Andrew Bass Jr.

We’re ending off the month talking to one of the unsung trailblazers for diversity in the design community — Andrew Bass Jr. Longtime fans of Revision Path will recognize Andrew as one of our early profiles back in 2013, and it was great to finally have him on the podcast to talk about his story and his work.

In the first part of this two-part interview, Andrew talks about his design consultancy Straight Design, and shared his story of growing up in Brooklyn and falling in love with graphic design. He also spoke about attending Pratt Institute, the battle scars he received working in print media and gave me a look at his career as a designer throughout the 90s.

Make sure you tune in next week for Part 2!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
All right, so tell us who you are and what you do.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Well, I’m Andrew Bass and I am essentially design strategist, educator, art director, graphic designer. Day job I work as a art and production manager at an association called RIMS, handling their member publication. And I, on the side, I also have my freelance consultancy, Straight Design LLC, where I take on various different clients, focusing a little bit more on the small business side and not for profit as well as I’m an adjunct lecturer at City Tech or the full name New York City College of Technology where I teach Design Thinking, Design Studio.

Maurice Cherry:
How has 2022 been going for you so far? We’re kind of near the end of the year. When you look back, how would you say the year has been?

Andrew Bass Jr.:
It’s actually been, in perspective has been pretty good. I’m employed so that’s good.

Maurice Cherry:
Hey.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
I’m getting transitioning more from my basic print background into more digital design, which is actually good, where I also trying to kind of squeak my way into doing a little bit more motion graphics. But it’s actually been going pretty well as I’m been focused more on my full-time job in teaching and a little pulled back away from Straight Design due to family thing, personal issues. So I went through a divorce, had to sell the house and all this during COVID.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Yeah. But 2022, has been compared to 2021 and definitely 2020, it’s been great. In the grand scheme of things, I really can’t complain about stuff, but it’s been going pretty well and I’m just trying to gear myself up to get, for 2023 to get a little bit back into focusing a little bit more on Straight Design and what that next evolution’s going to be for it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I feel like the last few years for a lot of people have been this sort of, I don’t know, period of trying to just gets get acclimated to the way of the world now and especially now that it seems like capitalism is trying to push us out of COVID in a way that everyone’s really trying to think, oh well for next year I need to try to get back out there more. I need to try to do more, try to resume what life was like prior to all of this, you know?

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Well, I mean I will say for myself, and I’m still wrestling with quote, and I hate all these trend words that they keep coming out with, but quote “the new normal” because I now officially work from home and will be working from home for the next several years for my full-time job, saddle that with Straight Design, which is also still from home. The only time I actually go out for design is when I teach. Learning how to marry all that in one residence, basically my home without losing my mind and still maintaining that creative inspiration, is extremely hard and I’m still trying to formulate plans as to how to tackle it because I’m on what plan A.2 Now or something like that. Because I’ve gone through the 26 alphabet and gone through 1 through 10. So I’m on my third iteration of how to make this all go down seamlessly.

I think COVID just also put a pause on so many things that I think it is really hard to get, jumpstart ourselves back into, okay, this is how we did business, this is how we talk to each other, this is how we do stuff. And from the design aspect, I definitely have seen it become stagnated where I really feel that face to face has actually hurt a little bit of, at least my design process. In talking with both coworkers and clients that without that sort of personal face to face stuff, reading each other’s body language, playing off the vibes and stuff like that, that it has kind of stiffened a little bit of the creativity. I understand why everybody’s trying to say, “Okay, how do I get back into this normal life before COVID?”

Some of it I think is self-induced because for whole host of thing reasons 2020 was, I say from 2020, 2021 was a real big pot of let’s stir everybody, let’s scramble everybody’s brain with so much crazy misinformation about so many things. From the pandemic to politics to just how life is going to be to the state of the world and all that, that I think it really kind of, if I could say mind fucked us a bit that we still haven’t really kind of gotten out of it. But the thing is we need to, and the thing is, even during COVID, life doesn’t stop, you just have to adapt and figure a new way to do things.

And it’s slowly coming, it’s slowly coming. And I think as more and more folks get out that haze things will kind of lock back into place and pretty much kind of sync up as to how things were beforehand with just new processes, that’s all. It’s just going to be new processes. So it sort of forced the change for a lot of things. And we all know humans don’t like change very much. So it’s a shock to everyone’s system and I think it’s starting now to seep in and okay, this is what we’re going to do now.

Maurice Cherry:
Right. No, I mean you’re absolutely right. It’s been something I think a lot of us have just had to get comfortable with the constant pivots, whether it’s lockdowns or work from home or hybrid. And that’s we’re just talking about on a work kind of level. I mean personal level, there’s people that have lost loved ones, there’s people that have gotten COVID multiple times, they have long COVID, like there’s a lot that has really come out. And it’s continuing to happen, I would say even with the vaccines and such, there’s still just a lot that’s going on right now.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
It’s something we just got to have to learn to live with and navigate that as anything else.

Maurice Cherry:
And we have to do it unfortunately on the individual level because I don’t think that structures have really been set up for us to do it on a societal level yet.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
No, that it’s been misstep from day one and once it’s been misstepped, it’s very hard to start building that foundation and so that momentum is lost. So it is very much individually, which will be the success rate on that is going to be a wide range of stuff. Because some folks will do better, others will do worse. And the only thing is we just got to try and support one another when we can. I mean that’s lofty goals. Let’s hope that we all can do that and I think that’ll help things a little bit better. But yeah, it’s very much a matter of now it also kind of shows how fleeting life is and how, I mean a nanosecond, how things can shift and you have to either be ready to jump in and adapt or you just stay in that place and just cease to exist.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Let’s lighten the conversation up because people probably tuned in didn’t expect us to be going all deep about COVID and stuff. Let’s lighten it up and talk about your design consultancy, Straight Design, which you’ve ran now for 15 years. Tell me about that. How did it start?

Andrew Bass Jr.:
It wasn’t even planned, it just kind of happened because I will freely admit it started because of my arrogance. I was working in a time and a company and I was going to have the opportunity to start teaching as an adjunct and I just kind of took for granted that because we had such a relaxed work schedule there that oh I could teach classes during the day and come in four days a week and not just one day. This was before anyone ever did any sort of remote stuff. And I didn’t bother to tell my editor-in-chief that I had done this. And so basically I was tasked with, “Look, if you drop the teaching gig now or teach at night or you just got to leave the job,” it’s essentially you’re making, you accepted two jobs and this is your first job.

And I kind of refused. At that point, subconsciously I was kind of done with where I was working at. I had been there for a few years and there was a lot of changes. The company was going through a merger, I should say an acquisition. And things were changing in my department. My staff, they had had me actually cut my staff and so I was the only one working on the magazine at the time and through budget cuts. And I kind of just used that as an excuse subconsciously to of exit out. And so when I did that I realized, oh what am I going to do for money? So I was like, “Okay, we’re going to have to kind of freelance.” And I took some time to just kind of coast a little bit, get my head together and I was approached by a client to submit a proposal for developing a magazine prototype as well as what it would be to produce this magazine on a monthly basis.

And it was a magazine based in the Netherlands based on financial technology, which I had was completely unfamiliar with that subject. But I submitted my proposal and I was awarded the gig and that gave me the impetus to, okay, let me start Straight Design. Now at the time it was called AD Bass Designs until I changed the name later on. And that started the ball rolling for Straight Design and they were very good [inaudible 00:15:06] and it morphed from just doing the magazine and the production to doing event materials to promotional collateral and it spurred adding to my clientele roster.

And so I was running that in a physical studio in Manhattan for a good number of years, at least like five years in there. And then the recession of 2008 hit, as well as everybody else, I started losing some clients because they were cutting back on money, but I was still doing pretty well with that. But then once my big client sort of went away because the owner of that company didn’t realize what the financial investment was in starting up a magazine because a magazine doesn’t really break even for at least five to seven years. And the owner was like, “Whoa, this is taking too long.” And so they kind of pulled back on it, still kept all the event stuff and the event materials and stuff but just wasn’t doing the magazine.

I started losing clientele a bit because of the economic situation and at the time I was married and both my wife then and me were self-employed and with, we just had our daughter and I was like, “Okay, somebody’s going to have to go back inside because health insurance was as much as my mortgage.” And I was like this is killing my savings quick. And that’s when I had just made the transition to go back in-house. But I still kept Straight Design as my freelance consultancy so that I would basically do the projects that I still were very interested in on the side, but I didn’t have to worry about hunting down and bringing in clientele while maintaining my whole household. And I’ve kept that way from since 2012, I think. Yeah. From 2012 to now. Where I’m now thinking about eventually I might resurrect Straight Design in a more full-time capacity in the next several years. But that’s how I started it. It was really just a fluke.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, that’s so interesting. Hearing you talk about how you started that reminds me of how I started my studio. It’s so funny that you said it was out of arrogance. Because I feel like I started in the same way. I was a senior designer working AT&T. I mean I was completely self-taught. I just felt like, oh I got this, I got this. And I mean I was working there in AT&T, for at least back then, I can’t speak to how it is now. This was 2008 when I quit. But it was very much a production house. It was all on the assembly line basically. You got packet with all your stuff that you needed to design and you did it in Photoshop and you sliced it up in Dreamweaver and coded. There was no love or soul into it because you had to crank it out and eight hours or less essentially.

And so you’re just doing this on a constant loop. And I was like I could do this better myself. And I just quit and started my own studio. I really felt like, yeah, I could do this, I got this. But yeah, it’s interesting because even when I started, I had a different name for my business. I started it out, it was called 318 Media because I wanted to, one, it was after my birthday and then two, I just wanted to have a cool kind of funky name. I ended up changing it later because there were other three blank blank media companies in Atlanta. There was a three, I know there was a 352 Media, there was a 360 Media and people were getting us confused and so we had to have a standoff, okay, somebody’s got to change.

And I was like, “I’ll change mine,” because I had a weird spelling for it too because I don’t know, I thought it was cool to have the number three, the word 18, but then I had to keep explaining it to people and then forms wouldn’t take a business thing that started with a number. It was a whole bunch of things.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Oh wow.

Maurice Cherry:
And then I just changed it to Lunch in 2014, 2015 and completely rebranded the company. So it made more sense after I did all of that. And I even found business increased once that happened because one, people weren’t getting us confused with other companies. And then I had all these kind of gimmicks around lunch. My business card was one of those plastic key tag things where like CVS or whatever.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
It was like that was what the business card was. And every time I met with a client I’d mark off a little circle on the back.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Oh that’s cool.

Maurice Cherry:
And I’d be like, “Oh, if you get a certain number, you get a free whatever.” I could play all these little gimmicks into it and it was fun.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
That’s cool.

Maurice Cherry:
I’ve thought about going back to freelancing now, especially since I am not working and the job market is trash, I’m thinking about it. So I get what you mean about always having it in your back pocket in a way is something that’s just your own thing, you know?

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Yeah, I mean it was great experience, still is a great experience. It was a great experience having the actual physical space, dealing with clients coming into the office, going to presentations and stuff like that. Contracting freelancers to work on projects and something like that. But it was also a good experience in understanding that New York City does not small business. They don’t like freelancers. Unless you are a huge company, the state is just going to rob you blind.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh wow.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
And it’s really hard. It was harder than I really imagined to run a business in New York City and New York state because New York City is its own entity and then you have to deal with New York state as well and then you got the feds so you get triple hit.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
It was very, very interesting. And I would probably not open up a business in New York City again. I would go to a different state. I’m starting to understand some of the reasons why some companies open up in particular states. Just from the business point of view, it makes a lot of sense. But it was a good experience I have to say. And it actually did very well, even to my surprise because I didn’t expect to do so well starting off. I thought I was going to have to kind of struggle a bit, but things just rolled in really nicely and I was like oh. And I knew that wasn’t going to last. I just didn’t know it was going to hit sooner than it did. But it was a great experience and it just helped strengthen how I do my consultancy now when I freelance and stuff, that I got a little bit better practice with clientele because I really don’t like that side of doing a business. I really just want to create.

And I was always trying to find, I said if I was going to do Straight Design as a company company again where there’s just more than me, I need to find somebody who’s this, who’s good on the business side that doesn’t mind doing all the numbers and the paperwork and stuff like that. Because now that stuff really does consume a lot of time and it really showed being a creative takes a lot. We all know being a creative takes a lot of our energy. But when that’s split with doing this sort of the other side of our brain, the more logical side sometimes how that can disrupt things now and it’s hard to get back into that creative flow after you’ve been dealing with invoices and setting out proposals and responding to RFPs and tracking down those clients that are a little late in their paying and then taxes. That, yeah. We don’t like taxes but that, that’s woo those quarterlies.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
[inaudible 00:22:50] on that one.

Maurice Cherry:
You are preaching to the choir on that one. I know exactly what you mean.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Yeah. So it was a great experience and I try to pass that information to students now and always have incorporated a little bit of business sense in my teachings with students so that they’re better prepared for that. Because I never got that when I was in school. There was business not considered part of the curriculum. It was about technique and creating and stuff. Not like, “Okay now you got to make a living, how are you going to survive?” But it was a great experience. I mean it still is a great experience but what it is now is that I can pick and choose what I really want to work on.

And I really tend to working on not for profits or trying to help businesses get their start and really understanding how important the strategy of design is. And not so much get sidetracked by all the nice shiny bells and whistles, but to really understand how this design strategy is going to help them propel their company’s message to ensure they are successful in interacting with their consumer, their customer base and stuff. And I kind of like that. And that working full time and doing the consultancy on the side, that enables me to do that a little bit more without having to worry about the slow times and stuff like that. So it has worked out pretty well for right now. Although like I said before, I’m thinking of the next evolution that’s probably going to happen within the next year.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean you mentioned nonprofits and sort of smaller businesses that you really like to work with. What does your creative process look like when you’re starting on a project?

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Generally when I’m first starting on a project, this is assuming I’ve been awarded a project, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Okay. Because then there’s another process on trying to get that project. Once I’ve gotten a project, I really try to just hone in and identify what is the problem that they’re facing, what is it that they really need to happen? And in that, once I’ve kind of locked that solid, that kind of helps me figure out my focus on what I need to sort of really understand about them, their audience, what they’re actually trying to put out there. Whether it’s some sort of service, whether it’s about the face of their company. And I really try to learn as much as I can about them to sort of really put myself in their shoes and trying to put myself in the shoes of who they’re trying to reach so that way I can talk in the same tone, the same voice. And that usually that’s a lot of my discovery time.

I always tell my clients that I need a good, I give myself about four weeks of discovery time to go through stuff to understand, to talk to people, to be able to really understand the gist and the spirit of what this is and who they claim their audience is to see if it actually matches up before I ever begin thinking about creative solutions. And then once I’ve done that, that’s when I just go back to them and kind of confer my findings, where I sort of send back to them, for lack of, a creative brief, just letting them know, “Okay, this is of where I think this is at.” And just to get them the co-sign, “Yeah, this is what we see for ourselves, this is what we see our audience, this is where we definitely agree with this is what’s happening, this is the sentiment.” And then that’s when I start getting into my creative process where start trying to now understand the competitors, see what they’ve done, see what this company’s done and what works well.

Because sometimes companies don’t realize they have some good stuff, it’s just maybe not executed well or thought out correctly. And so I try to see what is good. Nobody wants to reinvent the wheel unless it’s necessary. And see, like I said, see what works, what doesn’t work and then start beginning to put those pieces together and start developing my own of creative point of view as to how I think the project should go and what’s going to be best for their purposes moving forward. Which again, that’s another big chunk of my time that depending on the scope of the project, definitely is at least a month for, I like telling folks weeks versus months because it seems shorter in weeks than months. Math. I tell them it’s usually about four to six weeks I’m going to start doing creative development if it’s a kind of small base project, small to medium side.

And that allows me to actually kind of run through a lot of my ideas because in all transparency, as a creative I also build in cushion time for myself with that. Because I’m not starting on that project right off the bat. I’m a procrastinator and I probably should not be putting this out on air, but I’m a procrastinator and sometimes it takes a while for me to jumpstart to get in things because deadlines really drive my juices. I don’t know why that is, but at least about a week or so I kind of just kind of float through the project in the development phase. Kind of looking at things inspiring myself before I realize, oh man, okay, I got to get my stuff going in into gear.

And then once I’m in gear though, I’m going through it. I’m flying through it to build up my mock so that way I can present to the clientele. And I walk them through the whole process and I explain, I kind of educate them about the aspect of design and why I have done exactly what I’ve done, the choices I’ve made from all the elements. So that they have a better understanding that this is not just about making things look nice and that colors, type, images just seems like random choices when no, there’s a calculated reason for the choices on this and what the desired result is expected from it because of these choices.

And then it’s a matter of, I don’t usually have not gotten from clients an extensive back and forth on things. It’s been a pretty quick, “Yeah, we like this choice, we’ve got these few little changes and then that’s it.” And then the end of the process is where I now start finalizing everything up. And that usually is the quickest part of the process because all the stuff I build up is to high fidelity in terms of the conceptuals. And so that way all I’m doing is just tweaking some things unless it completely requires a rethought and which we never want to do there. And luckily I’ve only had one or two of those and that’s an earlier part of my career because that’s embarrassing. Go back to the drawing board to because you completely did not catch what was going on. And then from there it’s just providing the materials to the clienteles and following up with them.

Now that’s one of the things that I think sometimes as designers, creators we don’t do is that we don’t follow up to say, “Okay, hey, how did things go six months out? How did everything happen? Are you satisfied? What’s going on?” To try and maintain and build those networks and those relationships so that it becomes a longstanding client base. But also I think it’s just good practiceship or businessmanship to follow up with your clients, make certain what you provided to them is doing what they needed to be done and that they’re satisfied and that it’s helping them. So, that actually tells you how well you’ve done yourself. But that’s [inaudible 00:30:48] my process. I hope I didn’t drone on that.

Maurice Cherry:
No, I mean I think that end part definitely is good because then it also means that you can possibly get repeat clients.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
Repeat work from the same client. I mean that’s always good. I know back when I was doing my studio, I would have clients I do work for and then I would follow up and if they needed things on a more regular basis, eventually that graduated to becoming a retainer. And then that’s guaranteed monthly income, which we all love that. That’s great.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
And referrals. Current clients can refer you to people, so you get new clients.

Maurice Cherry:
Absolutely. Let’s kind of dive a little bit into your personal story. I think folks now can kind of hear the New York accent.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Oh my god.

Maurice Cherry:
Talk to me about growing up there.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
You mean my Brooklyn accent? Yeah. Well I mean I’m born and raised in New York, specifically Brooklyn. Because people ask me, oh where I’m from, I say, “I’m from Brooklyn. I’m Brooklynese.” Because yes, people from Brooklyn, we have Brooklyn is a culture. Other folks realizing, or at least old Brooklyn now, because yes, I’m going to say Brooklyn is not quite the same as it used to be. So old school Brooklyn. Yeah, I grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, now during the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. Crack era and blackout from 1977. So Bed-Stuy was rough. It was not for the week of heart. And me growing up as the nerd, because I’ve always been a nerd, always been the tallest dude out of everybody, very quiet, reserved. So I was the art kid. And so naturally I was bullied growing up and for me to deal with that, I always used to just draw. Now I would just go into my notebooks and draw these fantasy worlds just to escape from all the crap that I was growing up with.

Because I also, my dad was an alcoholic. When I was younger it wasn’t as bad as it was when I got older, but when he did drink, it was not a pleasant environment. So coupled that with the knuckleheads in my neighborhood who were bugging me and my brother, I retreated to my drawing. Now I just went in there and I just started drawing worlds to just escape for a few hours and stuff. It was great therapy for me. Unfortunately, as I think back, a lot of the scenes that I would was drawing were conflicts. It was like war, space invasions, shooting. I was just blowing up shit. If you talk to a therapist, that means that’s a manifestation of what’s going on out there. And I’m like, but I had fun.

And with the drawing that actually got me interested in do people do this? And so I started looking deeper into cartoons cause I love cartoons and how they were drawn. I was like, oh people do this. When I found out as a kid, folks actually do. Because I don’t know what I was thinking as a kid, I just thought they magically appeared. I didn’t know you actually had to do that. And that fascinated me because I was like, “Ooh, maybe one day I can draw some cartoons.” And that shifted my invasion drawings into drawing characters and doing little mini cartoons. And to date myself, I used to do these little flip books where you draw them on the edge of the paper and you just flip them. And then-

Maurice Cherry:
I remember flip books. Yeah, yeah.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
We all did that back then. It was just so cool. And people loved when I did it at my school and they’re like, “Ah, do one for me, do one for me.” And I started getting a little reputation for Andrew’s, “He’s the animator, he makes these cartoons that move,” and it was pretty cool. And I was like, oh, maybe one day I could do this for a living. But as I started growing up, I got into graffiti because the introverted kid started breaking out his shell a little bit. And I was fascinated with graffiti. Little did I know, that was my first introduction to design, specifically graphic design. Because what folks don’t seem to realize back then graffiti was just that was vandalism, got to get those kids. And I don’t advocate now at 55 to ever go paint up on people’s property. That is having been a property owner, I’m going to beat you up if you write on my property.

But it was beautiful work to see the letters, the formation of these characters and then the letters of the characters, and then actually the figurines you put into the pieces in the murals. Which all based off of the smurfs, Vaughn Bodē’s work, I forgot the character name with the mushroom head. Or at that time it was the, because that was the beginning of the hiphop culture. And I say hiphop purposely now because hip hop culture was the trifecta of MCing. Notice I say MCing and not rapping. MCing, breakdancing, and graffiti. Graffiti was the visual expression of all this, where breakdancing was the physical manifestation of the movement, and MCing was the verbalization of it. And there’s a distinct difference between MCing and rapping. Now, again, dating myself because we rappers today are not MCs.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh no, no. I would venture to say rappers today are barely rappers.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Bingo. But that’s got me into graffiti. And I just fell in love with how you create your own letters and create these characters into these stylized formations. And then the color, when I had my black book with the markers, it was Pantone markers. Little did I know Pantone would actually be so much a part of my life. But those Pantone markers with the smell, I love those smell of those markers. It was pure alcohol now. Yeah, pure alcohol. And they soaked through everything, but they left beautiful pieces. And that was actually my very first foray into being an artist and drawing and in design. And from that point on, I knew I wanted to do something creatively for the rest of my life. Now I just didn’t know what now.

And I went through different phases as I went from high school where I went to Brooklyn Tech, which was, and still is a very specialized high school that focuses on math and science. But they had an industrial design program in there and a little bit of arts. And so I took that because I suck at math, I love science, but I’m not a scientist. And so I did industrial design, which was very much equated to let’s say package design, product design and architecture, which did interest me. And for a time I was like, maybe I’ll do be an architect. But I really liked more the spontaneous creativity in design oriented projects.

So when I left Brooklyn Tech, I applied, was thinking about college and I applied to Pratt, I applied to City Tech. At the time, City Tech back then was called New York City Technical College. That’s what it was called back then. And those are the only two schools I applied to because I didn’t know of any other schools. And also because my mother told me I was either going to go to Pratt or City Tech because they’re in Brooklyn. And so that way I’m close to home. So my mother was very much the SuperMax warden growing up. So I looked at both. I applied to both. I got into both.

I went through, I first focused on going to Pratt, but I couldn’t afford that bill. I was like, “Ooh, that’s too much money.” And I didn’t really have a true portfolio back then. I just had my black book and some work from high school. Because like I said, Brooklyn Tech was not based, was not an art school. So I didn’t know anything about building a portfolio, what’s needed or anything like that. So I just had little trinkets. So I went to City Tech or New York City Technical College at that time.

And that’s where I really started learning what it is to be in the creative industry. And I knew right then and there, yeah, this is the choice I want to do. I definitely want to be in the creative industry. Now I got to decide, is it advertising, is it this thing called graphic design? Is it this thing being an illustrator? Because a couple of my professors were pushing me to be an illustrator now. And they were like, “You just have this natural tone. You should be an illustrator.” I just didn’t like sitting in those classes for six hours drawing stuff. I was like, are you kidding me? That’s like, this is boring me. It did. It wasn’t as fun to me. And I did a year at City Tech and then I transferred, especially at the encouragement of one of my professors because I was all A’s, I got 4.0 for that first year.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
All my projects just didn’t feel like it was a challenge to me. Even though at the professor who I’m revering right now, her name is Dorothy Hayes, she’s passed on.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah, I’ve heard of her. She’s been mentioned on the shows by a lot of people. Yeah.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Yeah. Dorothy Hayes at the time when I was a student of hers, I could not stand her. She was too hard. I was like, she was always on my. Always, always Bass. Because she always called me Bass. Never call me Andrew. “Bass, Bass, you could do better. You could do better. Where’s your work, I want to see your work.” But looking back, I mean that really forged who I am and I’m forever thankful to her, and a few other professors I met. By the way, which they were all Black. I was lucky. I had quite a few Black professors in my design education.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Which was unheard of. That’s why I was saying that was destined to be and stuff. And so I transferred to Pratt and that’s where shit got real ,when I went to Pratt.

Maurice Cherry:
Tell me about it. How was it?

Andrew Bass Jr.:
It was challenging. I wanted the challenge. I got challenged. It was like I almost dropped out at my, what was it, sophomore year? Well actually not, it was my transfer year. Yeah. Because when I transferred over, some of my credits transferred over, some did. Because Pratt had a foundation year that they required everybody to take. So I had a mix of classes that were from the foundation class and then classes that were able to be transferred over. It was a completely different environment. And we’re talking about 1986. Pratt was intense. The workload was nothing I had experienced at any school. It was weekly. It was a lot to manage. I mean many projects very much about understanding and defending the basis of your projects, which I hadn’t understand before that. I thought it was just about, oh, how do you make this stuff pretty. And then that’s where I first learned, no, it’s about why are you doing this and for who is it for? Basically what is your thinking behind this?

And that tripped me up because I was like, “Oh that seemed like a lot.” As well as at that same time, there was a lot of things going into my, not childhood, but at my home with my focuses at that point now. My dad definitely was heavy into his alcoholism. And so going to Pratt was a good and a bad experience. Good in the fact is that the work was intense. It forced me to double down and really get involved in understanding the nature of the work that I’m building. Because the very coming from four A’s to where I just thought I automatically get that coming in the Pratt. And then the end of that first transfer year, I realized, now granted also too, I was doing a little more partying that transfer year. Because I was like, “Ah, I got this. This is easy.” That’s when my GPA went from 4.0, dropped down to 2.0.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a dip.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Oh it’s a major dip. And couple of my teachers came to me, professors came to me and said, “Look, hey. You can do the work. What is going on? You’re not applying yourself.” And that’s when I woke up and said, “Okay Andrew, you forget this partying, you can party after you graduate. Let’s get on the ball.” And I worked my house off to try and get my grades back up. And it was never back to 4.0. I graduated what? 3.0. I worked it back up. But that one year did that much damage to me.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Yeah. And so the other good things with that was the, I’d have to say, with the intensity of the work, it was also the way the professors tried to instill some of the actual business dynamics into how you build a creative, but also how to be a creative. It wasn’t extensive, it was snippets. It was, what was her, it was my copywriting professor, Lorraine McNeil, who also happened to be Black. She was a Black woman. She would occasionally mention about the business aspect and what would be expected out of there. It wasn’t a full fledged business kind of introduction, that didn’t exist when I was going to school. But she did try to put some nuggets out there because I found out about business and stuff on my own.

Now that was the other good thing about Pratt is that they had an extensive library. And that’s where I really got a lot of my supplemental education was in that library. I was in the library too much. They had so many books I couldn’t keep my hands off those books. The bad aspects of Pratt was that I felt very isolated as a Black student. Pratt was predominantly white and there were students who basically came from more affluent families. There was a contingent of students of color on there. A lot of them stayed on the dorms because they were not basically from New York, they were from other states.

So I didn’t have that kind of connection because the folks who were in the dorms, they had their own clique. They focused more, a little too much more on partying than education. I always called the edutainment and I’m like, “I already saw the effect of partying on my grades. I was like, nah man, I got to get serious because we want to get a job. We got this is going to be our career.” The isolation was very detrimental to me in that aspect because I didn’t have a vacuum. I had, I didn’t really have folks I can confer with about how their education was going, how classes were, how projects were, to bounce off ideas with somebody else is to, what do you think about this? And something like that.

The other thing is too, I thought the teachers, the white teachers, I thought they were very sort of offhand with the students of color. They seemed very apt to help the white students but not so eager to help the Black and Latino students. It was kind of like, “You can figure this out on your own. I’ll just give you this little nugget and let’s see what’s going on.” But then you see them confer very regularly with the white students after class, off premises. They would extend numbers to them. I’m like, “Huh, how come we don’t get that?” The only professors actually did do that were the professors who happened to be of color. I had three of them. I had Richard Perry who was an English teacher, Dwight Johnson, who was one of my design teachers who also actually gave me my first freelance gig. Lorraine McNeil, who was my copywriter teacher.

Those were the three professors that I had through my years at Pratt that did offer me help, is particularly Dwight Johnson. Now he’s the one that really, in the beginning years, I modeled myself after him. Now he gave me first freelance job. I just personally and professionally, I styled myself after him because I just thought he was on point. I was like, “I want to be like him.” So Pratt overall, if I had to choose today, I would not necessarily go to Pratt. There’s so many other schools out here that are actually pretty good and cheaper that I probably would’ve went to. But that’s how Pratt was. There’s really not much to say about City Tech because at that time City Tech had a reputation of being a super high school. It was just a continuation. And then, I mean having worked at City Tech now and working at City Tech now I will say they definitely have changed that, which is for the better.

But back then it was really classified as just an extension of high school and folks acted the same way. So it was good to get that sort of foundation in City Tech. And actually meeting a few professors there, Dorothy Hayes, Joel Mason, Robert Holden, they were actually good teachers that kind of helped me build a real portfolio, so that when I, they applied to Pratt again to transfer over, my portfolio was much more readily accepted now that I had a portfolio. But yeah, that’s how my experiences, I don’t look too fondly on my college years. It was kind of rough on instances that I wish I had more camaraderie among some of my fellow classmates and a little bit more, actually not a little bit, a lot more help from my professors. It just wasn’t really there. May have changed now, I don’t know how Pratt is at this moment now, other than I know it’s highly expensive. But yeah, that’s how my experience was there.

Maurice Cherry:
So you graduate from Pratt. Tell me what your early career is like, because I want to also just kind of put this in a timeframe here. I mean you’re studying design at a time when personal computers were not really part of design.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
No. No.

Maurice Cherry:
So I’d love to kind of hear what was your early career like once you graduated?

