Matt and Jehst discuss their longstanding collaborative relationship and the body of illustrative work created to visualise Jehst's new concept album - Billy Green is Dead.
M We met in college, and when you said you could rap and I was like yeah sure. Then he starting rapping and I was like, oh shit!
J YNR was coming together at that time, I know Matt through Cee-Why and YNR in its inception as a record label. It already existed as a crew. It started with people putting the name on their demos like it was a label, but it wasn’t actually a label. When it did actually become a label it was me, Tommy Evans, and Cee-Why.
M Yeah I lived with Cee-Why.
J Were you in the house where they had the outhouse? Were you in that house?
M Nah but I basically lived there.
J They used to have a student yard in Wembley somewhere and they had a brick outhouse. You know, like a shed in the back garden, standard British terrace house shit.
M Cee-Why had been to New York and had all the records.
J Yeah he went and copped the MPC3000 which was brand new at the time. It was like, yo, this is what we need now. We were in that crib a lot back then.
Me and Matt go way back, but we didn’t actually really start working on artwork for covers ’til later. You know what, someone came with the Alcoholic Author vinyl the other day, and I was like yo, shit, my boy from uni did this. The illustrator behind the Alcoholic Author cover art, Dave Plews, introduced me to Matt while they were at University. We were studying illustration. I used his artwork on Alcoholic Author, added my own hand style to it, added Guy Featherstone‘s logo, who now works for Nike and shit. But yeah, the first one (that Matt did) was probably Mengi Bus.
M Yeah yeah that was when we were experimenting around. For me when things started to really click was The Dragon of an Ordinary Family. That kind of structured things in terms of what we were going to do. Will (Jehst) sent me all these pictures of him when he was growing up and shit like that. I think that’s a really strong base, not doing all this crazy shit but doing something that’s really tied into a reality.
That was when I decided I wanted to do collage. I created this mad complicated collage and it was like, hold on a minute, this is dope, but this photo of you as a kid is so powerful. Simplicity was better than over complicating things.
J I feel you man, we’ve already had these conversations and are really in synchronicity about it. We’ve been working together a long time.
J Actually thinking about it now we kind of repeated the whole process. For Dynamite Sound Matt already had a piece of art that I was like yo I need to put that on a record cover at some point. With all the animals and shit!
M Yeah yeah.
J Then at a certain point I had the record and I decided I was going to use that for the cover. Then after that is when we worked on The Dragon of an Ordinary Family, which was a real collaborative thing like you said. We ended up with that conclusion that the simplicity of the symbol, of the icon. Forget all the complicated shit.
Fast forward to Dolph Lundgren, the artwork for that was a piece of art that Matt already had sitting around and I was like, I have to use this for something.
M Nobody liked it though.
J No one liked it? I loved it!
M Nobody liked it except him. At that point I was like on the verge of giving up. I’d done it and and everyone was like, what the fuck is that? You’re the most uncommercial illustrator in the fucking UK.
J I turned it into a video and a tour and everything. It inspired the song, it inspired the whole thing.
M He turned it into the most successful image I have ever done.
J Dynamite Sound though you knew was dope. You had it on a business card.
M Dynamite Sound was dope!
J Dolph Lundgren, you said people were hating on that? I didn’t know that ’cause I thought it was some crazy piece. You had two versions, the black and white one…
M …And the hackers version.
J Yeah. So I used both for the video. Obviously Matt’s image was a still image and I thought they could be moving. Then I looked at the black and white one and thought these characters, the thing the have in common is they don’t have mouths. so I if we put a fucking mouth on these characters, they can spit the bars!
J So Billy Green is Dead went down that road of like carrying on from Dragon with the simplicity of iconic images. People have been asking about the devil, and for me there was no pre-conceived notion, he just showed me an image and was like this one’s the cover and I was like yeah! Thats the cover!
M I kinda thought the devil looked a bit like you, that was the thing.
J Fuck you!
M Nah nah, I think that’s good.
J Fuck you Matt, trying to say I’m a white devil ’cause we were listening to rap in the nineties!
M Nah nah, I don’t think its bad thing, I don’t think its like an evil devil. It’s like he’s sparking a match.
S_H>C Is it not a joint?
J Yo! people have been saying that, Matt to you this is a match stick right? I think it looks like a match. But is that a joint to you? People been saying it looks like he’s got a zoot.
M To me it’s a match, there was no great thought about it.
J We looked at a load of them and it just stood out.
M We came up with the artwork while watching Ralph Bakshi’s Coonskin.
J In my head I had shit like The Warriors as well.
M Network was the other massive influence on what we were doing.
J Network was big. I was sending you a lot of images, a lot I can’t even remember now.
J Also there was Jonestown. Instead of you trying to represent some kind of cult leader shit you just took an image that represented the Kool-Aid. Jim Jones, he gave all his followers poison Kool-Aid. Actually you know what, this Alizé I better check it real quick!
M Yeah yeah its like we just created this world of influences. Then the Lettersheperd added the handstyles to the images. His work was key to the project, I’d seen his work on tumblr ages ago and it seemed to fit the themes perfectly
J It just made me think about all sorts of stuff that is just classic shit. Like the Subway Art book and the Style Wars documentary.
J It still represents London. For me, I remember as a kid, whenever I was in London and we were on the tubes and shit. In the suburbs I was on the fucking bus. That had always been an evocative image for me. So the black and white subway train image, the juxtaposition of the devil and the lettering is kinda like it could be from any era. It could be like the newest shit now or it could be like TAKI 183, before they even started writing doing fully stylised graff. Its kinda like, is it now? Is it in the past? Is it in the future? and that to me is important, I love shit that’s like that.
Its a corny example but, Gotham, the TV show. They make you feel its like in the 50’s or something but then they’re pulling out cellys. Then when they’re on the mobile phone it’s a flip phone, so that then tricks you into thinking it’s the past. Like with little visual tricks you can put someone in that place, like Sin City by Frank Miller.
Billy Green is Dead as a concept album came about because I just felt you need to give so much nowadays. People have got such short attention spans. Like Chuck D said, every song now should have a video.
Now you might not have the resources to do the video the way you want or to the standard you want to do it, but if you’re a creative person you’ve probably got other people around you that are skilled in other creative arts. Video has shit like insurance to go shoot somewhere and stuff that takes a while but if you’ve got a visual artist using collage or whatever you can create work. I’ve actually been getting animations made out of these illustrations. I want to use them for my live shows as well. It’s grown and developed from making sure there is imagery for everything. Like a body of work for the artist regardless of the album. It lets artists like Matt do their thing and have ownership too.
M It was a slow process but it was worth it.
J No doubt!