Kenny Gravillis: I grew up in London, England, born
and raised. Both my folks were around for most of the time.
It's a little different coming from London to the States
I grew up in a really mixed environment, not segregated. This
is the '70s. Pretty normal childhood. I got into a bunch of
messy stuff but nothing too bad. My mom worked part time as
a seamstress. My dad was in construction. East
London. Total atmosphere of "Hound of the Baskervilles,"
Jack the Ripper murders I could walk to that area.
There I was, cobblestone streets, snotty-nosed kid. I grew
up thinking fog was the normal condition of weather: "Oh,
it's supposed to be grey." (laughs). Childhood for me
was fun. London was cool, but I knew I was going to leave.
I had a fascination with American pop culture, American TV,
American movies, ever since I was a little kid.
When I was I'd say around 9 or 10, my cousin John Matthews
would bring me up to his office and show me designs he was
working on. He used to do lay-outs and magazine design. I
would always go to his office and look at stuff. It always
looked like a cool job. "Oh, man, this is really cool."
He'd be at his drawing board and no one was dressed up in
suits or anything. Everyone
was relaxed and chill, you know, people were playing records.
It seemed more like a party situation than it was a job, really.
So I was like, "Man, I could get into this."
I was really interested. I had the idea, number one, of not
being in construction. Because my dad would take me to construction
sites as a kid and I'd be in tears by hour two. As far as
I could have possibly gone from it, is where I would have
gravitated to. So it kind of made sense, actually, art.
Five-O: Anybody artistic in
Kenny: Not really, no. Unfortunately
I didn't have a great relationship with my grandparents. I
didn't really know them. They died before I got to know them.
Also my family is from St. Lucia in the West Indies, a small
island in the Caribbean. My grandparents lived there, so it
was harder to see them. There was a big immigration in the
'50s from the West Indies. People either came to England or
the United States.
That's one thing about how I was raised. I really am glad
that I was raised in England. I love the fact that I'm in
the States now, but I'm really glad. When I came to the States
there were a lot of things were different, I had to get used
to in terms of how people think.
By junior high school it's a little different in terms
of the system. We have what they call secondary school, which
is from age 11 to 15. And after that
it's college. So it's like a whole different set up. College
here you do two years of math and stuff before you find your
England it's very different. It's more of a scenario where,
OK, you always did art, so you go to art school. Directly
after when I was 15, I was doing art programs. I remember
I got a call from my teacher because I needed what they call
O-levels, similar to SATs, scores you need to get to get into college.
The deal was, I remember my teacher calling
me up before I even got my results and letting me know I had what
I needed to get into art school that September, so
it was kind of cool. And I started art school in September.
Drawing and sketching. Even though I was always interested
in design, I got that from my cousin, I was drawing, sketching,
anything creative. It was great. I don't paint
now as much, but I loved painting in high school. As soon
as I got into college, I really zoned into the graphics part
of it. The art school I went to, East Hampton College of Technology,
which has now changed to Lewham Community College, we had
life drawing, all these different things and I really
zoned into the graphics. This is 1985.
Margaret Thatcher is running the country, taking money away
from my school programs, I'm sure (laughs).
College was great fun. The level of thinking goes up. There's
more freedom. The big thing about English art schools, they're
very much pushing a thinking philosophy, more so than to look
glitzy and glammy. In England I think design is about who
can be more clever. You know? That's the philosophy that shaped
the designers there.
My parents split up when I was 11 and my dad moved to New
York City. I always had a good relationship with my dad
after that in the sense that we kept in contact. Me and my
sister would go visit him every couple years. I called him
one time and said, "You know, dad, I'm getting ready
to finish college and I want to visit the States, just like
for three months, after college, three months off in New York.
I'm going to bring my portfolio with me, go on some
I went to New York June 21st, 1987. That's when I landed
in New York. Hanging out with my dad and my cousin. I think
for that summer I must have gone on 30 different interviews.
What was funny too this is when I started to get the
idea, "Oh, man. America is a different place." Right
now my accent is completely worn down compared to what it
was. I'd be on the phone, "Hello, my name is Kenny Gravillis.
I'd like to come by and show you my book."
They'd be like (super-enthusiastic) "Sure, yeah! Oh,
you're from England?"
I'd be there and they'd roll up and look at me, look around,
like (whispers) "Where is he?" (laughs) I'd stand
up and they'd be like (makes astounded face) they couldn't
even hide it, you know? It was just so funny. People could
not believe I was black, number one, which was totally
retarded to me but that was the culture I was dealing with.
It was real. And it didn't matter if the other person was
a white person or a black person, everyone was shocked.
Five-O: Everyone associates
a British accent with a guy who looks like Olivier.
Kenny: They're expecting Prince
Charles. Now I think things are different, but back then in
'87, dude, people were just in complete amazement. I know
I got a lot of interviews based on the way I sounded, then
people were in complete shock.
I have a funny story actually, in reference to getting my
first job. At the
time I didn't have a green card. But went on a couple of job
interviews. Two companies were interested. This was New York.
