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Visual Play: A Conversation With Designer Brent Rollins

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It's hard to say what designer Brent Rollins is best known for, not because his work is obscure but because it falls across different mediums and eras. Some may associate him as the art director behind the lauded underground music magazine ego trip and subsequent web site. Others may think of his striking, collage-driven album covers for everyone from Spank Rock to Black Star to Blackalicious. Yet still others may remember that he created the logos for Boyz N' The Hood and Mo' Better Blues back when he was still a teenager.

Rollins has lived out in New York since the late 1990s and given that his reputation went national around the time he joined with ego trip, many may not have realized that Rollins is a Los Angeles native, with deep family roots in the city's cultural heritage. Rollins recently sat down with KCET ArtBound columnist Oliver Wang to talk about the intersection between Los Angeles, design and how Alice Coltrane inadvertently helped him land his first big break.

Oliver Wang: What part of Los Angeles did you grow up in?

Brent Rollins: I grew up in Windsor Hills. I always hate describing where I grew up because it's not Baldwin Hills, it's adjacent to Baldwin Hills and it's essentially the same neighborhood but there are some slight differences.

OW: Were those differences important to the folks living in each neighborhood?

BR: [laughs] Most definitely. I never particularly thought of them as differences until I encountered other people. This how it was when I was growing up; I don't know how it is now but I think there was definitely some sense of 'no, we're in Baldwin Hills' or 'we're in View Park.'

OW: You're a child of the 1970s and '80s and when you think of L.A. of that era, what comes to mind?

BR: You know, it's funny I haven't given that too much thought. There are little things that pop up in my head, mostly due to my father [Bernie Rollins] who was fairly active in sort of an art community. If there was the art community in L.A. at that time, I don't know if he was part of that community but I think that he is a creative person, so [I remember] the things that he exposed me to. Besides the museums, also things like the Inner City Cultural Center that I remember seeing when I was a kid, my father was working with them. Seeing Glynn Turman do a one man show there. As well as seeing the Crenshaw Mall [back when] it was a shopping center; that was where we shopped as a kid.1

A few years ago, there was this Dennis Hopper photography book and it's all '60s Los Angeles. [which was] similar to '70s Los Angeles. There was that kind of suburban...I don't want to say barren, but it was definitely much more of an open landscape than it is now, maybe less dense...just this sense of openness.

OW: Was your father was the one who introduced you to art and design?

BR: Yeah. My father's an accomplished illustrator. And he taught himself. He wanted to be an architect when he was younger so he can draft. My father and his partner actually did the rewrite on Car Wash. He took me down to the set after they were shooting, so he has a lot of ties to that part of Los Angeles, like Mavericks Flat, which was where this guy, [blaxploitation actor] John Daniels used to manage a lot artists, and where a lot of the black music scene would go to hang out in the 70s.

OW: Was he down with the political/cultural arts scene in L.A. based around Watts and those areas?

BR: I think he was on the periphery of that. Like I said, he wasn't part of the art scene. If there was "A Great Day In Harlem" kind of photograph, maybe he'd be in it but he'd be Sahib Shihab vs Thelonious Monk, you know?

OW: At what point did you have an interest in moving into creative work on your own?

BR: I was fortunate, I went to Westchester High School. They bused us from Windsor Hills, Baldwin Hills, Crenshaw to Westchester because I guess there weren't enough kids at the time to fill that school district. They had a graphic design class. Mr. Yushkevich was my high school teacher and he was great and very supportive. There was a student who designed the logo for the school newspaper and being young and cocky, I thought, 'I can do better than that.'

My father was doing design. He was doing illustration for Billboard Magazine, so he would have linotype books and I'd be looking at typography indirectly. There was already that sort of seed and he would teach me how to draw but the idea of being a commercial artist -- now they call it a graphic designer -- that was new to me so to know that I could make money and do something actually more as a profession, that's what pushed me into that.

(Milton Glaser design for the first International Buddhist Film Festival, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2003)
(Milton Glaser design for the first International Buddhist Film Festival, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2003)

OW: I read that one of your early inspirations was Milton Glaser which I thought was fascinating because the two of you, even though you're drawing from motifs and themes from very different cultural and historical eras, but you both have a very clean aesthetic. It's not minimalist though, there's a lot going on in your respective works but you don't make it look fussy or busy.

BR: I think what I like about Milton Glaser's approach is that it's very humanist. He came out of Push Pin [Studios] in the '60s and '70s and there's that whole social awakening sense as far as what he thought what was important. There's not a coldness to it... there's something very approachable about what he does.

