What’s the coolest hip-hop album sleeve of all time? We peeled back the hidden meanings and stories behind 18 of the most iconic…
Behind every great rap album - or rather, on its front - is a great image. A design that captures the sound, feel and message of the hip-hop within. We rounded up 18 of our favourite sleeves from Dre, Outkast, Wu-Tang and more and delved into their fascinating meanings and origins. In the words of Beastie Boys, ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-check it out...
Outkast, 'Stankonia': The Atlanta duo's classic was quietly subversive both in sleeve and sound. Just as underneath all the kaleidoscopic sounds and sci-fi bombast were messages about America's warmongering over oil in the songs, the sleeve features an upturned black-'n'-white US flag. The pair still have the prop: it hangs in their Atlanta studio, covering an entire wall.
Madvillain, 'Madvillainy': This stark monochrome portrait of Doom in trademark mask was the idea of art director Jeff Jank, inspired by the grotesque face on King Crimson’s ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’ and - surprisingly - Madonna’s eponymous debut. Like Madge's LP, its got an unusual splash of orange amid black and white spookery. Love it.
Nas, 'Illmatic': Nas has never acknowledged the likely influence for this cover – jazzsters the Howard Hanger Trio’s sleeve for ‘A Child is Born’. The meaning of the pensive cover though, which superimposed his 7-year-old face onto a grainy shot of Queens hood he grew up in, is clear, teeing up perfectly the album's message of how easily innocence is lost in NY's neglected concrete jungles.
Kanye West, '...Twisted Fantasy': Artist George Condo provided Yeezy with this widely-censored sleeve, banned by many US retail outlets over its nudity. Ye brushed off the ban on Twitter ("I really don't be thinking about Wal-Mart when I make my music or album covers #Kanyeshrug!") while others decoded the image as a poke at conservative America's fear of interracial relationships.
Beastie Boys, 'Paul's Boutique': An inconspicuous store front on NYC's Lower East Side's Rivington Street became engrained in hip-hop history one morning in 1989, when photographer Jeremy Shatan shot it for the trio's second album sleeve. The sign was a prop hung specifically for the album cover outside Lee’s Sportswear, and a Beasties mural now exists at the intersection, painted by fans.
Wu-Tang Clan, '...36 Chambers': Not all the Clan were present at the time of their classic debut's cover shoot, so snapper Daniel Hastings suggested that they wear the masks and hoods they wore live show. The resulting image only added to their intrigue and menace. Oh, and the abandoned church it was shot in? “You can’t rent that place for less than 5 Gs" now, says Hastings.
Public Enemy, 'It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back': This album charts the fictional story of a man drafted into the Vietnam War and sent to prison for refusing to fight. Fitting then, that the cover image is a prison cell, holding a serious Chuck D and his playful accomplice, the clock-wearing Flavor Flav, shot in defiant poses by Glen E. Friedman.
Warren G, 'Regulate... G Funk Era': Another road intersection here – this one, from 1994, in Long Beach, LA, where E 21st Street and Lewis Avenue collide. The New Liberty Baptist Church sitting in the background was supposed to hint at a search for spirituality on the streets, apparently. With its nifty typography, Warren G aligns his own ‘g’ with the super-smooth sound of g funk.
Dr Dre, 'The Chronic': If you roll cigarettes - or other things – with Zig Zag papers then you’ll recognise the homage that makes up Dre's 'Chronic' cover. It’s a reference to the company’s mascot Captain Zig-Zag: as the story goes, his clay pipe was shot in the 1850s siege of Sevastopol, so he rolled a cigarette with a piece of paper torn from his gunpowder bag. What an OG.
Fugees, 'The Score': This atmospheric, shadowy shot of the trio, with each member looking away, foreshadowed the beginning of the end for the group. Despite huge success Fugees split the following year to pursue solo projects, before reuniting in 2004 and splitting for good in 2007, when Pras said diplomacy between Bush and Bin Laden would be more likely than between him and Lauryn.
A Tribe Called Quest, 'Midnight Marauders: 71 mostly headphone-wearing faces were shot for this album’s cover and sleeve notes: rap legends respected by the crew, including Beastie Boys and Dr Dre. The vivid colours of the striped lady critics have interpreted as a nod to rap's African roots and the colourful eclecticism of the Tribe's tunes.
The Notorious BIG, 'Ready To Die': Like the baby on the ‘Nevermind’ cover, this one was inevitably tracked down by canny internet sleuths in 2011. Keithroy Yearwood, then 18, said “it’s a big deal to me” to be a footnote on hip-hop history, and revealed he was paid $150 to be the cover star, because of his “giant afro”. Like Nas' 'Illmatic', its message about innocence was potent.
NWA, 'Straight Outta Compton': Shot by Eric Poppleton, maybe the most iconic hip=hop cover of all time is also one of the most simple. Summing up the imposing nature and aggression of their music, the band stood over Poppleton's camera, leaving onlookers to stare up the barrel of Eazy E's gun. Instantly iconic, it propelled the record to double platinum sales without airplay or major tours.
Snoop Dogg, 'Doggystyle': Darryl “Joe Cool” Daniel was in prison when his cousin Snoop first saw one of his drawings. When he got out, Joe guested on ‘Murder Was The Case’ and more importantly drew the cover for ‘Doggystyle.’ “I didn’t think it would be iconic,” he later said of the sexually explicit sleeve, adorned by quotes from Snoop's go-to sample song, George Clinton’s ‘Atomic Dog’.
Eminem, 'The Marshall Mathers LP': Shady sat in the shadow of his teenage home for this stark sleeve. "I had mixed feelings,” he said, “because I had a lot of good and bad memories in that house. To go back to where I grew up and finally say, 'I've made it', is the greatest feeling in the world to me." His 2013 'Marshall Mathers II' LP features the same house: 19446 Dresden Street, Detroit.
Jay Z, 'The Blueprint 3': It may have contained some of Hova's poppiest moments to date, but 2009's 'Blueprint 3' bore a decidedly abstract cover - a scrambled assortment of recording equipment and instruments hand painted white, with three red bars then painted onto the muddled heap. Paired with songs like 'Death of Autotune', it suggests modern music's become a banal whitewash.
Eric B and Rakim, 'Paid In Full': “The streets put to music” is how Nas described the pair on this 1987 album cover, which according to the 'Illmatic' man “epitomised and personified the street culture of New York and the rest of the nation… They were counting money and they made it look cool.” All about values, is Nas.
De La Soul, '3 Feet High and Rising': The Grey Organisation (GO) – who famously fired paint at London’s Cork Street in 1985 – moved to New York in ’86 and began making eye-catching artwork such as this. In 1989 GO member Toby Mott described this classic cover as “a move away from the prevailing macho hip-hop visual codes which dominate to this day.”