I started to learn what New York was all about. This one guy
said to me, "Kenny, we really like you. We think you're
very mature for your age." That was my first mistake. I told them my true age, 18. That's
when I finished college. So he's like, "We're willing to pay
you what we pay a college graduate here in
the States." OK, fine. How much is that? I have no concept
of money at all. "It's about $12,000 a year."
I'm like, "OK, great!" So I go home to my dad
"Dad! Dad, I got a job! He says he's going to pay me
$12,000 a year." My dad was really happy. "That's
good, son, good start." That same day I get another call
from a guy at another agency. They're like, "Hey Kenny,
we'd really like you to come work with us."
I've been the thirty interviews and now on the same day,
two job offers. They're like, "We can't really pay you
that much. We can only pay you $14,000 a year."
And I'm like, "O...K..!" These guys are apologizing
for 14 grand a year, while these other guys are making 12
sound like 12 million! So I accepted the job that was paying
a little more. But then the classic thing was, I was at that
job and this new guy came in, college grad. He was talking
to me and says, "Yeah, I interviewed at this other place,"
and he named the place that offered me 12 grand. He's like,
"Phht, you know what? They're only paying 18 grand!"
And I was like, "Welcome! New York City! Land of the
B.S." That was my first lesson in the game. When I was
18 I learned it very quickly. The game. And it never changes.
Because I feel like my time in New York has really shaped
me. I've been living in America since I was 18. My true adult
years have really been here.
Funny, weird stuff, like my dad would tell me we lived
in the Bronx, and if I want a seat on the subway, my dad was
like, go and stand next to the white guy and I guarantee you
by 96th Street, he'll be gone. I was like, what??!
I just came from London and I was so naïve I was
like, what are you talking about?? I ignore my dad, right?
Pay absolutely no attention. One day I'm really tired. I'm
on the subway, nodding off, and I would love to sit down.
We're at 72nd Street on the 2 train. I see this guy, and I
think, I'm going to try this and see what happens. I went
over there and sure enough, 96th Street and the white guy's
off (laughs). And I did it again the next day and I did it
again the next day and the next day. I realized, dude, it's
a real thing, everybody knows about it.
Maybe now it's a little different. But it was weird for me.
I wasn't used to that kind of scenario growing up in London.
I didn't have that. Don't get me wrong. It's not like
London was this beautiful race-mixing bit of heaven. It was
just different. It was more blatant here. London is a more
undercover kind of scenario.
Five-O: How do you remember
New York in the '80s?
Kenny: I remember it as totally
a wild place. Times Square was so different
than it is right now. I mean, I used to hang out there. Literally,
I feel like all my experiences come from New York. The seedy
places down at Times Square, getting jive-talked by this person,
that person. New York is such a hustle city. I love it. I
get to go back enough that I don't miss it. There's definitely
no city like it.
How I got into the whole music thing, my first job was doing
packaging for Mr. & Mrs. T's Cocktail mix. I did
Always Panty Shields. I remember having to go to Duane Reade
drugstore. I had to do research and get a ton of
different feminine needs products (laughs). The guy looked
at me and I'm like, "We're designing a new package."
He was just like, "Sure."
Carefree panty shields. Dude, it was so boring. It wasn't
me. I wound up getting let go after about a year. Then I went
to another place and I know how to play the game a little
better. I was totally underqualified. But I totally played
the accent, lied about my age, I made like double the money,
I was totally in over my head. I lasted two months before
they figured it out (laughs). I completely
played the bigger designer than I was. That lesson was, OK,
you can play the game. But you can't play it so well that
it knocks you out of the box. It was a horrible firing too
because I'd been there
two months. It was Christmas time and everybody was getting
bonuses. So they called me in and I was like, dude, I'm getting
a bonus and I've only been here two months! I was so naïve.
What was wild about it to show you how crazy this job
was, I went from being a peon ordering markers for 40 designers
at my first job. My second job I had an American Express corporate
card and a corner office on Fifth Avenue (laughs). I was completely out
of my league. This company, we were doing Drakar Noir, Giorgio
Armani, cosmetics stuff, cologne boxes, stuff like that. But
I was totally out of my league. I felt myself slipping, dude.
So they called me in. It was my boss, her boss and then some
dude in a suit (laughs). And the dude in the suit gave it
away. I was like, OK, is he gonna hand me my bonus check?
And I'll never forget it, it was Christmas eve, he said, "Mr.
Gravillis, you've been terminated." (laughs)
I was like, "What!? Nuh, nuh, nuh, no!"
He was like, "Can we have your American Express card?"
I said, "What are you guys doing? I can do better!"
It was a complete mess, bro. It was definitely one of my
down times. Now again I'm on the 2 train. I just got hurt
on that one. I just couldn't do the job. (laughs) I was just
completely unqualified. Between my work and my accent, I got
the job. It was too much, a complete mess.
But I started to realize dude, this whole packaging
thing, I don't know. Then I got a job at another place,
where I was doing OK, I was doing Mott's Apple Juice Boxes,
but then they had a cut back and they let me go.
My dad is a real straight-up cat. No B.S. He was like, "Are
you sure you want to do this?"
I think this is my all-time low. After that job I went to
an agency to get work. They got me a job with this company.