Andrew Bass Jr.:
I have to say, I think my early part of my career probably was the most fun part of my career. Where I think I chalk it up to youth where, I mean there was no holds barred. I thought I could do anything. I was like I was ready for every stuff and it was pre-computer. So I was pretty good with my hands in doing that. Because in the beginning, in my beginning career, we did everything by hand. So we did boards, type was done through a, we’d send it to our type setting department or you would send it out to type setting companies and they would run off, what was that called? A linograph, I think it was called linograph. Basically it was just a sheet of paper that had the type set on there and you would cut that up, paste it on the board, with rubber cement. It was very hands on. That was where you would get your-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, Letraset is that what you mean? Letraset?

Andrew Bass Jr.:
No, Letraset was for the, if you’re doing display type.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
But the actual body copy, the that text, if you tried putting that on Letraset, you would kill yourself. It would be tedious and oh so time consuming. So that was set by a machine that just ran off, sort of like photo paper you can kind of say it and you would just cut it down to size as you need.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah, that’s linotype.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Yeah. Yeah, linotype. That’s it. Not linograph, linotype. The Letraset really is for display type. If you want to do custom things and stuff like that. Especially like logos. If you were going to do logo stuff. Oh yeah, that’s what I was going to say back then, that’s where you would actually get your battle scars because by cutting all that stuff with the X-Acto blade or an actual razor blade, it was no way you were not going to cut your hand. And getting cut with X-Acto blade is better than getting cut by a razor blade. Because hoo, those razors are deep. But that was just par for the course. Your hands, your fingers would be all scarred up. You don’t see them so much now in my hands, but there’s one or two spots that you still see where I have some heavy cuts.

But that’s how we actually did stuff by putting them on board, gluing down the type. The images we would actually have to send out to a stat house and they would take basically what was a full scale image or a film. It’d be like they would send you a negative and you would send that negative to the printer. You would put down sort of a for all intents and purposes, like a Xerox copy of what it is, just to get them in position, placing everything down with tracing paper to cover everything up, do some inking when you needed to do some things. And that was a lot of pen and ink work, which I think is solely missed from today’s work. Folks are so reliant on digital that they don’t know how to create stuff by hand anymore. And there is a beautiful nuance between hand created stuff and digital stuff.

Digital can be too clean. Even the stuff that try to simulate manmade stuff, it still has a cleanness about it that doesn’t exist in handmade stuff. And all that would take us some serious time. So if you wasted time, if say, “Okay, I’m not going to work on this today.” You lost 24 hours that can really impact your deadline. Now, unlike today where everything is like, “Okay, well I’m not going to work on this right now, I’ll do it tomorrow.” You don’t lose that kind of time because digital is so quick, it’s so instantaneous. But working there, my very first thought was I had gotten an internship at a small ad agency out of the result of, at that time I was the president of the Black Student Union at Pratt and I was all about business.

So I was looking at the Black Student Union as a way to start linking us up with job opportunities to various different agencies and studios in New York City so that we can get a head start on the other students, ie our white students who easily have these connections and get into stuff. But folks were not looking for us. So I was determined to try and get us a jump start. And one of the agencies who participated in that program, I was awarded the internship, which was a whole story because essentially folks didn’t participate. There was only a few folks that actually came out and participated, which really disappointed me on that. And I got it because my portfolio was the best out of it and folks had issues with that. But I’m like, “If you don’t apply, you can’t complain.”

And so I worked there for the summer of 1989. So once I graduated they offered me a full-time job. So I worked there for the summer and I was doing, it was an ad agency, but I was doing a lot more design work and I was the defacto art director because I was the art department because the agency was, it was a Black owned agency, it was just the principal and two other people in there. Excuse me. And it was a good experience because I was able to do my first photo shoots, meet these photographers, do [inaudible 00:55:03], set up model stuff. I had to battle folks because folks were like, “You sure you’re the art director? You seem a little young.” And I was like, “Well yeah, I am young but I am it.”

The only thing that kind of saved my grace a bit where people gave people a little pause at time was that, yeah, I towered everybody. I was six, was I 6’6 then when I graduated? I was either between 6’4 or 6’6, because I don’t think I reached my peak until around 23, 24. And so I towered over everybody. So my height kind of gave me some more credence and credibility and stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
But I always had a baby face. I still sort of do have a baby face. I mean it’s getting a little older. And so folks questioned that. But once I started doing the work, they were like, “Okay, no, you seem to know what you’re doing.” Because I kind of learned it as I went because if I didn’t know something, I was determined to go find out how to do it. And that’s where, I mean, because that was pre-internet. So again, I hit up libraries now. I mean there was so much information out there that people just don’t realize if you just get up and look for it, there’s a world at your fingertips. And I would just find out information on the rare occasions that I’d actually just ask people in the industry, I’m like, “You don’t don’t know me, but can I just ask you a question?” And folks were surprisingly helpful. So I did that and I was pretty much given leeway to do stuff, which is not usually the case.

I don’t know why that actually occurred. I consider myself lucky in a lot of the places I was employed at, I was given a lot of leeway. I was given the autonomy to like, you are the leader, create your stuff. Now I don’t know if it was the aspect of how I carried myself, how I did my work, because I always felt I was nervous. I was a nervous wreck. I’m like, “Do I really know what I’m doing? I don’t know.” I was always doubting myself in my head, but I would not let that show, I would not let that be known to anybody. And so for those three months, everything was still done by hand. No, the only computers in there were for the administrative views. And I will freely admit I use that computer to play my video games. Because I’ve been on video games since Atari 2600. Even though Atari was crap, I had CalecoVision, but that’s a side note.

So we were still doing stuff by hand and I was doing some long hours. There was no, okay, it’s 5:00, everybody go home. No, I would stay until about 11:00 at night, 12:00 at night. And the owner would just give me the key to the place and say, “Just lock up when you need to.” Which I thought was, wow. Again, I seemed to endear confidence to people that they gave me this responsibility and I never broke that trust on that responsibility. So from there, after about three months, like I said, again, being a young creative, I was a little too cocky and I was like, “You know what? I’m tired of this. I can get me another job like that.” And so I quit. I was like, I wanted to do something else.

And that’s when I realized, no Andrew, that’s not how it works. It’s like I got a hard dose of reality. It was like that I need to get my ego in check. And I was out of work for a good number of months. Back then you found your jobs through the classified ads in the paper, which I know today everybody would be like, “What’s a newspaper? What’s a classified ad?” But it’s equivalent to a job listing online. And I found a listing for an associate art director at this publishing company. And I said, “Oh, okay, that’s a different genre. Let’s kind of see how that is.” Submitted my resume, they called me in for an interview and I got a surprise because when I came in for the interview, that’s when I learned that the magazine was for an adult. It was an adult magazine, it was an adult publishing.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
And I was like, okay, this is interesting. But then when they actually specified what market in the adult publishing, it was a gay lifestyle magazine, I was like, “Oh, this is 1989.” And that was in the height of the AIDS epidemic, the Black kid from Bed-Stuy, there was a lot of stigma to the gay community and stuff like that. My concern was like, “Well okay, this X-rated stuff, can I get a job after this if I take this?”

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
That was my main concern. And so did very well in the interview. It was interesting when they said this, I’ll share with everybody, in 1989, the starting salary at that position was $22,000. I thought that was a lot of money back then and it was a lot of money because it supported me very well. Went back home, had a conversation with my mom, like, “Hey I went to this job, it looked pretty good. What do you think?” And she was like, “Are you there to do what you earned your degree in?” I said, “Yes.” “What are they paying you?” I told her the salary. It’s like, “So what is the problem?” I said, “There’s no problem. It’s just if you’re doing what you’re supposed to be do not supposed to be doing, but if you’re doing what you’ve been, you’ve got your degree on and this is your career. What’s the issue? It’s your starting point. Now it doesn’t mean that’s your end point.” And with talking to my mom, I was like, “You know what, that makes sense.”

And so after that conversation, it again, coincidentally I got a call from the art director that I met. She offered me the job now and I was like, “Okay, yeah, I’ll take it, I’ll see you.” And I started working, I stayed there five years. And so I rose from associate art director to an art director for monthly magazines. And yes, they were all towards the gay market. I learned quite a lot. I learned that if you are a good designer, you can design for any market. It’s about understanding your market and understanding what you’re doing for, what are you doing in that project to address your market. And the benefit of doing that magazine was that it wasn’t a straight just pictorial kind of magazine. It had lifestyle. So they had editorial in there and it was, unless you know what the magazine was, it could have just been in any mainstream magazine.

At the time The Advocate and Out were two magazines in the gay market that just kind of came out and they were getting a lot of shine. They were the number ones and they were beautifully done magazines. They were beautifully designed. And I kind of used that as my inspiration to model, to sort do my lifestyle stuff as, which was very successful. And it helped me transition from there to my next gig, which was at Essence Communications. But in those five years, that’s when I started. We transitioned about a year. Yeah, I think it was about a year after I started transitioning into computers. The Mac.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
In 1991, I believe. Because that was the other premise I stayed with. Well I wanted to take the opportunity too is that they had said they were going to make that transition from doing stuff production wise with the mechanical boards to move into doing the work electronically. Now that they were going to use Mac. I’m sorry, that wasn’t in 1991. That was 1990.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Yeah, it was 1990 because I started in ’89 and then I think in the spring of 1990, that’s when they started introducing the Mac, gave us courses. We went out there and myself and my other coworker who was the other associate art director on the magazine I was working on, we just blew it out. We were at class and then we would come back to the office and take what we had in class to apply it and continue it. Learning and doing stuff and seeing how things work when we were back in the office. And our art director at the time was like, “That’s great because you’re going to help me learn this because I don’t get what’s going on.” And he was older than us and stuff like that. But it was fun. And it made things go so much faster. And now we are doing our own type setting.

We now scanning images so we now can place them into our documents. We actually have the live files where we actually start learning how to photo retouch, photo calibrate how to type, how to create special print techniques like masking, fit colors, all this stuff that. The bad side of that was it actually, with the advent of the Mac, it eliminated whole industries. We lost type houses. Those faded out because now people could do it themselves. We lost a lot of production folks who actually, if you didn’t actually do the boards yourself, you could hire people to do it. No, just create and then give the directions to them, to losing some of the business with the photostat houses, those closed out. And those closed out [inaudible 01:04:52] within one year after the Apple came onto the market. Changed the whole face of downtown Manhattan, which used to be all type setting printers and photostat houses. By 1991 it was virtually a ghost town from those businesses. They had gone.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
They had transitioned to something else. So some of the photostat houses turned into scanning places. So they could scan some original art now because illustration, especially big pieces. Because at that time a lot of the illustrators still did the work by hand. They didn’t do digital work and some of these pieces were pretty big. They couldn’t fit your normal day tabletop scan because all this stuff back then was pricey as heck. Tabletop scanner poly was like next to a $1,000. That was a lot of money. So it was cheaper just to send it out and get a $50 scan now and you just get that scan to you and you can put it on. But that changed the where you no longer now had your battle scars so your fingers were saved, you didn’t have to cut up your fingers anymore. And it also kept from getting blood on the boards. Because that was always interesting when we got blood on the boards. Because you had to wipe that out. Otherwise that’s in the actual, when they shoot it. Now it’s just clean.

And now at this point though, our role shifted as creatives because so much stuff relied on us. We actually had to know how to operate this Mac inside and out. Especially when if there was a problem with the Mac. Yeah, we had IT, quote “IT department”, but thankfully the Mac was and still is very sort of self-sufficient. So when things go down it’s kind of easy to figure out what’s going on to get it back up. But that usually relied to us. In the beginning we had a service that would come in and fix that stuff, but eventually the owner was like, “Look, you guys are working on this. Do you know how to do this because we’re cutting this.” But it actually opened up more doors on the creative side.

I mean, yes, we lost a lot of industry and a lot of people had to adapt, some folks didn’t because of the manual nature of design at that point. A lot of them were older generations. So they did not want to learn how to use the computers and learned these programs, very much today. It’s a generational thing. The older generation just was like, “I can’t change. I learned all this. How am I going to, I don’t want to sit down and learn this whole new program and this contraption to do this.” And that’s where a lot of folks didn’t make that transition. They either had to leave the industry and do something else or just completely retire.

And like I said, that changed the shape of downtown Manhattan because it also changed the printers. And a lot of those started consolidating and shrinking down to what we see today. But it also sped up our creative process. So if we had an idea, we could actually instantaneously see how it works. Where at that time it was QuarkXpress, that was the defacto thing. There was no creative cloud. Adobe was this brand new company battling with Macromedia, battling with, what was the other one? Oh, Publisher. Yes. QuarkXpress had to battle Microsoft Publisher back in the day.

Maurice Cherry:
I remember Microsoft Publisher.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Yeah, we had not Illustrator, but it was freehand and Photoshop was Photoshop. That never disappeared. And so you had to buy all these individually. So back then being a designer was expensive.

Maurice Cherry:
Expensive. Mm-hmm.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Because the Macs themselves were these god awful paper weights. Because the face of the Apple, I mean at the time it looks sleek, but looking at it now, it’s like, oh man, that’s [inaudible 01:09:16].

Maurice Cherry:
It was a big rectangle kind of thing, right?

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
It was like the screen and the CPU were all in one.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Yes, that version. Yes, they had that. The screen was probably no more than maybe 13 inches, which seemed big at the time. And then they transitioned to having the monitor separate from the tower because everything was a tower back then. And that’s where the screen started getting bigger and stuff. But it’s still, it cost a lot of money and everything was on a disc. Nothing was cloud-based. Because the internet didn’t come into play until 1985. Is that correct?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, the cloud wasn’t a thing back then. Everything was-

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Yeah, the cloud didn’t exist.

Maurice Cherry:
Everything was floppy discs. And then the floppy discs gave way to those smaller hard discs.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Floppy to the ZIP to actually floppy to the Quest, to the ZIP to the dat. Thank God we didn’t have to do the dat much. And then there was something in between. It was a hybrid of a ZIP and the Quest, is that right? I forgot the technology in it. But it went through some iterations in the span of five years. Now each year was something new, which was expensive. It was crap. I mean it didn’t come out of my pocket, but it was expensive. But you had to adapt to each of those technologies and stuff.

Basically if you kind of damaged your CDs, there was no way to get a backup. If your machines got corrupted, the disc got corrupted and corrupted meaning by, just scratched the back of that disc because somebody did not put it up properly. It’s done. That would mean you have to spend another $1,000 to go buy some brand new disc of one program. Same with type, you have to do same with type, all that stuff. But it did enable to have more creative tools at hand. So if you had an idea, you could still do it by hand, but now you could translate it, do your sketch and translate it onto the computer where you can actually do different variations in the same day where it may have taken us a few days to do iterations of one idea.

And that sped up a lot of stuff and it was kind of cool. It expanded our imaginations. It put more responsibility on us, which I liked because I liked being in control and knowing what’s going on with the Mac and the program so that way I could troubleshoot myself. Because at that time I was thinking, okay, this is going to be helpful for one day when I want to start freelancing and get my own materials or when one day I have my own studio. Because back then I thought about my end goals. I had this studio, get this whole staff and become a small to midsize kind of well known studio. And that’s pretty much the early days. It was very much unexplored. So anything and everything was open and it was just, if you were into adventure, it was an adventure. You were so curious to see what the next thing was going to be.

Whereas today I’m like, “Look, slow down. Yeah, there’s too much stuff coming out. I just learned this, now you got something new. No, no, no, no, that’s not happening. That’s too fast.” As well as I think today, technology’s great, but I think it also makes people stupider, people put more faith on the tech versus their thinking and they’re not sort of, they’re relying too much on the machine and not relying on themselves. Because the machine is just a tool. And in the early days we did see that. It was just a tool. That’s all we looked at. It was like, unless we had our thoughts together before we went to the machine, we’d be wasting our time. Because you’re just fiddling around just getting lost in this virtual world. Today it seems to be the reverse. People don’t mind fiddling on there and they spend so many hours that basically are futile, they just waste stuff.

But that’s how the early days were. It was a really a fun exploratory, I don’t want to say Wild, Wild West, but it kind of was a Wild, Wild West. And then when the net came on board, because I remember fully using the internet in ’95, but we actually did have the internet. The company was called a Mavety Media. I think that came, we had that online around 1993 because I left Mavety Media in 1995. So yeah, I think it had just started. And at that time I think it was all, everything was AOL or Netscape. And the net just was, oh, we just went bonkers with that. It was just like, oh, I can get this right now. Even though that was on dial up. So that was taking a long time. Dial up, I don’t miss at all. You could not do any high files with that or anything like that. It just was too slow. But that’s what the early days were like. It was kind of cool.

Maurice Cherry:
When I give presentations sometimes I’ll tell people how in the early days of the web you had a fast lane and a slow lane. The fast lane was like if you had 56K and the slow lane was 28.8. I love that you’re talking about all of this because I feel like this is something which is definitely not talked about in this current age of design. Everything is done in the cloud, on the web, on a PC or a Mac so quickly. Sometimes even just on mobile devices. I see what people do designing on just mobile devices. And I’m like, “This blows my mind.” Because I was in high school in the ’90s when a lot of this technology was coming out. And to your point, as you were mentioning, these things were changing rapidly, as the technology was changing, there were no sort of monopolies like an Adobe, like we’re talking about now. But there was Adobe, there was Macromedia, there were other sorts of products. There was Quark. You had to try to figure out which one you wanted to do.

It was all extremely expensive and there really was no, I want to say there was no learning curve, but you learned by having to actually get in there and work it or go through those huge big, thick instruction manuals. Because there’s no-

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Oh yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
There’s no YouTube video, there’s no class you can go to that’s going to teach you how to do this. You got to read that 1,000 page manual and figure out how to type set these columns and how to do all this stuff. I mean, to your point about the Wild, Wild West, it really was a time when I think innovation was happening at a speed where people were really just trying to catch up.

You had these different options. Like you said, you could do Quark, you could do Adobe, you could do Macromedia. And a lot of jobs sometimes even when you applied to them wanted you to know one more than the other. It wasn’t so much about whether or not I think you had the skill, but more so whether you knew the program. And I think that’s something which technology has definitely changed a lot. It’s less about the skills and more about, “Do you know how to use Figma? Do you know how to use Sketch?” And it’s like, “But I’m a designer.” And they’re like, “Well we really well we use Figma. So do you know how to use that?” It’s so different now.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Well, I mean back then when I was looking at stuff, when I was doing job searches, when I was moving from space to space, the thing that did start happening was that they wanted you to know this insane amount of programs. I think they just listed these programs because that’s what was out. And they were like, we want you to know everything. And it’s like, “Okay, that’s impossible. You can’t know all this stuff.” And it was very much, I don’t think they really wanted skill set, but just to say, “Okay, well we have somebody who knows this,” regardless of whether or not they actually know how to use it. I could have just went into the program one time just to look at it, oh, I know this program now.

That kind of impeded some people as they looked for jobs back then because it was like, “Look, I don’t know this stuff. I’m not going to put this down and then get busted when they give me this.” And like, “Hey, we need this full fledged project done in this, by this time,” and you don’t even know what you’re doing with it. I mean, granted, there were some people who did do that and coasted by until they got found out later on. But by then they could kind of sweet talk it through and then others shamelessly got blasted. I remember that back then. But yeah, it’s where it went from it was like more, “Okay, what is your true skill set and experience that you’ve actually shown a pattern of this,” versus, “Here’s our laundry list. Just let us know you’ve done this.”

I still kind of see that today though. And whenever there’s some new tech out, I do see some of these listings out here. It’s like, “Hey, do you know this?” I’m like, “Okay, that just came out last week. How are people going to know this?” But I mean I think that’s going to stick forever that’s going to be there. Because any new tech that comes out, I think people in the who post these jobs, I don’t think they’re really the ones that, and we all know it’s HR departments, and so the HR departments don’t really know what people do in their day to day stuff. So I think they just put all the trendy stuff in there just to cover their bases.

But I do miss some of that from back in the day. And it was kind of cool. And I mean, there is some new stuff like that today, particularly in terms of web and video that I see some parallels that I’m like, “Ooh, that’s intriguing.” But now with a seasoned book, I’m like, “Wow, that’s kind overwhelming.” I kind of feel overwhelmed at times. Like, oh, I don’t know if I’m going to learn all that. Yeah. But it would be cool. Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Right, right. Yeah.

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TTK

We all know there are several ways to achieve success as a creative, but sometimes it takes inspiration from others to set you on the right path. That’s definitely the case with the multitalented TTK. His work as an art director, painter, designer and illustrator have taken him far, and now he can add another title to his roster — filmmaker!

Our conversation began with a quick year-end check-in, and then TTK talked about “Just Like Me”, a short documentary he created with Havas to educate and inspire the next generation of Black creatives. TTK also shared more details of his life story, including growing up in Florida, serving in the Navy for 10 years after going to art school, and more. Hopefully TTK’s story and documentary can help inspire you to rise to greater heights!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
All right, so tell us who you are and what you do.

TTK:
My name is TTK. What I do, I’m an artist, I’m a designer. Currently, I work in advertising. I’m a director, I’m a painter. I wear a few hats.

Maurice Cherry:
How has the year been going for you so far?

TTK:
The year’s been good for me so far, man, the year’s been very, very good. How I measure if the year is doing good, I measure if I’m doing something this year that I didn’t do the previous year or if I accomplished something this year that I didn’t in the previous year, that determines for me whether it’s good or not. We’re going into the fourth quarter right now, so the accomplishments and what I’ve accomplished so far in this year, I’m really proud of myself. I took a few punches, but that’s life right there. I hop back up and take it on the chin and take it as a lesson learned. But all in all, this year’s good for me. It’s been going great.

Maurice Cherry:
Is there anything in particular that you still want to try to do before the year ends?

TTK:
Paint more. A friend of mine jokes and it says once I learned how to do digital work, it made me lazy with painting. And I don’t want to admit it, but he is right because painting is a process. Well, everything is a process, but whenever you’re painting, you got to wait for the paint to dry, come back to it and work into it some more, then work into it some more. It takes much longer.

And you would think with me being traditionally trained before I even learn how to do anything in Photoshop or any software, I was doing this first years before I knew how to use any software. You would think I would be conditioned for it. But learning how to work in digital just made me just work faster and have less patience maybe because working in the industry, working the agency, working the companies, I’m on a timeline where I got to turn this stuff around fast. It can be very competitive, whereas with painting, this can take… Because I’m so meticulous with the details and everything when I’m painting, it can take anywhere from weeks to a month. Depends on how much time. Well, I try not to take breaks in between, but I wind up doing that. Anyway.

All that to say I just want to paint more, knock out more pieces. Because I got a solo show coming out in 2023, a solo art show. It’s the first solo show that I’ve done in, oh my god, probably 12 or 13 years with all original pieces, so I’m on the clock right now. It’s next year in the spring, but time catches up real quick so I got to start really cranking out pieces. Teah, all that to say I want to paint more.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I find when visual creators, particularly when they get further along in their career, they often want to go back to some sort of physical, tangible way of creating. Like you said, doing it digitally does make you faster, but there’s a craft in the visual art that gets lost I think sometimes when you’re relying too much on digital tools.

TTK:
Yeah, yeah, yeah. People will ask me, “Can I get this? Can I commission you for this piece?” And I’m like, “Truthfully, it’ll be probably easier for you on your budget to commission me to do something digitally.” Because paintings, it takes a while. Well, for me it takes a while because there’s a certain level of quality that I want to put out. And there’s no command Z to go back when I make a mistake or it doesn’t come out the way I want it to look. I got to wait for it to dry and then I got to go back and rework it, or I’m mixing these colors, and the tubes of paint ain’t cheap. You know what I’m saying? You can buy the cheap stuff, but you going to get cheap results. It really adds up. But all in all, this is always my first love right here. And I always go back to that.

I was just working on this piece that I’m currently working on. I’ve been working on it about two months now. I just think working in it, I forget about how I used to feel painting before I was doing anything digitally. How I would just put a album on, put a CD on, put a record on, just rock out for hours on. And I miss that feeling of seclusion and just painting.

I was watching something, one of those shows that come on Sunday, one of the Sunday weekly news shows or whatever, but they were talking about… This is a few months back. They were talking about George Bush, how he put out a book, maybe it was last year. It was a book about people across the nation or people in this community or something like that. But it was his paintings and these people. And it was like, we don’t really rock with George Bush. You know what I’m saying? We don’t rock with George Bush, but his paintings weren’t bad. You know what I’m saying? Man, this dude actually isn’t that bad. He was on his ranch just painting or whatever and everything. I was like, I never would’ve guessed that from this guy. But I’m like, man, I would love that life just to be in a loft somewhere just, I don’t know, in the middle of nowhere, just painting. I don’t know, man. One day, one day. I’m going to speak into existence.

Maurice Cherry:
I think you’ll get there. You’ll get there, absolutely. Let’s talk about your day job, what you do. You’re a senior art director at Havas, which is ad and PR company. Talk to me about that.

TTK:
Yeah, so I’ve been at Havas for about three years now. It’s been good, you know what I’m saying? A lot of opportunities have come from me being there. What I do, I work on clients. The main client that I’ve worked on since I’ve been there is Michelin and doing stuff for Michelin social. And I got a chance to kind of be… Not kind of be, I got a chance to be very creative with their brand. I worked on stuff for Mike’s Hard Lemonade, worked on a few other projects, but… My mind is blank right now, but Michelin is probably the main one that comes to mind because I’ve been on the brand pretty much 80% of the time I’ve been there.

One thing I can say about working on stuff for Michelin is that I’m blessed it. Everything I touch, I’ve been able to add my own personal touch or flare to it that they probably wouldn’t have done, whereas I push the limits where I can bring my personality and my style of creativity to a brand like that that has so much rich history and it’s been doing something a certain way for so long. But I’ve been able to bring my look and feel to it and explain to them why this works. And they’ve been open and they’ve been receptive to it. Sometimes we get pushback, of course, that’s just how it goes. But for the most part, I think with me working on the brand for so long, I know the do’s and don’ts and know where I can push it and where I can’t. But the areas where I can push it, I really try to flex and really do something where if someone’s scrolling, if they’re scrolling on their phone or whatever and they see this graphic like, “Oh, this is pretty dope right here,” it would make me as a consumer want to check out more about this product right here. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
And now, you started there in October of 2019, which it feels like… With this pandemic, that feels like a lifetime ago. But how did the pandemic change up how you work?

TTK:
It’s funny you say that because I was doing… Right now I worked out of the Chicago office. And prior to me working out of the Chicago office, I was in New York, I was in Brooklyn. I was doing freelance work for them, and then they gave me a full-time… offered me a full-time role. And I was like, “Hey, I’m already doing freelance for you guys out here and I’m delivering what you’re asking me for. Can I just stay out here in New York?” It was like, “Yeah, we want to have you in the office.”

I move cross country, and then a couple months later everybody’s working from home. You know what I’m saying? My partner, Chevon, she was working remote as well at the time for a nonprofit, and she had been telling me, yo, everybody in her nonprofit is all over the country. You know what I’m saying? Working. You’re doing the same thing.

Working from home thing, it definitely… I always say as messed up as the pandemic has been and COVID and all of that, it was a big reset to show some of these jobs that we do the way we do them is outdated. And this is just my opinion. And going into office every day, five days a week, sometimes six, and sitting there for eight, 10 hours just to say that you’re here, we can do the work everywhere. You look at people on… What’s the site? Fiverr. You know what I’m saying? You don’t know where these people are at, but they’re still delivering stuff for you or whatever. And that’s what this pandemic showed. In my opinion, what it showed is thankfully the type of work that we do, the digital creative stuff, we can do it from anywhere. It definitely opened up my eyes and everything because I feel like I was… Like a lot of us, we were programmed to just come and to go into the office, just sit there and just look watching the clock waiting for 5:30, 6:30 to come, paying $15 for lunch every day, all of that right there.

I don’t mind working remotely at all, man. You know what I’m saying? I don’t mind it, truthfully. I know me personally, I can be extrovert, I can be reclusive as well. When I’m creating, sometimes I just like to be alone. We can collaborate, but I like to be alone. I’m able to execute the way I really want to execute and execute my best way sometimes when I’m alone. I don’t mind working remote. I actually love it.

Maurice Cherry:
What’s a typical day look like for you?

TTK:
I juggle a few things, man. It depends on the workload sometimes, man. A lot of times, like when I was working heavy on Michelin, when we had a lot of deliverables for the brand, it would be coming up with all these different creative pillars of ways to how the brand incorporates into travel or how they incorporate with food, how they incorporate it in their heritage, coming up with creative ways to display this stuff right here, like getting things ready for a client meeting.

Basically, the day starts, we get briefed on what’s due, what everyone’s working on. And that’s pretty much it, thankfully for me. I’m in a space where I can just do what I need to do and no one really bothers me, I guess because maybe they know that’s how I operate best. That’s pretty much my work day.

As far as doing side projects or painting… Well, the paintings more so of recent things. I take breaks in between that. But sometimes I might work on little side project here, do little brush strokes on the painting for maybe about, I don’t know, 15 minutes, come back to it a couple hours later. My day is basically just me being creative. I’m thankful to say that. I enjoy what I do, and I have fun doing what I do. And it’s how I envision my life. No stress. I’m not working in the cold. I’ve been there before. I’ve done a lot of things, man.

I’m thankful that right now every day when I wake up, no two days are the same, but every day when I wake up, man, I can honestly say I’m not stressed about what I’m doing. And I’m doing what I love to do. It may not be the exact project that I want to work on, but at least I can say that my day consists of me being creative. And I’m getting paid to be creative. You know?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. No, that’s a good thing. I think especially agencies tend to get the reputation… I don’t know if they get the best reputation, I’ll put it that way, sometimes because you’re often working from client to client so you don’t have a lot of time to spend with maybe a particular brand to do something before you’re put on another project or put on another campaign or something like that. But it sounds like with what you’re doing, especially because you mentioned earlier you’ve been on the Michelin brand for so long, you’ve had time to grow into it in a way.

TTK:
It’s cool because I’ve had access to all of their assets and their personal login site where it’s so many assets, so much history. And that’s a cool thing about working on a brand like this right here that’s been around for over 100 years; there’s so much that you can pull from. A.And not to sound cliche, but a lot of times with working on this brand, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Everything is there already, you just got to figure out how to repurpose it. I’ve worked on… What’s the faucet brand MOEN. I worked on MOEN briefly. I worked on Yellowstone National Park.

I don’t know if I said it before, but Mike’s Hard Lemonade. That was cool working on that. This was pre-pandemic. We had a cool, very, very dope idea and campaign for Mike’s Hard Lemonade, but didn’t see the light of day because the pandemic happened at the time. The pandemic happened and everything shut down so we had to redirect the direction of where we wanted to go. And it was a much, much, much more scaled down version of… It wasn’t even scaled down, it was a whole new direction. Everything that we created, the hours that we spent, no one really will ever see this out into the world. But that’s the nature of the game, you take it how it comes, man.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now, you’ve worked before as a graphic designer, and we’ll talk about that a little later, and now you’re an art director at an agency. How would you describe the difference in those two?

