Visual Culture: A Q+A with Atlantic Records Creative Director Greg Burke

May 16, 2012

Words by Eddie STATS Houghton:::Photos by Martei Korley:::Artwork by Greg Burke—

Jamaica-born, Long Island-raised Greg Burke has designed covers for some of the most notable albums of the last two decades, from Missy Elliott’s Supa Dupa Fly to Jay-Z’s The Blueprint 3—and a whole slew of ’90s underground rap classics, too, like Group Home’s Livin’ Proof. Currently, Burke is the VP creative director at Atlantic Records, where he oversees design packages for LPs by everyone from T.I. to Jason Mraz. In this sitdown interview at Atlantic’s Manhattan office, he shares stories from his days designing for Island, Elektra and Tommy Boy Records in the ’90s (including the particularly amusing tales of his hiring by the latter’s Tom Silverman, and a never-released design for Buju Banton), the dying art of CD booklet illustration and collaborating creatively with T.I. and Jay-Z.

LargeUp: How did you get into illustrating album covers?

Greg Burke: I graduated from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh… came back to New York, did a few odds and ends and then linked up with this one guy who facilitated getting projects and I did the work. Eventually from that I wound up going over to Island Records. I bartered my skills for a little  computer time, and they were like “Hey dude, you don’t have to barter, we’d like your skills” So they took me on.

LU: Before you went to Island, were you already set on working with music?

GB: No. I had gotten a job offer in Pittsburgh, but I just didn’t want to stay in Pittsburgh so when I came back to New York, I did a lot of odds and ends. I worked in a type house, I did catalogs, I worked for Model’s World Magazine.

LU: Were you born in New York?

GB: I was born in Jamaica. I came up when I was six. But true to old-world Jamaicans, you go back every summer. I have a brother and sister and we went back until prices just got to be too unbearable…

LU: Where in Jamaica?

GB: I’m from Kingston. My immediate family, we’re all here [now]. When we first came to New York, we came to Brooklyn, Tilden Avenue… and from there we moved out to Long Island, Nassau County, and I grew up the bulk of my life there, in Uniondale.

LU: What projects stood out during your time at Island?

GB: There is one thing, which is kind of weird. It never got put out. And this kinda goes back to being Jamaican. When I speak of my family, I speak highly—my family is very close. So there was a project that I [designed] for Buju Banton. I guess they were gonna release a single around the time of Jamaican elections called ‘Politic Time.’ But the election happened, they missed the date, so it never saw the light of day. It was one of those things that I was proud of, not for the fact of the design so much but since I did get thrust into music, one thing I always said was “Ima do reggae packages.” Because reggae packages, when I used to look, weren’t really nice. [With] rock packages, there was a design aesthetic there, people really took time. Reggae was kind of the bottom of the barrel when it came to design. And I never knew why that was. My logic was I’m gonna do reggae packages and show my dad, and he’s gonna go to work and he’s show his [friends]– this whole pride thing. I can show them the stuff I do now and they don’t know who the artists are so they don’t really care. But the Buju Banton thing, I was like “Yeah, I’m gonna show my dad and everyone’s gonna be happy.” I did show them, but it never came out.

LU: Were you a reggae fan?

GB: Yeah. Growing up, my dad every Saturday would get up and start playing old reggae songs. He’d even play Bob Marley, and all three kids would be like ‘O God please don’t play this stuff again! Ah, God, not this stuff.’ Because for us, it’s not our generation—we wanted to hear stuff that was current in America at the time. But I understand now because every weekend I wake up and boom– I’m turning on the old-school reggae. I’m not listening to anything really current. I’m listening Jimmy Cliff, I’m listening to Jacob Miller, all the stuff my dad was listening to going ‘Yeeaa, thats cool what he’s… yea, yea.’

LU: So after Island, then what?

GB: After Island I went to Elektra Records. When I’m some place and I realize “Ok, creatively it’s just not fun anymore” and I’ve just decided the people working at the company I no longer like, I would just leave, and move on. And this was the case with Island Records—the people who were heading up the [art] department I wasn’t a big fan of.  I had a friend working at Elektra, Ramon Lang, a great artist, who called me over and said, “Hey you wanna do some freelance work for me.” Maybe the first few things were some Missy singles. They had the first Missy first album, but they didn’t have an idea [for the cover]. I saw the shoot laid out on the drawing table and said, “Hey can I take a stab at it?” I brought it all home, because while I was looking at it, I was putting it all together in my mind, and I banged out the album package and brought it back. They were like, “Ok,” brought it to Missy and brought in a few revisions and that was it.

I had a good long run over at Elektra Records. Within my years there, I learned a lot about the music industry. But once I was feeling stifled, I decided, “Hey I’m done, I’m leaving,” not that I had anything lined up. Someone told me about Tommy Boy Records. The owner of Tommy Boy, Tom Silverman, was very particular about who he chooses for the company, because Tommy Boy was such a tight-knit family. So I had my interview with the art directors there, and they loved me and they were like, let us bring you up to Tom. But Tom Silverman, during my interview, fell asleep. Now that is a sign that you do not have the job! So I start to pack up my portfolio, and he wakes up. “Hey let me take you downstairs to meet some of the other people.” And I get a call a few days later like, “Yo, Tom loved you. When can you start?” I think when I am 100 years old I will say that Tommy Boy was the best place I ever worked. That relationship that we had at Tommy Boy was so nurturing that we got out the best projects.

LU: What was the most rewarding project in your time at Tommy Boy?

