Kenny: At the end of my five
years at Def Jam I get an offer from MCA to come head up their
Black Music Division creative department in New York. At the
time it was a big opportunity. Even Cey and Steve were like,
you should take it. It's big money, big opportunity. You should
roll with it.
met Deanna at Def Jam. That's the big part I'm missing. She
grew up in New York City, went to an all-girl prep school
called Marymount and then to UMass. She always wanted to do
advertising. She went to Oxford for a year and then interned
at an ad agency in Manhattan. She also landed jobs with a
music producer and then a director's rep, meanwhile waitressing
all around town. Deanna was working
at RCA Promotions when she left for Russell Simmons and Def
We met the day of her interview. And as soon as we met, we
totally hit it off. We tried to keep it a bit secret, but
as you know in the office, everyone ends up knowing about
it. I tried to be a mack about it. It was groovy. It was great
her being there but it was better when she left. Too
many people in your mix. All the girls there knew how much
I was into her. We got married in August of 1995, and had
Bianka in 1999 and baby boy Noah in 2002.
MCA was a great experience because it was more of a business
experience for me. Just dealing with corporate
America at the time. MCA was a whole different ball of wax
to me because it was just corporate America to the hilt. Run
by Hank Shocklee, part of the Bomb Squad from Public Enemy,
and David Harleston, who used to be the president of Def Jam.
That's how I got the job. MCA's creative services
department was in L.A. I didn't want to move to L.A. They
said, why don't you stay in New York and set up a studio.
I hired this cat named Drew Fitzgerald to help me get that
stuff off the ground. Basically they set up a department for
us to work out of New York and I'd have to go back and forth
to L.A. as much as needed.
Then after the mergers, Seagram's, and all that mess happened,
it kind of left us in a weird spot.
Five-O: When MCA first brought
you on, what kind of projects were you working on?
Kenny: That was 1995. I worked on Al Green, Chanté
Moore, and a bunch of new bands, stuff for Uptown. New Edition.
As far as my worst complete nightmare project, New Edition
pretty much hits it (laughs). You know what MCA taught me
a lot, was handling these
big projects, these projects that mean a lot to people, and
not that at Def Jam they didn't, but it was so close, tight
knit. Almost everybody took responsibility. That was the kind
of family environment at Def Jam. MCA didn't have that at all.
It was definitely corporate
America. You were on your own. It was like, dude, handle your
business, or we're pointing fingers. I learned how to handle
myself in those type situations. It was a completely different
experience, just as valuable as Def Jam.
Basically Jay Boberg came in a president of MCA Records,
lured me from the Big Apple, gave me a promotion and all this
stuff. Deanna and I said, we'll try it out for a
couple years. We were here for a year when we started really
getting into living here in L.A. I had to go back to New York
a lot, but you know, New York seemed more grimy, more dirty,
more hectic, more hustling, and I just liked the fact that
here is just more chill.
When I got here I was working on Rahsaan Patterson. Then
came the big merger where Mary J. Blige came to MCA, and Uptown
folded out. The Mary J. Blige Share My World album
came up and I did that and started to make my niche in L.A.
MCA were good to me. Made it smooth. Work was flowing well.
The next big transition for me was after a wave of lay-offs.
It was around the time of the Mary album, I used Albert
Watson for the shoot. At the time Deanna was pregnant. We
got married in '95. I felt a wave of
uncertainty at MCA and I didn't like the feeling. Things were
no longer safe there.
Because the company had changed mottos, Black Music Division
was folded into MCA by Jay and no longer separate, I felt
very strongly I should not be doing just black music. I should
get to do other types of music.
They gave me the band The Murmurs to do. It was fun, a cool
job. But that was it. After that I didn't hear anything. I
remember a meeting where one of the excuses was, it's about
who connects with the artist more. That seemed convenient
and I had huge issues with that and I didn't see it really
changing too much. I realized that wherever you start is more
so how people see you. If you start as an intern, even when
you go up the ranks, depending on how the structure is, a
lot of the time people will still have that intern philosophy
about you. Until you move to another place, and they've never
known you as an intern. I felt a little of that as a "black
The goal was, we need to diversify. I needed to make a way
to do that. Then when we were pregnant, we became aware, you
know, we want to make out own schedule. Things are changing
in the industry. We were like, maybe it's time to make a move,
and go independent. It's taking a chance
because you have a family, but it was let's just do
it. We feel confident enough to get the work.
