Interview With Graphic Artist, Designer & Illustrator James E. Walker

October 17, 2018 | Interviews

James E. Walker is a graphic artist, designer, and illustrator from Houston, Texas.

For the last 7 years, James has worked as an independent artist and designer that specializes in brand identity and layout design.

Uptown Plug had the opportunity to catch up with James and talk about his design influences, favourite artwork, common mistakes artists make with their branding, and plenty more!

1) Growing up in Houston, Texas, what were some of your early influences and motivators for getting into design?

When I was about 12 or 13 years old, my step-pops started giving me an allowance to build my own music collection.

I always admired his collection of tapes and CDs. He would allow me to be his little DJ as we rode around town or on weekend when were home just jamming out.

Overtime, he started taking me to the flea market and other music stores at the mall and we would spend hours at the listening stations.

My first dozen or so records were influenced by his collection but eventually I begin taking chances on new music, making my selections based off of the album cover artwork. Whatever looked dope or appeared to be interested, I would buy it!

Once my eyes had become keen to the aesthetics of album art, I started taking notice of covers designed by Pen & Pixel.

They were the top dawg when it came to design in the 90’s and were responsible for many down south classic albums.

I was rapping at this time and would dream of them designing my first cover. I started plastering all of their designs on my wall that I clipped out of magazines.

I also collected VIBE, The Source, XXL, Right On, Murder Dog, and Rap Pages magazines. I would study everything from the photography, typography, editorial layout, and the cover graphics.

I knew I wanted to be a graphic designer but I didn’t know the correct title for it back in the day. Not until high school when I enrolled into a 2-year graphic design program.

This is when I first started redesigning my own album covers for all of the albums I had bootlegged because I was tired of writing all of the song titles by hand, LOL.

2) Did you have any favourite album / single artwork growing up?

To be honest, I was a bit manish as I know most boys my age were and I would be obsessed with the 2 Live Crew’s album covers. They were always graphic with girls in provocative gestures.

The Geto Boys’ We Can’t Be Stopped with Bushwick on the cover on the gurney at the hospital was mind blowing for me at that age. Straight classic!

Ice Cube, Too Short, Snoop, Suave House, and No Limit Records had a lot of dope covers as well, but I would be all day trying to decide on my favorites. I actually still have many original covers archived in my design arsenal for inspiration.

3) What is the process like creating artwork for artists like Bun B, Paul Wall, Slim Thug and Tech N9ne? Is there a lot of back and forth, revisions, etc.?

I have not actually worked with these artists as a designer but more so in other media fashions such as video production, being on-set for music videos, concerts, or in-studio sessions. But I would love to work with them as a graphic designer.

4) Do you have a favourite artwork you’ve created?

I actually have several favorites and the list just keeps growing because every time I go in, I try to raise the bar.

I’ll name a few: Grand Gesture, Ezoterik, I’m From Houston, Head Down Sleeves Up, New Heights, Heavy Hearted, Makin’ Enemies, Invasion, and the Big 7 Project, which is a collection by K-Rino’s releasing of 7 albums at one time.

This was a historical moment in rap/hip hop and I designed all 7 covers and the packaging. Anytime I presented with a good challenge yet still have creative control, it usually brings the best out of me.

5) What are some of the common artwork mistakes you see artists make with their music?

The common mistake I see artists make is the investing highly into their production and engineering, yet drop the ball by going the cheap route with the artwork.

The artwork is usually the first impression a fan or consumer gets before hearing the music.

Many of these covers are pixelated, very busy with a lack of design balance, and a poor choice of typography that doesn’t match the personality of the project title.

Overall, the concept for the cover is not communicated effectively to tell the appropriate story.

6) How important do you think a strong album cover plays in an artist’s overall brand?

For one, it separates you from the amateurs, being that it’s easy to get your music onto major platforms like iTunes and Spotify, etc.

When your artwork is paired next to the likes of Jay-Z, Drake, or Kendrick Lamar, you have to look the part if you want your fan base or prospective consumers to take you serious.

There has to be a level of integrity that goes above and beyond to make the artwork match the personality of the music and capture the tone of the cover’s title.

Even if it’s simple and minimalistic, it must be professionally designed.

7) What’s next for you James? Where do you see yourself in the next few years?

I see myself branching into areas and fields beyond the music industry, yet still connecting my hip hop/rap roots and influence into fine art installation, interior design, architecture, and fashion.

I feel that my roots would give me a voice, no matter which road I choose to travel on.

However, at the end of the day, I’d like to have my name mentioned with some of the best designers to ever do it, designers like Saul Bass, Stefan Sagmeister, Paula Cher, Milton Glaser, Paul Rand, Cey Adams, and Julian Alexander.

Hell, a design Grammy would be nice too!

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