammy Award historical trivia…the first Grammy Award for “Best Album Cover” went to Frank Sinatra.
FM – Are you serious? Wow.
MG – Yeah, because he took credit…there was a very accomplished painter named Nicholas Volpe who Sinatra went to who actually painted the album cover… the guy got no official credit and Frank Sinatra took home the Grammy. Elvis Presley’s manager did the same thing next year, but I don’t think he won…anyway, it was their way of making the fans think that they did everything. It’s one of the reasons that I got a group of people together to start the Album Cover Hall of Fame – all of the people who’ve been involved were involved in music marketing in some way and we all felt that it was sad that the people that make the artwork weren’t getting credit…
FM – I tried my best in the article I wrote to show how I realized what the difference was between the designer and the photographer…there’s people who do layout; there’s people who have a vision and then there’s the people who actually capture that vision. I was very specific in saying that it was a photographer or a painter or a designer because you might literally have three creatives with different energies just to produce that one object. It’s quite the thing, but most people don’t see or care about that. They’re like “what do you mean?” Even as an artist, I didn’t think about that until I got that assignment – I didn’t need to (laughs).
MG – Yes, it usually takes a team to do this, whether you’re working for a major label or as an independent, you usually need a lot of talented people to handle the various aspects of a project. OK, last thing – I just wanted to ask you a question about your “Top 10” article – you’ve already talked to me a little bit about Thriller being your Number One most-loved album cover. If Thriller was your Number One, I was wondering what you thought of Bad, which was his next album. It came five years later and to those of us in the album art world who pay attention to such things – it was a hugely popular album, but it was also during those five years that Michael Jackson started going through a lot of changes…changes in many ways…physically – those are the ones that a lot of us remember – but also stylistically, and he was having a lot of arguments in the press with his church. So, for you growing up and being a Michael Jackson fan, what are your thoughts about Bad overall – was it close to being in your “Top 10”?
FM – Do you mean in regards to the album cover? Bad didn’t make it to the “Top 10” because I really didn’t spend any time with that record. I saw it but, by that time, I was older and starting to get into hip-hop in various ways. The reason I chose Thriller was that I was able to divorce myself from loving the music and was able to spend a lot of time just looking at the cover. The reason I picked that album and the others I wrote about was because I’d spent a lot of time at the time analyzing each cover. I can’t tell you what was on the inside of the Bad album cover – but I can tell you what was on the inside of Thriller. I framed it like it was artwork, and how much time do you spend looking at a painting? It represented a time when there are some shifts to what’s happening in my life, moving from listening to my parents’ records and their tastes to my brother’s to thinking about “what is my relationship to those things now”… in choosing Yashua Klos’ artwork (his collage “Become A Ghost”, which was used on the cover of Kendrick Scott Oracle’s 2019 album A Wall Becomes A Bridge) – that was an actual art work by an artist whose work I greatly respect that was put on an album cover. That’s what introduced me to the music. So, while I know and the rest of the world knows the music on Bad, I just had a different set of eyes at that point.
MG – Well, thank you so much.
FM – Well, I don’t envy you putting all of this into text, but I appreciate you taking the time to interview me.
About our interviewee, artist Faheem Majeed (parts excerpted from his web site bio):
Born in Chicago, IL, Faheem moved to North Carolina at the age of two and later received his BFA from Howard University. He moved back to the city in 2004 to attend grad school at the University of Illinois at Chicago, receiving his MFA there. From 2005-2011, Majeed served as executive director and curator for the South Side Community Art Center and, in addition to teaching at his alma mater, he is currently Co-Director and Founder of the Floating Museum, “an arts collective that creates new models exploring relationships between art, community, architecture, and public institutions. Using site-responsive art, design, and programming we explore the potential in these relationships, considering the infrastructure, history, and aesthetics of a space” (https://floatingmuseum.org/).
An artist, educator, curator and community facilitator, Faheem blends his unique experience as an artist, non-profit administrator, and curator to create works that focus on institutional critique and exhibitions that leverage collaboration to engage his immediate – and the broader community – in meaningful dialogue.
Majeed is a recipient of the The Field and MacArthur Foundation’s Leaders for a New Chicago Award (2020), Joyce Foundation Award (2020), the Joan Mitchell Painters and Sculptors Grant (2015), and the Harpo Foundation Awardee (2016). Majeed’s solo exhibitions include shows at the MCA Chicago, SMFA at Tufts and the Hyde Park Art Center. He now lives just a few blocks down from where he was born, on the same street.
You can learn more about Faheem Majeed and his work by visiting his web site at www.faheemmajeed.com
Special thanks to Bianca Marks – Mr. Majeed’s gallery manager – for her help in organizing this interview.
* info for Cloud Gate AKA “The Bean” – a public sculpture by Anish Kapoor on display in the city of Chicago and a very popular attraction for locals and tourists – more information is available on the City of Chicago web site – https://www.chicago.gov/city/en/depts/dca/supp_info/chicago_s_publicartcloudgateinmillenniumpark.html
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Our ongoing series of interviews will give you, the music and art fan, a look at “the making of” the illustrations, photographs and designs of many of the most-recognized and influential images that have served to package and promote your all-time-favorite recordings.
In each interview feature, we’ll meet the artists, designers and photographers who produced these works of art and learn what motivated them, what processes they used, how they collaborated (or fought) with the musical acts, their management, their labels, etc. – all of the things that influenced the final product you saw then and still see today.
We hope that you enjoy these looks behind the scenes of the music-related art business and that you’ll share your stories with us and fellow fans about what role these works of art, the music they packaged and the people that created them – played in your lives.
Except as noted, all images featured in this story are Copyright 2020 by Faheem Majeed – All rights reserved – and are used by the artist’s permission for the purposes of illustrating this article. Except as noted, all other text Copyright 2020 – Mike Goldstein, AlbumCoverHallofFame.com (www.albumcoverhalloffame.com) & RockPoP Productions – All rights reserved.