GB: The project that I’m gonna say is nothing stellar, no one will ever know it, but it’s a group called Masters at Work’s album, Our Time Is Coming. Tommy Boy is a small label with not a lot of money, so you gotta really think your projects out, do a creative leap, and get it approved, and then execute it. If any one [from Tommy Boy] hears me say that project they’re gonna laugh at me. I drove out to Atlantic City and we meet in a little dirty hotel, that you’d have to put little chairs up by the door to block, ’cause you don’t know who’s coming in. I learned in Atlantic City the further away you stay, that means you weren’t winning. The closer you are, that means you got money. We were very far away where we were staying.We’d driven around looking at all these old road signs, old hotel signs, super-imposing Masters at Work into that signage. To me, for the money spent, and what it was, I really really liked how it came out. I may have been at Tommy Boy for three, four years. I didn’t leave Tommy Boy, Tommy Boy folded. If it were still open, we’d be having this conversation over at Tommy Boy right now.

LU: Other things that stand out in your portfolio?

GB: There was this package that never came out, once again, with this kid named Big Shot, where we did this whole Marvel superhero aesthetic. Way before Def Jam did Marvel superheroes, we animated this guy. Then, this always kind of burned me, there was this guy Victor Calderon and his package is just a wideframe of his face. We did this with no digital experience, we actually took him to a place out in Long Island that does video games and they scanned his face and gave us the wide frame. The Coldplay cover, with the wide frame, that’s what we were trying to achieve. And this was way before Cold Play. When I saw Coldplay’s, I was pissed.

LU: What would you say is the most recognizable cover that you’ve done?

GB: There were three Missy [Elliott covers] that I did, I think it was the first three. Jet’s first album package, I think people would recognize and it went over really really well. It was one of the times where we actually did a smart marketing thing, which we should always do but never do, and linked the first video to the album cover. The album cover is just black and white graphics, which seems to be my thing as of late… Everything related as a campaign.

“Jet – Shine On” – Greg Burke

There was a time before the digital age, [where] you would do your photo shoot for your album package, come back from your shoot and sit down with the video department and be like “Here’s where we’re going with the packaging.” Their first video may not have the same concept as the album package, but they may keep the same lighting, color scheme and style. But now because everything is happening so fast, we’re getting images before we even have an album, because we just need things from the web to fire off. Nothing is happening simultaneously, just sporadically…

With the last Jay-Z album, The Blueprint 3, they really ran with a campaign. I knew initially all our singles are going to revolve around this white installation with the three bars. Roc Nation went that much further, branding the three bars on their clothing line. They went further than we normally would go, but that was a good branding exercise. The album cover itself is this big instillation of instruments, and these three bars are painted on, but there’s levels—like if you look to the side, it’s not painted across, it’s not photoshopped, it’s physically done. Their ad campaign for Rocawear took clothing in layers and spells out “NEXT.” I had people call me like “Did you work on this?” It can be flattering, I guess. But no, they really ran with that album’s idea and have just taken it to everything. That package, I’d say, was a good 85, 90 percent of where I wanted it to be, but time and money didn’t allow me to get to 100%.

“JAY-Z -The Blueprint 3” – Greg Burke

“JAY-Z -The Blueprint 3, side view” – Greg Burke

T.I. Paper Trail is more of a wow-factor. Most of my stuff is tangible. I like to find people who I know what they can do, but I can push that much further. Paper Trail, basically it’s a collage, we made his face out of bits and pieces of random paper. The artist I worked with, Ian Wright, does a lot of stuff with buttons, but they’re symmetrical, organized pieces and he can make you anything. I went to Ian like “I know what you do, I know what you can do, and I’m gonna push you way beyond. I’m not talking about using symmetrical pieces with gradation of color, I’m talking random chaos and you’re going to make a portrait out of it.” Once we got on track, he did a really amazing job with it. The images on the inside of the shoot were taken by Darren Ankenman, he is now one of my all-time favorite photographers.

T.I. was going away for a year, and my thought was, let’s just shadow him, take personal photos of him, and get stolen moments, and that will be the package. The images inside are not so much a day in the life, but just stolen moments. We didn’t have him for a long time— on the first day we might have had him for two hours, on the second day three hours. He had radio spots to do and we followed him. Anything he did, we were there and took shots of. There’s a shot of him eating pizza in the pizza shop, which is the kind of [photo] you don’t see [anymore]. You used to see it with people like Brand Nubian, everyone getting your hair cut. You actually see somebody taking a bite out of something, not in a lush environment that says, “Hey I have so much money,” Yes we know you have money, but before you had the money you were a real person… T.I. we’ve built a relationship where he’s given me a lot of trust. On Paper Trail, he didn’t argue on any of the shots I chose. There’s one shot inside the package, with him in a tank top, standing in the middle of the street, I was adamant about putting in there because I was like “He looks like he’s grown, this is a man, he’s no longer the T.I. from Urban Legend.” He was explaining everything in his album, ok I wanna give the fans something they can hold on to, and say this is a personal piece of T.I. In today’s market a lot of people throw away the CD booklet, or just download it. I think with that packet, if you truly were a T.I. fan, that’s the one packet you’d keep, because the imagery, you’re not going to see it again.

” TI Papertrail” – Greg Burke

LU: What do you think will be your legacy in album design?

GB: I get teased and we laugh about this: “So you’re the guy who did the most anticipated Jay-Z album ever, but didn’t put any pictures of Jay-Z in it?” That’ll be my claim to fame. The artists themselves can make it very easy for you to not want to do this, like personalities, like I’m getting paid by the label, so I can either work really hard for you, or just not care. But the artists just never quite grasped that fact, and, in my early career, a lot of the artists were just obnoxious and rude. Jay-Z is great. I thought it would be intimidating. But when I go into pitch mode, I go into pitch mode, and I lose a sense of who is who.