TTK:
I don’t think there is any difference, man. Personally, I don’t. Maybe on paper where it says what the roles are, what the responsibilities are. On paper, it probably says certain things, but from my personal experience, I was doing the same thing coming up with ideas, coming up with ideas, coming up with ways to execute this thing, thinking of ways where we can… places where we can place these ideas so people can see it and engage with it.

It’s similar to what I’m doing now. I worked in music, working at Mass Appeal. I worked on the record label side of the house. And sometimes I would work on the agency side as well. But it is the same thing, just one’s more culturally hip hop based, the other one’s more very American and reaches a broader audience and selling products.

But selling music is like selling products as well, man, so it’s the same thing. The way I see it, I think the only thing probably change is the company that you’re getting to check from. I always joke and I say this to people, and not to sound like a Debbie Downer or nothing like that, but you pick your poison. What are you able to accept and what are you able to deal with and whatever role or company or agency that you’re with? But I don’t find it any different at all.

Maurice Cherry:
Is that the most challenging part about what you do? What you just mentioned?

TTK:
I think the most challenging part about this right here, that working in design and advertising, from my experience, it’s a revolving door. I don’t know too many people that’s been in one spot for over five years. I just don’t.

Early on, it was shocking. Not necessarily shocking to me, but it affected me emotionally. Damn, am I good enough? Or what could I have done differently? But then I understand it’s never personal, it’s business. And sometime business is up, sometime business is down. And when business is down, you might get cut. And that’s just the nature of the game.

And I think that’s where it just comes in. In trying to figure out too what do you love? You know, could work on one thing where the money is great, but you don’t really care about the work that you’re putting out. You’re not really in love with the brand or product or whatever that you’re working on. And then it could be something where you’re all about the mission that this one company or agency has, or you love what you’re working on but the pay isn’t the greatest. It’s all about trying, well, for me, trying to find that middle, that medium where, okay, I can get the best of both worlds.

But in all, back to what I was saying it’s a revolving door from, just from my experience, and a lot of my peers, not too many people I know stick around for a long time. And I don’t know whether it is because us being creative, you want to do your own thing eventually, or… I don’t know. I don’t want to make it a race thing or whatever, but it goes back to how do we see ourself? Well, for me personally, how do I see myself in a place where there aren’t many of people that look like me, you know?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

TTK:
And cannot coexist and naturally be myself in these spaces, you know?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Do you think it might just be burnout or something?

TTK:
Yeah. It’s a few things. I feel like with junior people, when they don’t have the support or support from senior leadership, you got somebody might be fresh out of college and they got all these dreams of, “I’m going to do this. I’m going to do this award-winning stuff.” Of course everybody’s got those thoughts in their heads or whatever. But I feel like you take someone junior and you put them in a position and you don’t give them the support that they need to grow, it can be discouraging. And people will, “Yo, this ain’t for me right here.” You know?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

TTK:
Or resourcing or whoever, they may not know a person’s… What’s their skillset? What’s that person’s strength? And the only thing they see is the person’s name and a title. And then, “Okay, well let’s put this person on this right here.” They might not even be the person that’s equipped for that. It’s like playing basketball; you can’t have the center playing the point guard position. You know what I’m saying? It don’t work out like that. You know what I’m saying?

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

TTK:
Well, you could, but you’re not going to get the optimum results.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s switch gears here a little bit and talk more about you, talk about your personal life. Tell me about where you grew up.

TTK:
I’m originally from Jacksonville, Florida. That’s where I’m originally from. That’s where my early years were based out of. I moved away years ago, years ago. But I went to high school down there. And I was thankful to be in an art program going to an art school, Douglas Henderson School of the Arts, which at the time when I was going there, it was prestigious art school and everything.

But my father, when he went there, my father went there back in the ’50s or the ’60s or something like that. And at the time when he was going to that school, I think it was a school for Black students. You know what I’m saying? This is when segregation and all that stuff was going on. He went to that school decades before me. I just think it’s ironic that I ended up going there, but it’s a whole little different school at the time when I went.

But yeah, I got introduced to the arts there. Well, what’s the old TV show from back in the day? Fame?

Maurice Cherry:
Fame. Yeah.

TTK:
It was like that, you know what I’m saying? Yeah, so it was a school like that and everything, man. Shortly after I graduated high school, a couple years went by, I tried to dabble in fashion for a little bit, but I couldn’t so I realized there wasn’t for me. I could design the stuff, but I couldn’t sew. And then going to college for… I went to Artist Studio Ft. Lauderdale only for one semester. I’m like, “Yeah, I can’t sew then.” But it was cool though, it was cool though. I’m like, it’s more than just drawing, illustrations and everything.

Some years went by in between me having a child. After graduating high school, I just joined a Navy. I joined a navy cold turkey one day. I went to a recruiter and I was like, “Yo, I need a job.” You know what I’m saying? I need a job I can’t get fired from, maybe because the jobs I had at the time, life put me on a path where I wasn’t doing what I really wanted to do creatively, creatively, I was just working jobs. I’m like, “Damn, this ain’t it right here, this really ain’t it.” I’m 21, 22 trying to figure life out. I went to a recruiter one day and I was like, “Yo, let me just hear what you got to say.” I didn’t even think I was going to sign up, but they hustled me like a car salesman, like a used car salesman.

Maurice Cherry:
Of course.

TTK:
Yeah, yeah, yeah. And at the time, they told me, “Yeah, you can get a sign on bonus for $7,000.” At the time when they told me that, $7,000, I had never seen $7,000 before. When they said $7,000, I’m seeing a million dollars in my head. You know what I’m saying? I was like, “Yo, yeah, let’s do it.” I joined the Navy in September 2001.

Yo, it’s crazy. I went to a recruiter station on a Friday. September 11th happened that Tuesday. Two weeks later, I was in bootcamp. You know what I’m saying?

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

TTK:
I was in bootcamp. Yeah. And I was in the Navy for 10 years. I’m a ex sub mariner. I was on submarines. There’s not many brothers on subs. At the time when I was on in the early 2000 and everything. And with me being in the Navy and being mostly in the north or whatever, the bulk of the time I was in the Navy, I started planting my roots in New York and in Brooklyn. A lot of people think I’m originally from Brooklyn, you know what I’m saying? That’s my second home. But I’m originally from Florida, from Jacksonville, man. I got roots down there as well. We’re all over the place right now. What else you want to know?

Maurice Cherry:
I’m just curious about this 10 years in the Navy. First of all, my dad’s a Navy man, so I understand what that’s about. But the whole time that you’re doing this, were you also still pursuing creative things during this time?

TTK:
Yes. Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Or how did that happen?

TTK:
No. Mind you, at the time in my early 20s, man. I look back on it now, I was a kid doing adult shit, you know what I’m saying?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

TTK:
I was trying to figure it out, man. And I was a parent as well, you know what I’m saying? I was a parent trying to take care of a kid. I’m like, I don’t really know myself just yet. You know what I’m saying?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

TTK:
But I just know I need to provide some kind of way. And so the first couple of years of just me being in, it was just me just trying to figure out this thing, figure out this system, figure out what I got to do to not get in trouble and still keep some funds in my bank account and still perform and learn all the things that I need to learn, man.

Like I said, I was on submarines, and that’s… Aw man, that’s a whole nother world within itself and so much stuff that we have to know, from physics to… It’s so many things that I had to remember, being around top secret stuff, having a security clearance, working around nuclear weapons and things like that, man. It was a lot.

I was always doing drawing or whatever the whole time during those early years, drawing little tattoos for people and stuff like that. But it wasn’t until probably around 2004, the end of 2004, the sub that I was on, we left Norfolk, Virginia and we went up to Kittery, Maine. Kittery, Maine is on the border of New Hampshire, so Maine/New Hampshire. It wasn’t until I got up there that I wasn’t going out to sea, I’m just going to work for a couple of hours every day then going back to my barracks room. That gave me time to really do my art the way I really wanted to do it because I hadn’t done any art for so many years outside of high school. And by this time, I’m out of school for maybe seven years now, so I wasn’t really doing anything besides maybe sketching in my sketchbook. Seven years of not producing any work, it was really eating away at me. You know what I’m saying? I’m like, I know it’s more to life than this right here, there’s more to life right here. People tell you like, “Oh man, you do your 20 years, you’re going to get your retirement or whatever, and you still get out. You be young, you still be able to pursue other things.” But I knew deep down inside that that wasn’t me, that wasn’t for me.

But going back to, like I was saying, in 2004, a good friend of mine, he was from the Bronx. And around this time in early 2000, he was like, “Yo.” He knew that I like sneakers a lot. This is the early days before everybody… The sneaker app and all this other stuff like that. I was always one of those guys that had mad sneakers, you know what I’m saying? Before everybody knew me for my clothes and my sneakers and stuff, and he knew I could draw as well. A good friend of mine at the time, he was like… I guess he had went home for the weekend. He was from the Bronx. He went home for the weekend one time or something. He comes back, he was like, “I see these dudes customizing sneakers and everything. Why don’t you start doing that?” And I was like, “Yeah.” I’ve always thought about it, but I never really tried to pursue it.

And I started searching on lunch, trying to figure out what paints and stuff I need to get. And once I figured out the right paints and everything, I think that’s when it really, really took off, where it really began for me as being an artist and putting my work out into the world through sneakers. This is the early days too. This is around ’05, ’06, going a little forward, the MySpace days, me just putting my stuff upon MySpace at the time and people checking for it. And it was like I was running a business out of my barracks room up in Maine. Nobody knew who I was, you know what I’m saying? No one knew who I was, they just knew the name TTK. That was my tag that I went by. My real name is Michael Harris. It’s a very generic name. There’s always another Michael Harris everywhere I go, you know?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

TTK:
I was like, I got to do something that makes me stand down or whatever, so TTK. I was always into graffiti and stuff, man, so TTK was the initials that I like to tag. And I just like just it looks, the two T’s together and the K from a design point, I just like the way it looks.

Yeah, so everybody just knew, “Yo, this guy named TTK is customizing sneakers.” And this is the early days so there wasn’t a lot of people doing it how it is now almost 20 years later. That really opened my eyes. While I’m doing what I love to do and I’m getting paid to do what I want to do, this is what I want to do right here. I don’t know whether it’s going to be customizing sneakers or working for Nike or whoever one day, but I’m being creative and I’m getting paid to be creative. This Navy thing, this right here is going to be my way out.

Maurice Cherry:
I was just asking were you still doing design and stuff or interested in design this whole time while you were in the Navy? And it sounds like you turned it into a profitable side business almost.

TTK:
Yeah. That led to me doing a bunch of other things. I went to high school for visual arts, traditional means in the ’90s, man, like painting and things like that. I knew I wanted to paint, but I knew I couldn’t carry a big canvas with me everywhere. And I know not everybody has an appreciation for, I don’t know, fine art or the graphic design. Even though graphic design is isn’t everything that we see and interact with, most people don’t even realize that. But I was like, “Wow, how can I get my skillset, show what I want to bring out to the world and how people buy it?” Put them on sneakers. You know what I’m saying?

The first year of me customizing sneakers, I wind up being featured in a book, I can’t even think of the name of it right now, but it was a book about custom sneakers or sneaker art from the early 2000s. But I was featured in this book. I wind up winning some contest with Finish Line at the time. I wind up having my two solo art shows at the time, and I wind up doing some freelance work for Timberland, the brand. And this is within the first year of me doing this. And I was like, “Wow, you know what? I got something right here. I’m onto something.” You know?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

TTK:
And what I was doing then, it’s very… I don’t know, I call it maybe it’s… It wasn’t on the skill level that I’m at right now, but I saw, you know what? I got something right here. You know what I’m saying? I got something right here.

And then shortly after that, I wind up meeting a good friend of mine who’s like a brother to me, Justice Hall. He was a designer at Timberland at the time. Because Timberland’s headquarters is in New Hampshire. I forget the town that it’s in in New Hampshire. But Justice saw my work on display at this skateboard shop. He saw my custom sneakers. And when Justice saw my work, he reached out to me. And he didn’t know who I was, he just saw the name TTK and he saw the work that I was doing. And it was like, “Yo, this person’s dope. I need to find them.” And he found me and we connected.

And he calls me up. It’s funny, I tell this story all the time. But when Justice, he got my information from the guys at the skateboard shop in New Hampshire. And they didn’t tell him who I was or anything like that. He was like, “Yo, this is this guy, this is TTK. Call him up, man. He’s dope.” When Justice calls me up and I answer the phone, I said, “Hello,” the first thing he says is, “Oh shit, you’re Black.” And I’m like, “Yeah.” And I was like, “What you thought I was?’ I was thinking the same thing too because when they said designer, I didn’t think it was going to be another brother, someone the same age as me. You know what I’m saying? That’s into the same things that I’m into. It was like we were shocked to meet each other. And it was crazy because up there in New Hampshire/Maine, there aren’t many brothers up there. You know what I’m saying?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

TTK:
At the time, whenever it was like you see another Black person up there, you were like, “Oh man, you’re from up here? Oh man, where you from?” Or whatever. “Man, we should hang out or whatever.” You know what I’m saying?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

TTK:
Because I really didn’t see many of us up there or whatever, man. But anyway, so whenever me and Justice connected, it was like he put me onto so much. And I talk about it all the time. He showed me that everything that I wanted to be, I could be it. This guy’s the same age as me, similar interest and everything, come from similar backgrounds, and this guy is doing all the things that I wanted to do in life at that point. He just encouraged me.And at the time, I didn’t own computer, I didn’t own anything. The only thing I knew how to do was to paint and just hustle and just do art. And he told me, he was like, “Bro, you’re a brand and you don’t even realize it. You created a brand in a barracks room and people are buying your work from all over the world.” He’s like, “You’re special, man.” He was like, “Yo, you really need to get out the Navy, man.” He’s like, “Yo, I can get you a job right now.” I’m like, “Well, I’m under contract.” He’s like, “You can’t break it?” I’m like, “Nah, I can’t break this contract. I get out in…: At the time, I think I had five more years left because I had just reenlisted.

Yeah man, I owe a lot to Justice, man. He credits me for giving him a breath of fresh air and inspiring him as well, but I thank him all the time, man, because if I never met him, I think I would’ve got to where I needed to go eventually, but it would’ve probably taken a little bit longer. Like I said, at the time when I met Just, this is 2006. He’s showing me his portfolio. I didn’t even have a portfolio at the time, I just had some photos of my work that I took. And I took him to the pharmacy at the time to get the photos developed [inaudible 00:37:03] or whatever, man. Like I said, I didn’t know, I was very, very green. You know what I’m saying? I didn’t know. I knew I got a good product and I just know how to hustle. That’s the only thing I knew.

He’s showing me all his credentials and everything, he’s telling me about, “Yo, I work with Kanye.” This is during the Touch the Sky era and all of that, man. He’s showing me this. He’s showing the brands he’s worked on. I’m like, “I did this cool sneaker for my man right here.” You know what I’m saying? He was like, “Don’t even worry about the credentials. It’s going to come, man. You trust me. You got it.” Once I met him and I saw what I wanted to be, it was no turning back after that. I was like, “Yo, I’m getting out. I’m getting out. I’m going to figure it out one way or another.”

Fast forward, I don’t know, I can’t do the math right now, 15 so years later I’m here talking to you, bro. There’s a lot of stuff in between that I’m jumping over, but, yeah, I’m here, I’m here. And I think I’ve done a lot of great stuff. My name is in places where I only dreamed about, or I’ve worked on things where when I was a teenager only dreamed about working on or thought it would be cool if I got to work on this or connect with this person and work on this project. And I did it. I’m still doing it. Sorry for the long rant, yo.

Maurice Cherry:
No, no, it’s all good. Let’s hop forward to 2011. That’s when you got out of the Navy. You had been in the Navy for roughly about a decade. And then right afterwards, you enrolled in City Tech, which is a university in New York city. Talk to me about that time.

TTK:
It was interesting, man, because I was so hyped to get out and just be a civilian again because… In fact, most people didn’t even know that I was in the Navy because I was doing so much my artwork, putting my work out there. By this time, I’m not really even doing sneakers anymore, I’m painting, and people know me for my paintings. It was an interesting time. But I knew just from my first time going to college in the late ’90s, I’m like, “All right, things are getting… It’s digital now.” I just can’t see myself going to school to pay to be a fine artist. Nothing against people who do. You know what I’m saying? But for me, like I said, I had bills. You know what I’m saying? I still had some kids to support. I’m like, “All right, how can I be creative and get paid to be creative?”I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I knew the process of applying for art colleges just from the past, but I’m like, damn, I don’t really have any work that represents what people are looking for in this current state of the world, 2011. And I was like, “Man, I know I got the skills, but I don’t necessarily have the work to show it.”

A good friend of mine, he told me, he was like, “Yo, why don’t you go to City Tech?” I’m like, “What’s City Tech?” He was like, “You can get the same education there at a fraction of a price.” He was like, “A lot of the teachers that teach there, they teach you the big name schools as well.” And he’s like, “Yo, dude, you don’t even got to do a portfolio, you just go and you show up. Just apply.”

I went to City Tech, I applied, I got in. And within maybe, I don’t know, two weeks of me getting out the Navy, it’s my first day of class. And the first year or so I’m trying to figure out, all right, what do I want to do? I didn’t feel like I was being challenged. And then maybe almost around the first year of me being there, I was in a class with this professor named Douglas Davis. Whether he knows it or not, he’s the person that really inspired me to stay at City Tech because I met him in the first day of his class. I saw he was speaking in a language that I understood. And I just liked the way he just came across in the room. You know what I’m saying?I’ll never forget this. This is over 10 years ago, but the first day of class, he comes in, he looks… He’s not much older than me so he looks young, he looks like he could possibly be a student at the time. He comes in and he says, “My name is Douglas Davis.” He’s like, “What I do, I get money.” He said, “You listen to me, you’ll get money too.” And he says something, I think he says, “I’m surprised. I remember it was yesterday.” He said, “My wife, she don’t got to work. I bring home enough money to support my family doing what I love.” He’s like, “You listen to me, I’m going to give you everything that I got. But when I ask for it back, you better give me 100%. I’m going to run this class like it’s an agency. If this ain’t going to be for you, I’m not going to judge you. I’ll help you get to where you need to be. But if you here for the ride, let’s work.”

And I was like, oh, man. I never heard no professor in the classroom talk like that. And I was like, wow. His whole presence. He’s saying what I want to hear. Yeah, man, and that really put me on the path of going the route of learning about advertising and the stuff that I’ve been seeing for my whole entire life and just wondering why, wow, I like the way this ad looks, but I can’t explain why I like it. Being around him and other professors as well, but that really… I guess I feel like it cemented me in at City Tech where it’s like, all right, I’m not going anywhere because I like studying under this guy right here, I like studying under this other professor right here. They’re talking in the language that I want to, you know what I’m saying? That I want to hear. And they’re telling me the things that I need to know to apply to what I do already. Yeah man, that’s how I ended up at City Tech.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, shout out to Douglas Davidson who we’ve had on the show twice now. That’s the first time I’ve heard his classroom style, though. But as you described it, I was like, “Yeah, that’s 100% him.”

TTK:
Yo man, I tell you, he’s a great guy. No joke, man, when I was in his class, I felt like I was on… What’s the one show? Making the Band or something like that, you know what I’m saying? Because I didn’t want to mess up, you know what I’m saying? I didn’t want to mess up.

The nights leading up to the days when we had to present, he was like, “Yo, when the door is shut, the door is shut. If you not in, you not in.” I would make sure I’m on the train early, that way I’m not late to class that day and everything. I have everything set up, staying up all night just trying to get it right and just going up there. Because he didn’t hold any punches or whatever like that, he really ran it, his classroom… He didn’t run it like a classroom, he ran it like it was an agency, like it was a business. He’s a great guy, man. You can tell he really cared about what the people that… The students that he was working with. And he was there. He’s a real special person, man, he’s a real special person. And he’s someone that I’m very happy that I was blessed to meet in my journey along the way.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Speaking of that journey, you documented a lot of this in a recent project that you released called Just Like Me. You directed it, you put the whole thing together. Douglas was in it as well. Talk to me about the documentary. First of all, why did you decide to do a documentary?

TTK:
With the documentary, that came about… Well, actually it’s a idea I’ve had in my head for many, many years but I just never really talked about it. I didn’t really talk about it to anyone; maybe one person. But it’s just something that I had in the back of my head. I was like, if the opportunity presents itself, it’d be cool to make this thing. It’s just something like a passion project.

And the opportunity came sooner than what I thought it was going to come in life. But around the time… In 2020, summer 2020, everybody’s in the house, the pandemic, COVID, all that stuff, and then the incident with George Floyd, all these agencies and companies having, I don’t know, a coming of age moment. We didn’t know. You know what I’m saying? What can we do to support Black people? Or whatever like that, man.

That was a moment in time where someone said to me… A real good friend of mine, a mentor as well, he said to me, “This is a moment in time where you need to use this opportunity to make what you want to make and do what you want to do, because I know you can do it.” And when he said it to me, I’m just thinking from a point of having anxiety and just fear of what’s the worst thing that could happen? This could happen, this could happen. And I just brushed it off.

And he came to me, he was like, “Yo, look man, make what you want to make.” I’m paraphrasing right now, but he said to me, “Your story is a very, very special story. How does someone go from working on nuclear submarines to knowing all the people that you know and working on the stuff that you worked on? You really have an interesting story.” And he said, “I’m not telling you what you should make or whatever, but you got something.” And I was like, all right. He was like, “I’ll help you get to a certain point with putting the pieces together, but after that, you running the show.” Because I’m like, “I’ve never directed a documentary. I’ve been around when documentaries are being made from my time working at Mass Appeal and I saw how much work goes into making a documentary. I know it’s a lot of work. He was like, “Don’t worry, you have what it takes.”

And I was like, “All right, I’ll put some days aside.” I wrote up three paragraphs, three, four paragraphs. I talk about basically the moment, this particular moment in time about how people were talking about the state of Black people in America with all the whole George Floyd’s things and the police incidents. It’s nothing new, it always happens, but the spotlight was on it in that moment in time.

Like I said, plus these companies are talking about, “Yo, we need to bring in more diversity,” and all this other things like that. I thought about why is it that there aren’t many Black people and there aren’t many brown people in these spaces of creativity?| And I’m like, “Why is that?” And I start thinking about my own personal experiences, about how we don’t really hear about them. And it’s like, I know a lot of Black creators, but the average person don’t know who these people are. But they’ve done a lot of great things and they’ve contributed to a lot of things that are historic now. And I’m sure you know, with you doing your podcast, you know we create a lot of great things that everyone knows and a lot of people benefit from, but a lot of times people don’t know who the wizard was behind the curtain that created this thing.

And I thought about too about why there aren’t many of us in these spaces. And I thought about a lot of us don’t know that this path exists until maybe much later in life when people got bills, they got families to support and they give up on being a creative. They give up on it because there’s always this narrative of being a starving artist. And that’s not true.

Going back to something Douglas David said to me once, and I always quote it, he says, “This thing called design is like the Matrix.” You know what I’m saying? “It affects all of us. We all work, operate in the Matrix and everything, but you’ll never know the Matrix exists until someone points it out to you.” And that’s like how design is. Everything is designed, everything, but most people don’t think about the whole process of that and how it interacts with us. And I thought about, wow, more of us, more Black people knew about this at an early age and were aware that you can make a living off of this, you’re not going to be a starving artist, I felt like you could see more of us in these spaces. And in order for me to try to educate more people on it, I wanted to show people who were influential to me. There are many people who are influential to me, but I wanted to show a few Black men and women who I’m blessed to cross paths with them in my journey and what they meant to me.

And not only just show who these people are, show their work because a lot of times I feel like when it comes to designers and things like that, or just anything… I’m losing my train of thought. But I feel like we will show a person and we’ll have the title, but a lot of times you don’t know the work that they’ve done.

I think about if I was 16 or 17 years old, I might not know what a creative director is. I might not even understand what a ad agency is, but I know this Nike shoe right here, I know this commercial right here, and now I can connect the dots like, oh man, this is the person to help put this thing together right here. You know what I’m saying? Show the work. That’s what I wanted to do with the project. I wanted to show some people who that were like me and the work that they’ve done and the work that have had impact on so many other people. And I pretty much wanted to make something that I would’ve loved to have seen when I was younger.

Sorry for the long spiel, but I wrote up a short paragraph explaining that, about how representation is very important, representation is very important. You need to see examples of a roadmap of people that have done things before you that can hopefully inspire you to want to go down that path.

And I also told a story in the pitch about when me and Justice met each other, when mt man Justice hall, when me and him met each other in the early 2000s, why were we surprised that we were both Black? We were surprised because we don’t see many of us so it’s a shock whenever we do find it, you know?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

TTK:
At that time. And I pitched it and I got the green light, you know what I’m saying? I got the green light. And I reached out to everyone from St. Adams to Douglas Davis to Julian Alexander, Aleesha Smalls Worthington, Dana Gibbons, John Petty III, and Justice, Justice Hall. I reached out to them, and they were all on board.

I connected with my man… He’s a creative director, he’s a director as well, my man, Ben Hype. And me and him came up with the whole creative look and vision, and we put it together. I just knew working on this right here, I knew that I wanted to make something visually appealing, visually, visually dope. The message is dope, but I want the visuals to be engaging as well where when someone’s watching it, they’re not going to want to look away because it’s just a beautiful piece. And I thought about what’s the series on Netflix? Abstract.

Maurice Cherry:
Abstract. Yeah.

TTK:
You know what I’m saying? Out of what two seasons, they may feature one Black woman or person of color.

Maurice Cherry:
They had Ralph Gilles in the first season, and then in the second season they had… Oh God, they had Ian Spalter, who’s head of Instagram in Japan, and they had Ruth E. Carter, the costumer. They had her.

TTK:
Right, right. This is just my opinion. I feel like that just an afterthought, like, “Oh, we got to check a box,” or whatever. You know what I’m saying? And Abstract is a great series, but if you go off of that, you would think Black designers don’t exist. You know what I’m saying? Don’t get me wrong, we’re rare, but it’s not as rare as how that series made it seem. You know what I’m saying? There’s a lot of us. But that’s what I wanted to show. Yo, we’re walking in plain sight every day, and we put a lot of things out into the world that you seen but you probably didn’t know that, hey, I’m the person behind this right here because…

And not even to sound the cliche or stereotypical, but whenever you… A lot of times when they think of basketball courts or sports, you think of a Black man. You know what I’m saying? When you think of entertainment or whatever, you think of Black people. But what about all these other roles and titles out there that we’ve contributed a part of, been a part? And I wanted to show this right here. But not show it in a preachy way or like I’m giving a lecture, I wanted to do it in a way that’s conversational.

And I credit my man, Brandon Coleman. He’s a designer. He’s another one of the first Black designers I ever met when I met Justice at the time. But he gave me the inspiration to go that route because like I said, I never done this before, I never directed anything before. I know what I wanted to see and I know that I want it to look good, I want it to be visually appealing. But he asked me a question early on. He said, “How do you want tell your message? Do you want to have a lecture or do you want it to be conversational?” And I was like, “I don’t know, a lecture?” He was like, “No, you want to have a conversation. Put yourself back into the 16, 17 year old version of you, TTK. Did you like when people were preaching to you? Or did you like when when people were having a conversation back and forth?” He said, “I don’t know how you’re going to do it, but think about that whenever you’re trying to put this story together.

And that helped me with the whole creative direction. Whenever Ben Hype was filming it, I told him, I was like, “Yo, I want you to show the people, show their hands, show them moving around, show closeups of them.” I want you to feel like you’re in the room with these people. I want you to feel like you know them. And even though if you may not know them or whatever, but you konw their work. But I want the people, when they view this, I want them to feel like it’s an intimate moment, like you’re close with these people, like you’re talking to a cousin or someone who’s a part of your family or a friend that you’ve known for years. And I think I was able to accomplish that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, the documentary is really great. And we’ll put a link to it in the show notes so people can check it out. We’ve had Julian on the show too. Julian is episode 250, I believe.

TTK:
Oh, wow.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. But no, it’s a great documentary. I hope everybody will get a chance to check it out. When you had the idea and you put it all together, like what we talked about I think before we started recording about you never know how it’s going to be received. What has the reception been like since the documentary’s aired?

TTK:
It’s been good, it’s been very, very good. It’s slow, you know what I’m saying? It’s slow or whatever. But so far I haven’t had anyone say anything, “I wish you could have done it this way or whatever, this and that.” The response is always the same, “This is amazing. I never seen anything quite like this before. And it’s very real, and I feel inspired.” I did it. That’s what I wanted to do.
Like I said, when I initially pitched the idea, I said I wanted to make something that’s meant to educate and inspire. Whatever comes after that is just a extra benefit. I wanted to make something that lives beyond this particular moment in time where if you watch it a year from now, two years, five years, whatever, it’s the educational piece. And I want people to be inspired by… I want to hopefully inspire the next generation of Black creatives out there to show, hey, these are people that are alive right now and they’re doing it versus I’m hearing about somebody who did some great things back in 1970. I’m like, wow, I’m hearing about it from someone else’s perspective versus hearing it from the person when they’re alive right now.

I’m going off on a rant right now or whatever, but I think about how Cey adams that’s featured in a documentary, why isn’t he taught about in schools? You pay this money to go to school for design and everything, you learn about all these other designers, and they’re great people and they’ve done great things, man, I love the work, but Cey is on that level of, in my opinion, the Paula Schers and all those other people out there because he’s done so much stuff that people know. They know his work but unless you’re into this thing called design, you probably wouldn’t even know who Cey is. And I feel like he’s someone who should’ve probably been on the Abstract series. This man was around in the ’70s, New York, going from graffiti on trains to his work in the ’80s to the ’90s, to being in, what, the National African American Smithsonian Museum. Come on. You know what I’m saying?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

TTK:
And I’m skipping over 40 years worth of work right here because it is too much to talk about that he’s accomplished in his lifetime. Why isn’t he taught about in school? And it goes back to what I was saying, when you think of design, they don’t think of us. And I was like, “Yo, I’m not making this to ask for a seat at the table, I want to make this to just educate us and show us, tell these stories from a real perspective versus someone years later to tell the narrative a certain way.” I’m like, “I want you to hear from the people while they’re alive, people who are heroes to me, people who, whether they know it or not…” I took a little bit from all of them to get to this point right here. I want other people to be inspired as well to accomplish things that I didn’t accomplish or we didn’t accomplish, but a lot sooner.

Maurice Cherry:
I feel you 100%. I can liken it to what I do with Revision Path, with having folks on here. I’ve been able to have people on here at different parts of their career journey. There’s folks who I’ve had on maybe in 2014 that now I can bring back seven or eight years later and be like, “Let’s talk about how things have changed,” or something. You know?

TTK:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I totally get that. Actually, I have a funny story. Well, I don’t know if it’s funny, but I have a story about Abstract. This was in 2019 I think was when the second season was about to come out. And I had watched the first season. Well, I’m not going to lie, I watched Ralph Gilles’ episode on Abstract for the first season and that’s it because I was like, I don’t want to hear about everybody else. I was like, I’m going to watch his.