Once we made the decision to leave, I'd just finished Mary.
I told them I'd be there through the end of the year. I did
the Common project, Like Water For Chocolate. But it
kind of crept up on them. They were like, huh?
Leaving, it's been awesome. It's been much more work, though,
than I anticipated. I do admit. I didn't have the company
mentality, even though it's a small company. I had the freelance
mentality. You know, see a movie during the day. Occasionally
we still do that, but it's just a little
harder now. What happened was, we got so much work right at
the beginning, we were forced to bring people on to help us.
We showed our stuff around and everybody started calling.
Dreamworks, Arista, MCA was still using us, different labels,
different projects, Forefront Christian label in Nashville.
all black, all rock bands and stuff it's so refreshing
to work on different stuff. We're still known for our urban
music, but we're up for everything. Now we're doing Third
Eye Blind. We did Babyface and Usher and Blu Cantrell for Arista. We did Ashanti
for Def Jam.
Having a company, you deal with all sorts of issues versus
working for a company. It's hard work. But this year for us
has been a year of transition. We have to move into a new
studio. It's huge for all of us right now. We want a boutique
studio, four or five people max. Super quality work. That's
what we want to be known for. Not right for everybody kind
of scenario. Diversifying. Getting out of just doing music.
It goes back to my college days, getting people to think.
To me, it's all about what the idea is. It's not
necessarily that it's an album cover or poster. What's the
idea behind it? That's what makes it special, creative.
That's what we started to concentrate on, to get people to
see us for being idea people. That's why we don't call
ourselves just a design firm. We call ourselves visual communicators.
It broadens us a little more than, OK, they design album covers.
Last year we started to diversify. And this year we've made
a big push to infiltrate the movie side of it. The reason
I did that is the same reason I went to Chris Austopchuck's
office in New York: because I like music. It was getting back
to the idea: what do we like? What are we into?
The movie side is a difficult issue to get into. There's
definitely a clique of
companies that everyone uses.
Thankfully, God's looking out for us and we've been able to
work with one of the big studios, Fox, on this summer movie
by Roland Emmerich called "Tomorrow." We did ideas
for Artisan for "Standing in the Shadows of Motown."
Poster stuff, which was great.
My old boss, Steve Carr, is a director now. He did "Doctor
Dolittle 2" and he's directing this new Eddie Murphy
called "Daddy Daycare." So hopefully we can work
a little with him on some projects. Also an old friend of
ours named Brett Ratner is also a director. He just finished
"Red Dragon." We're trying to hook up with our old
Five-O: What about directing
a movie yourself?
Kenny: I'd like to. But I
wouldn't see myself as a career director, like that's the
be-all and end-all scenario. For me, there's certain stories
I would like to tell, to write
and direct, but I don't think I would be on the director's
train per se, like, OK send me scripts, let's see what's out
there to direct. I think it would be something more personal.
It's a case of, this is another outlet to do something.
We're also talking about starting a magazine possibly. Different
things that we're leading up to, but Gravillis Inc. is the
conduit for everything. And we're trying to have fun with
it. My philosophy is, it's pointless working your behind off
especially for someone with kids when we're
working, we need to enjoy it as much as possible. And I think
you're better at work when you realize it.
The reason I think we have so much success with projects
like The Roots and Common is strictly based on
relationships. In reference to creating something that speaks
for the band, speaks artistically for you, you have to have
a relationship with the band it's trust. Trust is a
huge part of it.
If we go back to things fall apart (The Roots' 1999
album masterpiece), I went to New York, met with the band,
and art-wise they were completely off in another direction.
They had some bad illustration ready for the cover. It was
like, all the guys in the group at the bottom of the
sea with chains on. It was, it was terrible (laughs).
