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Since Christian hip hop's inception, the lack of quality has been commented on by Christians and non Christians alike. I have been involved in Christian hip hop for the last 10 years, and the complaints remain the same. Mark LaFay, one of my best friends, and manager to Christian bands Haste The Day, Gwen Stacy, etc., turned me onto Christian hip hop for the first time back in 2000. The first taste of Christian hip hop I got was John Reuben's song "Do Not" and Mars iLL's album 'Raw Material'. After listening to these samples and then searching out other releases in Christian hip hop, I soon found out that those were the exception and not the norm. The poor quality and blatant copying of popular secular hip hop has been a common topic over the years, but we can save it for another time. I will transition out of this intro on a good note though, and say that I definitely have seen great improvements sonically. In this article, I want to focus on the design and packaging of Christian hip hop products.

Since Christian hip hop's inception, the lack of quality has been commented on by Christians and non Christians alike. I have been involved in Christian hip hop for the last 10 years, and the complaints remain the same. Mark LaFay, one of my best friends, and manager to Christian bands Haste The Day, Gwen Stacy, etc., turned me onto Christian hip hop for the first time back in 2000. The first taste of Christian hip hop I got was John Reuben's song "Do Not" and Mars iLL's album 'Raw Material'. After listening to these samples and then searching out other releases in Christian hip hop, I soon found out that those were the exception and not the norm. The poor quality and blatant copying of popular secular hip hop has been a common topic over the years, but we can save it for another time. I will transition out of this intro on a good note though, and say that I definitely have seen great improvements sonically. In this article, I want to focus on the design and packaging of Christian hip hop products.

I've spent as much time, if not more time working within the secular side of the music industry where there are (or were) budgets and artists could afford great design and packaging for their product. In general the secular market is infinitely larger. Naturally, the secular market, given its size and budgets, yielded good design and packaging much more often than seen in the tiny Christian hip hop market. Christian hip hop has almost never seen major label support, and for better or worse, design was done by the rapper/musicians friend, brother, or themselves to make it work financially.

The job of the album artwork designer is getting much easier these days, being that digital downloads only require front cover art. With that, the ability or skill to design something that is a cohesive piece of art, and possessing the knowledge of how to technically lay out artwork for the application of printing CD's or vinyl is quickly fading.

Many have argued, as do I, that cover art is almost always, a reliable reflection of the quality of music inside. Appearance holds great weight when someone is purchasing music if they aren't already a fan. And as an artist you are always striving for more sales which come from new fans. When you browse iTunes you are first presented with what? The album cover art. So a potential buyer is making their decision to click and listen solely from their eyes being enticed by design. Design is/was even more important before digital music, being you couldn't easily listen to samples of the music on a CD unless that store offered a CD player to do so.

With the technology that exists today (internet, photoshop), and it being so readily available, there is no excuse for bad design. With the internet, you can easily find the best designers all over the globe and commission them for your project. On the flip side, you can also find someone to design your album art for next to nothing. There is no excuse for bad design. It isn't as if you, or the designers today (for the most part) are creating this artwork by hand like they did prior to computers.

Prior to CD's and cassette tapes, records were thee format to consume music on. One of the beautiful things about records is the 12" x 12" sleeve the record is stored in. This is a huge canvass that designers have to work with. However, pre 1940, album artwork was non existent. Alex Steinweiss invented the album cover as we know it, and created a new graphic art form. In 1940, as Columbia Records young new art director, he pitched an idea: Why not replace the standard plain brown wrapper with an eye-catching illustration? The company took a chance, and within months its record sales increased by over 800 per cent. His covers for Columbia combining bold typography with modern, elegant illustrations took the industry by storm and revolutionized the way records were sold.

"I love music so much and I had such ambition that I was willing to go way beyond what the hell they paid me for. I wanted people to look at the artwork and hear the music." - Alex Steinweiss

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Check out 'Alex Steinweiss, The Inventor of the Modern Album Cover' on Taschen.com

Personally, when there is effort put into the design and packaging of a product, I notice and greatly appreciate it. If the art and packaging is good enough it can definitely persuade me to buy something that I may not have, even if the music was just good enough.