And the place I was working at the startup at the time, and we were looking for design firms for a project that we were going to do, this lifestyle vertical. And so one of the agencies we reached out to was Godfrey Dadich, which is in San Francisco. The Abstract series came from Godfrey being Scott Dadich, who was the former co-founder of Wired. And I didn’t talk to him directly, but I talked to someone at the agency because I was like,” Yeah, my name is Maurice Cherry,” blah blah, blah, yada, yada, yada. And they were like, “Oh, we know who you are.” I was like, “Oh, okay.” I wasn’t coming to them in a personal capacity, it was a professional capacity. And not even for the show, it was for my employer at the time.

They were talking to me about the second season of Abstract. They’re like, “Oh yeah, the second season of Abstract is coming out.” And they were like, “I bet you’re really going to be excited about this because we got two Black designers for this season.” And I’m like, “Why would I be excited about that?” Yay, you found two, but I’ve found hundreds. I mean, I don’t know if they were saying it to be solidarity or something. I don’t know, I just thought that was weird that they brought it up in that way. We ended up not going with them, not for that reason. But I was like, “Okay, I’ll check it out when it airs on Netflix.” They’re like, “Yeah, we managed to find two great Black designers. I’m like-

TTK:
We managed to find.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, we managed to find, which is funny that they said that, because I was like, one, I’ve known Ian. Actually, I did an event here in 2017 back when he was… Well, he still works for Meta and everything with Instagram. But I met him at a live event here in Atlanta for Revision Path. And then Ruth, I don’t know Ruth, but I’ve had Ruth’s goddaughter on the show, Courtney Pinter. She lives in Switzerland. I think at the time she was doing flavor design for this company called Givaudan. Now she works for Fifa. But I’ve also had Hannah Beachler to give the Black Panther connection. I had her on the show for episode 300.

Your overarching point around the importance of being able to have people give their own history in their own words is super important because when I started Revision Path, and this was almost 10 years ago, that’s not to say that these stories weren’t out there, but they were really hard to find. And one of the few places that I found them was at AIGA when I started volunteering there with the diversity and inclusion task force. Because they would do these design journeys things and they would talk about folks. But even the way that they… The imagery and everything almost memorialized them. And keep in mind, these people are not dead, but they memorialize them in this way like they’ve gone on to greater things. And I’m like, these folks are still alive. What are you talking about?

TTK:
And they’re active, too. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, and active. Michelle Washington’s one of the first people that I had met through that. Her and I are working on the book together. Maurice Woods, who’s been on the show before, Maurice Woods of the Interact Project. I think he’s episode 12 or 13. Emery Douglas from the famous former Minister of Culture from the Black Panther Party, AIGA medalist, he’s been on the show. That was episode 15. But I didn’t find out about those folks until I volunteered and did that. And the way that even they just put it out there made it seem like these are not living people still doing work, it was almost like in memoriam. Nah.

TTK:
Yeah, that’s like when we was putting the pieces together for Lust Like Me, Douglas Davis, he connected me with Cheryl D. Miller. I don’t know if you know her.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, yeah.

TTK:
Yeah, oh man.

Maurice Cherry:
She’s episode 248.

TTK:
I felt like I was sitting with royalty talking to her. You know what I’m saying? Me and Davis had some questions to ask her. Man, once she started talking, man, the questions just went out the window. She was just dropping so many jewels and so much history and stuff, man. And it’s like, wow, how come I didn’t know this woman’s story? I’m happy that I spoke to her while she’s alive saying, you know what I’m saying? Hear it straight from… It’s from the source.

And she said something. Well, I don’t know if you remember, but at the very end of the documentary, Just Like Me, there’s a quote from her at the very, very end before the credits. When we were talking, she said something, “It’s sad that your generation has to experience the same thing I experienced 50 something years ago around the time when Dr. King died.” She was like, “Yo, all these companies had an awakening moment for about a year or two, maybe less than that.” And she was like, “And this is what’s happening right now because of George Floyd. These companies are having an awakening moment, but it’s going to fizzle out,” unfortunately, man.

When you say we can have all the different programs, DEI, all this, whatever, if you want to change it, change it. And she said something too. She was like, “Yo, if they try to tell you that we didn’t exist, that’s a lie.” She’s like, “I’m fortunate that I got all of this stuff because I was alive and I archived it.”

Like a magician, she pulls out a issue of Communication Arts from 1970. And I ordered it because of her. She was like, “This is one of the first…” This is what from 50 years ago, she just pulls this magazine out. She was like, “This right here on page whatever, 90 something or whatever, you see the Black designers right here? This is 1970 right here, so if they try to tell you that the only person that was out doing things is Milton Glazer and all those guys like that,” she was like, “nah, he was just the only person that was getting the work. That’s why you knew about him. But these other people were out here as well. And here, this is their work right here on.” And she said, “I got it in the archives right here, so nobody can ever try to pull the wool over my eye.”

And when I got that issue, I was able to back order it online, and I saw Ms. Dorothy Hayes, she was a Black designer as well. And I used to see she was a professor at City Tech. And I never knew that this woman was one of the first Black designers ever published. You know what I’m saying? I had no clue. I never had any of her classes, but I would just see her in passing. And I’m like, wow, there’s so much history that we have. And that’s why I feel like we got to tell our stories before… Tell them in real time and tell them authentic and speak to the people who needs to hear it because you already know how it goes, man, years later, the narrative, it gets switched up and it gets watered down. That’s not how it really was. Yeah, man, salute to you for what you do, man. I’m honored to be a part of this right here.

Maurice Cherry:
Thank you. And yeah, Cheryl is 100% right about that. When I ran across Cheryl, this was in 20… Now you got me here telling stories. This was 2014, and I had just started doing volunteer stuff with Revision… Not Revision Path, with AIGA, started doing volunteer stuff. And that’s when I learned about her thesis that she did in 1985 when she was at Pratt about Black designers and their viability in the industry and how that became this 1987 print article, and then there was this AIGA symposium.

And I’m doing all this research trying to find… Well, one, doing the research on what happened from that thesis, but then secondly, I wanted to put it into this presentation that I was putting together that I was going to present called Where Are the Black Designers? And I was like, is Cheryl still alive? And I remember asking folks at AIG, and they were like, “Well, we don’t know what happened to her.” I was like, “Let me find her.”And I found her. How did I find Cheryl? Oh, I know, I found her on Amazon. Wow. She had written a book about her mother. It wasn’t even about design, it was about her mother and the relationship she had with her mother and everything growing up. I just found her book, eventually did some more searching, found a website, reached out on a whim and was like, “I’m Maurice Cherry. I’m doing this research. I’m putting this stuff together. I’d love to talk to you about this kind of stuff.”

When I first encountered Cheryl, like I said back in 2014, she had put design behind her. She had had her design work and stuff. She had, I wouldn’t say retired, but she raised a family, became a theologian. She was living a totally different life. And then since then, of course, doing the presentation and then more people finding out about her work, now she’s Dr. Cheryl Miller and has given lectures across the country and doing all amazing stuff and is still here doing this stuff.

TTK:
That’s beautiful.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s beautiful, it’s beautiful. And so with Provision Path, I’m certainly fortunate to be able to share that story and to bring more awareness to people in general about what Black folks are doing in design everywhere. I just had this year my first Black designer in South America, which is something I wanted to have for a long time. I was like, I’m going to hit every continent. Couldn’t hit Antarctica, but I done talked to a Black designer on every continent so far start with 2022 this year with someone in South America. Yeah, I just want to keep going and keep telling more stories and getting more folks on here to tell their stories so folks know that we did exist.

To that end about the whole black squares thing, in 2020, that summer, I was looking up a bunch of old Ebony and Jet magazines and stuff. I think Google has the full archive, the full digital archive of Ebony Magazine, and so I was looking at issues from when Dr. King was assassinated. And when I tell you it was the exact same thing about companies posting black squares, exact same thing people were doing back then when King died, sometimes even the same verbiage. I’m like, this is wild, this is wild.

TTK:
And that’s one thing Ms. Miller was saying, she was like, “Just change it. You want to make change? Do it.” These people that have positions to do it, they don’t want to do it. This right here is a moment in time. Like she said, I’ve seen it before. I’m not even thrilled by it. You know what I’m saying?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

TTK:
I’m not thrilled by it at all. Just from her telling me… Hearing stories that I’ve never heard before. One day, thankfully, you’re doing what you’re doing so people will have,… We’re able to control our own narrative more so now. It was great, but at the same time, it’s bittersweet as well, you know?

Maurice Cherry:
Right, right.

TTK:
Because wow, man, I’m experiencing the same thing my elders experienced. How come I don’t know about Cheryl Miller, the woman who created the original BET logo? You know what I’m saying? Something that’s a part of my childhood. Why more people don’t know about who this woman is right here?

I’m honored that I was able to speak with her and basically just sit and listen to her talk, you know what I’m saying? Just sit and listen to her talk. And to have a quote from her in the documentary, I was like, man, that was a great book end on it. It was a real book end to the project. Like I said, when you watch it, in the very beginning it says how it started, and at the end it says how it’s going. And you see her quote at the end, someone who’s been around that predates all of us. She predates even Cey, you know what I mean?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

TTK:
Who has 40 something years of work. She predates him. To have someone like a OG basically, a vet, to have her to be a part of the project, man, I’m thankful. I’m thankful for everybody that was a part of helping me put this project together, Just Like Me. Man, I’m thankful for everybody, man. But yeah, Cheryl Miller’s amazing.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What do you want the next chapter of your legacy to be?

TTK:
I want to be known as a painter more. I want to be known as that. I want to do gallery shows, more of them. Because in the past where I was just doing art shows myself, and I was just happy if I was able to fill the room with friends and stuff like that and create a memory. I want to sell my work on a high level. I want to work with more brands, but I want to be working with brands because they want to work with me, not because I need a job. I want to bring my personal creativity and my expertise to the table. “Yo, we want to collab with you. We love your story.”

And I want another opportunity to make a project, another project like Just Like Me but bigger. I know when you watch the documentary, it looks like it was… Yeah, it’s put together very, very well, but oh man, we were building the car while we were driving it, making this thing right here. We were really making something out of nothing, but it looks like it’s on a high level so I would really like to have a chance to make something maybe… I don’t know if it’s the same type of topic or something completely different. I wouldn’t mind directing another project.

All in all, I just want to continue to be creative, continue to make a living, and live comfortable using my imagination, man. I don’t know where it’s going to go in the next five years, but I’m speaking into existence right now what I want. And truthfully, I feel like I can’t even fathom what’s going to be for me because it’s going to be something that I’m not even expecting. You know what I’m saying? Just this documentary, just like…

We didn’t mention it, but working on a project for Nas, you know what I’m saying? Well, I worked on a few project for Nas but having my name and the credits next to Nas and Kanye, you know what I’m saying? Wow, you can’t erase my name from this project. You know what I’m saying? I’ve worked on this right here. You know what I’m saying? If you would’ve told me at the time 15 years ago that, “Hey, you’re going to work on this project. You’re going to be the person who designs and put this thing together,” I’m like, “How is that going to happen?” I couldn’t… I’d imagine it, but I was like, wow, it seemed like a fairytale. But the have, I did it, and it’s a thing of the past now, I’m onto something new, wow, that’s great.

And if you would’ve told me three years ago that I would direct a documentary, I’m like, “How would I do that?” And that’s going back to what I was initially saying, five years from now, I just want to be doing something great and making a living and just putting the best stuff out into the world, man.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, just to wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more information about you and about your work online?

TTK:
Multiple ways. You can check out my site artbyttk.com. That’s A-R-T-B-Y-T-T-K.com. You can check my IG as well. It’s instagram.com/gottkgo. You can pretty much find me anywhere online with that, Go TTK Go.

And if you want to watch the documentary, Just Like Me, it’s on my site as well, man, but it’s also you can go to the actual micro site. The site is justlikeme-havas, that’s H-A-V-A-S, .com. jsutlikeme-havas.com. And you can read a little bit about the project, a short description of it and the creation of it. And you can watch the documentary. The documentary’s only… It’s just in the 30 minutes, but it’s strong. It’s a very powerful piece that I’m really proud of. I always say that project is my magnum opus project at the moment. Yeah, that’s where you can find me at.

Maurice Cherry:
TTK, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show, one, for sharing your story, which again, I hope people will check out the documentary so they can get a chance to see it for themselves, but also just your whole story about perseverance and pursuing your creative passion. I think that’s something that hopefully a lot of people can get inspired by. And I’m excited to see what you do next. If this documentary is any indication, I’m pretty sure what’s coming up next is going to be great. Thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

TTK:
No, brother, thank you for having me on here. Thank you. Also want to thank my partner, Chevon, because she was very vigilant about trying to get me on your show. Thank you to Chevon as well, man. And she’s @chevonmedia on IG and on Twitter. Yeah, thank you to Chevon. I’m honored to be a part of this. And maybe, I don’t know, five years from now, maybe you’ll reach out to me to revisit what’s going on in my life for whatever project I got going on, man.

Maurice Cherry:
There you go. All right.

TTK:
Yeah.

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Keith Henry Brown

I really enjoyed my conversation with this week’s guest — the one and only Keith Henry Brown. This prolific artist has a catalog that few can touch, with work appearing in The New York Times, Carnegie Hall, Blue Note Records, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, just to name a few. But Keith is so much more than just an artist, as you’ll come to find out!

We started off talking about his current and upcoming book projects, and he shared how he balances his day job with his other career passions while giving a peek into his creative process. From there, he spoke about growing up in Staten Island, getting a shot to draw for Marvel Comics, and getting handpicked by Wynton Marsalis to be creative director at Jazz at Lincoln Center. We even spent some time geeking out about jazz, and he shared one of his dream projects that he’d love to accomplish one day. Keith’s journey as a creative is all about not being afraid to do what you want to do — very inspiring!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
All right, so tell us who you are and what you do.

Keith Henry Brown:
Hi, I’m Keith Henry Brown. And I am an illustrator, graphic designer and a writer.

Maurice Cherry:
How has 2022 been going so far?

Keith Henry Brown:
It’s hot. I could tell you that. Other than that, I stay busy. In a lot of ways, I’m juggling two different careers, a career where I am a, I guess, full-time illustrator, but then I’m also a full-time art director, graphic designer for an advertising firm. I try to find some way to do both of those. I’m also a dad. Both my kids though are men now, but you got to deal with the craziness. Just juggling. But I like being busy. That’s what it’s all about. The minute I slow down, then I start feeling complacent.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I know exactly what you mean. You mentioned being an author. I wanted to congratulate you on your book that just came out a couple of months ago, Because of You, John Lewis. Is that right?

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah, I didn’t write that one. It’s Andrea Davis Pinkney wrote this beautiful script about a story about this young man named Tybre Faw, who was I think 11 or 12 at the time, who was obsessed with civil rights leaders, which I think is pretty extraordinary in itself, from Tennessee. And he asked his two grandmothers to drive him to meet John Lewis. He met John Lewis, came in the back door, All these reporters came up to him and said, “What are you doing here?”
“I want to say hello to my hero.” They opened the back door. Mr. Lewis came out. Never saw the kid before in his life. The kid started crying. He held up a sign telling him about what he thought about him, which was basically saying, “You’re a hero of mine.” Lewis gave him a big hug. He later invited him to march with him on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and then they became friends. When Mr. Lewis died, he did his eulogy at his funeral. They became friends for a short time while John Lewis was alive.
So the book is about their relationship, but the book is really about how leaders inspire each other, like Martin Luther King was John Lewis’ mentor; not at first, but his person that he fancied and that he was interested in and wanted to be like. And then he finally got to meet him and work with King, Mr. King, which you probably know. And then the same thing happened again with Tybre and John Lewis. So it’s sort of a succession of future and past civil rights leaders.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. Sounds like a great book. I’ll definitely put a link to it in the show notes so people can check it out.

Keith Henry Brown:
I give most of the credit to Andrea. They found me. Scholastic Books is the publisher. And I hadn’t done anything like it yet in my career. And it was just a huge honor that they thought that I could do it. And I was intimidated because of all these amazing people that were involved. And it was a learning experience. But the book is out, and people seem to like it. We’ve gotten starred reviews from Kirkus and Library Journal. And people seem to like it. I’m excited that people know the story now.

Maurice Cherry:
Is there anything you want to try and accomplish before the end of the year?

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah. I mean, I have a lot of projects coming up. So I’m a job-oriented person. So in my mind, my whole life is a series of tasks that I have to achieve. And I break it down from year, and I break it down to week, and I break it down to month. And I know what I got to do the rest of this year. And there’s a lot of stuff I got to do.
So it just was just announced that I’m doing a book about … there’s a story of Raymond Santana, who is one of the Central Park five, the exonerated Central Park Five, if I may add. You may know the story about these five African American young men who were wrongly accused of raping a white woman in Central Park in the ’80s. They all went to jail for this crime that they did not do. They were all eventually exonerated, but they all suffered horribly. In the early 2000s, they were awarded an apology and some money from it, but the story itself is scarring. Ava DuVernay did a really beautiful film about it that I think is still on TV, on-

Maurice Cherry:
On Netflix, yeah.

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah, on Netflix. And also, there’s a beautiful documentary by Ken Burns and his daughter about it. It’s an extraordinary and heartbreaking story about not just these specific young men’s lives, but also how Black men are treated. Matter of fact, I love the title of DuVernay’s film, which is When They See Us. If you’re a Black man living in America, you know exactly what that means. Anyway, I’m doing a graphic novel based on his memoirs. That is something I have to start working on this year.
I have a book that I’ve already written and finished, and it’s coming out next May, that I wrote. This is the first book that I’ve written, so that’s why … I’ve written a lot of articles about music and things like that, but this is my first book that I’ve ever written. And that one is about … it’s called My Dad’s a DJ. It’s about my relationship with my kids. And after I divorced my ex-wife … Well, she divorced me [inaudible 00:08:55] put it, we went on and had this relationship through music. And you know how the music that I like, old school, ’70s, Prince and Stevie Wonder and all that, and they liked the hip-hop cats … And then we used to have these sorts of agreements and disagreements about music. And then we finally connected. So the book is really about staying together with your kids after a divorce. And that book is coming out in May next year.
So all these things are going on. I also have another book that I’m working on. I could keep going on about it. So I guess to answer your question more succinctly, I have a lot of assignments. I’m going to try to get as much of them done as I can. And I’m going to try to get some rest too, because I don’t want to lose my mind.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. I mean, it sounds like you’re working on a lot of stuff. And I want to dig more into your illustration work, but let’s talk a little bit about your day job. We don’t have to spend a whole lot of time on it, but you mentioned working at an ad agency. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah, I’m pharmaceutical advertising designer. That means that I’m designing ads and product packaging for different brands. One of the last ones that I did that had a pretty big campaign that went on to get well known was called Taltz, which is a type of drug that helps with people who have eczema. And I first came to the agency to work on testosterone trucks, which was interesting, but then it was changed to work on this. So it’s been something I’ve been doing now for a number of years because, as I said, I have children. I was married at the time. And I was trying to make a living doing that, even though my main goal all my life was to be an illustrator and to be an artist and to draw. But then you have to do what you have to do to take care of your family.
So I had a friend who was into advertising and said, “You should try this. This would be something you should do.” And I had dabbled in advertising because I had worked on some small magazines, so I taught myself things like Quark and Photoshop and a lot of Adobe Creative Suite. So I knew how to do those things. And I just figured it just takes a little creativity to lay out an advertising. And then I started out small, working for a small African American agency, when I was living in Louisville, Kentucky for a few years. And when I was there, I got a job working at Churchill Downs. And then after Churchill Downs, I decided that I was an art director and I was a graphic designer. And I decided to put aside illustration for a while, although I was still doing it on the side for myself and for small publications.

Maurice Cherry:
How do you balance your illustration projects with your day job projects? I mean, doing work for big pharma, I mean, given the current climate that we’re in, pretty stable. I mean people are always going to get sick. But how do you balance that with your outside illustration work?

Keith Henry Brown:
I think I’m in a fairly unique situation in that I’ve been doing it so long that I’ve reached sort of a senior position where I don’t do as much of the nuts and bolts designing as much as I do in leading teams. And so that means that I don’t have to necessarily be there in the office, be part of the day-to-day, because I’ve just been doing it, when you have a certain amount of knowledge of the business and understanding what is expected of you. I work with younger designers, so I don’t put as many man hours as maybe somebody who’s just getting into the business. And so then I just schedule and balance my hours with book projects, magazine projects, album cover projects.
And also, I’m pretty fast with my illustration. I work very quickly. So if I get an assignment, I can turn it around relatively quickly so that I have time to stay with my day job, which I’ll probably stick with for a little while longer. But eventually I want to, and I’ve told my employer this, so I’m not saying anything I don’t want anyone to know, phase it out so that I can focus entirely on the illustration work.

Maurice Cherry:
It sounds like you’ve, I guess, found a pretty happy medium, then?

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah, because you want to have that security. You’ve got to be able to take care of your mortgage, and all that stuff. But at the same time you have to have that happiness. One of the things I’ve learned from being around a lot of jazz musicians is they’re the happiest people I know, and they never die. They live forever. And I think it’s because they’re doing exactly what they want to do. I know jazz musicians that are pretty well-known and really talented, who struggle financially, especially when the pandemic was going on. They didn’t have anywhere to play. And there are some that are so well established, they’re okay. I don’t know, Ron Carter, the great bass player, I don’t think he worries about that. But there was a lot of young musicians who are quite brilliant, who weren’t working.
I see it the same way. It’s like I have to eventually take that chance that working in the corporate world and stepping away from it so that I can do the thing that I really love, because I want to be happy. And not saying that doing design just makes me unhappy. And I’m happy this skill gave me and it got my kids through school and it bought me a house and all that stuff. But it just doesn’t fulfill me in a way that illustration does.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, I think that’s fair. As a creative, I mean, the things that sort give you that inspiration may not necessarily be the job I think that you work at. But I would also say, and this is for anyone, I think, that just does other projects on the side, sometimes you have to do the thing you don’t want to do in order to do the thing that you want to do. I feel like that’s sometimes career advice that people don’t really get told a whole lot. But no, I mean it sounds like you found that balance, though.

Keith Henry Brown:
I totally agree with what you just said. I sometimes teach classes at schools, about art design, or I come in or do workshops or stuff like that occasionally. And a lot of kids, they go to where I went, like Parsons, or SVA, School Visual Design, or FIT. And they come out and they think, “Okay, now I’m going to be this amazing designer, and I’m going to do fashion magazines, and I’m going to do all this super slick stuff. And I’m going to design for Beyonce and I’m going to design for” … whatever it is they think they’re going to do. And they think it’s all going to be glamorous.
But sometimes you got to do stuff that’s not so exciting, because there’s all kinds of design out there. There’s everything from … I started off, at one point, I was doing catalogs, which I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. And not to criticize anyone who’s doing it, but I found it very difficult. And certain types of design is not as glamorous, or even you find out it’s not as glamorous as you thought, which is what my experience was with doing comic books.
All my young life, I always thought, “Oh my God, I want to draw Marvel comics.” I mean, that’s all I wanted to do. And I drew comics by myself in my room when I was eight years old or seven years old. And I drew comics with my friends. And I went to the school I went to, thinking I’d get to do it, and I got to do it. And when I was actually there doing it, I realized, “Wow, this is a job. This is work. I have to be adult, because I have to meet deadlines, and they have to put out a certain amount of pages, and they have to be a certain level of quality. And I have people looking over my shoulder telling me what’s good and what’s not good.” So a lot of things are like that, right? It’s like you got to put the work in, you got to put the time in. And you have to figure out, “Do I want to break through to do this thing?” I think I heard an interview you did with Ray Billingsley?

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah, yeah.

Keith Henry Brown:
The great cartoonist. And he was saying something similar where he was saying that he’s one of those guys who really learned his craft. I mean, we know him from his cartoon strip, his comic strip, but actually, he could draw all kinds of things. And he tried everything, and he worked on it, and then he honed it down to this project that he has now been doing for a lot of years. But it was a lot of work and thought behind it. It wasn’t something he decided one day, “I could draw pretty good. I think I’ll draw a comic strip.”
I do think we all have to pay our dues, in a certain form. And my paying my dues for a long time was doing graphic design. Now having said that, I know a lot of people, that’s all they do, and they do it way better than me, and they’re beautiful. And they’re excited about it every day and they love doing design. And I still love graphic design, to a certain amount, but it doesn’t give me the same high that drawing does, because I think I started off wanting to draw, more than anything.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. For folks who haven’t heard that Ray Billingsley interview, it’s episode 370. Go check it out. It’s a really good interview. When you have a new illustration project that comes in, whether that’s a book or whatever else you might be working on, what does your creative process look like? Take me into that process.

Keith Henry Brown:
I could talk about a book or I could talk about an album cover or I could talk about a magazine, because some of them are different lengths of time that you immerse yourself in it. But I’ll just mention the one I just did for a magazine called Rethinking Schools, which is a wonderful magazine that is for teaching teachers how to teach children. Teachers write articles in the magazine, and they explain the techniques they used that were effective, so other teachers could use it. It’s a great magazine. And they used a lot of illustration. I did a full-page illustration a couple of months ago for them. And the process was the art director came to me and said, “This is an article. I’m sending it to you. See if you want to do this, see if this is something you think you would be interested in. This is how much we pay.” And basically, the article was about how this one teacher wanted to teach children about Black Lives Matter through dance. She was a dancing teacher, and she wanted to teach choreography to these kids in a private school.
And so, I came up with these drawings of the kids dancing to this sort of music that they sort of describe in the BLM article. And I just came up with sketches first. They approve them, and then you start to paint them in. And then they’ll say, “Well, this figure, we like better than that figure.” And you take them out and you put them in. So my thing is I do a mixture between digital and traditional, with the accent on the traditional. I draw everything out by hand, on paper usually. And then I scan it in and either I paint on it or I use digital colors, like out of Photoshop, or something like that, or sometimes it’s a combination of both things.
As we go to the final art, I do watercolor because I like the spontaneity of it and I like the fact that I can’t really control it 100%, and that it can just some suddenly do something that I didn’t expect it to do. And that could be scary because it might not be something I wanted to do, but it also means that something exciting can happen. And whenever I do something and it feels static to me or it doesn’t look interesting or it’s not moving, I always miss the watercolor element, which is the thing that makes it to me feel spontaneous and alive, which is also connected to why I like jazz so much.

Maurice Cherry:
See, I was just about to ask, because I noticed that theme of a lot of your work being done in watercolors. But it sounds like you like to have a little bit of that unknown element in the work?

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah. I mean, I appreciate a lot of illustrators’ work where they spend a lot of time planning every single illustration out to an nth degree, and the colors, and they have palettes, and they do hundreds of preliminary drawings and sketches, and things like that. And I do do some of that. But I like the idea of, I don’t know, just kind of going with the feeling. I mean, I’ve even had times where I’ve done a book, where I didn’t even finish reading the book, the whole script or the manuscript of the book, and was doing the illustrations without even having read it all. I probably shouldn’t say that out loud, so if anyone who wants to hire me. But if I like the basic idea, I’m like, “Okay” … Like the first book I got published was in 2019. It was called Birth of the Cool: How Miles Davis Found His Sound, which could not have been a more perfect first book for me, because I love Miles.
And I just thought the idea of doing a children’s book about Miles was kind of brilliant, even though I couldn’t figure exactly how they were going to do it, because Miles was not always kid-friendly. But I read two or three pages of the script and I said, “Ah, I see what she’s doing.” So I just started doing it. And I actually read the book as I was doing the illustrations, which anyone would tell you is insane, because you should plan the whole thing out. I just read the descriptions of what the action was, and not the actual dialogue, or even all the text. But I wanted it to feel like jazz and I wanted it to feel as spontaneous as he is, and how he takes a moment. I mean, that’s why jazz is so important to see live, or live recordings are the best, in my opinion, because everybody is not actually sure of what they’re going to be doing that day in that performance. And it could be brilliant and it could be not the best thing they ever did.
I’m lucky enough to be in a position where it’s just the way I do things. I don’t really know any other way of doing it. And I think that if I drew the whole thing out and knew exactly what I was going to do, it would feel too much like work. So this way, it feels like I’m just doing art. It just happens to be following a specific storyline, because I also like storytelling, which is why I wanted to get into comics in the first place. But in comics, it’s way more structured.

Maurice Cherry:
What would you say is the most challenging part about what you do?

Keith Henry Brown:
I think just finishing, for me. It always seems incredibly like, “How can I ever finish this? This is huge. There’s so much to do.” And there’s that famous quote someone said, where, “I don’t like writing, but I like having written.” I do feel that way. It’s like I could see the book in my head completed, but I don’t particularly like the process, in the sense that I can’t wait for it to be done. I want to see the book in my hands. I want to see it all drawn, but I know that that means many hours of work.
I just got a project recently that I’m very excited about. It hasn’t been announced officially yet, but we’ve already kind of signed everything. So it’s a book about this relationship between Malcolm X and this Japanese woman who was also an activist, and their friendship. And it’s very unusual, it’s a true story, in the fact that most people don’t know about this. Also, the fact that the famous picture of when he was shot in the ballroom, there’s a woman holding, cradling his head. It was this Japanese woman. And so the writer saw this picture and decided to find out who this woman was. And she ended up writing this kid’s book about their relationship. Some of her activism comes out of the horrible story of the internment camps during World War II, they put Japanese in after Pearl Harbor. And she started off with that kind of activism, and then she folded into other kinds of activism. And they became friends, mostly correspondence, with Malcolm X.
Anyway, I’m working on this book now. We were having a story conference with the publishers the other day, with my agent. And we were talking about what the book was going to look like and what it was going to sound like, and what kind of tone. And I could see the whole book in my head in five minutes. And I was like, “I just wish I could just snap my fingers and it was done,” because I want to see the book more than I want to make it, because it really comes down to work.
I think Alfred Hitchcock said once that when he came with a story like, I don’t know, Psycho, or something, or The Birds, once he had the storyboards and he had the script done, to him, that thing was done. He said all the work of having to get the actors and go on set and shoot everything was the least interesting part to him. And I really relate to that because that’s the mechanics of it. It’s the conception of it that I think is the most exciting. But I do have a lot of fun in the midst of painting, when I’m actually doing it, too. So I always say that I don’t want to do the work, but when I’m really in it, I kind of forget I’m working. So it works both ways. But I do want to see the thing done, but usually before I can finish it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I’m interested to see that too. Yuri Kochiyama is the activist that you’re talking about?

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I’d be excited to see that book when it’s done.

