Words by Eddie STATS Houghton
We decided to profile Darhil Crooks on Large Up because we were pretty sure you didn‘t know that the same cat who designed album covers and tees for Buju Banton also happened to be the trendsetting art director of the award-winning Esquire magazine and we wanted to put you up. But once we sat down to reason with him, we started learning all kinds of things that even we didn’t know–like which former Jamaican Prime Minister happens to be his grandfather, about the time Dave Chappelle wore one of his t-shirts and how he came into possession of a miniature replica of Barack Obama’s head. In fact we learned so much we might have to break this interview into two parts. Maybe you better get started:
LU: So how did you get into the magazine world, you started while you were still in school correct?
DC: I was at the School of Visual Arts, working during the day–working my way through school basically–and happened to know this guy at my day-job who got a job at the Source magazine. You know, the once-prominent bible of hiphop. They needed somebody to help out and he remembered me from–we were at a catalog company—and so I went over there, starting on like a part-time basis and quit my job. Then it became full time, so that was my first official job. I was still in school but I kinda stopped going cause I actually had a job. So yeah, first job was at the Source. Mainly the infamous Record Report and stuff like that, the feature well. From there I kinda bounced around for a while. I was at Complex for a little bit, Wenner Media…then I got this gig.
Q: How long have you been at Esquire?
A: Five years. Been Art Director for most of that time, started as Associate and currently the Art Director.
Q: So you’ve been in magazines pretty much continuously. Was that what you were thinking about when you went to school?
A: No I went to school actually wanting to know more packaging, CD design, stuff like that. I just happened to take this editorial design class where you kinda create your own magazine so I did this hiphop magazine. It was called like 360 or something–and then the reviews you got rated by the number of degrees. I actually brought that to my interview with the source, that was my like “I want to be a magazine guy” I just kinda ripped off the Source. I was a big fan of the Source, so it was cool that I actually got to work there.
Q: Tell me how your work for (Buju’s label) Gargamel Music came about.
A: Well, I knew (label head) Tracii McGregor from the Source, so she was familiar with me and my work. She needed somebody to help out when they were trying to launch the label. She called me up and I said, Sure, love to do it.
Q: Did you guys bond over reggae?
A: We bonded over shared experience at the Source and bonded over reggae, of course. I’ve always been a big fan of Buju, big fan of reggae–and a fan of reggae album covers. Cause when I was a kid—I remember the Neville Garrick kind of covers, the Bob Marley albums. Especially “Confrontation,” I remember you open it up and it was like this big illustration of Selassie-I versus the Italians (actually it was Emperor Menelik II’s defeat of Italian invaders at the 1896 Battle of Adawa-ed.) I’d sit there for an hour as a kid just looking at that, so we talked about that and my desire to bring that energy to what she was doing with Buju. I just wanted to do something classic.
Q: Funny you said ‘classic’ because the Rasta Got Soul cover—it’s not exactly retro–but it has a throwback feel with the black and white photo…
A: Yeah, whole idea for the album was like a ‘back to the roots’ kinda thing so I went with that idea. Not retro, but retro in the sense that it was clean and wasn’t over-designed. A lot of–especially reggae album covers you see–they’re really over-designed. I don’t want to say like Pen & Pixel bad but some of it’s a little over the top and doing something like that wouldn’t have really fit the music and the whole vibe of the album. I just wanted to do something simple and reminiscent of the old vinyl packaging, even down to the grooves on the actual CD to give it that feel. There was some really great photography by Jonathan Mannion and the shot that we picked for the cover was something kinda like in between. Me and Jonathan had some–not exactly differences–but he was like that was just one of those in-between shots. But that was why I liked it, cause it was an unscripted moment, it caught him in this natural state where he was kinda relaxed and wasn’t posing or anything like that. You know, there was some joy in that photo, that’s why I chose that one.
Q: That sounds like you were looking at the photography a lot more like an editorial art director then the conventional way music photography is done; very portrait, kind of managed, controlled…
A: Yeah, I didn’t want to do something too staged or too slick. I wanted something more telling than just: This is a picture of Buju Banton. You know, we’ve already seen his picture, let’s do something more raw and revealing.