It was just bad. And I spoke to ?uestlove, Amir Thompson,
I was like, Amir, this is horrible. I really like you guys'
stuff a lot, and I'm here because I really want everyone to
see how great this record's going to be and I really want
the imagery to match. You guys worked this hard. Think about
it, the cover, it's face of your music. You spend a year,
or however long, making some music, and at the end you have
this cover, you want it to be the best it can be, surely.
The Roots, with them guys, I was able to build a relationship
of trust. After things fall apart, the imagery
of things falling apart in society proved so successful, the
guys decided to go ahead and trust me. And it shows, because
on their next album, The Roots Come Alive, the live thing,
we put just the mic on the cover, by itself in a concert hall.
I remember one time Tariq, Black Thought telling Tim Reid
II, The Roots' marketing man at MCA, "just let Kenny
come up with something and we'll do it." That's
very unusual. You don't hear that. People do not say that
usually. And that shows the level of trust. I'm always showing
them what I'm doing, always get their approval, but there's
a sense of freedom in work, and I feel complete liberty to
take the approach I'm working on. I think that's so important.
It hardly ever happens. I think most designers will tell you:
if out of the year you do 20 packages, you can probably count
on one hand the packages where you have complete freedom.
Five-O: And to have that when
the music is reaching new highs
Kenny: Yeah, it's really special.
A lot of the time when you get artists that are true artists,
they have a respect for art. What ends up happening is they
have a respect for
your opinion, as an artist to another artist.
When that happens is when sparks fly and really great things
happen. You have two forces working together as one creative
entity. And one's not banging its head against the other,
even if there are disagreements. They're resolved in a
Five-O: things fall apart,
The Roots album, was named after the 1958 novel by Nigerian
writer Chinua Achebe, who drew his title from the famous Yeats
poem "The Second Coming." That's a hell of a pedigree.
So how did you decide, I'm going to take a documentary, war
correspondent-approach to this package?
Kenny: For me, the title was
so social, you know? It felt like it needed to be dealt with
in a realistic way. That's where the idea came from for the
documentary photos. They were social events. People still
talk about seeing the woman running from the police
that ended up being the main cover. It was like, look at that
the fear on that woman's face as she's running. The
dead hand with the ace in the fingers. Black churches burnt
down South. Little kid left orphaned by war. We did like 20
different images. Some were so intense it was like, there's
no way we can use these.
Amir is very much into his artwork. A lot of people are,
but the level of what that means is variable. For him it means
a lot. He wants to be recognized for his artwork by people
who recognize artwork. It's not about wanting his boys to
like it, moms, dads, uncles, brothers, to think he
looks cool. The album cover shows your level of intelligence
as an artist.
Five-O: Especially contrasted
to the jewelry, car and booty obsessions being sold as the
Kenny: Totally opposite of
the bling bling and all that stuff. I think the success of
it is great, because it shows people's willingness to think.
new one, Phrenology was a little different, because
it had a title that meant something. That was The Roots saying
to us, "Phrenology" is the album title: go. Literally.
We were like, "O...K!" So it was time to study phrenology,
and it was fun in the sense we took the time to find out what
phrenology was all about, where it came from, and that all
(Phrenology is a cousin of palm-reading, a pseudo-science
based on "reading" the shape of the skull and features.
Sometimes was used to advocate racist fantasies about
higher and lower "types".)
The great thing about the cover is when you match it up to
all the definitions and terms, it's a great connection for
bringing it all up to do, a total Roots scenario, compartments
of the mind. You get to know the personality of the band,
it's just much easier. We went ahead and did. We sent it to
them. They were like, amazing. A couple little tweaks and
we were done. Projects like that? I love.
Plus I think The Roots have come with a record that is not
what people expect and is not in the box people have put them
in. That's the best kind of artist. "Do not dare put
us in a box or we will smash it," you know what I mean?
We try to do that with the artwork, too. Make people think,
make them do a double-take.
Five-O: They're one of the
only groups in hip hop to really surprise you.
Kenny: I really agree with
that. That's why I feel honored to do their stuff. Because
creatively it's a treasure chest for us to be involved.
Five-O: Another of your artists
is also at the forefront: Common.