Keith Henry Brown:
Oh yeah, I’m going to put 1,000% in that one. I think it’s a beautiful, beautiful story. And I think it’s a story that should be told. I love the idea of people of different cultures, races coming together in a cause. I mean, I don’t want to exaggerate their relationship, it was a short one, but it was significant to Malcolm. It was significant to her, and their families. And then I think we don’t do enough of that. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything like that, or any story about an Asian person and a Black person together on a common cause, in a huge sort of undertaking like human rights or activism. So I want people to see this book so bad. I want it out there. I want it in stores now. I just got to get it there. I felt the same way about Miles. I felt the same way about John Lewis. I felt the same way, My Dad’s a DJ. I want people to see it.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, let’s switch gears here a little bit and learn more about you, about your origin story. You live in Brooklyn right now, but you’re originally from Staten Island, is that correct?

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah, it was an interesting place to grow up in.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you remember growing up there?

Keith Henry Brown:
Actually, I lived in a pretty diverse neighborhood. My best friend who lived next door to me was Jewish, and we had Filipinos living a couple of doors away, and we had Irish and Polish, and we had Latinos, Puerto Rican and Dominicans, all in the neighborhood. So the attitude, I think a lot of people think of Staten Island now, especially from recent events, that it’s like this totally red part of New York, full of Joe Plumbers, and stuff like that. But it wasn’t like that when I grew up, although there was also a really strong Sicilian community of Italians that we didn’t really connect with as much. But we had this one little thing, it was called Stapleton, Staten Island. Also, this is the same area where Wutang started their thing.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah, that’s right.

Keith Henry Brown:
Their projects was probably about a quarter mile from the little neighborhood I grew up in. I grew up in a house, and my dad was a physician, my mom was a bank teller. So I guess you’d call it near middle class, because I had my own room, and I had a house, and I had everything I needed. But we weren’t rich or anything, because my dad was still a student when I was growing up, and my mom worked full time at a bank.
But it was a pretty nice upbringing in terms of how I saw the world. It until I get older that I realized that there was things like severe racism and things like that. So I was able to fantasize and not worry about my place in the world as much, and dealing with things like that. So I plunged into the world of Marvel comics and fantasy books and science fiction, like Isaac Asimov, and people like that. So that was the thing that I was into when I was a kid, and also music, The Beatles. And I liked The Beatles the same way that I liked Stevie Wonder. I didn’t have any boundaries in how I saw music and art.

Maurice Cherry:
So it sounds like you grew up around a lot of music, but you also kind of grew up around a lot of art, too?

Keith Henry Brown:
No, that’s the interesting thing. My mom was a singer, but she sang in the choir, and she had a beautiful voice. She even got accepted to Juilliard at one point and couldn’t go, because my grandfather couldn’t afford to send her there. So we always had a lot of records in the house, so I was always listening to music. I would read every word in the liner notes and read everything on the back 15,000 times. And I was a fanatic about LPs and music.
Art really wasn’t there. I think I came by art almost completely through comic books and wanting to draw comic books of my own. And I didn’t really know anything about art history or anything like that until I got to high school. I went to a high school of art design, which was in Manhattan. And it still exists, obviously. It was a great school. I started to learn about painting and drawing. Then I got interested in things beyond comics at that point. But before that, I don’t know if anybody else in my family even drew.

Maurice Cherry:
I think comics was probably a good gateway for a lot of people. I mean, especially if I’m thinking about the time that you grew up, and especially with starting to see more Black people in comics too, I would imagine that probably was really inspiring to see back then.

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah. It was huge, huge, huge. Trevor Von Eeden, who created Black Lightning, who’s a little bit about the same age as me, there’s a legendary story about how he sent his drawings to DC Comics on loose leaf paper, because he didn’t have any other kind of paper.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow.

Keith Henry Brown:
And they sat down with him, and started giving him gigs. But the big one for me was a guy named Billy Graham. I don’t know if you’re familiar with him. He did a lot of the early Black Panther comics. He basically was the writer that created Killmonger, the characters in the movies. He did these magnificent stories, one particular one called Panther’s Rage. The same story that’s basically in the movie is in that story, which is that Killmonger, the character [inaudible 00:29:45] played by Michael Jordan in the film, kind of takes him down as being prince, and challenges his leadership of Wakanda.
That was a Billy Graham thing. He was one of the very few Blacks that were in the business. Brilliant guy. He was also a playwright, a painter. He was just this amazing guy. I only met him once for a few minutes, but I was in awe of him. But most of the people that I liked, if I’m being completely honest, were like Jack Kirby and Neil Adams and Stan Lee, and those guys. I mean, they were all like gods me. I mean, if I had a choice between meeting Paul Newman or Tom Cruise or Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, I probably would’ve done the latter. I mean, those were the guys who were the big heroes to me when I was a kid, that were the comic book artists.

Maurice Cherry:
So you were inspired by comic books. You went to this art high school. And then after you graduated, you attended Parsons. What was your time like there?

Keith Henry Brown:
It was good, but it was less about comics. By then, I had done a little time working in comics, and decided it wasn’t for me. So I wanted to learn to paint in a different way or draw in a different way, and not be just in comics. I mean, the comic influence is there. It will be there till the day I die. And I still draw comics sometimes, or cartoons, but I don’t draw superheroes or things anymore; not that I have anything against them. But my thing when I was at Marvel and also in general about superhero stuff is that a lot of times these things are … even then, before the movies came out and became this massive thing, a billion dollar company, is that they’re all copyrighted characters owned by somebody else. So there’s not much you can do with them. You have to stay with the continuity that you’re given. You have to be explained what you can do, what you can’t do. Even you and a writer have to follow a larger storyline that maybe is being planned throughout the company.
And I always had this itching feeling to want to have my own characters and have my own thing. So I wanted to learn illustration because I wanted to express myself more as an individual and less as just a sort of a cog in this massive machine. I mean, every month, on the dot, you had to have a new Marvel comic. And I think only the very, very best guys got recognition for what they did. But I don’t think I was the best at that. I was okay.
So I really wanted to express myself in a different way. I still love comics, especially independent comics. I’m more interested now in people like the Hernandez Brothers, Love and Rockets. I love it. It’s probably my favorite cartoon, is Jaime Hernandez … than now, than superhero stuff, because these guys are independent. And they own their own characters and they create their own worlds that are basically coming from them. And they’re not in it for the money. They’re in it because they just had to do it. And I admire that more than being just another person drawing Spider-Man, out of the thousands that have done it over the years.

Maurice Cherry:
So Parsons, it sounds like, opened your eyes a little bit to the reality of what the industry was like?

Keith Henry Brown:
Precisely. Exactly. I started getting interested in modern artists. I started getting interested in abstract artists. I love Rothko. The Expressionists is my favorite type of painting, so de Gaulle’s my favorite painter. I began to appreciate art for what it is and the endless limitations that art can provide, and not these sort of commercial concerns of just trying to sell something or sell a character.
Now, I don’t have anything against people who do that. There are some brilliant kids and artists doing this stuff now. I love them. I love looking at the drawings. I love looking at Greg Capullo or Jim Lee or Frank Miller, when he was doing it, and David Mazzucchelli. These were all comic book artists. These guys are freaking awesome. I just don’t think that I’m built to do this stuff, myself. But I love to look at their work.
There’s a guy named Bill Sienkiewicz who does comics, but he also is a great, great illustrator. And guy like him, he’s like a god to me. So all these guys are great. I just know that I can’t do comics, because it’s just not, unless I do a personal comic, like doing this graphic novel about the Central Park Five. I’m working on now one about a jazz musician. So if I can find my way in, then it’s absolutely the greatest, but if I have to just … I don’t know. I couldn’t be one of those people who’s doing, I don’t know, SpongeBob comics, or something. I got to do something that I got some kind of skin in the game.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, yeah, I mean, it sounds like you’re in it for the storytelling medium. It’s not just so much like a way of telling a story in terms of, “Oh, here’s SpongeBob. And we’re going to do it via animation.” It’s more like, “What’s the story we can tell that animation can provide sort of,” I don’t know, “that bit of oomph to it,” I guess. You know what I mean?

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah, exactly. Somebody was telling me the other day that they had a gig at some Pixar. And they said, “Dude, they’re looking for artists, illustrators to maybe come in and work with Pixar movies.”
And I’m like, “I mean, that sounds great in terms of financially and also prestige and stuff, but I don’t really want to get bogged down working on some massive project where a hundred other artists are working on it.” Even if it’s good, like I thought … What was that one about the jazz position that came out?

Maurice Cherry:
Soul.

Keith Henry Brown:
I thought it was real good, but I don’t know that I’d want to have worked on it, because it requires years of work, hundreds of people. And I’d rather work on my little book, where it’s just me alone in a room and a writer writing a script, and then five, six months later, it’s in a bookstore, and it’s got our names on it.
To me, it’s like I’d rather do that, even if it means I’m making less money or not part of a huge, famous organization, that I could tell everybody, “I work at Pixar, or I work at so-and-so.” Even when I worked at Marvel, I mean, people would be impressed when I said I worked at Marvel. But I didn’t care about that part because I knew that I was doing stuff I wasn’t even really that inspired by. So it doesn’t matter that people were enamored by it. It was more about the fact that I had to still sit down by myself at some point and try to meet a deadline for something that I didn’t love. But having said that, there are people I know who do love it. And God bless them, because they do some beautiful work.

Maurice Cherry:
So you did eventually, I don’t know, I guess maybe fulfill that childhood dream. You did do some work for Marvel.

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah. And then I saw what it was. Everybody finds out what the reality of things is and what things really are; like a lot of people think they want to be movie stars. A lot of people think they want to be pop stars. And then they find out what it’s really like. And sometimes the stress is so much they can’t handle it at all.
My son is an independent musician. He has a band, and he has albums out, and he goes on tour. And one of the things we often talk about is if it ever happens that he blows up, get ready, because it might not be what you want. And even in the little bit of brushes of stuff that he’s seen, by just opening for bigger acts and things like that and seeing how these guys live, they say a lot of it is really difficult, because once you’re famous and people know who you are, or even if you’re just known by people to be successful, it gets to be more about that than about the music, which is what you came in there to do in the first place.

Maurice Cherry:
I relate to that so hard, I mean, for two reasons. I mean, I think, one, from the musician standpoint. So I might have said this on the show before, but before I got into anything, design, whatever, I was a musician. I grew up playing trombone. I played it all through middle school, through high school. I played it in college. I played it a few years after college as a session musician. But I loved it. I still love music. I was a jazz trombonist. But it’s not making any money. You’re not making any real money. And the hours are wild and crazy. You have to do it because you love it. You’re certainly not doing it to get rich or to get any sort of financial stability, unless you really get a deal with a label, and then you record an EP or an LP or something, and you blow up that way.

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah. And I’m going to be honest, I mean in jazz, I don’t see anybody getting rich. I actually [inaudible 00:37:46]-

Maurice Cherry:
Not in this country. Absolutely not.

Keith Henry Brown:
I work for one of the most successful jazz musicians there is. And he does well. I don’t think he’s hurting, but he ain’t rich.

Maurice Cherry:
He ain’t rich, yeah.

Keith Henry Brown:
He ain’t no multimillionaire. I do all of his covers, and he and I are friends. But I know he’s very well known in the jazz world, but outside of the jazz world, the guy’s won like six Grammys. I mean, he’s a genius. But it doesn’t matter, because there’s a limited audience for that type of music, unless you’re somebody like Herbie Hancock who’s become a legendary figure. And not only is he legendary figure, but he’s also even done pop hits, like Rocket, and everything. So he’s a guy who’s transcended jazz in order to have the success that he has. But also, he’s a legendary iconic figure, so he’s almost beyond human. I mean, he’s like this person who’s been doing it so long and has become so famous that people just give him money just for existing.

Maurice Cherry:
You’re talking about Wynton Marsalis, right?

Keith Henry Brown:
Well, I was actually just talking about Herbie Hancock.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, okay. But I mean, when you mentioned this artist that you’ve done covers for, though.

Keith Henry Brown:
Oh no, that’s Christian McBride. Christian McBride. Do you know Christian McBride, Maurice?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I do. Yeah.

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah, I’ve done his last eight covers. He’s a friend of mine. One of my best friends was his manager. Some years ago, he started a new band called Inside Straight. And instead of getting a photo shoot done, my friend, knowing that I was an illustrator, asked me to do the cover. And then he and I began a creative sort of partnership [inaudible 00:39:19] the visualization of his music.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Keith Henry Brown:
So a lot of his album that I’ve done covers for, also LPs, vinyl LPs, he has won Grammys for. And I never know if I’m going to get to do it next year, because that’s one of those things that I wait for him and I hear Christian’s voice say, “Hey, Brother Brown, I got another cover for you.” But I never know if he’s going to call me. But I’ve done eight so far.
So people who don’t know Christian is he, he’s a bass player, composer, band leader. When Sting started his first band, Sting the pop singer from The Police, he was his bass player. Sting’s a bass player, so that tells you something about the greatness of him. But he’s also played with everybody who means anything. He’s played with every single musician there is. He’s a genius player. So I consider that to be one of the proudest things that I’ve ever done as an illustrator, is do his artwork. He also heads the Newport Jazz Festival. He has a radio show on NPR, called Jazz Tonight. He’s just an incredible human being, and one most talented people I’ve ever met.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, I think it sort of speaks to sort what you said earlier about jazz not being super popular. You kind of end up having to do a lot of different things just within your musicianship in order to make that happen; like with Christian, you said he’s heading up this jazz festival and he does a radio show. You almost have to have your hand in a bunch of different pots, instead of just focusing on maybe performing or touring or something.

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah, if you want to make money.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Look. Yeah. Hey, that is the truth.

Keith Henry Brown:
[inaudible 00:40:48] And as you know, the only way to make money nowadays is no longer in recording. It’s in …

Maurice Cherry:
Merch.

Keith Henry Brown:
… merch and touring. And so, going back to what I was saying earlier, when the pandemic went down, I mean, a lot of these guys weren’t making any money. If you’re in jazz, it’s particularly painful because that’s the only way you make money, going on jazz tours to other countries, because jazz obviously is appreciated in Asia and Europe. So, that’s where they make their money. If you can’t go anywhere, then you can’t depend on the recordings. Even in the best days of jazz, they never sell anything like the way pop music does. So I mean, a flop record by Ed Sheeran still sells 100 times more than [inaudible 00:41:32]-

Maurice Cherry:
Than a jazz record. No, that’s the truth.

Keith Henry Brown:
… and that’s just the way it is. But I like being connected with someone with so much integrity. And he also gives me an incredible amount of freedom in what I get to do on his covers. That’s why it works for me, because even though I’m illustrating, in the true sense of the word, which is that I’m doing a drawing based on a previous idea and telling a story, he’s not looking over my shoulder and saying, “Do it like this.” I mean, sometimes he’ll have notes or something, but he trusts me to know what I’m doing.
That’s a lot different than doing other kinds of commercial illustration, where you have to do everything precisely the way you’re being told, and if you don’t do it that way … And also, for me, in children’s books, I’ve had the same experience. I mean, I interpret the words that are in the script of the books that I do. And I may get feedback and editors talking to me about it, but we can usually discuss it. It’s not something where somebody says, “You have to do it this way, or you’re fired.” It doesn’t work that way. And that’s a little different than the real world is, including in advertising.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, you just touched on so many points that just hit me just personally in terms of-

Keith Henry Brown:
Go for it, brother.

Maurice Cherry:
… musicians and design, and all that sort of stuff. I mean, yeah, yeah, wow. Wow. I want to talk about your work with Churchill Downs, your work with Jazz at Lincoln Center. I know I mentioned Marsalis earlier, but you got to work at some pretty prestigious institutions, early in your career.

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah, I consider myself incredibly fortunate. The reason I was in Louisville, Kentucky was because my former wife was a professor at the University of Louisville. So I showed up there with no real skills, and didn’t know what I was going to do. And I had to get a job. I got a job at a small African American-owned advertising agency. And I was still learning my craft at that point. And an African American woman named Cindy Cook, who was a supervisor at Churchill Downs, asked me if I’d be interested, because she said, “We want to start a graphics department in Churchill Downs. And there’s no Black people working there at all, doing anything, except me. I wanted to bring somebody else Black in there. And we don’t even know how to use computers or know how to do anything. So you’re going to have to order the computers and find the programs.”
Basically, it was to do the marketing for the park, and the programs and the posters, and everything like that. It was challenging because I was just new to it myself. And this goes so far back, I don’t even think there was InDesign yet. I think it was Quark or something, if anybody’s old enough to remember that, listening to this. I did it. And then while I was doing it, I made friends with a gentleman named Andre Guess, who was a really good friend of mine when I was living in Louisville. And he got a job at Jazz at Lincoln Center, because Wynton would come to Louisville and do concerts. And we were such big jazz fans, after the show, Wynton Marsalis is the type of a guy, he would sit around after every concert … I don’t care if it was a four-hour concert, he would stand around and meet everybody and sign every autograph.
So we’d go talk to him. And after a few years of doing that, he got to know who we were. And he would have dinner at Andre’s house, at one point. We became friends with him. He said, “Well, listen. I’m building this thing. It’s never been done before. It’s a whole venue just for jazz. It’s going to be called Jazz at Lincoln Center, and I’m going to run it.” And so he hired my friend to be an administrator. I think it was a financial officer, or something like that. And then my friend told me, “Okay, I’m going to go up there. And I’m not going to leave you behind, though. In a year, I’m going to bring you there.” Almost a year to the day, he calls me and says, “Come to New York. You’ve got to come back to New York now.” And he [inaudible 00:45:12] he wasn’t from New York. My friend was from Kentucky.
So I came to New York, they interviewed me. It was a very intimidating interview because it was at a table full of the board of directors. A lot of famous people were on the board of directors, including the boxer, George Foreman, and Judith Jamison, the great dancer, Al Roker, the newsman. They’re people who contributed money and were part of the board of directors. And they interviewed me. And I was leaving out of the office, the place. And the receptionist, Mel, who’s still a friend of mine, she said, “Wynton’s on the phone.”
And I was like, “Oh, shit. He’s going to tell me not to come back, because I didn’t get the job.”
And handed me the phone. And he came on and he goes, “You’re a bad motherfucker.”
It was like, “Really?” And I was like, “Wynton?”
He goes, “Yeah, get your ass back here in two weeks.” So I got the job. And I worked for them for about five years. And from there is when I started doing advertising, because after a while, I felt like I did as much as I could do there. But through there, I got to meet so many incredible musicians, jazz and otherwise, because they used to have amazing musicians come there to do benefits. So people like Stevie Wonder came and Ray Charles came and Paul Simon came, and it was just an incredible, incredible experience.
And they’re nonprofit. So the whole point of view of Jazz at Lincoln Center is to teach people about jazz and [inaudible 00:46:34] jazz still lives, and that it’s in existence, and you should go see it. You should appreciate it. It’s not what you think it is, and all that. So it was great. And I got to design for them, and I got to meet a lot of incredible other designers, and be part of the community of graphic designers in New York, the whole time thinking in my mind, “I really want to be an illustrator. But this is great.”

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, to me, that sounds like a dream job. You’re doing design, you’re surrounded by jazz. That sounds like, for me, that would be perfect.

Keith Henry Brown:
Oh, it was, for a while. All good things come to an end; like any organization, there’s changes, and things happen, and it’s not what it was when you first started. And new people come in and they have their own ideas. I have nothing bad to say about it. It was a decision I made, as well as something that I loved. But you can’t stay any one place forever.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s true.

Keith Henry Brown:
And ironically, after working in advertising for a few years, I ended up going back into the music and being the art director for Blue Note Jazz Clubs.

Maurice Cherry:
What?

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah. I was there for about four years. So Blue Note Jazz, people think of the one club in New York, but they actually have clubs all over the world, in Madrid, Milan, Japan, Hawaii. I was their art director for several years. So again, I was in this club. I was back in my jazz world. I was in heaven, because I love jazz musicians. Jazz musicians are some of the most even-keeled people, artists there are, because they don’t make any money. They don’t get rich. They’re just doing it because they love it, and they’re happy to be doing it.
If you can make a living doing something you like doing it, then you’re a happy person. So they tend to be not arrogant, tend to be happy, tend to be hardworking, tend to be very committed and focused, because to be a good musician, as you know, it takes an incredible amount of concentration, rehearsal, practice and focus. And they’re always thinking of what they’re going to do next. So being around those people makes you better at what you do. So it makes you better at your art, because you see the commitment they have. I said, “Damn, I need to get serious about what I’m doing, because these motherfuckers are kicking ass, what they’re doing.” You see somebody play, you see Herbie or Chick Corea come up there, sweat their ass off and play, and they get off and they’re like, “What you going to do now?”
“I’m going to go get some chicken wings.”
I’m like, “Damn, man. This guy just killed himself. But now he’s done, and now he’s going to go do something else.” And I’m thinking, “Oh my God, these guys, I want to be like them. I want to be like them.” So that’s why they’re the constant inspiration to me. It’s like total commitment and highest level of achievement, mixed with this sort of chill, like, “Yeah. Well, we’re here doing it,” type attitude. It’s beautiful, man.

Maurice Cherry:
What advice would you give to people out there? They’re hearing your story, they’re hearing all this about you. What advice would you give to people that want to follow in your footsteps?

Keith Henry Brown:
I just think you have to be honest with what you really want to do. I mean, listen, I understand practicality. I totally know that that is. I mean, I spent a lot of my life doing jobs. I’ve had all kinds of jobs. And I’ve done whatever it took to take care of myself or my family. But there also has to be this part of you that doesn’t lose the eyes on the prize. What is it you really want to do? What is it that makes you the happiest? And it doesn’t matter what it is. If it’s riding a unicycle backwards or being the world’s best juggler, whatever, you have to focus on that eventually, because you don’t want to spend the rest of your life just doing something that you just feel like you need to do in order to make a living. And I know that’s not always everybody’s path, but you have to work towards it, I think.
I would say I spent a good half of my life doing things that I had to do. And now I’m having a half of my life where I’m doing things I want to do. And I think it’s worth doing that, whatever it is, whether it’s being a doctor or being a hedge fund manager or being a fireman. It’s the passion behind it that I think is important. And you shouldn’t deny yourself of that.
Both my sons and musicians. Now, any parent will tell you, you don’t want your son to be a musician, for all the reasons I’ve already stated earlier. It’s hard to make a living, and you’re never probably going to be rich. But I can’t imagine them doing anything else, because they’re so deeply committed to it. And that’s all they want to talk about. I did a book about it because it’s such a focused commitment. Even more so than me, they knew what they wanted do before I did, in terms of their lives. So I guess my advice is always do what you have to do. No one’s going to fault you for that, but don’t forget what you want to do.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you have a dream project that you’d love to do one day? It sounds like you’ve already touched on so many of your passions with your work.

Keith Henry Brown:
There’s specific things. Right now, I’m trying to get out a coffee book on jazz portraits I’ve done over the years, which is tougher than you would think to get printed and published. And the other thing is, some years ago I wanted to put out a book about Eric Dolphy. And I did a lot of preliminary work. I even did a Kickstarter. I could not get the book published, I could not get it finished. And I wrote a script, and I illustrated over half of it.
And Eric Dolphy is a saxophone player, composer, who I actually am totally enamored with, in terms of his life trajectory. He was just a really nice guy who was committed to his art. And he died very young, in a very sad way, actually on a gurney in Germany from a diabetic shock. And the people that were there did not realize that he had that problem. And they thought he was just a Black musician who was on drugs, and didn’t take care of them the way they should have. But his life before that, he brushed against all the great musicians, Charles Mingus and John Coltrane, he played with for a lot of years, who loved him. And I wanted to do a graphic novel about him. And I did a lot of work on it, and I did a lot of things. But it’s one of those projects that keeps getting away. It fell through a couple of times. And I am just starting to resurrect it now. And if I can get that book done, I’ll die happy.

Maurice Cherry:
When you look back at your career, is there a particular moment or an experience that really stands out to you the most, in your mind?

Keith Henry Brown:
Can I break it down into two?

Maurice Cherry:
Sure.

Keith Henry Brown:
Okay. The first one is the one I just told you about, which is Wynton Marsalis telling me I was a bad motherfucker. The second one is, and it’s almost the opposite of that, but it gave me a motivation. I went to a comic book company early on, soon out of high school. I was starting to get small jobs to do things, but I didn’t really get anything major yet. And I won’t tell you which comic book company it is, but it’s a major one. It’s one of the big two. I showed them my portfolio, and the editor, the white editor looked at it and he said, “Yeah, this is pretty good, but we already got a colored artist. We already got one, so thanks for coming in.”

Maurice Cherry:
Damn.

Keith Henry Brown:
And I just said … Can I? I won’t say the word … “F this guy.” And he ain’t stopping me. And I can say, even in this world, and I’m 60 years old, and I’ve seen racism of all kinds, but I’ve never really been held back when I really wanted to do something. I’ve had all kinds of opportunities, despite my race. I just don’t accept that as a reason for not achieving anything. My father was a doctor. My mother was the first Black woman to work in this bank that she worked in. I feel like if you really want something, you cannot use that. So I guess to answer your question, it was important to me that that that guy told me what he said, because I said, “F this guy. He’s not stopping me because I’m Black.”

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. Before we wrap this up, and I meant to get to this earlier in the interview, you love jazz, I love jazz. Who are some contemporary jazz artists that you like?

Keith Henry Brown:
Oh, that’s an interesting question. I like a lot of cats, man. One of them just passed away, but I still consider him contemporary. That’s Roy Hargrove. He’s an awesome cat. I think Christian’s pretty contemporary. There’s a young cat that’s out now called, named Joel Ross. He’s fantastic. Kamasi Washington is pretty awesome. I mean, I’m trying to think when. You’re 60 years old, you’re thinking, “Well, who’s contemporary,” because [inaudible 00:54:50] say Brad Mehldau, but Brad Mehldau been around for a minute, so maybe he’s not so contemporary. But you know what I’m saying. It’s like I hear cats all the time, man. I want to hear it. I want to hear the young guys. Joey Alexander is kind of a phenomenal young guy.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah, young kid.

Keith Henry Brown:
Really young. I mean, he could play his ass off, though. There’s a lot of them, man. I mean, there’s so many. I occasionally write for a website called allaboutjazz.com, and I do do reviews. And I just did an interview with a cat named Croker, Theo Croker.

Maurice Cherry:
Theo. Theo Croker, yeah.

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah. And we did a nice interview. I painted him many times, too. He’s real good. Oh, my favorite young singer is Cécile McLorin. She’s a brilliant jazz singer.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, she’s great.

Keith Henry Brown:
She’s modern. At the same time, she got the old school thing going on too. There’s a drummer I really like named Makaya McCraven. He’s pretty hot. Man, there’s so many cats out there, man.

Maurice Cherry:
No, there is. There is.

Keith Henry Brown:
Vijay Iyer. He’s a little bit on the older side, but Vijay could play, could play, could play. Tyshawn Sorey. Yeah, I feel like I’m having a conversation with my son. We’re always talking about music. He’s a little more on the edge than me. He always knows what’s going on more than I do. He’s like, “Dad, you never heard of this guy? Man, you old.”
And I was like, I said, “Buddy.”
He said, “He been out about two, three years.”
I said, “Son, I don’t [inaudible 00:56:13] two, three years. Two, three years is still new to me.” But yeah, there’s a ton of them. Anybody you like, Maurice?

Maurice Cherry:
You mentioned Cécile. I like her. There’s actually a jazz singer I first found on TikTok, who’s really great, Samara Joy. She’s a jazz vocalist.

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah [inaudible 00:56:35].

Maurice Cherry:
Oh my God, her voice is so good.

Keith Henry Brown:
She’s incredible, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
And then I like-

Keith Henry Brown:
I’ve seen her live.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, oh. I want to see her live. I hope she comes to Atlanta one day. I know she’s playing at Blue Note next month in New York. I’m trying to think who else. I like a lot of bands, like Incognito. There was a time in, I would say, I don’t know, maybe mid to late ’90s to early 2000s where you started to see this mix of jazz with other genres. So you would have jazz and hip hop, or jazz and R&B, “neo soul.”
So that’s how I started to find out about … well, that’s not necessarily how I started to find out about jazz artists, because I’ve been playing jazz through … I was in a jazz band in high school, and everything. So I had always kind of known about it, but it’s just interesting diving more into learning about other artists and just sort of the … I don’t know. I feel like for a while in the ’70s there was just sort of a fine line between jazz and I guess what could be considered R&B, where someone like a Roy Hargrove or a Roy Ayers or someone would tow that line a little bit.

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah, totally. I mean, my son’s favorite musician is D’Angelo. And if you have D’Angelo, you can take your finger and bring that to Erykah Badu, and you bring that [inaudible 00:57:47] and then to Robert Glasper [inaudible 00:57:49]-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, he’s so good. Robert Glasper is so good.

Keith Henry Brown:
And Robert Glasper, by the way, we were talking earlier about popular success, he’s probably the most successful jazz musician, if you call him a jazz musician. I don’t even know if I’d call him that anymore, because he works with so much pop. But he’s the epitome of the kid that grew up listening to hip-hop, but loved jazz, but also has jazz chops. So there’s always that element of hip-hop with jazz. So you got Robert. He played at Blue Note a lot recently. And he’s up there on a stage with Mos Def, Yasiin Bey, rather, and cats like that. So he’s doing that. He’s bridging the gap. So I do think you’re absolutely right that there’s a bridging the gap between old school jazz, Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis, and more contemporary music, hip-hop, funk, R&B, mixed in with what could be called jazz, like Kendrick Scott, Nubi Garcia, who’s an English saxophone player.
There’s just so many people who, for whatever reason, they got exposed to jazz, and they appreciate the musicianship of it. But then they also connect to where they’re coming from, which is their music. My music is R&B from the 1970s. Their music is that. But they like the elements of both things, and they kind of put them together into this other thing. There’s a label called Jazz Is Dead, which is run by a guy named Adrian Younge, and a guy named … I forget his name, but he was one of the original members of A Tribe Called Quest. I can’t remember [inaudible 00:59:22].

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, Ali Shahid Muhammad.

Keith Henry Brown:
Exactly. And Jazz Is Dead is a project that basically takes … they’re constantly playing with either old established jazz musicians, jazz musicians that exist now, or up-and-coming people, mixed in with their R&B funk, hip-hop sensibilities. It’s a perfect mixture of all this. And to me, they represent what jazz is right now, because they look back and forward at the same time.
I think the most common thing that they probably want to see is just great musicianship, being able to play. So you’re not going to hear just somebody playing off a computer or synthesizers and loops, although that might be an element. But there’s people playing live bass, there’s people playing live drums, there’s people playing a horn, a saxophone, or a trump, so that you have all these things in it. You got raw singing and you have other things. And to me, that’s where the music is right now. And I’m really excited about it, because I love all that.

Maurice Cherry:
I had a designer on the show, I don’t know, this had to have been a couple of years ago, Aricka Lewis. She was a designer in Arkansas, and now she’s in New York. And I had her on the show and we were just talking about her work as a designer. She’s like, “Yeah, I’m a UX designer,” et cetera, et cetera. And then I ran across this group, I think it was on YouTube, and she was the lead singers. It’s this group called Calle Soul, C-A-L-L-E. And they’re, I don’t know, I guess sort of a jazz samba sort of … not samba, because samba’s fast, I would say.