Q: You worked on the previous LP as well, what was the difference?
A: Well Too Bad was a dancehall record, you know, a completely different vibe. Even like the location was kind of rough and gritty. The shot we picked was tough and went with the title, so I think that worked well with a dancehall album, a street album.
Q: Which makes me wonder how differently or similarly do you look at the stuff you do for Esquire say, from a project like that. Is it two different approaches?
A: Well, there’s so many different mediums but when it comes down to it you’re just trying to communicate with people visually.
Q: What I mean is the latest cover especially seems like it’s coherent with the aesthetic you’ve established in Esquire…
A: Well, I personally like–and Esquire as a magazine–we look for those unscripted moments. We look for the weird shit in a photo. Because its differentiated from every other photo you’ve seen of George Clooney or whatever. George Clooney doing some crazy shit like, holding up a mask or grabbing his balls–we look for something to be different, a little bit off. Not off in a bad way but more natural and more revealing about the person you’re looking at. In a magazine you’re dealing with celebrities and celebrities have been shot before a million times so you’re trying to find the photo that’s different, unique. That’s how I approach it and I think I brought that to specifically this last album cover.
Q: Which is kind of a departure for a reggae album. Usually there’s a limited set of associations you have about reggae that people draw from.
A: Yeah, I definitely wanted to go against that. Even the cardboard case, I was like, We should just do cardboard packaging instead of the plastic, typical CD case. Just cause it was different and also to get that almost like retro feel, that’s something I hadn’t seen in reggae at all. Except for what Island did with the Bob Marley reissues, which were all dope. That was the only really kind of unconventional reggae packaging I had seen for a while. You know like when Bob Marley first came out and they had the Zippo sleeve…that was some cool shit. People don’t do that kind of stuff anymore. I was just trying to do something like that, so if you open it up there’s a little mini-poster with all the lyrics. I wanted it be something that people were actually gonna hold and explore a little, and not just toss in the garbage.
Q: You mentioned “Catch a Fire,” and the Neville Garrick covers. Are there other things like that, which you could name as visual influences?
A: Old jazz album packaging is always an influence. Not just in this but a lot of other stuff I do. Particularly the old Blue Note era stuff, which are some of the best albums ever designed. In history. I try to bring a little bit of that feel—just in like the font choice, the simplicity. Not to educate people exactly, but just to let people know there can be some restraint. That something can be nice and simple and clean and still be really beautiful. It doesn’t have to be a 3-D logo with like graffiti, jewelry and stuff.
Q: I can see that classic record design is a big reference point for you, were your parents record collectors?
A: Everybody’s parents were, everybody had records then. My dad had a pretty extensive record collection, him and my mom kinda fought over it after they got divorced. It was like another kid or something, cause they both want custody of like, old Yellowman records. You know my dad’s still pissed about that, he’ll be like: “Try and get some of the records when you go to your Mom’s…” I’m like, Forget the records man…let it go! Go buy a new one on eBay.
Q: You know I’m a DJ, I got to know which ones he’s really upset about…
A: I’ll get a list.
Q: Was it mostly Jamaican stuff?
A: No. No, the thing about Jamaicans from that era was they listened to a lot of soul music so my dad was a big Drifters fan, there was a lot of that in the house. There was everything, man; country music, old soul, Yellowman, Dennis Brown, Sugar Hill Gang. I spent a lot of days just looking at that stuff, not even listening to it, just looking at it, the pictures.
Q: Are both your parents Jamaican?
A: Yes, I grew up in Chicago but they’re both from Kingston.
Q: did they meet here or in JA?
A: No, they knew each other from when they were kids, they moved in the late 60s but my Dad’s back in Jamaica now.
Q: Did you go back when you were growing up?
A: Yeah, yeah. We used to go once a year, my grandmother was still down there, my uncle, my grandfather was down there. He was actually, I don’t know if you know this—he was Prime Minister.
Q: I did not know that.
A: Yeah, Hugh Shearer. We’d go down there for a few weeks, eat some fish, eat some mangos, see all the beautifulness and then head on back…
To be continued…in the meantime check out more of Darhil’s work at: http://darhilcrooks.com/index.html