Christian hip hop has released some albums that I'm a fan of visually, including L.A. Symphony:

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Russell Robinson and Danny Fausto of the now defunct Giant2 Design, were the designers for nearly all of L.A. Symphony's releases. While we weren't able to dig up much info on Russell other than his LinkedIn profile, we did find info on Daniel. Daniel Fausto went on to start ElephantDNA and do work for Common, Mos Def, Kanye's 'G.O.O.D. Music', Avant, Shaggy, and more.

Mars ILL have released a few albums that I enjoyed visually as well:

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Designed by Ward Jenkins and Dust

Syntax Records also put out a lot of well designed product.

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Designed by Ian Polanco for Syntax Creative

Flynn Adam of L.A. Symphony & Rootbeer, released a decent album cover for his sophomore release 'Burnt Out' back in 2000. The album title 'Burnt Out' was supported by conceptual design with a match on the front cover. The artwork was accentuated by a CD layout that was presented and opened as a matchbook does. Staple and all. This was 2000, and while it was cool back then, I would argue that now it is necessary.

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Designed by Miguel Bautista

Even in this digital age of music where it is common to have a good song or two, and can be consumed piece by piece, there are those rare instances that I find great design and packaging that really make me want to purchase the physical product no matter what. The physical product has to offer me much more than I would get from just a typical CD. I want a bundle of goods that I would consider as a collectible taking up space in my home. Give me the wow factor and I'll spend $75 on a bundle that makes me happy and makes the artist/label money.

This brings me to a few examples of great quality products, great design, and great packaging.

Outside of Christian hip hop, multi-platinum artist Beck, released a remix single project with four versions of the song boasting some of the most amazing packaging I've ever seen.

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Designed by Design Has No Name

More recently, and something that I actually spent my money on (that is almost solely dedicated to digital music), is a release outside of Christian hip hop by Freeway & Jake One titled 'The Stimulus Package'. This packaging and price point knocked my socks off! The project was released on Rhymesayers Entertainment (Atmosphere, P.O.S., Evidence of Dilated Peoples, etc.), and they created a promo video to stir up a buzz prior to release, and buzz there surely was! Rhymesayers has a physical and online store based in Minneapolis called Fifth Element, and offered a pre-order package that was a price point that would make even the most finicky customers smile. For $15.99 you got the double lp on limited edition green vinyl (to support the theme of the album), as well as the amazingly designed and packaged CD, a link to download the album, a download card with the instrumental version of the album, as well as two mixtapes. Wow! MCH. Make. Customers. Happy.

Iconic urban designer Brent Rollins, has created what we may possibly nominate for 'album packaging of the year.' Rollins is responsible for memorable artwork for Black Starr, Mos Def, Blackalicious, Gift of Gab, Boyz N The Hood, Ego Trip, and more.

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Designed by Brent Rollins

Not as amazing on the concept, packaging, and price point as Freeway & Jake One's 'The Stimulus Package', but within Christian hip hop and that excites us... offering various bundled options, great design, good concepts, and excellent quality, is Reach Records' March 30th release of 'Lions & Liars' by Sho Baraka. Very few within Christian hip hop released their music on vinyl format, however it seems Reach has caught the vinyl bug with the recent resurgence in vinyl sales. Reach is offering a bundle rightly named the 'Ultimate Deluxe Package'.

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With this package you get:

- The CD in a digipak format with a design exclusive to the deluxe bundle

- Special edition laser engraved moleskin journal

- Download card that includes MP3's of the entire album plus instrumental & acapella tracks, as well as the official Sho Baraka music video and promo videos

- 12" vinyl version of 'Lions & Liars' which includes four album tracks, plus four instrumentals
1. The Rising ft. Trip Lee, Erica Cumbo
2. Famous ft. Erica Cumbo
3. We Can Be More ft. J.R.
4. Me, Myself and I
First pressing of the vinyl is on gold colored vinyl, limited to 500 pieces

- Two exclusive Lions & Liars stickers

And lastly, any deluxe package purchases will help support Myles-A-Part, an organization committed to supporting families living with autism. For every deluxe version purchased, $5.00 will go towards therapy scholarships awarded to families for medical and therapy bills not covered by insurance or Medicaid. This is a very important partnership and cause to Sho Baraka, as his son is autistic.

MCH. Make. Customers. Happy. Come with innovation, creativity, quality, and value in your music, design, and packaging. I've pre-ordered my 'Ultimate Deluxe Package', have you?




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