Genre: Hip-Hop/Rap

As a nine-year old, I received my first hip-hop cassette tape, “On the Rap Tip,” as holiday gift from my mother. (My second cassette was a bootleg of 2 Live Crew I stole from my older sister!). I was a Midwestern kid learning about urban music from two coastal cities I was nearly equidistant from, and I was struck not just by the genius lyrics and the worlds these artists described, but, unwittingly also by the genre’s typography.

I remember memorizing all the differences between each artist on the cover, not only in their monochrome images, but in the group or MC’s names. The charming, love-filled De La Soul had a handwritten script. The smooth, eye-patch wearing Slick Rick had more of a Hollywood feel to his name. The toughest group at the time (at least when rated by my newly built knowledge of profanity), N.W.A., had a scrawled acronym in contrast to Kid ‘n Play’s nearly straight-edge, bring-us-home-to-meet-the-parents sans serif. I practiced writing these names on my JanSport.

Recently, while preparing to teach a typography course in the fall, I’ve been reliving my entire life through The Rub’s History of Hip-Hop’s mixtapes. Each year from 1980 through 2001 is mixed into a well-researched mp3. While listening, I’ve also been collecting examples of the genre’s 30-year typographic history. And although the arc of hip-hop’s typographic history falls mostly in line with popular culture, it does have some prominent digressions. Here are some of the highlights from the upcoming lecture:

The last year of the ’70s and very early ’80s didn’t stray very far from funk and disco in its appearance. Though the music eventually differentiated itself, the album covers took a longer time to represent the new art form and move into the new decade. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s debut album, The Message, was released in 1983 while Sugar Hill Gang’s single,”Rapper’s Delight,” (right) was released and went gold in 1979.

The mid to late-’80s, sometimes referred to as hip-hop’s golden age, saw the beginning of a sort of branding. Artists became increasingly diversified and it began to show in their albums and products. De la Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising (left) began to follow their own path of peace and love, with hand-drawn text and flowers. EPMD began to foreshadow the more C.R.E.A.M. culture that dominated the ’90s. On the cover of Unfinished Business (right) their name is nearly as big as their cars.

The late ’90s and early 2000s were dominated by money and often more importantly: Consumption! While Dr. Dre’s The Chronic (left) imitates a package of Zig-Zag rolling papers, it also echoes the face of American currency. Soon after, an explosion of Photoshop (and legendary studio Pen and Pixel) began to dominate the covers of artists like Master P and the Hot Boys (right) rendering type beyond the most bedazzled gold and jewelry.

As a good portion of  hip-hop is nearly fully integrated with the mainstream, its visual forms are not keeping up with this progressive industry. Jay-Z’s The Blueprint 3 is his eleventh album, but the first not to show an image of the man himself. For possibly the first 40-year-old rap star, his image has been replaced with an abstract numeral. The cover of Drake’s So Far Gone (left) is not even an album at all, but a free mixtape (requiring an executive producer credit on the cover). While the cover’s typography suggests his introspective (nearly emo) content, the very idea that these free albums are making some artists more famous (and more awesome!) than those using the old model, may be the bigger design story.

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  1. What’s funny is, last night I was thinking about how 95% of hip-hop cd artwork is the most god awful stuff. Thank you for this, it gives me some hope.