Brooklyn, 1998. Biggie Smalls was right: Things done changed.
In Let Me Hear a Rhyme by Tiffany D. Jackson, Quadir and Jarrell won’t let their best friend Steph’s music lie forgotten under his bed after he’s murdered—not when his rhymes could turn any Bed Stuy corner into a party. They hatch a plan to make him famous from beyond the grave, promoting him as the mysterious and talented “Architect.”
Uh, yes please?
Not only is Let Me Hear a Rhyme an epic story by a supremely talented author, it’s also wrapped up in a stunning book jacket. We chatted with the designer and artist behind the magic, Erin Fitzsimmons and Samona, brought to you below. Enjoy!
Let Me Hear a Rhyme
BEHIND THE DESIGN
What was the influence/inspiration behind this design?
ERIN: We were very much inspired by the story itself, both in its unique and dynamic setting of Brooklyn in 1998, and, of course, 90s hip-hop. We looked at a lot of iconic rap and hip-hop albums covers, and kept coming back to The Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die album cover. It’s a classic, and an instantly recognizable design. We thought about recreating the cover as an homage to that album. We even looked at other brands who had done their own riff of the RTD cover in recent years, speaking to the ever-lasting relevance of that album design in 2019.
(l to r.) Ready to Die album cover, 1994; The Astonishing Ant-Man variant cover, 2015; Wendy’s mixtape cover for We Beefin?, 2018.
Following this inspiration, our very first approach was to illustrate the three main characters, in black and white, with a boombox against a white background.
Tiffany’s last two covers were photographic – how did you decide to go in the illustrated route?
ERIN: We considered doing a photo shoot but knew that it would be cost-prohibitive with the three characters on the cover. Moving to an illustrated style from the start ensured that we would be able to depict the main characters as accurately as possible, and luckily in this case, gave us the flexibility to pivot to a more heavily illustrated composition as we developed the cover.
We found the work of Samona, aka Scared of Monsters, and we knew she would be the perfect illustrator to bring our dynamic characters to life!
What was your reaction to the initial cover brief?
SAMONA: As a born and bred New Yorker I was genuinely excited to get started on the project—I immediately understood the vibe as I myself lived in the Bronx in the 90’s. Tiffany also had a pretty clear vision on what she wanted the characters to look like so I could almost picture them based on her references.
What did you turn to for character and 90’s style inspiration while you were working on the initial sketches?
SAMONA: Tiffany made it pretty easy as I mentioned earlier, she had a very clear vision of what she wanted the characters to look like so it allowed me to visualize them and choose outfits based on what I imagined them to be like.
Quadir’s jacket is based off the iconic Ralph Lauren Snow Beach pullover. For Jasmine we turned to Lauryn Hill and some other 90s models and artists. Jerrell is in a basic outfit, a black pull over with *the* NY staple – Timberland Construction boots.
What other concepts did you have that you didn’t move forward with?
ERIN: We moved away from the initial Biggie-inspired direction because we wanted to see more color and energy on the cover, and utilize Samona’s amazing skills in pattern creation and color mixing. It brought more life to the cover art, which felt fitting for a book about 90s hip-hop.
Did you have a mood board?
ERIN: Yes! It was important to look at lots of reference points from the 90s, but also some more modern takes on the retro styles so we could ensure that our cover paid homage to 90s hip-hop and style, but also felt fresh enough to sit on the bookshelves in 2019.
As I mentioned earlier, we looked at a lot of 90s album covers, but also TV shows and fashion. There was just so much vibrant energy in the 90s to take inspiration from!
While we were working on this cover, a few new music releases paid their own homages to the 90s and helped us visualize what a current day take on 90s hip hop might look like, including Bruno Mars and Cardi B’s Finesse. The Finesse music video is entirely devoted to recreating In Living Color, which was fun to look at in terms of how to pay homage to the 90s while also feeling fresh and current.
Still from the music video and cover artwork for the official remix of Finesse, 2018.
This book has a lot of components – how did you decide what aspects to focus on in the cover?
ERIN: Sometimes in a cover process you start with too many elements and have to whittle them down as you work on the cover. In this case, we were lucky that we started with such a simple composition and very few colors, so we were able to add on instead of having to take away. With each element we added – hand-lettering, colors, patterns – we made sure that each added to the overall design and didn’t distract too much from the main characters as the focus.
First, we added more color and hand-lettered, graffiti-inspired type:
But those were still feeling a little plain, so we asked Samona to try a background pattern, and that’s when things started to get really fun!
The crown worked itself into the title lettering as a nod back to Biggie.
How did you create these fun and vibrant background patterns?
SAMONA: For this piece (and most of my pieces) I used my Wacom Cintiq to draw patterns right into Adobe Illustrator and played around with things until they felt right.
Any additional thoughts you’d like to share on the overall cover process?
SAMONA: Transitioning from Black and White to full color really helped this cover become alive. I enjoyed the nod to Biggie but full color turned it into an independent entity that could inspire future covers as Biggie inspired her.
I was also very excited to see what Erin did with both the text and her choice in the printing process to leave the background matte. It looks great!
ERIN: I had so much fun working on this full jacket design, and taking my inspiration from Samona’s lively pattern and vibrant color palette.