There’s no mistaking an album cover designed by Pen & Pixel Graphics. Diamonds, fire, expensive cars, and women all accented by blinged out fonts are just some of the elements that have become the Houston-based company’s calling card. In an era when most rap covers were dark and dull, Pen & Pixel created images that were the polar opposite with their over-the-top depictions of the luxury and violence that ruled the Southern rap scene in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. Today, over a decade after the company folded, the art style that made these covers famous is now being used for a new purpose—to sell clothing.
In 1992, Shawn Brauch and his brother Aaron were working for Rap-A-Lot Records as a graphic designer and general manager, respectively, when they began getting outside requests to do album covers for local artists like Trinity Garden Cartel and 8 Ball & MJG. After a year, they decided it was time to start their own venture, and Pen & Pixel was born. Shawn served as lead graphic designer, while Aaron became the president of the company. Their first “office” was a 2,000 square foot apartment, but that didn’t stop rappers from finding them.
“Clients were knocking down the door,” says Shawn, who’s currently the creative services manager at graphics company Smartface Media. “We had people literally lining up outside of our apartment.”
By 1995, business was going so well the Brauch brothers moved to a 5,000 square foot facility in a Houston office park. Whether it was New Orleans rapper B.G. standing in front of a rainstorm of bullets on his Chopper City album, or Snoop Dogg sitting outside of a mansion with a Rolls Royce and dogs wearing diamond-encrusted muzzles on the cover of Da Game Is To Be Sold, Not To Be Told, every cover Pen & Pixel created was memorable. But their most iconic projects came from their work with No Limit and Cash Money, which included Juvenile’s 400 Degreez and Master P’s The Last Don, among countless others. They also wound up designing a line of T-shirts for Cash Money called Hot Boys Wear, though the 10,000 tees they printed disappeared before they made it to retail. “We have no idea what happened,” says Shawn. “The only shirts in existence are the 40 to 50 samples I kept.
At the time, Shawn had no idea what sort of impact their work with Cash Money and No Limit would have decades later. “I thought they were cool and unique, but I tried to do that with everything,” he shrugs. But artists like Master P saw it differently.
“If you have good packaging, and then you have good product in the packaging you’re going to sell product,” says the No Limit rapper.
Pen & Pixel designed around 20,000 album covers from 1993 to 2003 before shutting down following the 9/11 attacks, which halted out-of-town clients’ travel, and the rise of peer-to-peer file sharing internet service Napster, which kickstarted the decline in physical album sales. But over 10 years later, Pen & Pixel’s legacy is living on through fashion. Brands and retailers are releasing pieces directly inspired by the Brauch brothers’ artwork.
One of the more well known brands to be inspired by Pen & Pixel’s work is Coke Magic. The label’s founder, who declined to give his name, was drawn to the covers and collected albums like trading cards. “If I walked into a record store and was buying a new CD, nine times out of 10 I’m getting the CD with the Pen & Pixel cover,” he says. In 2013, he decided to print these classic covers onto T-shirts to wear while he was DJing shows. “For one of my gigs, I wanted to wear a Master P Ghetto Dope or a Juvenile 400 Degreez shirt,” he says. “I couldn’t find any online so I went to a print shop and had them made for like $40 a piece.” The brand has since stopped printing shirts with the album covers Pen & Pixel designed at the request of Shawn, but the influence is still present in the classic style rap tees they sell today.
Darien Bruze, 23, is another designer paying homage to the Pen & Pixel era. “I still think to this day it’s the most intricate design layout I’ve ever seen,” he says of the the Brauch brothers’ work. This past June, Bruze even linked up with Juvenile, an integral artist to the history of Pen & Pixel, to release a limited run of shirts at a New Orleans pop-up. He’s also collaborated with Future to release a limited five-shirt capsule for his Purple Reign pop-up shop in 2016, and created exclusive T-shirts for Drake and Future’s collaborative album, What a Time to be Alive.
“I hope my work has kept the Pen & Pixel image alive and fresh,” he says. “I don’t want to see it fade because it was so vital to the rap game.”
Countless others have tried their hand at capitalizing off of the bold Pen & Pixel style graphics. Rappers like Travis Scott and 21 Savage released tees that reference Pen & Pixel’s work through collaborations with streetwear brands Diamond Supply and Young and Reckless, respectively. UNDRCRWN uses Pen & Pixel’s signature style for basketball-themed graphics featuring teams like the Golden State Warriors. Even Nike is selling their own line of Pen & Pixel-inspired T-shirts featuring images of Kyrie Irving and Kobe Bryant.
But while a new group of people is being exposed to Pen & Pixel’s work, Shawn isn’t a fan of anyone who simply copies his work. A few years ago, he sent Coke Magic a cease and desist letter. “They stopped instantly because, frankly, that was theft,” he says. “I don’t mind people getting inspired, but to take my work I think is a disservice.”
“There have been a couple of artists who’ve been doing cool work,” he adds, “but none compare to Pen & Pixel.”