Keith Henry Brown:
Like bossa nova?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, like a jazz bossa nova sort of band. And she was the lead singer. And I was like, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
She’s like, “Ain’t nobody want to hear about that.” She’s like, “It’s just a thing that I do with some friends.”
I was like, “That is amazing. That is amazing.” I would say … Oh God, I’m trying to … I mean, we’re going off on a tangent. We’ll wrap the interview up. But I’d say probably my favorite jazz artist now is one that I sort of found by accident. I had just come to Atlanta in ’99, and I had went to … There’s a neighborhood here called Little Five Points. There’s a music shop there called Moods Music, which is still open to this day. And I remember hearing this single called Ghosts from this band out of … I think they were out of Norway, called Beady Belle, B-E-A-D-Y B-E-L-L-E. And I was like, “Oh wow, this is really good.”
And Darryl, who runs the shop, was like, “Yeah, I got their CD right here if you want it.” And that started, to me, a 20-plus year love affair with this band. I have all their albums. They’ve only performed in the States once. They performed in Rochester, New York, in 2007, I think.
And when I heard about it, I was like, “Oh, I’m going, I’m going.”
My friends were like, “What’s in Rochester, New York?”
I was like, “Beady Belle is coming to the United States for the first time, and they’re playing at the Rochester Jazz Festival.”
And they’re looking at me like, “Okay, go for it.” And I went and I heard them perform. I was sitting in the front row. There weren’t a lot of people there, because I guess people didn’t know the band. But I was just giddy. I got to talk to them afterwards. They signed all my albums that they had up to that date. The band has since broken up, but still the lead singer, still goes by the name Beady Belle. And she still performs and puts out work, and stuff. But that’s probably my favorite artist, my favorite jazz artist.
And then that opened me up to … I’d say contemporary jazz artist, probably my favorite contemporary jazz artist. But her and that band opened me up to Norwegian jazz and Finnish jazz. And I mean, they’re all pulling from Black American roots. But it’s just so interesting how jazz in other countries is just received, as opposed to here.

Keith Henry Brown:
[inaudible 01:03:05] a lot of DJ elements and hip-hop elements too, and electronics, in a lot of the Norwegian jazz world. So they do a lot of interesting things there. Do you have any other bands that you really like from Norway? I just want to know if I know any.

Maurice Cherry:
I know that she had a background singer on her fourth album named Jarle Bernhoft, who went on to become a solo artist. And sort of to that thing you’re talking about with the sort of mixing with electronic, he would do this live mixing on stage where he’d do some beat boxing or some other vocal sounds, and then mix it all together on stage while also performing, singing and playing guitar. I like a lot of his work.
There’s a lot of UK jazz, like Quantic Soul Orchestra, Alice Russell. Oh God, there’s one in particular who I’ve mentioned on the show before. Zara McFarlane. Yeah, there’s a lot. There’s a lot. Now I’m getting overwhelmed, trying to think of all of them. But yeah, wow. Wow. Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What kind of work do you want to be doing?

Keith Henry Brown:
As I said earlier, I think I’m going to try to make a situation for myself where I am focused mostly on illustration. I want to do more writing, I want to write more books. I like getting assignments because you get brought great stories, like the one I was talking about with Malcolm X, or John Lewis. But I also want to create more stuff on my own. I do like doing magazine stuff. I like doing newspaper stuff. I just think if I just get assignments to create art based on subjects that I’m interested in, I’d be really happy, and if I’m able to do that.
And I always fantasize about not staying in one place, like traveling around the world, because when you do what I do, you can be anywhere. So you can be in Berlin, you can be in Paris, you can be in London, you can be in Mexico. And I want to start doing that. I want to do these assignments, but be in different countries, set up a studio, and just illustrate books from different parts of the world. Live somewhere for six months, live somewhere for a year, and get to see the world, which is something I’ve never really been able to do much of for most of my life. So, that’s my goal I hope to do someday.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, just to wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more information about you and about your work and everything online?

Keith Henry Brown:
Well, my website is keithhbrown.com. My Instagram handle is @iamtheleopard, which I’m actually on hiatus with it right now, but I’ll be getting back on in a couple of weeks. I decided to take a break from social media, just because I was doing it every single day. And I just think I got addicted, so I wanted to see if I could unaddict myself, if there’s such a word. Yeah, those two places. Instagram. And I’m also on Facebook, at Keith Henry Brown. But the easiest way is probably just go through my website.

Maurice Cherry:
All right, sounds good. Well, Keith Henry Brown, I want to thank you so, so much for coming on the show. I was so excited, putting together what I was going to talk to you about, because I was like you’ve done illustration, and it’s jazz. I’m like, “This is going to be a great conversation.” And you did not disappoint with that. I think if there’s anything people can certainly take from this conversation, it’s that you can do what you want to do, if you set your mind to it. Don’t be afraid to go out and do it. And you found a way to meld your passions together in a way that lets you live the life that you want to live, which I think is what all creatives strive for, at the end of the day. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah, and if I may, I just wanted to say one more thing really quickly. Can I, Maurice?

Maurice Cherry:
Sure. Yeah.

Keith Henry Brown:
It ain’t about awards, it’s about doing what satisfies you. A lot of times in design and even in illustration, people are always saying, “You should put yourself up for this and get that. And you should tell everybody you won that award and this award.” It ain’t about that. It’s about what makes you happy. And you can win 10 awards and Golden whatever, but you got to satisfy you, or it’s not really going to mean anything.

Maurice Cherry:
Wise words. Again, Keith Henry Brown, thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Keith Henry Brown:
Cheers, brother.

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Tiffany Middleton

What a difference a few years makes! This is definitely the case with this week’s guest, Tiffany Middleton. When I first talked to her on Revision Path, she was just starting out as a junior designer from Childersburg, Alabama working for a Texas-based sports company. Now she’s a senior art director for FanDuel and has continued honing and flexing her design skills, only this time in the Big Apple!

We started off with a quick check-in, and Tiffany spoke on her interest in mentoring and helping other Black sports designers through a community she created called Trenches. She also talked about some of her favorite projects over the past few years, the experience of working for ESPN, and spoke on the confidence she’s found from fully stepping into her identity and claiming it proudly. Tiffany is all about showcasing the power of the Black creative voice, and you know that’s definitely something we support around here!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
All right. So tell us who you are and what you do.

Tiffany Middleton:
Hi. So I’m Tiffany Middleton and I am currently a senior art director at FanDuel in New York City. I’ve been here for about six months and before FanDuel, I spent about four to five years at ESPN on the digital team and then on the social media team.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. How’s the year kind of been going so far aside from, I guess, starting this new job?

Tiffany Middleton:
Oh man. I guess I would go back to, I guess, 2020 of how it started and then where I’m at now. So like I said, before FanDuel, I was at ESPN and I think life for me there was like kind of getting to do your dream job and then coming to a point of wanting a change a little bit. I grew up on ESPN, it was everything for me, I’m a big sports fan. And when coronavirus happened, to bring it up, I feel like it kind of changed my perspective on not just my life, but also my career in a way where it just made me kind of take a pause and think about what I was doing and if that was the right direction for me. It’s kind of at a point in my career where I felt like I had achieved everything that I wanted to achieve at ESPN.

Tiffany Middleton:
I feel like I learned so much there. I feel like it was one of those. I compare it to [The Warriors 00:04:11] of it’s a well-oiled machine, it’s so many talented designers there. There’s always great work, but I guess I kind of like to put it in a sports perspective of taking a chance on myself and kind of [KD 00:04:25], leaving The Warriors and coming to Brooklyn. So that’s what I feel like I did. [crosstalk 00:04:29] And I feel like a lot of that happened off of coronavirus because it paused everything, it changed it. So it’s been going pretty great. It was definitely an adjustment, a different system. So it’s been relearning everything I thought I knew but from [inaudible 00:04:47] perspective.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, did you take a break between leaving ESPN and starting at FanDuel, or did you just kind of go right into it?

Tiffany Middleton:
I pretty much had two days off and I was back into it.

Maurice Cherry:
Damn, you got to get yourself a break. Wow, two days and you just went right back into it.

Tiffany Middleton:
That’s the thing. Ever since I’ve been a kid, my goal has been to be a successful designer. So it was like, I didn’t know what a break was. Since the last time we talked in six years, I probably have only taken one vacation that’s been more than four days. I usually go on vacation [inaudible 00:05:24] my computer. It’s like I didn’t know how to take a break. So it’s like coronavirus made me kind of realize I needed to take a break in life. And then it also changed my perspective of design and how I can use that more for a spiritual, more people impact thing versus a success thing.

Tiffany Middleton:
I try to use my design in a way of helping other black people get into design and find different careers to kind of outside the box versus doing design to kind of build my own career in a way. I feel like I’m settled in my career and I feel like now I’m at a spot where I really interested in mentorship and helping other people out and then collaborating with other designers and also just spreading more awareness about design in general for black people.

Maurice Cherry:
I want to go back just a little bit to ESPN because, of course, during the pandemic last year, sports were kind of… Everything sort of took a pause, especially major sporting events. How did that really affect your day-to-day work at ESPN when everything is revolving around regular sporting events?

Tiffany Middleton:
So what I did at ESPN right before I left, I worked on the digital content team. So a lot of our work wasn’t your day-to-day sports on TV. It was more of a very secluded market and we did a lot of stories based off of sports where they were these long form digital visual storytelling pieces. So we told a lot of stories that were kind of about sports and evolved into sport has been none of our day-to-day work revolved around the sports games. So for us, I think one of the departments that probably had a biggest impact of… We were working even more because we were doing a lot of evergreen stuff before a sport stopped. So once it stopped, it’s like we started to do more work and more traffic on the site because there wasn’t these live games. So I honestly started working more when the coronavirus happened, but I was at home, but I was working more. So it was a different pace, but you start to burn out a little bit quicker than you would in an office.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, interesting. I can imagine because you’re now having to work from home and I think it’s something… Certainly when I had guests on the show last year, that was just a big thing for a lot of people to get over because your home is sort of your refuge away from work and now the two locations have merged and you have to kind of find a way to compartmentalize that.

Tiffany Middleton:
It’s no break. And then I got a puppy, so it was just like, I never had a break. I had no space and [inaudible 00:08:15]… While I was there, they started to have layoffs during coronavirus. So it’s like, I started to see the impact of it for coworkers and friends. So it started to kind of… Mentally, it became a tough situation because it’s like, “There’s no sports, are sports going to come back?” Eventually the coronavirus did affect our team. So right before I left, I had a couple of coworkers that did get laid off. So I think it was just a lot happening at once. And then you see it so close up of the effects of people. Luckily I personally wasn’t laid off, but just having people that I’ve worked with for four and five years lose their jobs, it takes a mental toll on you.

Maurice Cherry:
I know exactly what that’s like. I mean, I was working at a startup last year going into the pandemic and I think it was maybe about two months… Actually, it was right around this time that we’re recording, right around this time. Right around Memorial Day that they laid off my entire department, just gone and it does take a toll on you because you say that part about having to learn how to take a break. I had to learn how to take a break really quickly because I went from this kind of go, go, go, rush, rush, rush all the time, traveling with work, to now just you’re at home. And granted, I’m in Atlanta and there wasn’t really that much of a lockdown period, but still, it takes a toll on you. It really does.

Tiffany Middleton:
Yeah. And see, I was in Connecticut, so it was already feeling like a lockdown place. [crosstalk 00:09:50] coronavirus [inaudible 00:09:50], it was a complete lockdown.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. Let’s fast forward to kind of what you’re doing now. You mentioned you’re a senior art director at FanDuel. What does a typical day look like for you?

Tiffany Middleton:
So my role at ESPN was more so hands-on, building websites and working with developers and kind of taking about a month or two per project, whereas at FanDuel, not only am I managing a team, so I’m responsible for everything FanDuel Fantasy and [TVG 00:10:23] products and FanDuel Racing. And then just overseeing the designers on my team, approving work and then also creating work myself and then figuring out different systems and trying to rearrange systems that they have in place currently and just figure out new processes. So I went from kind of 90% designed to 50% design and then 50% emails, people managing, processing, strategy. I’m definitely enjoying it, it’s definitely a different role. So it’s just making me see things in a different light and understanding the intricacies of having a great system.

Maurice Cherry:
Is it different going from a media company to… Well, FanDuel is what? Entertainment slash gambling sort of, right?

Tiffany Middleton:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Maybe gambling is not the right word to use there.

Tiffany Middleton:
I don’t know if that’s the word we want to use, but essentially, I would say more of… Because I’ve been playing fantasies, I’ll say it’s kind of like a getaway for sports of people still watch sports but I think, especially with social media and Instagram and things like that, something that I did notice at ESPN was people were less likely watching TV. [inaudible 00:11:41] I think they started to do with a lot of cord cutting where I feel like at a company like FanDuel, adding an incentive of betting or a fantasy or just being able to play with your friends and kind of watch a game with a little bit more invested into it, makes it more longevity with [inaudible 00:12:00] sports.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tiffany Middleton:
But you’re competing with everything else on social media these days. So making that switch from essentially storytelling and it’s very Print style Magazine type of foundational design to more we do a lot of marketing assets on this end. It’s a faster pace, a different type of strategy, a different audience that you’re looking at. Also at ESPN, I was kind of working on user experience and UX and UI. So going from a UX and UI back to kind of marketing design, it definitely took some adjusting to do.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, yeah. Going from that sort of product based work to more, I guess kind of print and web sort of almost, it’s a big shift.

Tiffany Middleton:
Yeah. I was using Figma and Sketch at ESPN for my last three years and [inaudible 00:12:53] Photoshop. So it’s like I’m having to almost go back to college. The product world is very much different than marketing, like I said, it’s a whole different thought process.

Maurice Cherry:
What does the design team at FanDuel look like?

Tiffany Middleton:
So we have a ACD above me, so he manages our whole department and so it’s him and then it’s me and my counterpart. And so I oversee half the house and my counterpart oversees the other half of the house. Like I said, I do fantasy and racing. So racing includes TVG, which is a horse racing product. And then FanDuel Racing, which is our in-house horse racing product. And then my counterpart, he does FanDuel SportsBook and then FanDuel Casino. And then under us, it’s senior and junior and regular designers. And then we have a copywriting team that we work counter with. And then we have a project managing team that we work with. So it’s a bigger team than… Well, not bigger, but a little bit more diverse as far as the copywriters, editors and designers on our team as a whole. When we’re on meetings, we’re all together versus at ESPN, a lot of our meetings were more just in the design department. I did work with a lot of writers, but not as closely as we work with our copywriters and project managers at FanDuel.

Maurice Cherry:
Have you all started to kind of go back into the office yet? Or is it still remote?

Tiffany Middleton:
We’re still remote, so I haven’t met any of my coworkers in person. I’ve only seen them on Zoom.

Maurice Cherry:
And you’ve been there now, like you said, for just a couple of months now.

Tiffany Middleton:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. All right. Well, hopefully soon once these mandates lift, I feel like there’s already this rush to get back to normal. I’m using the air quotes over here. So that’ll probably happen sooner rather than later. When it comes to working on new projects, what does the creative process look like? Because like you said, the team is pretty varied in the structure and even the type of designers that you have.

Tiffany Middleton:
So I think the biggest difference, especially from ESPN to this job is that at ESPN, a lot of the projects, it was a free range of the imagery you can use as far as the athletes. Whereas at FanDuel, we have to use a lot of stock imagery or more your foundational design stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Tiffany Middleton:
So when we’re concepting, it’s like, you really have to rely on your design skills versus at ESPN, I felt like if you have a nice photo of LeBron and great typography, it’s a pretty solid design. Whereas here you have to really work to kind of use what you have.

Maurice Cherry:
And that’s because you’re not necessarily working directly with the teams or with the photographers [crosstalk 00:15:43], you have to kind of sell the concept of sports without the actual athletes in that way.

Tiffany Middleton:
Exactly. So it is a different task.

Maurice Cherry:
When you look back at some of the work that you’ve done over the past five to six years, it could be stuff at FanDuel, it can be stuff at ESPN or whatever, what have been some of your favorite projects?

Tiffany Middleton:
Ooh, that is a very hard one. I think my favorite project is going to be a project I did right before LeBron’s time with the Lakers. So we hired an artist from every state where every NBA team is and did these LeBron billboards, which is a pretty cool project. It took a lot of time just finding the right artist in the right states and then collecting their work. And then we did kind of a website part to it. But just seeing the different artists come up with these different concepts that are very true to their states and very true to the teams that they were trying to get LeBron to come to, was probably my hands down favorite project. I mean, it became a big deal of in Louisiana, I think they actually put up some of the billboard.

Tiffany Middleton:
Somebody purchased the art and they put a billboard in Louisiana and then the LA one was pretty great, which the artist who did that ended up putting those on a t-shirt and I had one. So it was just one of those projects that you don’t really get a lot of chances to work on. So I was very grateful to have been assigned that project, but it also took a whole lot of work because I was excited for it to be done with, but still when I look back, I think that’s probably one of the funnest projects that I worked on throughout my career.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, when I had you back on the show, back in 2016, you were in Dallas, you were just starting out at Panini America, I remember it’s a company. I think they make trading cards, right?

Tiffany Middleton:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s sports trading cards. How did you end up getting connected with ESPN and eventually making it to New York?

Tiffany Middleton:
So super funny, but Twitter. Twitter is the funniest thing. So right when we probably were chatting maybe two months before that, I actually had applied for a job at ESPN. They flew me out. I met one of the creative directors there via Twitter and he connected me with a potential job. I went to Connecticut and I end up not getting the job and I was devastated, super sad, but then a month or two later, I end up getting a job in Panini America. And probably two months after we talked, if not sooner, I got an email from the same creative director, and he reached out about a potential part-time job with ESPN, working on Snapchat, at the time Snapchat Discover was not a thing, but that’s kind of how I started. So I was working at Panini America full-time and then I started working with ESPN part-time and within a year, they offered me a part-time position in Connecticut, but I was hesitant to kind of move for a part-time position, but they made things work to where it worked out logistically for me.

Tiffany Middleton:
So I end up leaving the job in Dallas after a year, moving to Connecticut, working part-time for a couple of months. And then I end up getting an opportunity to work full-time, which I switched from the social media team to the digital content team. So it was kind of this blessing in disguise that I didn’t even know. Like I said before we talked, I had gotten denied from ESPN and I was devastated. And then within a year, I was in Connecticut, working there and it was a full circle moment.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). How was it adjusting to the city and everything?

Tiffany Middleton:
I moved from Dallas to Connecticut. So I’ve been in Connecticut pretty much the last five years or so. And [crosstalk 00:19:36] I met friends in Connecticut and we would spend a lot of time in New York City. And so eventually I was like, I need to move to New York because I’m going [inaudible 00:19:45] Connecticut, but it’s not a lot to do there. Especially [inaudible 00:19:49] Dallas or New York, it’s nothing to do there except for work. So I always moved to Connecticut envisioning that I will live in New York City. I just didn’t think I would be in Connecticut that long. So coming to New York has been a big adjustment, but I don’t think I’ve really experienced New York because coronavirus.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, yeah. That makes sense.

Tiffany Middleton:
[crosstalk 00:20:10] living here, I’ve been here on the weekends, but I haven’t lived here when it wasn’t coronavirus, but it’s starting to pick back up. But just being here for five or six months, the amount of black creatives that I’ve been able to meet compared to living in Connecticut or even Dallas is 10 times twofold.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh really? Okay.

Tiffany Middleton:
So many more black creatives, just different people that I would not have crossed paths with in life if I hadn’t lived in New York and especially within Brooklyn itself.

Maurice Cherry:
Now are these other black designers in the sports and entertainment industry or just black designers in general?

Tiffany Middleton:
So some, a handful are probably in sports entertainment and then some are just within the industry of just creative and fashion. But actually at ESPN, I did meet a lot of black creatives, some weren’t designers, but photographers, videographers, producers, just a wide range. So it’s like, ESPN was very much majority white, but I did meet a lot of black people that were creative, just within smaller groups.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. That’s good to know. I mean, I would imagine, like you said, with the pandemic, that does make it difficult now to really meet folks. I can’t wait to go back to New York. When I used to work for a company in New York, I didn’t like it because I would go to New York and I’d think, “Oh, work.” But before then, I loved going to New York. So I’m looking forward to going back up there when I don’t have to work. And just kind of experiencing the city, New York is fun. It’s fun. I don’t know if I could ever live there, so props to you for that, but it’s a great city, especially for, like you said, meeting other black creatives and stuff. That’s pretty cool.

Tiffany Middleton:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Did it take a lot to kind of adjust to the city?

Tiffany Middleton:
I think because the last two years I’ve been back and forth… I kind [inaudible 00:22:04] neighborhood, I have friends that lives pretty close, so it’s like I got here, everything kind of just centered around me. I already kind of had people that I knew, I already had spots that I knew, but I think it’s definitely different than Connecticut because it moves very fast. There’s a lot going on. And me growing up in the South, every time my family comes up to New York, they absolutely hate it after [inaudible 00:22:29]. [inaudible 00:22:33] overload of people, overload of things, it’s just a overload. So [crosstalk 00:22:39] sometimes it can be tiring, but I also live in Brooklyn. I feel like Brooklyn is more like a neighborhood versus if you go to Manhattan, it’s more of that New York City vibe, whereas Brooklyn just… It’s chill, but you never really know what you’re going to get when you walk outside.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, certainly, I mean there’s parts of Brooklyn that are like that. Most places that I’ve been to in Manhattan… Unless you’re going further up like near Harlem or Washington Heights or something, or at least to me, it hasn’t felt as claustrophobic as if you’re down in say the Financial District or something like that. But no, Brooklyn is fun. Brooklyn’s a fun time.

Tiffany Middleton:
Yeah. No, it’s very fun. It’s very quiet. It’s also very small once you get used to it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Nice. That’s really nice. So let’s talk about Trenches. Now I remember when I had you back on the show you were talking about In The Trenches, which was this site that you had created to kind of talk about black designers and the sports and entertainment industry. Has Trenches kind of evolved from that concept?

Tiffany Middleton:
I think it’s evolved as I’ve evolved, right? Like I said, early on in my career, very focused on just design, design, design. And I think the older I got, the more I really started to look at the spaces that I was in work wise and realizing that, “Why am I the only black designer?” And then looking into sports in general and like, “Why is there only 10 of us?” Feeling like you’re in a box that you can’t quite get out of. And so for me, Trenches kind of started to evolve around just black creatives in general. So I’m kind of still in this in-between of it’s sports, but I’m also trying to break it out more into culture and music. Because I feel like sports is very black on the field, but within the front offices, it’s usually very non-black. I’ve tried really hard to focus on black designers in the sports industry, but you just start to kind of run into the same people because it’s hard to let us in.

Tiffany Middleton:
So I’ve been working with a mentee and she got a job in the sports industry and working at NFL. And I was really proud of that, but it’s like, we’re still just fighting just to get in. Last year, I ended up teaming up with some of my friends who some worked at ESPN, some worked at the NBA, they’re all black women and we did a Zoom conference where it was just black women in the sports industry. And it was just designers, editors, social media managers. And that for me kind of changed the wheel again because it was something near and dear to me. Being a black woman, seeing that many black people that were kind of experiencing the same thing I was experiencing, it made it feel more true to me. So that’s kind of where Trenches have evolved, is going from sports and design to more just our experiences as black women or black creatives in this industry.

Tiffany Middleton:
We sometimes don’t seem to exist or even when we get there, we’re dealing with issues that a lot of our counterparts aren’t dealing with, or even when I think sports is on a general, it’s so hard to get into. And a lot of times people break into it by doing these free internships. But the reality is there’s not a lot of people of color, especially black people that can kind of afford to take this free job and have their parents take care of them for a year or so without getting an income. And I think sometimes that pushes us behind and then sometimes I’ve seen where people, essentially hire people that are the same as them.

Tiffany Middleton:
So it just started to seem like a lot of different obstacles that were coming up for black people to be in the sports industry. So it’s something I’m still fighting for, but it’s evolving more into a culture thing because I feel like black people have more space to kind of own their own thing in culture and music versus in sports. It just seems like until the gatekeepers really focus on bringing in black creatives in the sports industry, it’s always going to be a tooth and nails fight.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting. I didn’t even think of how maybe these specific kind of niches of design would still unfortunately really have this big diversity problem. And the reason I’m saying this is because over the past few years, as I’ve done the show, I mean, there has been an influx of black designers in product and UX like crazy. And I don’t know if it’s because of bootcamps or because of other programs or stuff, but you can go in a major city and swing your bag around and hit a dozen black UX folks. It’s kind of astonishing in a way. I didn’t even think about how in something like sports and entertainment that there’s not that many black designers that are kind of making the graphics and stuff like that. Why do you think that’s the case? Is it because of the kind of old boys’ network?

Tiffany Middleton:
I think it’s a old boys’ network and I’ll be honest, I think for me, I started to notice it with Trenches because once I started Tweeting out stuff about Black Lives Matter and black designers… The more I started Tweeting about black people, the less interaction I started to get because I have ran Trenches as if it was this well-oiled company. And I had kept it very corporate and not really personal. And last year when the George Floyd thing happened, it became more personal to me. That’s when I really, really started to realize, “Oh, they’re not interacting that much.” And I think that kind of made me switch it up because I just felt like for years there are a lot of followers that I could kind of name off the top of my head.

Tiffany Middleton:
People were very into Trenches, but when it became about humans, it was less support. It was less interaction. It was losing followers. So me being a black queer woman, I couldn’t fake the funk anymore. It wasn’t as important to me as livelihood was, I wanted to more so create a platform and a space for people like me that weren’t really included in those rooms versus people that had always kind of been entitled to that room. So I felt like Trenches was becoming something where even I wasn’t being accepted in it as I was.

Maurice Cherry:
You said something really interesting there, I want to kind of draw out a little bit where you said once you started talking about humans, humans play sports too. And I’m not saying that in a bad way as how you say it, but I know there seems to be… And this is probably gone back we’re talking decades, probably OJ and even past them. But there’s something about America and seeing black athletes, they just don’t want politics in their sports. They want sports to be this idyllic… I don’t necessarily want to say lily-white, but they want it to be this idyllic problem free environments that’s just about the game. And that’s not the case, especially when you have black people that are the majority of the players.

Tiffany Middleton:
Yeah. I mean, we could talk about this all day, but [inaudible 00:30:08] it’s a system, right? Because the real thing for me is, like I said, I grew up on ESPN, I loved it to death. I grew up on Slam Magazine, but something I didn’t realize up until recently was it was not those companies that I was in love with or that I loved, it was that the guys on the field, the women on the field, they reminded me of the people I grew up with. I was able to see people that looked like us on the big screen and that’s what I was attracted to. So I think once I got to those companies, I started to realize that the people on TV aren’t the people I’m working with. So it’s like they controlled our narrative. And I started to really realize that they control our narrative.

Tiffany Middleton:
And I think what I like about LeBron so much is that he was one of the first players that I feel like truly started to own his own narrative. I love Michael Jordan to death. I think he’s the greatest athlete ever. But if you really think about Michael Jordan, the executives at Nike owned the narrative of who he was supposed to be and who they wanted him to be and who they [inaudible 00:31:13] be. And so I think when designers are designing these graphics, they’re just essentially using these basketball players and football players that are essentially characters with the tattoos and the dreadlocks and the braids, and they’re looking cool on these graphics. But if they walked into a store at their homes and they didn’t have those big names, they might call the cops on them. And that’s why I said humans of… Once I started talking about real heart to heart stuff of things that we have to deal with as black people, nobody wanted to entertain it.

Tiffany Middleton:
I don’t want to be like an athlete that’s just like, “Shut up and dribble.” When I’m shutting up and Tweeting what you want to see, you’re cool with it. But when I Tweet something that’s serious, nobody wants to talk about it. Or when I Tweet about, “You guys should hire more black designers.” “Well, they’re not qualified.” Well, why aren’t they qualified? Is it that they can’t afford to be in these schools? Or is it that they have the talent, but it’s not what you’re looking for? Because for me, I’ve always thought art is [inaudible 00:32:11]. So I think there is good design and there’s bad design, but there is a lot in between, as I’ve seen a lot of black designers get passed up on roles just because their work wasn’t the way a white designers’ is. So I also realized that a lot of people were getting hired from roles where people whose work I would be Tweeting out. So I just started to feel like I was supporting more non-black designers than I was black designers.

Tiffany Middleton:
And that just sit right for me, because I feel like it took me a while to just get my foot into the industry. And I think the people that did let me into those doors, they were all people of color. They were either people of color or white men who weren’t from America. So my boss at ESPN, he is from London. So it just was something that, it just was so apparent that I couldn’t not notice it. So that’s kind of why I kind of stepped away from the sports design thing and just started to focus more on black creators.

Tiffany Middleton:
Because I would find a lot of beautiful art in Brooklyn or beautiful photographers or things like that. But their work wouldn’t be sports center, but I just felt like it still needed to be shown and talked about, especially because once I did start speaking about black lives, or I put out the Protect Black Women shirts, 90% of my sales, 90% of the interactions was all black people. It just changed the perspective of I don’t want to be a sellout and it just felt like I was at that moment without realizing it.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting. I have to say, even coming to that realization shows, I think, your growth as a person and as a designer to be able to really survey the field and see that, that sort of what’s happening and how you can help to counteract that. One of the things that I present when I talk about Revision Path, I tell people to not just be an observer of the problem, but to work to try to be the solution because it can be real easy to just look at the landscape and see that things are messed up. And that’s all you talk about is how messed up it is. But you’re not doing anything to counteract that or to be actively against that. So no, I think that what you’re doing with taking Trenches in that direction is a great thing. And I can tell you, even just from doing this show for however… 400 plus episodes, the tide is turning in some ways, but it’s interesting to see how even in industries like sports and entertainment, particularly in sports, that that’s not the case.

Tiffany Middleton:
Yeah. It is definitely not the case.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. So aside from Trenches, you mentioned this Protect Black Women shirt. Are there any other projects that you’re working on?

Tiffany Middleton:
That was the last one out, I do you want to relaunch it because I feel like it has more legs and I have some stuff planned for the upcoming year, but I’m trying to figure out all the logistics, so just stay tuned for it.

Maurice Cherry:
The way that the year is going now, it’s of course so different from last year. It’s like, you’re kind of trying to get your rhythm back in a way after a year of not really being able to do what you do, you kind of have to sort of ease back into it a bit. I’m trying to think of what other stuff I would want to do creatively this year. And I don’t know, I need time to think about that. So that makes sense. Now back when I had you on the show, I keep mentioning our old interview, but you told me then that your dream project would be working with Nike. Is that something that’s still on your design bucket list?

