Music

Under The Covers: Stones Throw

© Stones Throw
We speak with art director Jeff Jank to get the stories behind some the label's most iconic sleeves.
Written by James HinesPublished on
Hard to believe  Stones Throw Records, the label run by Chris Manak –AKA Peanut Butter Wolf – is nearly 20 years old. In that time, the label has released some of underground hip-hop's finest records, and is one of the most revered, and consistent independents currently trading. Check out 2013's Our Vinyl Weighs A Ton documentary for the full story.
Where there's genre-defining records, there's usually some pretty fine artwork, so we reached out to Stones Throw art director  Jeff Jank to get the stories behind their creation.

Madlib & MF Doom – Madvillainy (2004)

If there was ever a chance to try and define someone with an image, this was it
So Jeff, for many people this will be the image that pops into their brains up when you say "MF Doom". It captures the concept of MF Doom – not just as a man in a mask but as a creative entity.
Jeff Jank: This was absolutely the plan. I wanted a simple, pop-style album cover with a face. I don't think of this as a picture of a mask, but as a man. And the man's got a metal mask on... what the hell is that all about? Maybe we don't want to know. Doom seemed so obscure then; no photos, albums under different names, his records in and out of print. He and Madlib were both like the anti-pop star, and that's exactly how the album was shaping up. No hooks, lo-fi beats – the opposite of what someone wants to do to get an audience to like them, but done in such a way that was true and natural, cool, soulful.  I knew we were working on a record that could rank right up there with my own favorites. If there was ever a chance to try and define someone with an image, this was it.
Eric Coleman took the photos – he showed up at the house on a half hour's notice one day. When I started, I wasn't very good at working with original photos. By this time, I was figuring it out: get a good photo, don't fuck it up. A few months later, Doom was back in town and stopped by to see what I'd put together. I knew he'd say no photo on the cover, and I'm forever grateful to his man Ben who was along that day. Ben saw the cover and he got it right away – the simplicity of the face, the mystery of the image. Only because of his enthusiasm did Doom not say no.

Quasimoto – The Unseen (2000)

I loved this sleeve because it was so unconventional and completely free of hip-hop cues
We first saw the yellow Lord Quas cartoon on the Microphone Mathematics 12-inch. How did he come about and why didn't he feature on the cover of the first LP?
Madlib's concept for Quasimoto was that he was an unknown person or entity – not himself, not an alter-ego, certainly not a cartoon character. He was literally "the unseen," which was the first album title.
The Microphone Mathematics sleeve was drawn by Keith [Griego,  DJ Design] who was a frequent collaborator back in those days. I remember him showing me the sleeve, pointing to the three furry characters, saying, "Look it's Madlib, Wildchild and DJ Romes". And then we laughed. I loved this sleeve because it was so unconventional and completely free of hip-hop cues. When I started working on the album, I represented Quasimoto as the ghostly "unseen" figure in the car, but also included my own version of the little furry character on the inside album art as a literal interpretation of the track Bad Character – hitting people with bricks, looking up skirts etc.
It was the fans of this album that started to identify the character as Quasimoto himself, and we just rolled with it. By the second album it was accepted that the character is Quasimoto, and Madlib even referred to carrying a brick in one of the lyrics. Quasimoto was always Madlib's creation, but I love the way the visual side has developed. In the years since, Quasimoto has been a toy, a bad tattoo, an internet meme... I keep drawing him, even if Madlib isn't rapping him anymore.

Karriem Riggins – Alone Together

It's music that has decades of soul, funk and jazz living in it
This is an obvious homage to Blue Note and the work of the label's designer
and photographer/executive
. Why this treatment for what is for the most part a pretty heavy hitting instrumental hip-hop album?
The Blue Note treatment may not seem like it makes sense, but to me it was almost too obvious. Karriem is an outstanding jazz drummer, he's the real deal with a resume to prove it. And he's also a legitimate hip-hop producer with the credits to show it. Also, there's something about is style as a producer – the music he makes on the sampler is something very much in common with Madlib and J Dilla – it doesn't seem like modern machine-made music created generations after James Brown and Clyde Stubblefield cut Funky Drummer. It's more like music that has decades of soul, funk and jazz living in it, all a part of the same timeline.
There's also some practical matters with this album cover. Like the fact that he gave me two pictures to use for the whole thing. I decided to use both of them, the most obvious way possible. On vinyl we originally released them separately – one record, Alone, with him on drums, and the other, Together, with him at a sampler. Also, I've done a couple of Blue Note album covers, and even have a bass credit on one... so I like to tell myself that gives me the right to do a Reid Miles knockoff.

Silk Rhodes – Pains (2014)

The band even dosed a couple, so if you have this record, act accordingly
So what was the story behind the acid tab sheet?
These two guys got signed to an album deal with Stones Throw when we all fell in love with Pains. They had this track and a few other demos. They started hanging around the Stones Throw office.  
A year or two passes and they've still just got Pains and a few demos, so that became the album. I didn't do the album cover – I wish I did because it's one of my favorites: just a mouth and a tab of acid. We still wanted a seven-inch release of Pains, which would come out before the album, so I took inspiration from the album cover and created folded a blotter sheet with the logo as the sleeve. The band even dosed a couple, so if you have this record, act accordingly.

J Dilla – Donuts (2006)

Only in later years, after I saw fans doing their own copies of the sleeve, did I come to appreciate it for what they saw it in
Donuts…what can you say that hasn’t already been said about this album? How did this cover come about though?
Donuts always felt like a really disappointing cover to me – it was a still from a MED video, something I had to do only when other options were exhausted, with some boring Helvetica along the top, purely for commercial purposes. I had more to do with this album than any other in Stones Throw history, and it became a very special record, one of our most defining, and one of our best sellers. But the cover bothered me. Only in later years, after I saw fans doing their own copies of the sleeve, did I come to appreciate it for what they saw it in: a love for the album, and seeing Dilla's face in an unguarded moment.

The Stepkids – Shadows On Behalf

I was an outsider collaborating on a creative aspect of their highly tight-knit group, their vision
Stones Throw is perhaps not known for its minimalist approach to design, and the album is more psychedelic and groovy than the sleeve might suggest. Is playing with this sort of dissonance something you did deliberately?
Yes, it was deliberate in that it was part of a plan for a series of Stepkids records. The band was a trio of guys – excellent musicians, singers, songwriters and studio engineers, who performed in white, and drenched the stage with an elaborate light show. This was their first single, to be followed by a second, and then the album. The idea was to complement what they did with their live show – start minimal with no ink on the cover – and build up from there. But it was a long and difficult process. We talked via email, which often leads to miscommunication. I was an outsider collaborating on a creative aspect of their highly tight-knit group, their vision, and they were clearly uncomfortable with that.
Every one of these projects follows a different path, with a different set of passionate, creative people having different kinds of input.
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