It was not going well. I was like, I want to design, I do,
but this supermarket packaging stuff? It's just not happening.
Anyway I overheard the guy behind me, the president guy, saying,
"Well, we don't want to keep him."
I'm like, "I wonder if they're talking about me? Dude!"
This is all happening between 18, 19 years of age. This is
my fourth job in two years. And then sure enough, they're
like, "You know, Kenny..."
I was sacked. And I was so embarrassed about this one that
I actually faked going to work for about four days
(laughs). I didn't want to hear my dad give me grief. Finally
he gave me grief.
I had to look at what I wanted to do here. I was like, what
am I into? I love music, completely love music. But for some
reason it never dawned on me about album covers. One day I
was looking at an album, and I thought, I wonder what that
would be like to work on something like that. For one thing,
it was two dimensional and I was so sick of three dimensional
One day I decided, let's call some people. I called this
guy Chris Austopchuck, the big cheese at Sony. Still is. And
he actually said, yeah, come in for a meeting. I was blown
away. I got in there and he looks at my work. What does he
see? Mott's Apple Sauce. He does this with my portfolio (knocks
through it, completely unimpressed). He looks at me and says,
"Gee, um, we design album covers here."
I said, "I know! I know! I want to get into designing
He said, "I need to look at some album covers. Here's
what you do. Come back and see me with a record that you've
check this out. Now I'm getting into this and I have a blast.
I remember the covers I did: Simply Red, Fine Young Cannibals,
Elton John, Talking Heads. I had so much fun doing these covers.
I called him back, can't get ahold of him. He's in China,
he's here, he's there. I'm dying to show him these covers,
Meanwhile I like hip hop and stuff, so I thought: Def Jam.
I know Def Jam and Sony were connected at the time. I
called Def Jam, maybe I can show someone there. I speak to
this guy, Cey Adams. This is in 1990. I get to Def Jam and
they're like, just leave your stuff. I said, no, no, I gotta
see you. I can't just leave my work, I gotta see you! He's
like, aw man, OK.
First I show him the Mr. & Mrs. T Cocktail Mix stuff.
He's like (throwing it off). I'm like, no, no! I got something
else! I met with this dude at Sony, Chris Austopchuck. Cey's
like, oh yeah? I go, he told me to come up with these covers.
I was going to show it to him can I show it to
you? Sure. So Cey looks at the covers and says, these are
kind of cool, kinda nice.
So about two weeks later, he calls and says we want to bring
you on a freelance basis. I'm like, Cool! So I get there and
it starts, you know? I start getting into music stuff. Cey
Adams and this other guy, named Steve Carr, had a company
at the time called The Drawing Board. That was Def Jam's own
private little art department. So I started working for them,
and I was loving it. No firing. I found my niche. This is
So at one point I had to go to Sony to drop off mechanical
boards, you know, no computers back then. And I see Chris
Austopchuck and I knock on his door, excuse me? He looks at
me and he's like, Gravillis, right? I was like, yeah! This
is what you did. I don't know if you really realize it, but
the reason I got this job at the Drawing Board is because
of the little book you told me to make up.
What ends up happening is I start to really find my flow
at The Drawing Board. I start working on Public Enemy
projects. It was at the point with Public Enemy where Chuck
D. would drive me home to the Bronx at midnight because he
was so into his artwork. We'd be working and it was time to
go. Kenny, where you going? I gotta take the 2 to the Bronx.
Forget about it. Into Chuck D.'s Bronco boom boom
It was really cool. I started really to become a part of
the culture, LL Cool J's stuff, EPMD, Third Bass, all these
cats. I started to become a force
as far as running the company for Steve and Cey. They we getting
into other things, shooting videos, really leaving me to run
the company. I dealt with Russell Simmons, you know, and Lyor
Cohen constantly. I'd have to go to Russell's penthouse at
that time right above Tower Records on 4th Street. I'd have
to go show him comps. Him and Lyor would either lose it or
not, like, "Where's Cey and Steve!!? This is B.S.! Get
this crap away from me!" I'd either get screamed on or
I remember doing a single cover for EPMD, a track called
"Sober." Lyor Cohen, who'se got this heavy New York
accent he's renowned throughout the industry for being
tyrannical. But Lyor, honestly, I got total respect for him.
He's like, (mimes phone call) "Kenny. You are fired."
He had someone on the line, which was like something he'd
do: call you up and have the artist listening in on the line
and then like rip into you. "Kenny, you are fired. When
I get there you better not be there."
I said, "What are you saying?"
(Caveman voice) "When I see you I will kick your ass."
I said, "Lyor, calm down."
"Calm down nothing. You are over." (laughs)
It was funny. He would fire us at least once every three
months. He's actually a really great guy. You kinda got to
get to know him.
I was there for like five years. I wouldn't give up my experience
at Def Jam for anything. My time with Cey and
Steve was probably the most fun I've ever had doing what I
do. Now it's very different. It's fun, but back then it was
completely, wildly fun. It was different back then
the artists would always come in to the office and we'd hang
out. It was more of a family scenario. It wasn't so big business-y.