Tiffany Middleton:
That has changed completely. So I think for me, the difference between me six years ago and me now is going back to what I just said about just fully stepping into my blackness and understanding that every room I walk into, people are going to see my color first. And I don’t ever want to take a job where I feel like I might have to lose a part of my culture in the surroundings of where I’ll be. So for me, A is I visited Portland, I’d never visited before, but I went there last year, right before coronavirus and my time at ESPN was great. It changed my life, it was a great experience, but I would probably not want to live in a place where the population is less than 20% black and very not diverse. And so A, I would just not want to live in Portland.

Tiffany Middleton:
And then B, I think again, kind of going back to growing up on ESPN, especially growing up on Nike, I mean, every shoe I own is pretty much a Nike shoe except for Adidas. But realizing that all of these companies, the one thing they have in common that I gravitate a lot towards to, is black culture. And I think for me now, it’s like, I’m realizing that I have what I was looking for and I can kind of do my own thing with it. And I also feel like, not to take anything at Nike or any other company, but sometimes it just feels like it’s capitalizing on black culture, especially when it’s such a big brand. And that’s kind of changed my thoughts about it because like I said, six years ago, I’m just thinking logistical design stuff, not thinking about any culture perspective or from a person to person perspective.

Tiffany Middleton:
And now it’s like the older I get, I’m like, I would love to work at Nike. I think they do great design, but I also wouldn’t want to take a job where I feel like my mental health or my ability to be around my culture might be limited in a way or capitalizing on black culture and not really giving back to it. I think I’ve turned into this humanitarian type of person. So I would love to work with Nike. I would love to collaborate with Nike, but working at Nike, as an in-house designer, those thoughts are a little bit less now.

Maurice Cherry:
I have what I was looking for. That is such a powerful statement to say. And you’re right about how these companies… Particularly Nike, I mean leans on blackness a lot. I mean, look at their marketing. I mean, look at Kaepernick.

Tiffany Middleton:
Yeah, exactly. And I mean, I think they do great work, but if we’re being in real and you look in the front office, they may not have a lot of black executives. And I’m one of those people, it might be contradictory or people might disagree with this, but I want to see black people in roles that aren’t diversity and inclusion or HR roles. I want to see a black design manager. I want to see black people in those roles at Nike where they’re doing the same jobs as white counterparts, but they just happen to be black. Not that they’re roles where it’s a role made for a black person. I just feel like they can add more diversity to the office side

Maurice Cherry:
In one of your recent Tweets, you said, “The older I get, the more I simplify.” How have you simplified your life over the past few years?

Tiffany Middleton:
Oh gosh. Let’s see. I think decluttered is the number one word. Not just decluttered my home, decluttered my mind, decluttered my thoughts, but I’ve decluttered my design process a lot. I think younger me is more into, “What’s the coolest design I can come up with?” Versus now it’s, “What is the most practical design I can come up with? What design can I create that isn’t going to cause any issues with legibility, any confusion?” Very being into simple. I love fashion, so I have to use Kanye as an example. Kanye from Graduation was wearing backpacks and polo outfits and lots of colors and stuff like that.

Tiffany Middleton:
And now [inaudible 00:40:19] Kanye seems like he wears the same thing every day, but he’s reserving his energy more so he can be more creative. And I start to realize that if I’m trying to do the best design every single design I do, I’m exhausting my energy and it’s causing me to be less creative. So now I’m being more intentional on textures, backgrounds, fonts, the foundational thing is that I can kind of switch up. So it’s kind of making this toolkit of accessories or design tools that I use and I kind of switch up and change around. So I still am able to be creative, but I’m also boxing myself in to where I’m not exhausting my creative energy.

Maurice Cherry:
Kanye also got four kids. So I would imagine that cuts down a lot on his own style. Just like, “Look, give me something simple.”

Tiffany Middleton:
I was going to say, he’s also a [inaudible 00:41:15] billionaire, so kids is… I’m sure he has people to take care of them to-

Maurice Cherry:
That’s true.

Tiffany Middleton:
[inaudible 00:41:20] creativity.

Maurice Cherry:
What keeps you motivated and inspired these days?

Tiffany Middleton:
Oh, let’s see. I think black culture does. I’m big into music. So I think back in my day… I’m not even that old, but I feel like back in the day, Lil Wayne, Missy Elliott, their music videos, they used to get me so excited. The conceptual stories behind it, the creativity, still feeling like true to nature, but seeing it on the big screen, those type of things get me excited. So music is continually being my inspiration for just motivated with design and then motivated on side projects or just motivated to do things that can potentially make a small change in this big world.

Maurice Cherry:
At this point in your career, how do you define success?

Tiffany Middleton:
I would say success for me is a peace of mind. Obviously a peace of mind, which seems very simple, but you know how sometimes you get the job that you love, but you never get any sleep, you’re always tired, you’re always stressed out, you are just running raggedy? So I think for me it’s like success has nothing to do with money, has nothing to do with awards and things like that. I think it’s what gives me gratification, what gives me peace, what makes me feel like I’ve done what I need to do, but it just doesn’t cause me regret or cause me a lot of problems. I just feel peace, especially with everything going on, that is what I define as success. Being able to do what I want to do when I want to do, how I can do it without having somebody control that in a way.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s the thing that I really love about kind of always having some sort of a side project or something. No matter where I work or what I do, I know I’m always going to have something on the side that’s just mine that I can do 100%, no outside input or anything like that. So I feel you on that. I actually asked this question in the last interview, I said, “What advice would you give your teenage self?” But what advice would you give 2015 Tiffany to help prep her for the future?

Tiffany Middleton:
Oh man. Patience. Just be patient because things are going to come and they’re going to come when they’re supposed to come, not when you want them to come. And that every day may seem like a long day, but when you look back, they’re short days, but to do something every day that will impact the next day.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, what would you like the next chapter of your story to be like, when you look at, let’s say the next five years, what kind of work do you want to be doing? Where do you want to be? All that sort of stuff.

Tiffany Middleton:
I think New York is my home for the next five years, at least. So I would definitely like to still be in New York, I would like to do more community events like art shows, maybe do some school programs. Just do more awareness for black designers within sports and just black designers in general. And then I’ll also probably like to hop my foot back into the product world because I really loved the thought process about that. So just more community events, probably bring Trenches outside the computer and have a outside event and maybe dabble back into product eventually.

Maurice Cherry:
I think that would be a great idea to do, like a little summer meetup or something like that.

Tiffany Middleton:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
It’d would be great. When I started doing live shows for Revision Path… What’s funny, when we had our interview, I wasn’t even thinking about taking this offline. I was like, “This is just going to stay a podcast.” But I started doing live shows in 2017. And the great thing about doing a live in-person event for black designers is the actual space and community that it creates. It’s not so much that you’re like, “Oh, where people in a place listen to someone,” or something like that. What it’s doing is it’s bringing folks together around a common theme that they may never have found a way to interact with each other in any other sort of way. So the fact that they’ve managed to come together in this one space that you’ve made of a meetup or something like that. We’ve done live shows where people will be hanging around an hour after we’re done, two hours after we’re done.

Maurice Cherry:
They’ve closed down the venue, people are still standing outside talking and it makes me wonder what connections have been made from those kinds of events. And if those connections would have even happened, if the event never happened. So I definitely love the idea of doing some live in-person stuff. I mean, I was starting to do a tour in 2020 before the pandemic. We did a live show out in Los Angeles, that was great. Actually we did our 300th episode in New York. That was 2019. I don’t want to get into that story, but that was a whole other thing. But if you think about doing live events, even just a small 20 person thing or something like that, socially distance, do it, it is such a good time. Not just for you as the host of it, but just for the community that you’ll be able to bring together around a common cause.

Tiffany Middleton:
Yeah. No, it’s actually something I’m kind of working on right now. So we may have to connect later, but yes, it’s something I was talking about with the team that I worked on, the Zoom conference with. And then coronavirus happened and it was just not working, but now that people are being outside again, it’s definitely something that’s in the works for me.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Well, just to kind of wrap things up here, Tiffany, where can our audience find out more about you and about your work and everything online?

Tiffany Middleton:
So I’m big on Twitter. I love to Tweet, so you can follow my personal page, it’s Tiggatip. So T-I-G-G-A tip on Twitter and then also Trenches, just Trenches_ on Twitter and I’m also on Instagram and not Facebook, but Instagram and Twitter. So @Tiggatip, personal, and then Trenches for Instagram and Twitter.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Tiffany Middleton, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show, coming back on the show, really. It’s been so great to hear your story of how you have leveled up since I first had you on the show. Back when I had you on back then, I remember saying how fun it was, how much of a treat it was to just talk with you and get a sense of what you’re doing. And I can hear the maturity and how much you’ve grown over the past six years just from this conversation. So I’m excited to see what comes next for you. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I really appreciate it.

Tiffany Middleton:
Thanks for having me.

Sponsored by Poster House

Poster House

If you are in NYC, head to Poster House in the Flatiron District to check out Julius Klinger: Posters for a Modern Age, an exhibition Steven Heller from PRINT Magazine calls “a trove of modern design innovation,” and Freak Power, an exhibition about Hunter S. Thompson’s run for sheriff described as “visually striking” by The New York Times.

Head to www.posterhouse.org and book your ticket today!

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Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit is a strategy and design firm committed to designing a more inclusive and equitable world.

We accomplish this through graphic design, presentations and workshops around I-D-E-A: inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility.

If you’re curious to learn how to combine a passion for I-D-E-A with design, check us out at brevityandwit.com.

Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.

It’s time for our annual audience survey! Tell us what you think about Revision Path, and you could win a $100 Amazon.com gift card! Visit revisionpath.com/survey to give us your feedback. Survey ends on May 31.

Brent Rollins

This week’s guest is a true creative changemaker. If you’re a hip-hop fan, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve seen his work somewhere over the past 30 years. He’s your favorite designer’s favorite designer. For our monumental 400th episode, meet the one and only Brent Rollins.

We have a wide-ranging conversation where Brent goes into some of his current projects and collaborations, and shares a bit about his creative process when starting on something new. Brent also talked about growing up in Los Angeles around the entertainment industry, how he helped co-found Ego Trip, and we have a great discussion around Black design aesthetics and defining success. Brent is someone who has been a huge inspiration to me as a designer and a creator, and having him share his story for this milestone episode is truly awesome.

Thank you all for supporting Revision Path!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
All right, so tell us who you are and what you do.

Brent Rollins:
My name is Brent Rollins, and the short answer is that I’m a multi disciplinary designer, the long answer would be that I’m a creative who collaborates with people, organizations that are passionate and sort of driven in their mission to kind of spread their ideas and positivity to the world and to sort of create guiding paths for people.

Maurice Cherry:
How is 2021 been for you so far?

Brent Rollins:
You know what, man? 2021, I’m ready to go. 2020 was actually the year that I was like, “Let’s do this. Weird. I’m ready to make some stuff happen.” Well, we know how that sort of ended up. So I think it’s been… I think a lot of people, including myself have been kind of bubbling and if you’re driven and if you have ideas and you’re creative, you’ve been using this sort of sabbatical or this time or this kind of slower period to think about things and formulate things and come up with ideas and plan. Like the people that have passed unfortunately, I know a few people that have been affected by the virus and stuff. So my heart goes out to them, but for those of us who are alive, this is a moment for us to be alive and to embrace that, and to really like… This is a blessing in that sense, if we haven’t been devastatingly affected. This has been a blessing to have this moment, to think about what we want to do and what we want to accomplish into what’s a forced introspection.

Brent Rollins:
And I hope rather that people kind of use it to better themselves. So, that’s what I’m about, man, I can’t wait for this year, unlike I’m ready to go.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I have talked to a lot of people that are saying that this is going to be like the new roaring 20s in a way?

Brent Rollins:
Oh, man. Is it ever? This is going to be yo, roaring 20s, baby boom, it’s going to be crazy. I think, come June, July, this is going to be wild, bro.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, No. And I think even now, there’s this sort of like, I can feel this renewed energy in the air, especially as people are starting to get the vaccine. And even as some places are starting to relax restrictions, things are starting to open up again. So, people are anxious to get back out there and experience the world, whatever that may look like.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah. Some people unfortunately continue to experience the world and they didn’t really care, no shots, no judgment. But for the rest of us hopefully like I said, we’re sensible enough to kind of use it to our advantage and kind of make plans and sort of think about things. And it’s really funny because at the top of 2020, I distinctly remember thinking, I can’t tell you where it was, but I can distinctly remember thinking. I was like, “Man, the world is moving really fast. This thing needs to slow down.” It was like I felt just how much stuff was going on. Because I live in New York City, and I see construction going on everywhere. And I see all this stuff happening. And it just felt like things were kind of out of control. And so it was… Like I said, it’s been a weird, mixed, I guess, [inaudible 00:07:08] and kind of blessing that this thing sort of forced everyone to slow down.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What does a typical day look like for you now?

Brent Rollins:
It’s funny, because I was never a very structured person, and I’ve become a little bit more regimented. And I actually really enjoy it. Or I feel like I need that. So, typical day for me right now is I’m in this kind of like new cycle. So, I’m actually implementing kind of new sort of regimens that I didn’t really do. So, I don’t know how typical it is. It’s only like maybe four months old. It seems like this has been Rollins’s day. But I typically go to sleep late, just because I’m a night owl. And I don’t get much sleep. So, I sort of wake up maybe about five or six hours later. And kind of like I want to read and sort of see what’s going on in the world and fix myself a little pot of coffee, and maybe take a little walk, get some air, get out the house, kind of just sort of take in what the environment has to offer, and start working on one of the multiple sort of projects that I got going on.

Maurice Cherry:
And what are some of those projects? I mean, as much of them as you can sort of talk about at liberty.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah. It’s really funny like… Because I was thinking about before this interview, I was like, “Man, you know what? I can’t really talk about the things that I’m working on right now.” Not because they’re secret, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself. A few of the things that are maybe like projects for people, again, like people that are doing sort of very interesting, sort of passion projects, or things that have sort of a larger good, I think that’s the kind of stuff that I can maybe talk about, as far as there’s this brother Waajeed, who is a DJ based in Detroit, who is pretty well known. And Detroit as you know, has amazing music history. And so, Waajeed has got this fantastic opportunity to open. I don’t want to call it a school, but he is spearheading this project to create a… I think it’s called underground music academy. It’s sort of a place for people to sort of engage in musical creativity. And it’s on this Boulevard in Detroit, that has a lot of insane Detroit musical history. So, I’m working on the identity for that. And I’m very excited about that.

Brent Rollins:
Some of the other projects that I’m working on, are really entrepreneurial projects that have been in the works for the past year. One of them, I had to put the brakes on because of COVID, but is still moving and I’m super excited about it. And I really can’t wait to sort of show the world what that’s about. But the short story is that it’ll be a sort of a restaurant or cafe or something. And then the other project, there’s another entrepreneurial project that I kind of don’t want to talk about. But I’m also very excited about. Other than that, yeah, everything else is really working on stuff for people for short films and some album covers and things that… Or people that I’ve creative history with, people that really want to kind of put something out into the world that’s a little bit different. I’m at the point in my sort of life or career, or however you want to talk about it, or however you want to think about it, where I just want to be a little bit selective, and I’m okay.

Brent Rollins:
I need to figure out… Everything has to… You have to make a living. But I can be a little bit selective about things because I don’t want to depend on those projects for the things to make a living, I’d rather have the entrepreneurial things be the things that I use to make a living.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Brent Rollins:
And that way, I have more control over the creativity, because it’s my projects. And then if I’m working with anybody, it’s going to be because I really believe in what they’re doing. There are people that have hit me up via social media. Man, people are like, “Yo, I’m doing this, would you do an album cover for me?” And I’m like, “Number one, you don’t talk to people like that.” You know what I mean? I also am like, “I’m not getting your hustle, but I’m also… I want to lend myself to projects that I feel that I understand and I feel have some sort of worth and value, and prove it to me.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s interesting how Twitter… And I guess you could say social media as a whole. But it’s amazing how Twitter has kind of almost flattened the… Like it’s flattened the hustle in a way. People will talk to you on Twitter in any kind of way. They don’t know who you are, and to that respect, I guess it’s that way with social media in general, they’ll just approach you on like some, “Hey, can you do this for me?” I get so many people that will… I wouldn’t even say that they write to the show, they tell the show, “I don’t know why you haven’t interviewed me yet.” Who are you? Person with no website and I can’t tell what kind of work that you do and you have 100 followers?

Brent Rollins:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s interesting how social media kind of flattens out in a way. People just don’t approach you with the same kind of not necessarily gravitas, but just the same sort of urgency. It’s just like, “Hey, do this for me.”

Brent Rollins:
Yeah. Well, I mean, people don’t… I can get into my old man, I’m going to put my old man pants on right now. It’s a little bit of number one, you should just learn if you’re going to… Like I said, if you’re going to approach people, show some respect, if you really like their work, at least be like, “Hey, I really like your work, this is what I’m trying to do,” and come with some humility and be like, “I’m doing this thing, would you be interested in it?” Yes, no, if not, I understand. I don’t really appreciate this sort of informality. I think social media enables people to be in contact, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Brent Rollins:
But it doesn’t mean that you should abandon sort of what has been traditional decorum and sort of like, just respect in terms of like how you approach people. I wouldn’t talk to any of these kind of design heroes that I have, as though they were my peers, they’re not my peers. Those are people that I look up to, and they’re deserving of that respect. And you’re right, yeah, as far as flattening, I think most of the people or a large amount of people that are using social media, it is flat, because they’re all peers. So, they can sort of approach people like that, but then there are other people that are within that space that are old like myself, that are like, “No, man, this is not how you run up on folks.” I didn’t run up on people like that. I was very-

Maurice Cherry:
Respectful?

Brent Rollins:
Yeah, respectful. But whenever I’d meet people that were in a particular state, I would just approach them [inaudible 00:13:57]. You know?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, yeah.

Brent Rollins:
I think that that’s… Not that I’m suggesting, “Yo, I’m better than you,” but I’m just kind of like, “Come on, man, I’m a grown man. Don’t talk to me like that.”

Maurice Cherry:
Right. And also, it’s clearly when someone’s approaching in that way, it’s one way transactional. Like, “What can I get?”

Brent Rollins:
Oh, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
“Can you do something for me?” Not like, “How do we help each other out in that kind of way?”

Brent Rollins:
Yeah, yeah. But you know what? I mean, if you’ve been doing anything for a moment, and you’re worth, you’re like us all, you can filter out who’s real and who’s not.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). That’s true.

Brent Rollins:
And even the people that are not, maybe they haven’t found their tribe yet, but you can tell that, “Oh, you’re looking.” If you can identify the people that are like the junior use.

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Brent Rollins:
Like, “Oh, yeah, no, I get it. Yeah, this person, they’re definitely on that vibe. And you know what? I’m going to put you under my wing because I can see that in you, and come along for the ride homie.” So, yeah. Oh, man, people hacked up on social media.

Maurice Cherry:
So, you’ve mentioned all these different kind of projects. First of all, I have to say I love the way you kind of just slowly was like, “Yeah, this is DJ in Detroit Waajeed.” You’re not talking about what Waajeed from slum village.

Brent Rollins:
No, no, no. Not at all.

Maurice Cherry:
Just like, “Yeah, this guy, he’s starting a school.” Doing the thing like, okay, all right. But when it comes to all these different projects that you do, what does your creative process look like when you’re starting a project?

Brent Rollins:
That is depending on the project, but I think that… I do a little research depending on what it is, one of the things that I try to tap into where… It’s really funny, because I have a great appreciation for sort of like, very learned kind of design approaches. But I think I’m really like a designer that came from an art background, I think, or more so just the act of creativity itself. And so I approach things in a way that’s more about emotion. And oftentimes, what is the feeling that I got when I encountered X? And so that’s what I’m trying to tap into in terms of like that sort of intuitive sort of feeling. I’m sure there have been moments in your life where there’s been some baby… I’m going to just use music, because it’s such a common denominator. When you… There was like maybe a club that you were just like, “Oh, man, that club was just… That was it. Because the DJ, the music was just right, and the vibe was right and the crowd, and the this and the that, and the…” All those kind of things.

Brent Rollins:
That’s a feeling. And if it’s done right, there’s a visual component to it as well. And so what I look towards is tapping into that visual trigger. That’s the thing because that’s my language. So, that’s the thing that whenever I was in any of these kind of environments, that’s what I latched on to, as my sort of like, this is my flotation device, this is what’s going to keep me up in this space. And I’m going to use this design thing or this visual thing and I’m going to sit back on my floaty and chill, while I’m observing the rest of the stuff that’s going on. That’s kind of like how I go. The creative process is about tapping into that vibe, that thing, that emotion that people get that is very subconscious. If you’ve been to the Caribbean, or certain countries, I don’t want to say third world countries, but just developing countries or something. There’s like the smell of like gasoline and burning jungle foilage. I was exposed to it as a young age.

Brent Rollins:
And then as an adult, I go back to those places and I’m like, “Oh, whoa!” It’s like automatically, it’s something that I totally forgot about, like, boom, it just triggered me. And I was like, “Oh, I’m back here. I’m ready to roll.” So, that’s what I’m trying to try to reach for, is to think about those kinds of things.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. So yeah, you try to tap into a certain… You said like a visual trigger or a vibe, or a feeling and then you kind of build out from their sounds like?

Brent Rollins:
Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, it’s really funny man, the emotions and the memories. Like I said, people don’t necessarily… Sometimes people don’t remember them. But when they see them, they get excited. Like, I love remembering things that I’ve totally forgot. Sometimes there’s a thing that maybe happened to me as a child, or that maybe I went to, and someone else will bring it up and I’m like, “Oh, whoa! Oh, man, I totally remember.” I love that. That’s like the best feeling ever, because you’re taken back to something that you had kind of pushed in the… It’s like in the back of the storage room. It’s like if you have stuff in storage, and you kind of go through things, and you rediscover them. Like recently, I was going through my parent’s garage sort of cleaning things out. And kind of came across two boxes of old comics that I had left behind when I left Los Angeles from New York. And I hadn’t thought about those comic books in 20 plus years, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Brent Rollins:
It’s not that I… I knew that I had comics, but I had got to the point where I just sort of disassociated and attached myself to those as possessions. Comic books are really important to me, the stories and the illustrations were… Some of the artists were very significant to me, and rediscovering those comic books in the back of my dad’s garage, and kind of going through it, man, I got a little teary eyed because I was like, “Oh man, a few comics.” I was just like, “Oh, man.” Because I decided to sell them because I haven’t looked at these things in so long. What’s the point of keeping these things? I just sort of resolved to sell them. I was going through some of the comments, I was like, “Man, do I really get rid of this? Oh, this is so awesome.” And it was like, yeah, I reconnected with something that I completely forgot about.

Brent Rollins:
So yeah, when I do… So, take it full circle. So, when I do design, there’s a tinge of nostalgia I guess, in some of the things because I think that’s what people are relating to, in some cases. And then other cases it’s like, “Well, I want to do something completely new.” And how do you do that? Even when you make something new, it’s rooted in something because if you do something that’s too new, you lose people. So, you want to put a little bit of something familiar in it.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s interesting you mentioned that sort of tinge of nostalgia, because I feel like there’s… We’ll get into the work that you’ve done with Ego Trip and Rap Pages, et cetera. But there’s a very temporal quality to your work that is kind of evocative of the 60s and the 70s in different ways. I think one, there’s this sort of like collage, mixed media kind of thing that I see you do sometimes. But then there’s also… And maybe I’m thinking of the more visual stuff that I see on television, but it’s also like a nod back to projectors. And there’s an audio element of a film reel, or noise grain that you see on film and stuff like that. And then just even the playful way that you use typography, it’s almost like you see those old school horror movie title cards or something. I get what you mean about that kind of tinge of nostalgia. But I think that’s a pretty big theme in your work though.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah. The thing about using that as a device, it’s funny, because I don’t know what… I really want to talk to some younger designers now and kind of get where their head is at, because when I would resort to those options, it’s because that’s what I know is familiar to people. And the idea of design, in my world design meaning kind of visual communications, graphics, that type of design. It’s really about I want to communicate with you. What’s our shared language? What are our shared memories? What is our shared sort of commonalities? And when I pull from those kinds of things, this is very conscious. Those are things that I want to trigger you. I want you to be like, “Oh, I get it.”

Brent Rollins:
I think there’s the idea of design as ornament and sort of fireworks, where it’s like, “Yo, I’m doing something new and this is [inaudible 00:22:39].” And you’re going to get about five people that understand what you’re doing, which is cool. I’m not against that. I love that kind of stuff. But the idea of design, my foundation, or my understanding of design is rooted in the old idea of what a graphic artist was, which was communication design. Right?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Brent Rollins:
So the idea of, I’m trying to reach you, I’m trying to talk with you. And for me, the shortcut is shared experiences. For me, the shortcut is what I’d surmise as being the things that we grew up with. And that’s how we begin to talk to each other. That’s kind of where I’m coming from. When I was doing that kind of stuff, it was based off of… It’s not the nostalgia because it looks… Sometimes that nostalgia can be about the kitsch factor or whatever.

Maurice Cherry:
Hmm, okay.

Brent Rollins:
I could… Man, I can go [inaudible 00:23:33].

Maurice Cherry:
I was actually careful not to use the word kitsch. So, I’m surprised you brought that up.

Brent Rollins:
Well, it’s sort of like the idea of… Well, when I say kitsch, I think… Let’s talk about the 70s for instance.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Brent Rollins:
And when you see things that are about the 70s and particularly black culture, it’s always expressed in these very kind of superficial, simple… It’s like the lettering is groovy, whatever that means.

Maurice Cherry:
Hobo standard kind of… I know what you mean. Yeah.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah. You think of afros as kitsch. It’s a little bit kitsch, right? People don’t look at afros as… They don’t look at afros as what it was, which was like this assertion of black identity and being sort of proud of kinky hair and all this other kind of stuff. They look at it as being a style. Right?

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Brent Rollins:
And how big it was, or how large your afro was. And sometimes there’s this sort of… There’s definitely like a silliness to some stuff from the 70s. I think that’s the sort of kitsch thing and it becomes like this kind of joke. I think about that movie, Black Dynamite, which avoided it because it was… That movie wasn’t… It took place in the 70s, but it wasn’t about afro jokes.

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Brent Rollins:
It was, but it wasn’t. It was really like a very loving, sort of understanding about that sort of aesthetic. But it was deeper than an afro jokes. I don’t like afro jokes. I don’t like afro jokes… [inaudible 00:25:10] my fist on the table. Yeah, it’s not about the kitsch today, kitsch isn’t about… It’s about like, “Oh, I remember that vibe.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah, that’s what I’m trying to tap into.

Maurice Cherry:
So you mentioned Los Angeles, where you’re originally from. Tell me what it was like growing up there.

Brent Rollins:
Oh, man, what a weird place! I have a love and hate relationship with Los Angeles, because it made me who I am. So, I can’t hate on it. And there’re some really beautiful things about the city. There are some other things that I didn’t like, because I grew up around the entertainment industry. And so it was just sort of like a preoccupation that… Yes, it generates money and it generates attention. But sometimes I have to wonder why people sort of got into that world. But the world that I grew up in, was a middle class, black neighborhood called Windsor Hills, which I love to say, the Issa Rae’s character on Insecure, she’s from the neighborhood that I grew up. So-

Maurice Cherry:
Uh-huh (affirmative).

Brent Rollins:
They got to her and when that show came out, I was just like, I just couldn’t believe that anything was shot in my neighborhood. I’m like, “Oh, my God, they’re shooting there, they’re doing a scene there or some other place.” And it just blows my mind. So, I have to admit, it’s like a place that I’m very proud to come from, even though ironically, when I was growing up, I wasn’t. It was very conflicting because it was a neighborhood that in the 60s, I would say was probably… It was… I think my understanding was predominantly white, predominantly… A lot of maybe Jewish people who lived also in the neighborhood of Windsor Hills, View Park, Ladera Heights, Baldwin Hills, that area. And I think as black people started… I like to say or not like to say, but I kind of refer to the 60s as being like when black people actually arrived in the United States.

Brent Rollins:
That was when actual opportunities started opening up in the same way that other immigrants sort of arrived in the United States and they have to kind of scrapped their way, they’re at the bottom, but they still have this sort of legitimate way to sort of move on. In some ways, the 60s was kind of like that, finally being able to participate. And so a lot of folks who had been able to get like civil service jobs, or other types of sort of middle class jobs started buying into the neighborhood that I grew up in. And so, I think that was great to see. Some things I didn’t necessarily like, because I don’t… I had problems with sort of the kind of class segregation that was apparent and less about money, but more about social segregation. And the idea that… The idea society was something that I kind of struggled with. I grew up around people that… I want to make it very clear, I’m not knocking something like Jack and Jill or those kinds of organizations.

Brent Rollins:
I think at the time, I wasn’t part of those things and I didn’t understand them at the time. So, my limited understanding was, this was just a weird, boujee, kind of whatever, I understand it, or have a better appreciation of it now in the sense of… The way I like to think about it, is if your parents, regardless of the situation that they come from, they want something better for you. And so, that sort of situation exists because they want their children to succeed, or they want their children to have a guaranteed better life. But I didn’t understand that at the time. And so even though my father worked in or rather was trying to make his way in entertainment during that time, we ourselves were not probably as well off as maybe the people that were around me. So, that kind of gave me a different sort of perspective on things.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). I remember Jack and Jill growing up, but I didn’t think it was just some boujee black people. Like, seriously. But then I grew up as folks who listen to the show know. I grew up in Selma, Alabama, and it’s like at the end of the day, we’re all poor black people in the country. I think when I was looking at it from sort of as like from a teenage perspective, and I don’t know if it’s this way for all of Jack and Jill, but it certainly was this way back then in Alabama. It was by sort of social class of course, but then also by skin color. Pretty much everyone in Jack and Jill was light skinned and I am not. And it’s like I would have people say, “Well, you would be so good at Jack and Jill, but you know.” So, if you were just a few shades lighter maybe and this other thing that we had, we’re like…

Maurice Cherry:
And this was in high school, I don’t know if this is even a thing or if this was just a thing endemic to our high school, but we had these high school fraternities and sororities that were based off of black fraternities and sororities. So, you had the mini Alpha Phi Alpha, we’re the African Knights, and like the mini AKAs, Alpha Kappa Alphas we’re culture Rama, and the mini Delta Sigma Theta, were delta teams. And I never understood any of it. My mother was in a sorority, my mother’s a delta, but I didn’t get it. Like, “Why are we doing this? This doesn’t make any sense. You’re just sort of lording this imaginary social position over someone else for what?”

Brent Rollins:
Yeah. It’s funny, I don’t… Again, I don’t really understand the motivation for that. I could say that as I’ve grown older, I don’t want to say I’ve grown more boujee. I’m not going to say that though. I’m not going to say that I don’t like nice things. Let’s put it that way. But I don’t really quite understand that point of view. An interesting thing that… And I don’t know how this connects, really. But what comes to mind is, I got the opportunity to work with Don Cornelius.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow!