Kenny: Definitely. Common
is an amazingly nice guy, the nicest guy in hip hop that I
know. Rashid, that's his name. The cool thing about him is
he's always trying to go the next mile, to the next level.
And he's so open to creative ideas. With him the process
is like, "Kenny, let's just try to push it, let's be
creative, let's try to be on the level of the music."
This is someone for whom his album cover means a lot. We went
through like three different campaigns before we came up with
the final for Electric Circus. This was the best one,
the one that made the most sense. One was a woman, an icon
with a '70s kind of feel. We ended up going with the idea
of what it took for him to make this record. His thoughts,
ideas, it worked on a personal level for him. The circus being
the people that influenced him to make the record. That hit
the nail on the head for him a Sgt. Pepper kind of
With this one for Common, same thing: I think people are
going to be thrown off in a good way. Again, it's that
smashing out of the box. I prefer to do that, and people hate
it or they love it. Rather than I give you something you expect
and you like it OK. For me as an artist, that means more.
I think that's what art's about. Number one, it's all relative.
And it's about expression. I can express
something exactly how I want it. How you receive it is how
you receive it. Both The Roots and Common do that to most
of their ability.
Five-O: How about Common's
breakthrough album Like Water For Chocolate?
Kenny: Common brought that
image to us. For us it was about designing it in a timeless,
throwback way. Back to that Alabama time. We got a little
girl I knew as the model. It was amazing
because she had the perfect face, a black child back in the
'40s. Rashid really led us on that one and we took the ball
and ran with it. One thing we did, we put the track titles
on the spine of the CD case. Other people might have been
like, why are you doing that? No one does that. Rashid loved
it. He was like, I've never seen that. That's why we have
success and fun on these jobs. It goes back to personal relationship.
I mean, Rashid must have called here twice every day during
this last project. It's cool.
Five-O: It's a different game
from Roots and Common with some of the commercial projects.
Kenny: With some of the other
acts it's a little more corporate: make me look good. I gotta
look good, great,
amazing. And that's fine too. But being a good designer means
bringing out the best in the environment you're in. So when
you're in the "make me look good" environment, you
do your best. Also don't be upset if it's not the award-winning
art piece. It's not that type
of thing. In college, your mindset is everything has to be
the award-winning art piece. In the real world, once you start
understanding different projects require different mindsets,
then you'll be more successful. Once I understand this person
needs to look good they're not going to be into having
their face half-cropped off, because that's not what they're
into. It might be cool to you, but that's not what the artist
needs. It's an apple-sauce box, versus Common or The Roots,
where you cut off half their face and it doesn't come close
to doing what you need to do to throw these guys off, you
Five-O: I saw Kenny gave you
a full credit on the Phrenology and Electric Circus
packages. That's a pretty
good step for a guy who's still fresh to L.A. a couple years
out of school. Did you have an artistic background as
Matt Taylor: I was an artistic
kid, pretty much encouraged by mom and dad to do my stuff.
In high school I got into photography. When I got to college
I thought that was going to be my major. I took a graphic
design class and it clicked. When I was a kid growing up near
Chicago, I paid attention to billboards and ads I later realized
were "graphic design." You know, why do some letters
have little feet, seraphs, and some don't? I took a class
and it all sort of made sense and I kind of forgot about photography
and focused in on design.
I got my bachelor of arts in graphic design from University
of Missouri. My junior and senior year I was president of
the design club and we got some funding to bring a speaker.
One of my instructors, Jean, knew this guy in L.A. named Tim
Stedman, who worked at a record company. So we got him to
come out and speak. (Tim Stedman, VP at MCA Records, handles
album art for acts including blink-182, New Found
Glory, Lyle Lovett and Res.) So he came and he liked my work.
About a month before I graduated in '99, he called me up and
asked me to come interview as soon as I graduated.
Five-O: Nice segue.
Matt: I didn't even have my
book fully together. Came out did the interview and a couple
weeks later got the job as a design assistant at MCA. I
helped on all sorts of projects I guess my one thing
was the Dice Raw package (never released), I helped Tim on
the Mint Royale package, then all the assistant things, all
the ads, full on designing merch stuff, which was cool.
