Prophetic messages from the grave, graphic images of real life violence and a call to arms for political reform. No I’m not talking about the current revolution in Libya, but the strange World of hip-hop album covers. As graffiti forms part of the four elements of hip-hop, album covers provide the artistic aspect to an emcee’s work. They say never judge a book by it’s cover, but can the same thing be said for CD’s? would classic albums like the GZA’s “Liquid Swords” be as memorable without it’s distinct kung-fu inspired imagery? This week’s Food 4 Thought is a countdown of the most controversial covers in hip-hop history. Ten albums which not only look cool but will be remembered for thier sheer notoriety and bravery.
This picture (if you didn’t already know) is KRS-Ones own reenactment of the famous Malcolm X image from the 1980’s. Instead of a rifle, it depicts KRS with an Uzi. Overt Black Nationalist symbolism may seem like second nature in today’s hip-hop scene but it was KRS-One (and Public Enemy) who first pioneered the movement through hip-hop. It was album covers like this that scared corporate America, which at the time was coming to grips with the emerging popularity of Afrocentrism.
What it meant: It was an attempt to garner interest in the story of Malcolm X and spread knowledge to black youth about the struggle in America.
The reaction: Parents were horrified their kids wanted to buy an album which featured a black man carrying a gun on it’s front cover.
9. KMD – Black Bastards
You know you’ve pushed the right buttons when the album cover you wanted to use results in your music being pulled off the shelves completely. This was the cover that warped Zev Love X into MF Doom. It features a “Sambo” character being hanged in a cartoonish yet brutal fashion with a reference to the game hangman underneath spelling out “Black Bastards”. Terri Ross was a billboard columnist when she came across the picture prior to the albums release, outraged at what she deemed as an offensive image she started a petition to have the cover banned. After succeeding in her mission KMD were dropped from their label and Zev Love X would never find work again until he returned in the late 90’s as MF Doom.
What it meant: A metaphor for “hanging” stereotypes, KMD were trying to challenge listeners by exploring taboos.
The reaction: Was met with accusations of racism and quickly ended KMD’s career in the music industry.
DMX’s second album”Flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood” went Triple Platinum in the United States alone. DMX was probably the hottest rapper in the country back in 1998 which is some achievement considering this gruesome cover. Real name Earl Simmons, he appears soaked in his own blood with a vacant look in his eyes suggesting no remorse for a murder he may have recently committed.
What It Meant: Shock value which conveys the artist in a threatening fashion.
The Reaction: Most people found this a little repulsive, but the controversy allowed DMX to take on the mantle of gangsta rap hero.
The second album on our list to feature the word “bastard” in the title, but this one is even more creepy. Where Odd Future get these images from is anybodies guess, but this cover has ‘future serial killers’ painted all over it. In great big bloody red. Theres something about warped pictures of children that leaves me feeling a little bit uneasy. Tyler manipulates and deforms the image to create a demonic feel for his much talked about album.
What it means: A social commentary on fatherless children which suggests they will become killers.
The reaction: Heavily split between critics and fans, yet few can ignore it…. Unless your Kool G Rap who’s still never heard of Odd Future.
6 Immortal Technique – Revolutionary Vol. 1
Immortal Techniques debut album and a victory for underground hip-hop. This cover could be a scene from Baghdad but instead ‘Tech flips the image to U.S. law enforcement dead on the streets. The booklet inside was even more gruesome with government officials massacred in Washington. This cover, with it’s distinct imagery, set the bar for future political hip-hop albums. It was released one day after 9/11 but went under the radar because of it’s sole underground appeal.
What it meant: A change of perspective designed to end Islamaphobia.
The reaction: Would be unpopular with those that work in the White House.
5. 2Pac – Makaveli
2Pac requested this cover shortly before his death, possibly with the knowledge that it could be his last message to the world. The cross was pacifically chosen by 2Pac to signify his personal feelings on the West Coast rivalry. He signed a message underneath which read “in no way is this portrait an expression of disrespect for Jesus Christ”. Despite the album being finished, 2Pac never lived to see it’s release. The context of his assassination made this imagery far more disturbing than could have been expected at the time.
What it meant: 2Pac’s way of saying he was crucified by the press and his enemies.
The reaction: It turned 2Pac into a prophet. Eerie.
A cover which brought the concept of “98 Bonnie & Clyde” to life. Kim lyes dead in a car whilst Slim Shady takes his daughter for a night time walk. It hits number 4 on our list for being one of the most daring visuals hip-hop has ever seen. Branded by women rights groups as sick, this album turned Eminem into an international superstar and hate figure all at the same time.
What it meant: Eminem’s way of taking out his personal problems with his wife through music.
Reaction: Sparked numerous attempts to get this album banned, with no success.
3. Geto Boys – We Can’t Be Stopped
Geto Boys member Bushwick Bill shot himself in the eye after getting into a fight with his girlfriend. He had originally asked his girlfriend to do it but took matters into his own hands when she refused. Scarface and Willie D posed for this picture when they got him to the hospital. Bill lived on but later regrets this photo as it reminds him of a painful period in his life. Theres a bullet apparently still lodged in his head.
What it meant: The Geto Boys living up to the subject matter of their records.
Reaction: “What the fuck” would probably best sum it up.
Just like 2Pac’s strange prophetic death, Biggie had a final statement of his own. Released just a few weeks after his murder, this album cover was like a message from beyond the grave. Stood next to a hearse Biggie looks a ghostly figure, “Life After Death” became an eerie title and a truthful reflection of events. Biggie had his own input on the choice of art which on reflection seems a sobering taught. It will be an album cover that will always be remembered for it’s unfortunate coincidence and poetic feel.
What it meant: A follow up to the concept of Biggies first album “Ready To Die”, enhanced his mafia image.
Reaction: Came out after Biggie’s death. Has since become iconic.
My number one choice for the most infamous hip-hop cover of all time is The Coup’s “Party Music”. The image was created in June 2001, 3 months before the actual attacks on the twin towers. The album was expected to be released in Sepetmber but had to be pushed back until November after life started to imitate art. In an interview about the strange occurrence, Boots Riley of The Coup said:
“There’s been a whitewash in the media over the past couple days over what the U.S.’s role in the world is, and the fact that they kill hundreds of thousands of people per year to protect profit. Now how can I get to the point where I could be saying that on the world stage, and interrupt the lies that CBS, CNN, NBC, and everyone is saying? In my view, that would be by keeping the cover. Not because I think by looking at the cover you get all of this message that I’m telling you, but as a way to have a platform to interrupt the stream of lies that are being told right now.”
What it meant: Destruction of capitalist greed.
Reaction: Banned after tragic real life events.
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Paddy Lane is a passionate hip-hop fan from Dublin, Ireland. He is also one of the longest serving members of the Word Is Bond team.