Brent Rollins:
And one of the things that he said to me was, black people don’t recognize class.

Maurice Cherry:
Hmm.

Brent Rollins:
And which sort of defies what we’re talking about.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Brent Rollins:
But in some ways, I understand what he’s saying because at the end of the day, in the United States, we’re all black people. We’re all structurally, socially, second class. And so, that’s our commonality. And I don’t know, I just thought it was a really interesting statement from him. I think we are people in general, I don’t know. Sort of seek to separate ourselves. But at least in the United States, there’s still this thread, that we’re all on the same boat.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I think in the south, certainly there was probably just an additional… There may have just been an additional element of wanting to… I don’t know, maybe have what white people had in some way?

Brent Rollins:
Sure.

Maurice Cherry:
I wonder if that’s part of it. For example, like I mentioned the high school fraternities, we had both a cotillion and a beautillion. I had a beautillion that was stupid. But like you-

Brent Rollins:
Congratulations.

Maurice Cherry:
Thank you. But you’re like-

Brent Rollins:
Black tie.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s like, “Oh, you’re a distinguished man of a certain age.” And it’s a whole thing with like, they do a cakewalk and you have to be in a suit. A tux actually, be in a tux and you do the waltz. It’s so stupid, I don’t know if any other… I hope they don’t still do that. Because when I think back on, I’m like, “This is like some midnight in the garden of good and evil kind of shit. This is weird.”

Brent Rollins:
I’m going to offer the inverse of that. I think that there’s an opportunity to create expressions that are highly developed. And I don’t necessarily have a problem with that. I think that, to your point, when it becomes about emulating the surface aspects of white culture, then that’s where it becomes problematic. But if you’re celebrating the things that are great about your culture, I think that’s a different point of view. And maybe that’s not the way we’re going to solve this problem, or be able to put a suggestion box to Jack and Jill, but maybe that’s how it transforms, or maybe there’s some other organizations or people who are less about that sort of take on things. And more about, “This is what’s beautiful about black culture.” And we should celebrate those things. And we should aspire to those things. I think that that’s the thing.

Brent Rollins:
There should be a quality and execution and decorum level that a lot of cultures have that are had been sort of codified and sort of expected like we were talking earlier about like, I go to Japan or something like that. I expect Japanese design to be kick ass. Or even like Scandinavian design. I expect it to be pretty damn good. And so that’s okay to me to be like, “Are you at that level?” No. And when you reach that level, dope, we’re going to knight you. You know what I’m saying? It’s like, you did it. We have a sense of that with music in terms of it doesn’t matter necessarily what genre it is. And even if you don’t like it, you might be like, “Okay, I’m not really necessarily feeling this particular take, but I can tell that it’s the person behind it, they put a lot into it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah

Brent Rollins:
I think music is like one of the things that black Americans do very well, and is worldwide considered to be of excellence. And we have grown up and been exposed to something of excellence, that when it’s time for those who decide to participate into those avenues, even when they’re doing something new, they’re trying to shoot for a particular bar.

Maurice Cherry:
Right, right.

Brent Rollins:
And I think that having those kinds of standards, absolutely. I think that I see no problem in that sort of higher culture participation. Does that make sense?

Maurice Cherry:
That makes sense. Certainly, I get what you’re saying about when you’d look at another nation’s culture for example, there’s a certain expectation there. And I think that’s because that play that particular aesthetic, similar to what you’re saying with like black people in music, it’s been distilled and exported in a way where you already have a presupposition of what it’s going to be before you even know what it is. Like if you order… I’ll give you an example. I ordered some pants from, I forget what the… It was something I saw on Instagram, that was probably my fault. But I saw some dope pants on Instagram and I was like, “Oh, they’re like some Japanese, Myketo pants. So I expect when I get them, they’re going to have a certain flattering cut or something different than maybe you wouldn’t see with American apparel or something like that. Not the brand, but just apparel in general.

Maurice Cherry:
And like for black design, I think that’s a moving target in a way, because it’s going to depend on your experiences, where you grew up, where you pull inspiration from. I just had a German American designer on the show, Julian Williams, who is currently in Amsterdam. Young kid, 25 years old, has done design work for Karl Lagerfeld, Nike, Tommy Hilfiger, has this very distinct, bold graphic type of graphical design. But then he also pulls inspiration from voguing and the ballroom scene that he’s a part of. And so it’s all a part of his general design aesthetic. Is that black design? Because he’s a black designer? Yes?

Brent Rollins:
Absolutely. Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
But I’m saying like it’s like a moving target, because then you could look at your work, and your work is definitely very steeped in like I said, these kind of references from the 60s and the 70s, and this tinge of nostalgia. And a lot of what you have done has kind of set the… I feel like has set the visual cornerstone for an entire culture when people think of hip hop design, it comes down to a lot of the stuff that you did with Eagle Trip, a lot of the stuff you did with Complex, these very interesting graphic styles. That also is black design.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah, that’s the goal. Like I said, it’s not one… What you’re alluding to, it’s not one thing, it’s not one particular genre, but is when you enter that space, it’s going to be executed at a particular level. It’s going to be… It’s going to cover specific things. And there are sort of expectations that you get. Like jazz is totally different from R&B and is totally different from Samba, is totally different from reggae, is totally different from dancehall, but it’s all black music, right? It’s totally different from the blues, it’s all black music, they all sound different, right? But there’s this thread of expression and commonality. And when these genres develop themselves, the execution is you can’t deny it. So, that’s a goal, is to create things that even though they’re not in one particular space, or they may jump from place to place, which is what’s going to happen, you want them to leave a mark.

Maurice Cherry:
And I will say speaking about how kind of having black design being internationally recognized in a way similar to how black music is, a lot of your work has been exhibited in group exhibitions, both here in the US, as well as internationally. What does it mean to have your work kind of shown in that kind of fashion?

Brent Rollins:
When my stuff is recognized internationally, it means a lot because a lot of it was pre-internet and that means that the people that decided to talk about design or whatever, they’re seeking, they’re looking for. They’re looking for content like anybody like anything or anybody now, but they have a certain standard in mind. And there’s a filter that they have in their head. So, what I’m most proud of, I guess, is publications and people that have reached out to me. Yeah, like I said, particularly before the internet was popping. Because they were like, “Oh, I’ve seen this, I’ve seen a few of these things. I really was affected by this, or this was a music artist that really meant a lot to me. And I see that a couple of other artists that mean a lot to me were represented visually by this guy, Brent Rollins. And so let me look into it.” That’s a good feeling. And to know that people around the world who are on the same wavelength as you, and who are seeking out things, find you. That’s incredible.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Brent Rollins:
That makes me feel good. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now, we’ve talked about Ego Trip, just kind of briefly touching on it. But I want to go more in depth about that. You came on as our director, you’re kind of one of the co founders of this group with some titans in the industry, Sacha Jenkins, Elliott Wilson, Jeff Mao, take me back to that time. What did it feel like sort of coming together and building something like Ego Trip and the work that you all were able to do?

Brent Rollins:
Oh, sure yeah. And we have to remember the one titan who is always like never wants attention, was Gabriel Alvarez. Yeah. I mean, Ego Trip was kind of like… We were like a band. And in some ways for that world, we were like a supergroup. And I got to know… I started working with Gabriel Alvarez when I was working at Rap Pages, got the gig through very awesome, incredible woman named Sheena Lester. And Rap Pages was an early sort of competitor to The Source Magazine. And-

Maurice Cherry:
Larry Flynt.

Brent Rollins:
Larry Flynt, my man. Yeah. Enough respect to that guy, rest in peace. What a person to work for. I didn’t work for him specifically, but just to know that he was in the building, what a… Very bizarre to be early 20s and working for a pornographer. But yeah, he had started this magazine, Rap Pages basically to kind of reap some attention that The Source was getting. And Sheena had taken it over, after maybe a few issues, I guess. And we wanted to build an editorial team. I was one of the later people to join, and one of my compatriots, there was Gabriel Alvarez. So, between myself, Sheena, Gabe, Blau, Dorothy, and I apologize if I can’t remember Hannibal and some other folks that… Nikki, incredible person. We kind of were a little kind of a group who kind of wanted to take on The Source. At the time, that was like the main kind of hip hop music magazine. It was the first and undeniably significant. But we sort of had our take on things or whatever.

Brent Rollins:
But we had hired freelance writers, and among them was Sacha Jenkins, and Elliott Wilson, and I’m not sure if Mel… I believe Mel may have been hired as well, as a freelance writer, but that’s how I got to know those guys. Or that’s how I made first contact with them. And after a few years of working at the magazine, Gabe had moved to New York to work with Sacha, on Ego Trip. And Sacha Jenkins, who for people that don’t know, I would say in recent years, he’s probably known for producing these documentaries called, I believe it’s called Fresh Dressed, which is about hip hop fashion. He also directed this Wu Tang documentary on Showtime. And so he’s been… And he’s also in a punk band and all this other kind of stuff. And Sacha has always been doing all these kind of great self-started initiating things and had this sort of fledgling magazine, or zin rather, called the Ego Trip.

Brent Rollins:
And Ego Trip was… It was coming from the perspective of mainly, mostly writers of color to talk about hip hop, with a love and reverence, but also an irreverence towards the subject matter, and also had interest in other music such as punk rock, indie rock, what have you. And so, as Sacha would say, it was like Rolling Stones, but the inverse. So Rolling Stone would mostly cover rock, and maybe occasionally do hip hop. And so, Ego Trip was the flip side of that. And so that’s how I got to know those guys, and I eventually moved to New York in 1997, because of having some contact with Sacha. Sacha had sort of said, “Hey, we need to step up our magazine visually,” sort of invited me to join the team for no money, but more just out of like an outlet to do something creative.

Brent Rollins:
I looked at myself, as the Terry Gilliam to everybody else’s John Cleese, and the rest of the Monty Python crew. As far as being the visual person, I understood editorial, and I also wanted to do sort of humor. We were doing a lot of funny, goofy stuff. And so I had my take on how to express that. And eventually, that became the collage. There were… The magazine itself was instrumental to me in terms of my creative development, because it was very DIY, it was like, “Let’s just take…” We used to do precursors to memes called Ego Trip Ads. So we would find these funny images from Jet Magazine or, or Ebony or something like that. Just older magazines, like ads of black people in Burger King ads and write funny captions to them. But the captions were always like hip hop lyrics. And then we would kind of put the little slug like Ego Trip.

Brent Rollins:
And so basically, they became ads to fill in the unused ad space in the magazine. But they were fun. They helped us sort of develop our creative voice and make the magazine more individual and sort of unique. And so, that’s how I kind of got down with them. I had myself this irreverent take on hip hop and sort of making fun of hip hop, but loving it at the same time. This was the vehicle for it. And so, once we got together, yeah, Sacha was working, I think at Vibe Magazine. Elliott was working at The Source, Jeff was writing for a lot of other music magazines and Gabe, he’s the glue and like I said, he doesn’t get the credit that he deserves because he’s very much behind the scenes, he doesn’t want the attention, but he is the funniest MF around the planet, and super creative.

Brent Rollins:
And so, collectively, yeah, we kind of just became like Voltron, like superhero group and looked at the magazine as a vehicle to express just how we… Just things that we were interested in, and also to try to put it to… Like every issue, I only did like the last three issues, but it felt like making an album. And each issue got more and more personal. Like there’s running… It’s a magazine literally with like running jokes. Because if you turn the pages, you’ll see a reference to something that came earlier, and we made it this kind of like goofy puzzle. And it became semi… Everything in Ego Trip became this… It started blurring the line between music, journalism and autobiography.

Maurice Cherry:
Hmm. How was it received at the time?

Brent Rollins:
I think you’d have to ask a lot of journalists maybe how they thought about it. I guess at the time, no one was doing what we were doing. And I don’t say that to sound like arrogant, I just mean in a sense-

Maurice Cherry:
No. Hey, talk your shit.

Brent Rollins:
But I’m not [inaudible 00:48:30]. It wasn’t usual for people to get together to be like, “Hey, we want to talk about this with this particular voice. That isn’t straight ahead. So, when we got together to do that stuff, we just had fun. We would just goof around and just make jokes and it was like one of the… Those guys were like my brothers, brothers that I never had. And so, like I said, it’s kind of like we were sort of a supergroup. Yeah, we used to do some stupid things. In my head, I’m thinking about this time we kidnapped this journalist.

Maurice Cherry:
Wait, wait, wait. What?

Brent Rollins:
Yeah. Yeah. So, there’s this journalist who writes for the New York Times now named John Caramanica.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, my God! Okay. No, I’m sorry. Go ahead. Go ahead. Go ahead.

Brent Rollins:
Wait, do you know…

Maurice Cherry:
I know of him because of some of his shitty reviews. But no, go ahead.

Brent Rollins:
So, I can’t remember what he was interviewing us for, maybe it was for our first book. I can’t remember probably. But we were like, “Okay, this is how we want to be legendary.” So at the time, we used to have this one office on 16th Street in Chelsea Market, and we used to have this really dope… The fourth floor, we had almost all to ourselves. We were sharing it with this graffiti brand named Bullets of Brooklyn, but they were never there. So, we kind of just had the run of the space. And then for reasons that I won’t get into, we had to vacate that space. And so we ended up moving into the basement of the building. So, we wrote our first book in the basement of this building on 16th Street in Chelsea. And so, there were pipes of bolus than you’d hear like toilet flushing, and you’d just hear all this sewage going by and stuff like that.

Brent Rollins:
And then we have this room in the back… We only have like two rooms, we have this one room that was where, if you see the cover of our book, the book of Rap List, that was the room that we shot this in. And we were like, “Okay, I guess we’re going to get interviewed.” I think it was probably for the New York Times, and we’re going to get interviewed and we can’t just do a normal thing, man. We’re like, “We’re Ego Trip dude, we’re [inaudible 00:50:49] this shit.” So we told them to meet or show up someplace in the Chelsea Market, which is like this kind of food court now. This glorified food court in Chelsea. And we had this really cute girl who was a friend of ours, go meet him and she was like, “Are you John Caramanica?” He’s like, “Yes.” She’s like, “Come with me.”

Brent Rollins:
We wanted him to have a story to tell. So, she leads him… I can’t remember if she… We weren’t there. So, I can’t say exactly. But I believe she probably blindfolded him at this venue, and probably walked him outside across the street and then walked into the building took him downstairs in the elevator. He shows up, he’s blindfolded, we walked in [inaudible 00:51:39].

Maurice Cherry:
I’ve still a thought of the fact that he just went with this woman and got blindfolded, just went with her.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah, man. It’s like, what is he going to do? Is he going to say no?

Maurice Cherry:
That’s true, yeah.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah. He did it. So, it was just funny.

Maurice Cherry:
So, you say kidnapping, I’m thinking like somebody got shoved in the back of a panel van or something. He sounds like a willing participant in this case. Well, go ahead. Go ahead.

Brent Rollins:
I can imagine that for someone in his position, it must have been definitely strange. He thought he’s going to an office to talk to somebody, he’s being blindfolded by some attractive young lady and brought to who he doesn’t even know where he’s going.

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Brent Rollins:
This white van as far as we’re concerned. She takes him into the back room and we have the lights down low. I remember exhaustion now, Jeff and I we’re back there. So we had turntables in there. And I remember because I was in the other room. I just remember Sacha had something… He had some record on the turntable, and he kept looping it. So it was just super creepy. He was just scratching it, [inaudible 00:52:50] just back spinning it. Super creepy thing. And then we instruct Caramanica to take off his blindfold. And then the guys proceeded to talk with the flashlight under their heads.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow!.

Brent Rollins:
And then they do the interview. And finally, it’s time to leave. I do remember Jeff going like, “It’s time to go.” And I do remember Jeff now going like, “Hey, thanks. Thanks for coming by, you know what you got to do now, right?” He’s like, “Yeah.” So we asked our friend to… The young lady to blindfold him again. We span him around a few times, and he exited the building. And the rest is history.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow! That’s a wild story. That’s a wild story. So, Ego Trip eventually evolved from this magazine to a book, to several television shows. I mentioned prior to us recording how I remember watching those shows on VH1 as a teenager, the White Rapper Show and Miss Rap Supreme, and Race-O-Rama and everything, and just being so… Well, maybe not so much the reality shows, but certainly, the visual elements from like Race-O-Rama and stuff like that being so enamored with… I had never seen anything like that before talking about black culture, hip hop culture, that kind of thing. I’ve never seen it done in that way. And it blew my mind. It was really… I have to say it was kind of an early design reference for me, I wanted to make stuff like that. I wanted to be able to kind of have that sort of tongue in cheek irreverence towards culture in that way, in a way that felt familiar, but also felt kind of new and fresh, unlike something that you haven’t really seen before.

Brent Rollins:
Oh, man, thank you. Thank you. Yeah. I think that was again, the… For me, that was a little bit of a Terry Gilliam in terms of all the crazy animations that you would see from Monty Python. That was my inspiration in the sense of the humor of stuff. And how do you express that stuff visually. And everything that we were doing in Ego Trip was really… It’s funny, because I’d like to think that we… I don’t want to say that we originated things, but there definitely wasn’t any sort of bigger reference. And it’s funny how meme culture has years later sort of assumed some of the similarities to what we were doing. So, was it a human thing? I don’t know. But it was in terms of like pairing these references and music lyrics to things and doing so like tongue and cheek, but I don’t know, but we definitely did it early. And so yeah, for Race-O-Rama, each episode, or there was three series, I’m sorry, three episodes in the series.

Brent Rollins:
And Race-O-Rama was this kind of fun house idea. And the idea that looking at race through this sort of voyeuristic lens. And so each of the shows was blackophobia, which used sort of the visual language of horror films, and pulp alien invasion movies and stuff like that. In Race We Lost, which was pulling from the visuals of like… I mean, I love this time square CD, porno theater graphics and all that kind of stuff. And the other one was, “Dude, Where’s My Ghetto Pass?” Which was kind of like this we call an urban safari. So this idea of cultural sort of, not necessarily appropriation, but this sort of… Everything was about the voyeurism of race, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Brent Rollins:
So, once we started thinking about those kinds of things, it was just like, it was just super fun to kind of riff off of them, because our take on on discussing race or presenting race was about the idea of not so much making fun of it, but at least making it less about some of the typical things or things that people would immediately associate when you’re talking about race. Particularly at that time, that series was based off of… Well, that series sprang from a book that we wrote called The Big Book of Racism. And that was a book that Dana Albarella, our beloved editor, who also produced our Ego Trip’s, Book of Rap Lists, she had moved on from St. Martin’s Press to HarperCollins, which was headed by Judith Regan, who was kind of a big shot in the publishing world, particularly at that time. And so we had the opportunity to do that book called The Big Book of Racism.

Brent Rollins:
And our thing about that book was that it was about race, because that was our secondary preoccupation after hip hop, the title and the premise kind of started off as a joke. And then we actually kind of started really getting into it. The thing about that book was we wanted to talk about race in a way that people could relate to, because generally, when people talked about race, they talked about sort of the history and we’re talking about the history of race from the arrival of slaves in America, up until the civil rights era. And so… And it tended to be very academic. And our lens as far as how we related to each other and joked with each other, was always through the lens of popular culture. And so the idea of doing a look at race through the lens of popular culture, was an interesting challenge. It was a crazy challenge for us.

Brent Rollins:
And on top of that, to bring attention to things and to make fun of it, or to joke about it, in that sort of sarcastic sort of coping mechanism kind of way. And it was really hard because we wrote it during 911.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh!

Brent Rollins:
Which really… Yeah. There was a point where we had started writing that book, The Big Book of Racism, and then 911 happened and we were just like, “Man, we don’t hate anybody, we’re critiquing things.” But it was very difficult. But we kind of decided if we’re going to do this, it’s going to be… If we’re going to fail, it’s going to be a magnificent failure. We were just like, let’s… Man, I’ve never doubted myself as much. I don’t edit and perhaps I’m speaking for the rest of the guys when we were doing that thing because we were just like, “Should we do this at a time when people needed unity?” And we’re just writing, not so much a divisive book, but a book to sort of in our minds, illustrate why people of color feel the way they do based off of the treatment that popular culture has presented. And so that was always my interest personally, was understanding how popular culture affects the perception of people. And so like I was saying, a lot of the academic books spoke to a very specific audience. And our goal was to be anti-academic.

Brent Rollins:
Chock full of information and intended to be sort of ingested sporadically wherever you want to enter it, but also for you to walk away to understand like, “Oh, damn, this country is built on race, there’s so much race in this country that people want to not acknowledge. And here’s our sort of listical way of doing it with jokes.” With comedy, but trying to make it apparent. That’s the role of an artist, is to make you see things that are right there in front of you.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Wow! During 911. Yeah. That was certainly a very interesting. I think that was definitely a pivotal point in the country as it relates to race relations. Because aside from that, you got the formation of the TSA and how that has changed. Just so many things around screening in airports and stuff like that. But it really turned the dial on how race relations were in this country.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah, there was a lot of internal examination going on. And that tragedy. Tragedy sort of expose what you’re made of, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Brent Rollins:
Even just the recent craziness that we, as a country have been going through the past few years, it’s ultimately I guess, a good thing because it’s being brought to light. And then you see where people are trying to reach out and where people are trying to find those commonalities, and that common ground, and where they’re not. And so that just reemerges.

Maurice Cherry:
I know that you have worked with Ego Trip for a number of years, but during that time, you also were the creative director at Complex for a while. What were some of your memories from that time?

Brent Rollins:
I was creative director after Ego Trip, we had sort of kind of fizzled and disbanded.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay, okay.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah. So there was a period where I was kind of back to sort of doing… I was always kind of working on independent projects concurrently while doing Ego Trip, when Ego Trip was in sort of in full rev, that’s where I spent the most focus on. But there were always opportunities to do album covers, or things like that during that time. But complex kind of came about because actually our former Ego Trip intern, Noah was an editor at complex and he sort of, he needed, I like to call myself a substitute teacher, because the previous art director had left, and they needed to finish a few issues. And so that’s when I kind of came in to work on the magazine. And then what was interesting about working there, was I came in and sort of helped finish the issues. And I was like, “Okay, cool, this is fun.” Got to work with some younger designers, and really start to exercise my kind of delegation, and start to teach in some ways or pass along whatever information that I could and knowledge that I could to other people, and to learn how to shape things.

Brent Rollins:
Because when you’re creative, you tend to keep it to yourself and you do things that you don’t need to do. Like you don’t need to scan, you don’t need to… If we’re talking about graphics, you don’t need to do the silhouetting. You don’t need to do that stuff. Maybe you do it sometimes out of necessity, and maybe you might get really good at it. But the bigger thing is just really putting all those pieces together. So it was a great exercise to learn how to orchestrate a symphony. And that’s kind of what I refer to myself as a creative conductor, because at a certain point, it’s less about my actual hands and more about my actual thought and how do you put all those elements together. And so Complex became from a magazine, and this is during start of the decline of print as a popular media form, and the ascension of the web as the dominant media form. And so Complex, all the business heads behind it, were very perceptive in terms of growing that business.

Brent Rollins:
And so that’s what also kept me there, was learning. I learned about media when we were doing stuff with VH1, but the opportunity to work with teams of people and to build a business really, was exciting. That was an exciting opportunity because now, I’m dealing with for the first time in my life, a generation of people whose references are different than mine. And I’m now in this position of also learning from them. So, I like to learn new things. And I get excited by new stuff. And I’m always looking for that new drug. Like, “Yo, I need to get high again, give me that design crack. Give me that culture crack.” That was an opportunity to stay plugged in and to learn new things. And also to be able to work with people. And also Ego Trip as “successful” as we were, we hit a wall in a sense, and going to Complex was an opportunity to sort of flex some different muscles and to see…

Brent Rollins:
Ego Trip was patronizing in the sense of that we had the VH1 give us money. VH1 gave us money and before that the book publishers gave us money. But we were not successful in the sense of able to generate money ourselves. So, Complex was an opportunity to sort of look behind the curtain and then kind of step behind that curtain and see how business, or how entrepreneurial minded business grows and develops and becomes like this media titan that it is today. So, that’s what kept me there, was to learn from the younger designers, to help shape them also, to pass on that information and that knowledge, and they would also show me some things or helped me… I used to say they helped me think. Because they would try different things and I’d be like, “No, no, no, no, no.” They would create these different options… I’m a good critic, I think. As a graphic designer or a communication designer, or that kind of visual designer, you’re taking these kind of existing elements, and arranging them versus an artist necessarily who kind of create something from scratch.

Brent Rollins:
So, they would create these things from scratch in some ways, or create these options and then I can look at them and be like, “Oh, yeah, no, no, no, no, no, this is not communicating, or this is not tapping into that feeling that we were talking about before. This is not communicating this thing.” And helping to shape them. So, that was immensely satisfying. And working with celebrities is interesting and fun. And traveling around the world is great. And so, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
How do you define success now?

Brent Rollins:
Success is kind of about satisfying the need to create projects that actually propel ideas and culture. And I guess that’s maybe always the idea of success for me. I think the idea of monetary success, yes, I’m not going to say that that’s not important. But I’ve come closer to this understanding of when my time is up, for me, what am I putting forth in the world, or what’s my legacy? And so I can’t do everything myself, there are things that I’m working on that are about personal vision, but as a group, we can accomplish a lot of things. Ego Trip as a group, we accomplished things that we didn’t think we would ever accomplish. Working in Complex, we accomplished things that were in that… The metrics for that world, we surpassed them. And so for me, when people tell me that they’ve been influenced by something that I did, or they show some sort of appreciation for the things that I’ve done, and even more so when these things are attached to something that has some sort of cultural importance, man, that’s a great feeling.

Brent Rollins:
I want to keep doing that. For me, that’s the metric of success. Again, know how to make money, [inaudible 01:08:48] money, love me some money. But we’re put on this world to do things. And so I’m happy and fortunate that whatever mark I’ve made in the world, I’ve been able to do. I think the thing about it is, it’s also fleeting, and it’s also like you got to keep doing things. Success is also somewhat short lived. You know what I mean? I’m happy to inspire people, but I’m also like, I want to inspire more people and I need to keep doing to continue to be relevant, not because I’m trying to be the cool of the week, but because a large enough body of people are viewing and affected by the things that I work on. Right now, that would be the marker of success to me.

Maurice Cherry:
Hmm. That’s a very interesting answer.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I guess because I’ve been kind of dropping these little pins like throughout the interview like your work, and the work that you did with Ego Trip, the work you did with Complex, is really like been a cornerstone in the design style of when people think of hip hop culture, a lot of that boils down to work that you have done, whether that’s been magazines, we didn’t even touch on the album covers that you’ve done. I feel like a lot of people are inspired by your work, but they may not know that it’s from you, maybe.

Brent Rollins:
Oh, yeah. It’s funny. The thing about [inaudible 01:10:15] is because it’s still kind of being done in the service of whoever. And I’ve been fortunate enough to work with people who more or less are like, “Hey, Brent, I like your style.” I had to develop a style because the more you do something, the more people recognize it. And then if they like it, then they come to you. But in some cases, yeah. There’s been the suppression of Ego in the sense of, it’s not about me, it’s about I’m doing this for someone else. And so yeah, there’s been things that I’ve done that maybe people don’t see that thread, I have a good friend, Phil McMillan, who he was another designer. And he’s… Some people are really in tune with it. He’ll be like, “I saw this and I was like, yo, I think Brent did that.”

Brent Rollins:
So he sees it. And so whatever is the essence of me creatively shows up in those things and he’s in tune with that, and he can find that. And there are other people that can do that too. And so that’s a much more honest relationship, when you can work with those people, because that means you guys are on the same wavelength. And so that’s… I found that those have been the best projects for me, is when people come to me because they do know, because they are familiar with the things that I’ve done, and they’re like, “That’s the vibe that I want.” And it’s freeing because it lets me be me. I’m a designer in the sense that I’m problem solving, but I’m also an artist in the sense that I’m trying to express something emotionally and I connected with those people. And so, yeah. Ramble, ramble, ramble, ramble.

Maurice Cherry:
So, is there a dream project that you would love to do one day? I feel like you’ve done television, you’ve done magazines, you’ve done album covers, you’ve done a book. What’s next? What do you really want to do one day?

Brent Rollins:
There are many dream projects that I want to do. There’s personal projects that I’ve finally started initiating. One is really getting into furniture design.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, okay.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah. And so I had gone to Italy in 2019 to start that. I’m working with a friend of mine over there. And then just the nature of the project really meant that I couldn’t restart it until the warmer months. Totally happens and dashes those dreams on the Mediterranean rocks. That’ll still happen. And then I have a sort of a creative… The dream projects, yeah. I mean, it’s really more about when does Brent start putting his own voice forward more? Right?

Maurice Cherry:
Hmm.

Brent Rollins:
My voice has been forward in people’s projects, and mostly because I’d never… I would probably say that there’s one critique with myself, it’s like I devalue what I think I have to say. I have an idea… I actually started this project during the pandemia, I’m going to is like Black Star Wars, and let people kind of go from there. But I started some stuff in making models, telling friends who are also creative, and they got super excited about that stuff. And they’re like, “Oh, man, I wanted the soundtrack.” And you got to have this character do this, and you got to do that. And it’ll happen. And I’m not afraid to say it. I thought about like, “Should I even talk about this?” But hall yeah. But really, just more personal projects are exciting. My father was a phenomenal creative person who passed away recently.

Brent Rollins:
And my mission I guess, is to let the world kind of see what this guy who inspired me, what he did, and with the hope that maybe he also inspires other people, so that’s also another project. Man, I got a lot of projects. God, I got a lot of things. Yeah. Like I said, 2021 let’s go.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I hear you. Well, Brent, just to kind of wrap things up here. Where can our audience find out more about you and about your work and everything online?

Brent Rollins:
I guess online you can look me up Brettrollins.com under my website that really needs to be updated. You can follow me on Instagram, my handle is Brentronic, B-R-E-N-T-R-O-N-I-C, and then at that point, by the end 2021, hopefully you’ll be seeing my name in a lot more places when you won’t even try.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Brent Rollins, I have to thank you. Just thank you so much for coming on the show. I guess prior to us recording about how much of a design influence you’ve been to me seeing your early work, and it’s been just such a pleasure to one just introduce you to the Revision Path audience, I have a feeling that people are going to listen to this. And they’ll be like, “Wait a minute, he did that!” They’re going to now know that you are the person behind so much iconic work out there. It’s just been a joy to talk to you, it’s been a joy to hear about the work that you’re doing. And I want to see what comes next absolutely, because I have no doubt it’s going to be hot. So, thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Brent Rollins:
Man, thank you so much. And I know other people will say the same thing to you, man. But dude, you’re doing God’s work. Thank you so much for doing Revision Path.

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