With the 2020 Grammy ceremony on the horizon, Discogs spoke with each of the nominees for Best Album Package about the importance of design and the physical record experience.
The first conversation was with Singapore-born, Brooklyn-based designer Irwan Awalludin, who earned his first nomination this year for his work on Intellexual — the self-titled debut from Chance the Rapper collaborators Nate Fox and Nico Segal.
Starting off, how did you get into design? Were you creative from an early age?
I just started drawing cartoons, as far as art. When I moved to America, it was the thing that I did to help make friends in middle school. I had art teachers that saw my ability to draw and were very encouraging. Then I got an interest in designing shoes.
Where’d you grow up?
Parma Heights, Ohio. It’s a suburb about 30 minutes out of Cleveland.
My graphic design kind of just came about from a place of necessity, I wouldn’t say it was something that I planned on going into. When I started designing around 2007/2008 it wasn’t like it is today; the landscape with young designers designing stuff, especially for rap. I saw that there were different rappers on MySpace. I thought I could design and put my work out to them to serve an under-served community, in regards to design. Now everybody wants to design for rappers.
I had a stint doing streetwear in college and everything sort of snowballed — doing things, meeting people in the rap and streetwear world. And that’s how I got to today.
Who were some of your first designs for when you were coming up?
There was a group called C-Level Records who I met on MySpace. I think it was $30 to do the cover and tracklist. That was the first music project I ever designed for.
Jumping forward to intellexual. Had you heard the music when you started designing?
Some songs. It was a long process. We worked on it for over a year. It just started with the [title] that Nate and Nico came up with. It was a long process of evolution from the initial idea, to the concepts, to the refinement of concepts, but I think listening to in the earlier stages was a big key.
Nate [Fox] had a quote about the title intellexual being an “intellectual seduction” and falling in love with someone’s mind. Is that where that concept for the artwork came from?
Yes, that was their initial take on it: sexuality and intellectuality. For me, I didn’t want to carry the whole concept on just that idea. I wanted to be able to look at those topics almost the way a biology textbook would approach it. You remember how science textbooks in school would break down different molecules or the DNA?
I wanted to take those topics [of sexuality and intellectuality], but not make it overly lewd or graphic. I didn’t want to look at sex from a standpoint of lust. What I wanted to present for the project was more exploratory. Something you could potentially see in a science museum.
We started off with the the cover; it was the first piece of art made for the project, and they really liked the simplicity of it.
What does the cover imagery represent?
It’s the brain. But depending on where your mind is at, and what you’ve been exposed to, it can also look like a sensual scene.
You know the Picasso drawing with three lines that becomes a woman’s figure? (below) That was a huge inspiration to the cover. That was a huge thing for me, to be able to communicate ideas in a simple, not cluttered way.
I think there’s a term called sapiosexual, and that’s not what I wanted to do. I don’t want to create a sense of lusting over people’s minds. It kind of carries a connotation to seem a little bit elitist. That’s why the art progressed in the way that it did. It was an attempt to lessen that pretentiousness. So, the approach was to be more clinical or from a study standpoint.
Moving into the gatefold, it’s almost like a coloring book with the black and white outline. Like when you open one up as a kid and there are limitless possibilities.
I’m glad you’re bringing up that way. This whole thing was meant to be a process of exploration; you get pieces of information the more you go into it. When you open it, you have the rough outline of what is about to be inside. Then, as you explore more of the packaging, you get more out of it. The idea was for the viewer and listener to really get the sense of exploration that I got when I was listening to it.
For me, it was like a soundtrack for a video game character traveling to a universe that you’ve never seen before. Like a Super Mario character going to a crazy level. That was kind of what I felt it could look like – another universe. The package helps bring you into that world.
When you take out the booklet, the color palette is this great blast of pastel. How did you land on the palette and tones?
Color obviously was a tool that I really wanted to use — trying to find a balance between being strong enough and saturated enough to give you emotions, but also to not be too much. It was a balance between giving you an experience, but not bombarding you with the experience.
I want you to feel the energy of the songs — the fun, the wonder of exploring it — but I also don’t want to feel overbearing because there are a lot of colors.
That’s what I’m most impressed with. There’s so many hues, but they all feel harmonious when you see them together, which goes along with the record. There’s so many sounds. Song-to-song, they are blending genres — jumping from funk to soul to hip hop — and it all feels seamless.
I had tried experimenting with each song being organisms and shapes. The idea is that you can look at it, and it could be a creature. It could be a planetary system. Wherever your mind takes it.
Like a Rorschach test of the songs.
Potentially. Which brings it back to the to the cover. You’re going to see different things depending on how you look at it.
In the song credits, I love the concept of assigning each musician a certain color and shape. Thus, each song becomes its own visual design. Where did that concept come from?
Each song had a different listening process, so I worked on each page while listening to respective songs over and over and over and over again. I had the help of Nate and Nico to try to break it up into approximate percentages as far as who did what on which song. I would take that number, I would listen to the song, and I would do my best to use those numbers to visualize what I heard and then how they related with one another. There’s no specific science that I used, it was just really off instinct and feel.
You know it’s crazy? My girlfriend just showed me the movie Fantasia. I’d never seen it before, and in a way I’m kind of glad. I watch that movie and I’m like ‘Wow, this just did what I tried to do with this album, but a trillion times better.’ There’s so many scenes where they do the artwork based on the music.
So, you’ve done design on not one, but two Grammy-nominated albums this year! You worked on Meek Mill’s Championships which is up for Best Rap Album.