OW: One of the things that I find interesting is that despite the many influences of the cultural world you grew up in, and despite your deep connection to hip-hop music, you actually do not have a background in graffiti writing. That surprised me; I would have assumed you came up painting pieces on the L.A. River walls or tagging billboards in mid-city or something.

BR: Yeah, I never wrote. One, my mother was Vietnamese and she would not be having that. Any kind of social deviancy would be highly frowned upon, so I never went that route. Sometimes I wish I had, just so I'd have more interesting stories but...that just wasn't my thing. I wasn't in an environment where that was an avenue. All the kids I grew up with, we all saw Beat Street, Style Wars, these movies coming out of NY but there was no one to mentor me. I would try to do sketches. I had a piece book maybe but there wasn't anyone to push that along. I didn't have a car, so where am I going to go? Windsor Hills? What am I going to do, throw up on Simply Wholesome?2 Where is my canvas? So that wasn't happening.

OW: If only the Expo Line existed back then.

BR: Things might have been different. But the other thing was, I didn't understand the difference between gang graffiti and piecing and for me gangs were kind of scary.3 This was the era of Karen Toshima getting shot in UCLA and gangs were not something to be idolized. Like when N.W.A. came out, I had a crisis because I didn't know whether I wanted to like them or not.

(Poster for <em>Do the Right Thing</em>. Rollins's feet are in the upper right hand corner.)
(Poster for Do the Right Thing. Rollins's feet are in the upper right hand corner.)

OW: If I could just switch gears and talk about your entry into national exposure. One of the first ways people would've seen you, in this case literally, was just your feet and socks in the poster for Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing. You were in the upper right hand corner of the movie poster which was actually shot, not in Brooklyn but in a Hollywood lot?

BR: Yeah, it was shot on the backlot of Universal Studios and this was some sort of brownstone block they had and they had shot Dick Tracy on the same block. It was kind of cool because around the corner was the town square from Back To The Future. Growing up in L.A. is super surreal...particularly if you have access to Hollywood locations and stuff. This non-reality that exists.

Those were my feet with the orange socks and the white Air Jordan IV's in the corner. I met Art Sims, who is an art director in L.A., via a good friend of mine whose sister, Robi Reed, is a casting director, and she was doing casting for Spike Lee. They were shooting this poster and they needed some kids to be in the background so we got the call and we [became] extras in this photo shoot. I went up to Art Sims and I was like, 'hey, this is what I want to do.' So he got my number and started putting me in work after that.

OW: How old were you at that point?

BR: I was probably 18 or 19 at the time.

OW: Was that the path you took to begin doing design work for Spike Lee?

BR: Yeah, that was how I got started officially. That was sort of the beginning of this Black Cinema movement. You kind of forget that New Jack City was part of that and the stuff the Hughes brothers were doing. So yeah, [Sims] had me working on different designs and logos...but nothing would ever get picked.

(Skype screen capture of the original <em>Mo' Better Blues</em> sketch.)
(Skype screen capture of the original Mo' Better Blues sketch.),

Mo' Better Blues, it was originally titled Love Supreme after the John Coltrane song but Alice Coltrane was not really feeling it because of the sex and stuff that was in the film, so they had to change the title. The new title was going to be Variations on a Mo' Better Blues [and I thought] 'what is mo' better?' It just sounded kind of weird and it's a lot of words. This is pre-computer so I'm hand drawing all these letters so that was very exhausting. I'm 19 years old and I'm trying to come up with this Spike Lee logo and then they shortened it to just Mo' Better Blues and that made things easier. So one of the designs I submitted was the one they selected and the studio basically cleaned it up. I actually have my sketchbook. That was the original sketch, you can see it wasn't as tight as what they used.

(Final production version.)
(Final production version.)

OW: How'd you get started working with John Singleton?

BR: One of my best friends went to USC. Even though I eventually went to UCLA, I used to hang out over at USC...and that's how I met John Singleton, just as a friend and through a mutual interest in film. John got this screenwriting award [for Boyz N The Hood] which got him the attention of Frank Price over at Columbia and [John] basically convinced the guy [he could] direct the film and that was a big deal. This was on the strength of Columbia looking for their own Spike Lee, I'm sure.

