Interview Shawn Brauch (Pen & Pixel Graphics)
Pen & Pixel once was to graphic design what McDonald's is to gastronomy : a mass-production company, instantly recognizable, not really focused on finesse but highly effective. And culturally relevant, too : during the 90's, the agency immortalized the underground movements of southern rap and pushed to the extreme every glittering codes of modern hip-hop. Let's go back to the Pen & Pixel legend with its founder, Shawn Brauch.
A: How did the company start ?
S: My brother and I were working for Rap-A-Lot Records in Houston, Texas. My brother was general manager of the label from the start, he had worked there for a number of years. Other than 2 Live Crew, Rap-A-Lot was was the first exposure that America had basically seen to gangsta style southern rap. I came to Rap-A-Lot in about 1991 to assist him directing music videos. My main purpose was story-boarding. My brother was more into business, I was more into graphics. Before that, I went to the Chicago Art Institute, I have one degree there and another one in Parsons School of Design in graphic communication.
A: What albums did you work on, over at Rap-A-Lot ?
S: Quite a few. One of the first albums was Prince Johnny C, and most of the Geto Boys albums.
A: Why did you choose to leave Rap-A-Lot and run your own business?
S: We had started using computer special effects on some of the album covers of that time. Willie D's "I'm Going out like a soldier" was actually the first CD cover to use a high amount of photorealistic special effects. When that album came out, people started saying that they wanted that for their covers. So they would come to Rap-A-Lot, thinking that they would just get the artwork and nothing else, but Rap-A-Lot obviously said that was impossible. The demands for the work went up to the point where my brother and I said "Listen, that sounds like a good business venture, so let's start and do our own thing".
A: Was it an easy move at the time?
S: Yeah, we started out with 1 000 $ to buy computer equipment to seed the company. We worked out of our apartment, on the dining room table.
A : Both of you were hip-hop fans?
S : Oh, well, yeah. I mean, yeah, you could say that. It kinda grew on us but that the demand for the work was there, and we said "Well, let's supply the service" as the demand gradually grew. That was really a business-oriented move.
A: Both of you grew up in Houston?
S: No, we actually grew up overseas. We lived in south-east Asia and Brazil most of our lives. I got in Houston in 1991 and left in 2003. My brother was there from 1989 all the way until, well, he just left recently.
A: So, as soon as you arrived in Houston, it was on, you were in the music business.
S: Yeah, instantly. The day I arrived, I went to a movie set and I started working on music videos.
A: What was your philosophy for Pen & Pixel?
S: Well, at the very, very beginning, I noticed that people had not really got a good understanding of Photoshop and what you could do with it. People were paying a huge amount of money to go and have themselves in front of a Bentley, and hire models, and rent jewelry, and go to a location… I also had a background in photography, and before Pen & Pixel, your photoshoot could be 15 to 20 000 $ just to get everything right. And there were still not the dimension, the bling-bling, that was limited on what you can do with it. So what I said is "Why do all that when we can actually do that at one-tenth of the price? We have everything: we have pictures of Rolls Royces, pictures of girls, pictures of diamonds, we have all this stuff, including their clothes!" If they didn't want to buy clothes, all we can do is photograph the face, and we will have a body model, mimick up their bodies and we would put it in a place where you would never know the difference. And it worked. That formula worked very very well.
A: How did you get all those photos? You were making separate photo shoots?
S: Absolutely. For example, if we had the chance to rent a Rolls Royce or go down to the Bentley dealership, we would shoot 250 pictures at one time, with no one on it, no one inside it. We would take that back to Pen & Pixel and cut it out very meticulously inside and outside, knowing that we would shoot a model and put that model in the Bentley driving it down the freeway. We knew exactly what the lighting situation was, we took all these notes on how everything was done. So when we shot the model or the rapper in the studio, the lighting and everything fell together absolutely perfectly.
A: Do you remember your first command at Pen & Pixel?
S: Yeah, one of the first covers that had incredible special effects, it's a very rare one, and it was actually not for a hip-hop artist. It's for a band called Kings Sweet. I have a copy of it and it's very interesting: it was a hard rock band that wanted snakes and tigers and leopards in the photo. Obviously, these animals were too dangerous to do a photo shoot with. So we shot all the animals separately, except for the snakes. We shot it in the studio, put it all together. It's one of the first covers to show super high special effects.
A: You had to rent the animals to a zoo ?
S: Yeah, we had an animal trainer who brought the animal separately. For hip-hop, one of the first covers who put Pen & Pixel on the map was 8-Ball & MJG's "Comin' Out Hard". That's the one where they're sitting on the pool table with a Viper, reflecting in that huge eightball with Tony Draper in the back [EN : this is actually the "On Top of the World" album]. When I conceived and executed that cover, I knew it was gonna make a tremendous difference. And it did.
A: Do you feel like the cover played a role in the album success ? It's now considered a hip-hop classic.
S: Oh yeah, absolutely – I mean, don't get me wrong : from Suave House, Tony Draper, 8-Ball & MJG, these guys were very, very good. The quality of the production from Tony Draper was absolutely amazing. I mean, he didn't skip on any penny. He spent the money the right places. He knew about marketing, he knew about promotion. He was actually a precursor, in the sense of marketing things, of Master P. He was one of the first guys to say "Hey, let's put other albums inside this album, let's advertise upcoming releases". He was actually the first one to do that.
A: Master P came in the picture way after this album?
S: Oh yeah, way after that album. We were still working out the apartment. My brother and I worked there for three years. In fact, we had so many people working in the apartment that my brother and I couldn't sleep there anymore because we had consumed the whole apartment. So we had to get our own. [laughs]