But the thing that was really neat about Kenny, he saw that
given more opportunity I could do more. So once he brought
me on to Gravillis Inc. in 2001, I slowly did more and more.
And he was really excited about the amount of effort I put
into it. Actually Tom Huck, the illustrator on The Roots Phrenology,
is a guy from my school.
When we started the project Kenny was talking about how it
should look, and I was like, oh wow, I know this guy who would
be perfect. So it was really truly a collaborative thing.
Kenny was definitely art-directing this thing, but I was able
to art direct Tom and deal with him.
Five-O: Obviously it was the
right move to make, from support at MCA to busting it out
Matt: It worked perfectly.
I needed that amount of time I spent at MCA to grow from college
to real world designer. Then Gravillis called and said we
want someone to work with
us, it's getting heavy. It's timing, you know. Once I saw
how things were working here, Kenny kind of gave me more and
more. I did some smaller CDs like The Sounds of Blackness
greatest hits anthology. It would be like, here's this project,
handle it. There was a Christian R&B group, Out Of Eden,
that I handled. It was really good experience.
Five-O: And you're also branching
out to movies. How's that been?
Matt: It's a trip. I'm very
blessed to do this stuff with Kenny. He's known as the music
guy, but he wanted us both to jump in on the same level on
the movie side and them to associate us both with this new
aspect of the company.
Five-O: The stuff I've seen
you're working on for the summer movie "Tomorrow" is
of a piece with what you do on the music side: its' a concept.
Is that going to be accepted?
Matt: That's what Gravillis
Inc. is all about. We want to take it way out left and have
you bring us back. So we do the heavy conceptual stuff that's
And it was appreciated on the "Tomorrow" campaign.
reason I think I work so well here... it's our approach to
design. It has to be a strong idea before anything else. If
you look at 80%, 90%, 99% of the movie stuff, it's formulaic.
We're not saying we're going to change the world, but we're
going to try to freshen up the cocktail.
Five-O: Kenny's got his eye
on maybe someday telling stories as a movie-maker. What about
you, do you have any
ambitions you're holding out for a later day?
Matt: For him to do that,
he needs somebody to run the show here, so on the short end,
I'd be excited to run the Gravillis Inc. scene. As far as
myself, I'm crazy about what I do. I'm lucky because I love
music and I love
design. If I can be as established as Kenny is in the music
business, that's definitely a goal for me.
Five-O: What were you listening
to when you were younger?
Matt: I would have Barry Manilow
on the little Mickey Mouse turntable and then KISS Destroyer
would come on after Manilow Live. I knew there was so much
out there and I always wanted to know more. It wasn't just
one thing that I liked. I like rock, I like techno, I like
hip hop. Once you
understand the genre it's a part of a huge palette. It's the
same as my approach to design, music, movies, whatever, once
you understand what that particular piece is about, the conventions,
you can approach it in the best possible way.
Five-O: What's your family
Matt: My dad is a retired pilot.
My mom is a housewife who's done some jobs. My brother's in
school for airline training he worked for a long time
in Utah as a camp
counselor. I'm sort of the black sheep.
For a while there, Pops didn't figure out what his son was
all about. Then it was, OK, he's creative. They fostered that.
My dad's dad did little editorial cartoons. He always encouraged
me to keep trying.
L.A.'s the perfect place in time for me right now. I can
see building up my work and what I do and maybe taking
somewhere else. I love Colorado and envision myself living
there someday, maybe with my own studio. Dealing with all
these folks in New York, there's no reason I couldn't be in
Peoria, Illinois doing the same thing.
Five-O: How do your friends
back home react to what you're doing?
Matt: I remember about ten
years ago when I was a teen-age kid listening to music trying
to figure it all out, I go see this guy named Jeff "Cool
Breeze" Gordon, who works at Streetside Records in Columbia,
Missouri. I go, I'm sick of Eazy E and NWA I need something
Jeff goes, hold on. And as fate would have it he comes back
with two CDs: Common Resurrection and The Roots Do You Want
So this last Thanksgiving when I was home, I went over to
the store and showed Cool Breeze the new Common and Roots
packages. It was pretty cool. I wanted to show him that Missouri
was holding it down.