Portrait by Monica May
I’ll dispense with any notion of journalistic evenhandedness straight from the top: Brent Rollins is the best graphic artist working in hip-hop right now, and for at least a decade previous.
And not only am I a customer, as EPMD once so nicely put it, Brent is making me look good too. That’s the definition of good design.
Brent provides the visual brawn of the group known as ego trip collective, a famed crew of creatives responsible for the much-missed magazine of the same name, the rap-nerd’s bible Book of Rap Lists, the stereotype-stomping Big Book of Racism, and a pair of VH1 shows that might best be described as post-situationist Trojan horse actions. Television’s Illest Minority Moments (the original exec-nixed title was Race Riot) and ego trip’s Race-O-Rama put VH1’s look-back-in-irony steez in a tracksuit, set it on its head, and spun it around. Although not all the execs were amused, they eagerly signed up for more, proving something about Hollywood. ego trip’s The (White) Rapper Show, a sur-reality show, debuts this fall.
When Brent wakes up in his Marina Del Rey luxury short-term apartment and gets behind the wheel of his mom’s small automobile to head up to the studios for another day of mogul shakedowns, he often asks himself, a la Talking Heads, how did I get here?
In 1989, the half-Vietnamese, half-black Los Angeleno was discovered by a casting director. Soon, his Air Jordans were appearing in the Do The Right Thing movie poster (red socks, top right corner). But a foot-modeling career was not his destiny. Instead, he found himself designing the logo for Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues and for friend John Singleton’s debut movie Boyz N the Hood. Before long, he was revamping Sheena Lester’s mighty Rap Pages magazine. By 1996, he had relocated to Brooklyn, putting his mouse-hand down on the last three (now highly coveted) issues of ego trip. Design was in his blood. His father, Bernie Rollins, had been the designer of the beautiful late ’60s magazine Soul Illustrated.
Brent and Solesides began working together when we asked him to design our records, and he continues to work on Quannum Projects releases. He designed the Notorious B.I.G.’s Life After Death and Gang Starr’s last three albums, and his work has become imitated industrywide. I begged him to do the cover for Can’t Stop Won’t Stop with visual samples from Henry Chalfant’s massive photo collection, and he killed it. More recently, Brent has done edge-extending work for Stussy, Supreme, and Undefeated, and exhibited art in Cincinnati and New York.
“You do your thing because you love to do it,” Brent puts it. “Hopefully people will look back at it and say, ‘Hey! That wasn’t bad.’”