I’ve Got A Gold Record On The Wall!

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   Posted by: Johnson B.E. in art, award

One never knows what awaits just around the corner. Or for how long it has waited. In 1990, I was contacted by Def Jam Records to do the cover of Public Enemy's upcoming release: Fear Of A Black Planet. This was pretty cool. It isn't the first cover I've done, by a long shot, but it is the first for a major recording publisher. A significant difference in some ways. Lots of similarities in others.

I worked directly with Chuck D on the design for a few weeks. Originally, he wanted the Black Planet to be in the foreground and the same visual size as Earth and casting a shadow upon Earth, completely eclipsing it, putting Earth into total darkness. Great concept, and I immediately saw where he was going with it but, being a physicist, I knew that just wouldn't fly. Can't have something in the close foreground that is the same angular diameter as something in the background and have the former completely shadow the latter. The actual dimension of the foreground object must be less than that of the background object... far less. Its shadow on the background object would be a dark dot upon the surface. Something had to change. It would forever nag me and I'd be defending/explaining it until the End Of Time.

Yes, there is artistic license and I do opt for that some times. This one, however, just didn't lend itself to that route. Artistic license is where one may bend or break the rules; once one knows the rules in the first place in order to intelligently break them. This would totally destroy them and not in a good way.


First off, this is an astronomical image. The primary reason I was hired to do this cover was my reputation in the industry. People and corporations trust me to convey astronomical information in a clear, correct and concise way; all the while making it beautiful and captivating. Our Universe is a wonderment but people understand relatively little about the scale of astronomical objects and the distances between them as it is. I didn't want to add to the confusion by disseminating disinformation; especially to a new audience. Some common ground had to be met or this could really fail on an astronomical scale; to make a very valid pun.


I explained the physics and provided several sketches and diagrams to illustrate the basic point. Chuck got it and let me have full reign on the design. I eventually did two versions. One that matched his original concept as much as possible and another that was more dynamic and fit my sensibilities more. The former won out, but I was happy. For reasons that you'll subsequently learn, I'm glad my first pick wasn't chosen.

Living in Carmel, California, which is not what one would exactly call a cheap place to live, I was working for a local Laser Disc store maintaining their computer and sales system, installing home entertainment systems and taking home unrented discs at the end of the day. Being decidedly tech savvy, this gig was an absolute best fit.

At one home, I went into the daughter's bedroom and was met with the entire wall space completely covered with my artwork! Huge posters galore. I looked around and gasped and they wondered what was the problem. I shared my story and they were, um, dubious. The next day I brought my 8"x10" reproduction transparencies, from which the cover was produced, along with me. They were gobsmacked that this person was hooking up their stereo for them. So was I.

Fast forward another 12 years... A friend called saying that he was watching VH-1 as the results of the Greatest Album Covers popular vote were released. Right up there in lights alongside The Rolling Stones: Sticky Fingers, The Who: Who's Next, Pink Floyd: Dark Side Of The Moon, Madonna: Like A Virgin, Led Zeppelin: Houses Of The Holy, KISS: Hotter Than Hell, Prince: Purple Rain, Bruce Springsteen: Born In The U.S.A., David Bowie: Aladdin Sane, Supertramp: Breakfast In America, U2: Achtung, Baby and The Police: Ghost In The Machine. The full list can be seen at Prince.org. YIKES!


Fast forward another 13 years.... Out of the blue, Joy was contacted by Harry Allen at Def Jam saying that he found "a plaque" that he would like to send. She worked in stealth and it arrived unbeknownst to myself. She kept it under wraps for some time until it was appropriate for me to open it. On Christmas, she presented it; not knowing what was really inside. It was in a huge flat box that was obviously specially made. Opening it, there lay before me a Gold Record! Holy crap... this is what Harry called a plaque? I guess for them, Gold Records are a common thing.

Here's a treatise on the album itself, as seen 25 years after release by Consequence Of Sound: Ranking the Album: Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet. Because of this accomplishment, I've finally made it into Wikipedia.


All this time my award had been misplaced. Waiting. It came at a good time. I have needed an uplift for a while now; too long, in fact. Something like this just can't be surpassed. Thank You Harry and all of the guys at Def Jam. It was great working with you. We should do it again sometime. 🙂


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