The covers are so different from each other, and even the records are so different. How does the process differ between somebody like Meek Mill vs. Intellexual?
My work in the music world has been 95% rap and hip hop with the other 5% being intellexual. The hip hop world is very different than the indie world apparently.
With Meek Mill, the label had already gotten an art director, did a whole amazing photo shoot, and they were ready to push through to the final. On the eve of approval, Meek said he wanted diamonds on the text.
Leading up to the time, it was exciting because Meek hadn’t been out of jail long, and he hadn’t put out a project, so I was going to do whatever it took. I’m a huge Eagles fan and Meek is also from Philadelphia. We had just won the Super Bowl the year before, and I saw all the colors [on the cover], so I kind of got the sense that Meek wanted it to be part of the celebration of the Eagles. I wanted to model the text around the championship gear that comes out after a team wins the Super Bowl, but I also didn’t want to just pick a font. There’s an edge to it.
In regards to the difference in the processes, [working with] Nate and Nico was a very magical, rare thing. I do a lot of design for other things too. I’ve had a couple artists that had that relationship with me where they said to make whatever — put a Gundam on or something — but never a large scale project where someone just says ‘Do whatever you want, and we’re going to pay you, get you as much as we can, give you the time you need.’ That’s not a common thing. Usually people have ideas of what they want. Meek was very direct: diamonds on text. So I kept making it, until I had a version that he liked.
I saw Meek Mill gave the owner of the Patriots a diamond necklace with your Championships font after they won the Super Bowl, the year after the Eagles.
Isn’t that crazy? Oh my god, that was so bizarre because I don’t like the Patriots. That went from my computer screen to his neck? And then the local news outlets interviewing him and talking about the chain at length? Absolutely insane. I wish that chain could find its way to me. He made a ring out of it too.
Have you always been a hip hop fan?
Yeah. It was definitely a huge part of my life growing up. Moved to America. Didn’t know anybody here. Father wasn’t around. For me, it was an alternate route growing up.
I’m Asian, so I felt more at home in that part of American culture, being an immigrant and person of color. I grew up in a farm town, so I felt out of place. When I heard rap music and I explored more about those cultures, it was always something that I felt more drawn to.
I like other forms of music, but something with hip hop was that is was a common thread through a lot of things that drew me into American culture. Sneakers, design and art. As a young kid, you look at rappers like a superhero.
What are some of your favorite records?
There’s a lot of stuff. My favorite kind of music would be a little bit of the old Future stuff. I love Rich Homie Quan. The thing that connects to me the most is when there’s a sing-song in the rap and you can hear the pain. Then also there’s the Kanye element. Kanye’s stuff to me has always been a huge inspiration in how he’s always pushing the boundaries and constantly changing. But right now, a lot of southern Atlanta rap.
I just really resonate with the storytelling — the sleeping on floors and things like that. That’s my favorite part about rap and the culture is the opportunity for people to tell their story and change their lives. Crazy environments, the things that people have to go through that other people take for granted. Rap music, to me, represents that opportunity maybe more so than any genre. People coming from environments that would absolutely destroy a lot of people, yet these artists are somehow able to come out of it and make music about it.
I love you look up to hip hop that way. Perceptions of it are changing quickly, but even though it’s the most popular genre in the world, it still gets knocked as trite and materialistic by some people.
Always man! Always! It was never looked at as an admirable thing to want to design for rappers. I think it’s maybe starting to change because you have a lot of rappers so mainstream now, but it’s almost racism when people speak about the art form like that.
I’m not ignorant to the fact that this content could be damaging to certain people and things. But, at the end of the day, it’s an art form. There’s a lot of people telling their stories, and their environments & their daily life is unfair. One of the biggest reasons that I continue to be in this space is because people look at it as a lowbrow art form. That’s why I kind of got into it: to do what I could do to change that.
What do you think about an album’s art and its role in music today?
To me the actual cover is so important, more than ever. As an artist, when you create a product… that’s how it lives before anyone gets to hear it. That’s what’s on the page for your song or your album. When you’re browsing… you’re looking at art.
It’s almost like a gallery.
Yeah! There’s a whole other side of the product which is just visuals. That’s how it lives. That’s how it sits on billboards, on plaques. Look at the basic things that we’ve learned about marketing, and how the human brain and eyes works. It affects people when they look at the artwork. It’s become more of a part of conversation than it has in the past.
Do you have any kind of contemporary designers that you look up to?
My process is, as much as I can, been function-focused, as opposed to aesthetic. I guess I don’t have a lot of art that I consume. I know it probably sounds bad to say, but in a way, do you stay ignorant? It’s a tough balance.
I will say the art direction and attention to detail that has gone into the packaging for Kanye West’s discography. The way he approached his music, he made sure he had that same attention to detail and experience visually. You look at Graduation and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy… the way he was always able to make people talk about it, even the album where it was just a piece of tape. It brought levels of discussion about high art into the rap cover world.
Well, I appreciate your thoughts and artwork, Irwan. Congratulations again on the nomination and enjoy all the festivities this weekend.
Thank you. There’s one thing I want to mention. I do feel strongly that this nomination is possible because of the music. With the process [for the album art], it’s almost like the music actually got this nomination. Nate, Nico, the composers, the people that play the instruments… they got the nomination for their work. It just happens to be a visual award.
I don’t know if there’s another project where the artwork is as much influenced by the detail in the sounds of the people that made it. I’m getting a nomination for doing the art, but the nomination for the art is actually a music award. I played a translator from sound to visuals. The artwork was from the music.
All photos by Michael Kusumadjaja