Kanye West clearly wanted to buck all of hip-hop’s visual trends for his debut album, The College Dropout. It was because of the cover photo, shot by Danny Clinch and art directed by Eric Duvauchelle (who we previously interviewed for The Design Evolution of Kanye West's Album Artwork), that Mr. West was able to make a departure from hip-hop’s norm—the end of the superthug, tattooed, and truck jewelry-clad contemporaries of G-Unit and The Diplomats. And although hip-hop had already established itself as the new rock and roll, it was still tethered to its sartorial stereotypes.
Danny Clinch, who had photographed some of the biggest rockstars on the planet (such as 2Pac to Johnny Cash), was commissioned to shoot Kanye at a gymnasium on 134th Street and 4th Avenue in New York City. Setting Kanye, who was dressed in a bear suit, against the school’s bleachers was a unique approach that followed some of the high-concept covers of Redman’s Dare Iz A Darkside and Das Efx’s Generation EFX, which were both shot by Clinch.
When Clinch’s photos went into post-production, it was up to Eric Duvauchelle at Roc-A-Fella Records to work with Kanye on the final touches. We caught up with Danny Clinch and Eric Duvauchelle to discuss changing the game with The College Dropout’s cover art, and what it was like to execute Kanye West’s vision.
Describe the first time meeting Kanye West.
Danny Clinch: I had never met him before, and I don’t recall if they had given me the music ahead of time.
Eric Duvauchelle: I first met Kanye in Damon Dash's office when he handed over a close to final edit of the album, and he told me to listen to it to get in the mindset of what he was trying to do.
Sometimes the success of a great photo shoot is hinged upon the rapport the photographer has with his or her subject. Danny, how was your chemistry with Kanye on the set for the cover shoot?
Danny Clinch: Our rapport was great right from the beginning. He is a really creative person, and I love to collaborate, so we just got right to it. He had plenty of ideas and a vision for the packaging.
Not showing a new artist's face on the cover of their debut album is always viewed as taboo. Did either of you have any reservations about the final photo that was chosen?
Danny Clinch: I was surprised as anyone that he covered his face for the album cover, but at this point, knowing his history of breaking the rules, it doesn’t surprise me at all.
Eric Duvachelle: Kanye's Kanye isn't he. No, I had no qualms with it. Actually, I thought that was a brave and cool decision. Let's face it, even putting pink on the CD was brave in the landscape at the time. I remember getting prints from the printer in the office, and Damon Dash and Jay Z were there roaming the halls talking. They were standing by the printer as I was going to pick the prints, and Damon called for me and said, “Yo, show Jay what his boy's up to," and Jay just nodded his head with a smile, laughed, and said something to the effect of, "Kanye's got his thing going."
How did you approach working with a new artist like Kanye, who is now in the vanguard of great rock stars now?
Danny Clinch: My approach is always the same, and it's to gather all the information I can about the artist and the record they are making at that time in their career—as well as album title and song titles—which are often the seeds of good ideas.
Eric Duvauchelle: We quickly discussed some ideas off the cuff about the title and what that meant to him. By the time I got the project, the photo shoot of the bear suit had already taken place, so I was handed a binder full of images to pick from.
Eric, what's your favorite song on The College Dropout, and how did it influence your art direction of the cover?
Eric Duvauchelle: “Jesus Walks.” I love the power of the song. I'm not religious at all, but I think that the energy, power, and conviction he has in this track really resonated with me. Next would be “Never Let Me Down.” I like how Kanye explains where he comes from. I didn't like the skits at all, however, but that's just me.
Aside from the elaborate feathers and decorations around the photo, the richness of the colors makes it look like an oil painting. Danny, can you talk about how your photos evolved into this beautiful portrait?
Danny Clinch: At the time I was doing a fair amount of film cross-processing. I think that added to the richness of the photograph, and they seemed to have embraced that quality for the cover. I did not come up with the concept, though; I think it was Kanye all the way—he had a strong vision even then. He was already wearing backpacks and other stuff before anyone I had seen. I also remember the video ideas he showed me, and that his ideas were interesting.
Given Kanye's melancholy expression without the bear's head, were you both aiming for consistency with the underdog theme of the album?
Danny Clinch: We did several expressions with the bear head, including one where he was flipping me the bird. The final decision was up to them.
Eric Duvauchelle: We never got negatives. All I got was a box of contact sheets in color and black and white from the shoot. I went through the images and made my initial selects of images based on the concept of a yearbook. Then I showed the images to Kanye when he would come in to check in on the progress. It was pretty nimble and collaborative, since Kanye had a pretty good vision of what he wanted. I did challenge him with some shot selects for better ones.
Who designed the dropout bear mascot logo?
Eric Duvauchelle: I can never remember fully. I remember working in Illustrator on the bear, modifying it and all, but I cannot remember if a file was handed to me or not. The more I dive into this, the more it think I traced it, as it's almost the bear head from the cover bear photo. I don't want to claim that 100%, as I might be wrong.
The high school yearbook images are very reminiscent of A Tribe Called Quest's Midnight Marauders covers, with all the headshots of the whos-who of hip-hop. Did you ever discuss that cover with Kanye during those late night design sessions?
Eric Duvauchelle: To me, the only similarity is the small head shots. They were never compared to be honest. Did we discuss the cover? We practically designed it in the last three days before they were heading to the printer. We riffed ideas, tried things, and explored various layouts until landing on a pagination and a story. We literally spent 24 hours together in the studio getting it finished, and I stayed at the office 72 hours non-stop. It was so long actually that my wife slept in the lobby one night because she was wondering if i was okay. Ha! Those were the days.