Words By Khalid Strickland
Album covers just ain’t what they used to be.
Maybe it’s because people don’t really buy CDs anymore, or maybe artists have just gotten plain lazyâ€¦ who knows? Nowadays, a Hip-Hop album cover is usually just a photo of the rapper standing in front of a nice ride, holding a stack. Maybe they’ll throw in a chick or two for good measure. If they’re really nonchalant, it’ll just be a shot of the artist’s mug and we all know that a lot of these dudes really don’t need any close-ups.
Those standard-fare covers can be cool, but I love good, creative visuals, so artwork was always an enjoyable part of my listening experience. Here are just a few of Hip-Hop album covers that I found particularly memorable over the years.
Ice-T Power (1988)
This album dropped when I was young and pretty, and a poster of the cover was on display at Brooklyn’s most famous record store, Beat Street. After days of plotting, I finally snatched it off the wall and ran out of the joint.
That was about 300 blunts ago and I had the stamina to out-run the security guards that were on my ass. I had to lay low for a while, but when I gazed at the bikini-clad Darlene on my bedroom wall, shotgun in tow, it was worth it. The cover of Power is a masterpiece. The back cover not only reveals the concealed weapons that Ice & DJ Evil E are packing, but we also get a great shot of Darlene’s heavenly cakes. Even LL Cool J, during the height of his beef with Ice-T, used this cover as ammo on his classic dis-record, “To Da Break of Dawn”: “I’mma drink you down over the rocks / While the freak on your album cover jocks / You’re gonna hear a real ill paragraph soon / I took the cover right home to the bathroom.” So did I.
Ol’ Dirty Bastard Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version (1995)
Arguably the most gully album cover of all time. This nigga put his welfare card on the cover of his album. My public assistance card was in my wallet, but Ol’ Dirty’s was on a certified gold album. Soon, there were scores of imitators, including Trick Daddy’s cover for “Based on a True Story” where Trick put his face on a food stamp. But Ol’ Dirty compounded his cover with a historic appearance on MTV, where he rode to the check-cashing joint in a limo and cashed his welfare check on national television. “Return to the 36 Chambers” was on Billboard’s Top-10 charts at the time, by the way. Rappers just don’t do hardcore shit like that anymore.
Boogie Down Productions Criminal Minded (1987)
When Criminal Minded was first released, I don’t recall seeing any album cover with this many guns on it. The back cover, where the song titles were listed, boasted an even heavier arsenal. KRS-ONE may be “The Teacha” now, but when Criminal Minded dropped, the only thing he taught us was what kind of heat was available in the streets. “Wow, I never saw that one before!”, “What caliber is that?”, “I need me one of those!” These are the whimsical quotes you heard in my high school’s cafeteria, when my wide-eyed homies and I gathered around this cover. We also mourned together when Scott La Rock was shot to death shortly after the album came out. This was long before shooting rappers was trendy.
Nas Illmatic (1994)
This cover was very creative, perhaps one of the best ever in any genre of music. It could’ve been displayed in an art museum and stood alone as a meaningful composition. On their classic “Shark Niggas” skit from Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, Rae & Ghost insinuated that The Notorious B.I.G. bit the cover of Illmatic for his own debut album, Ready To Die. Those accusations are debatable, but Illmatic’s cover did spawn a horde of imitators. Was this the first time a rapper used his baby picture on the cover of an album? Holla back.
Just-Ice Kool & Deadly (1987)
A lot of Dirty South cats are convinced that their region invented gold grills. They claim that New Yorkers are biting their style when we rock grills. As much as I love my folk below the Mason-Dixon Lineand their music, I beg to differ. To refute these charges, I present to you Exhibit A: the cover for Just-Ice’s Kool & Deadly (1987). (Slick Rick and Flavor Flav are Exhibits B and C, respectively). Just-Ice is known as one of the original gangsters of Hip-Hop and one of the realest niggas in the history of rap. The cover of Kool & Deadly inspired me to get some precious metal molded to my choppers way back when; a tradition I’ve kept alive to this very day. My job’s excellent dental plan actually covers gold teeth now, so I’m good. However, they won’t reimburse me for the diamonds.