We got an office, got a staff of people together and proceeded to make the film. I was asked to design the crew jacket because at the time, everything was 'Spike Lee, Spike Lee, Spike Lee.' [His production company], 40 Acres and Mule, has these cool crew jackets...they're sick, they had all these patches and designs on them. So of course, John wanted to do that as well so I designed a logo. It was my take on the vibe of that magazine Straight No Chaser, and also, weirdly enough, U2's "Rattle and Hum" logo. It's that tall and condensed font and the way the word "and" was tilted on its side...for some reason that stuck in my head. So those were my influences for the Boyz N The Hood logo, although you wouldn't know it. The studios didn't know how to market these films and [they] look to the jacket logo as, 'this is the voice of the streets,' and they liked it enough and wanted to buy it. I did Mo' Better Blues and now I've got like two movie logos! I'm like 19, 20 years old! So that was pretty cool.

('Expanding Man' logo for Dilated Peoples. Created by Brent Rollins.)
('Expanding Man' logo for Dilated Peoples. Created by Brent Rollins.)

OW: You got your start in movies but you spent much of the 1990s moving into designing for music, including for Blackalicious, Black Star and on the L.A. tip, Dilated Peoples. Did you know the members of the group growing up in L.A.?

BR: No. It's funny because a lot of stuff that I've gotten on is not through my personal relationships with the artists. Art directors and people at the label would hire me. Dilated Peoples, at the time, were signed to Immortal I think. So I was doing stuff for them and the Dilated Peoples logo just came out of that and they got dropped...and the [Immortal] record never came out, and I kind of forgot about it. Then in 1997/98 they put out the single "Work The Angles" and they credited me using the logo and it was a good song and it was exciting. I reached out and said "Yo, man that was cool. I appreciate the crediting." Then they get their deal with Capitol and they wanted me to do their stuff. That was great.

(Chicago, <em>X</em>, 1976. Cover design by John Berg.)
(Chicago, X, 1976. Cover design by John Berg.)

OW: It's funny because I knew you designed their single and album covers, but I didn't realize you also designed their logo.

BR: Yeah. That was fun because it's like coming up with one little icon. At first they wanted some lettering to represent the group and I understood it but I couldn't come up with something that complemented the icon well. Over time, as they kept putting stuff out, and they saw how I decided to use the icon to represent them...that became their calling card. It doesn't even need to say "Dilated Peoples" anymore, it just has to have the icon. They realized that it's kind of like the Rolling Stones. That's kind of like everyone's dream, when you don't have to use words.

OW: It's the best kind of logo, where it stands in for everything else that you need it to.

BR: Again, I [have] weird...not weird but very non-hip-hop inspirations. The idea of using the logo as it was used was based off of Chicago albums. How the Chicago logo is the aerial view of the skyscrapers, or the chocolate bar, I like that visual play.

(Dilated Peoples, 'No Retreat' single, 2000. Design by Brent Rollins.)
(Dilated Peoples, 'No Retreat' single, 2000. Design by Brent Rollins.)

BR: So finding different ways to use the expanding man logo is what they call it. They gave it a name, he's a character now. So coming up with ways to use the expanding man is the challenge and the visual pun that people got into.

OW: I'm curious, given your work with logo design, are there any logos you've seen where you thought, "damn, I wish I had come up with that?"

BR: I'm sure there's plenty. The first thing that comes to mind was one of my clients, [the L.A.-based sneaker store] Undefeated. I had done some explorations for them before the store had opened...nothing ever got picked. But their logo is really brilliant. It's the black flag one with the strike. I wish I had come up with that. I tip my hat to them.

OW: One last question. Your early career began when you were in L.A. and your mid-career flourished once you moved to N.Y. Do you see yourself moving back to L.A. at some point?

BR: I flirt with the idea. I definitely miss my friends and my family and I think there's definitely a community there that has developed while I was gone, that didn't exist when I was there. Part of me wishes I was a part of that. But then I come back to N.Y. and I still like interacting with the bagel shop and I still enjoy not driving and I do somewhat thrive on the more competitive environment in .N.Y, or just the 'get it done' sort of thing in NY because you know in L.A., sometimes sort of take a while.

OW: And as we always know, no matter what changes, there will never be good bagels and there will never be no traffic.

BR: It's the water apparently.

(Undefeated 'five-strikes' logo. Designer Adam Levite and Associates in Science.)
(Undefeated 'five-strikes' logo. Designer Adam Levite and Associates in Science.), 

Check out this video interview of Rollins done by Gasface in 2011.


1 I mentioned this in my CityWalk column but the Broadway-Crenshaw Center was one of the first templates for early mall design when it first opened in 1947. Its conversion into 1970s/80s style indoor mall didn't happen until 1988, when it was renamed the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Center.

2 "Throwing up" = putting up.

3 "Pieceing" refers to creating a work of graffiti art, i.e. "a piece."

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