You may not recognise the name but I’m pretty confident that you’ll recognise the work of Joe Perez. The Creative Director and former Art Director at Donda has worked with some of the biggest artists in music —Lil Wayne, A$AP Rocky, Pusha T, Desiigner, 2 Chainz, Nicki Minaj, Big Sean and Travis Scott, to name just a few— on some of the most highly-exposed records of our time. His work with Kanye West began in 2008 with Perez’s involvement in the KanyeUniverseCity blog; a concept nothing short of revolutionary for its time. The pair continued to work together for eight years on graphics and merchandise for G.O.O.D Music projects, Cruel Summer (which Perez finished from his bed with ice packs on his ankles after four months of work), Watch the Throne, Yeezus and The Life of Pablo.
Earlier this year, Perez parted ways with Donda to go for it on his own. He’s even planning his own merch line, which he tells us, will be completely different to the Pyrex/Been Trill aesthetic that wouldn’t be crazy to expect from him. In our conversation, Perez accounted the music merch boom that we’re enveloped in to our burning desire to fill the tangible product gap that’s been left by the death of the physical album. Merchandise is acting as one of the only physical connections between artists and fans right now, as a flat Spotify image lacking any interactive element simply doesn’t cut it. We had a chat about everything from how watching Virgil Abloh work his phone is like watching a professional musician play an instrument, to the first time he met ‘Ye on his Glow in the Dark tour.
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With a mother who was an illustrator and sculptor and a father who created toy prototypes, did you feel a pressure to follow in their footsteps and work in a creative field?
No, there was absolutely no pressure from my parents to follow in their footsteps, as they have always been equally supportive of all my endeavours. I instinctively wanted to create from a very early age and I think that watching my parents sketch or write inspired me to do the same. The one thing I noticed is that I always worked around a story; a narrative is still an essential part of my work process as it creates history, depth, conflict and resolution.
What is the oddest place you’ve ever found inspiration in?
I’ve always found inspiration in the change of the seasons. In a single year, one can see the entire of spectrum of life. To me it’s a constant reminder and motivator to keep creating, as we’re all on a limited cycle ourselves.
It was back in 2008 that you first started working with Kanye. Can you tell us a bit about the first time you met him?
I started working with ‘Ye in May of 2008 and I didn’t actually meet with him until August 2008 in New York at the Glow in the Dark tour. When you walk into Kanye’s backstage room you feel like you’re leaving reality and walking into ‘Ye land. Kanye just exudes so much energy… I remember him always moving and immersed in music. He was dancing around backstage pre-show, then he went on stage and performed, and as soon as he was off the stage he was dancing around again with everyone backstage. His crew were very inclusive and everyone had an amazing time.
Is there a particular highlight from your time at Donda? Perhaps a favourite project due to a liking of the finished result or particularly fond memories of the process of making it?
My favorite project will always be Cruel Summer because it was an intense learning experience where I gained the tools to succeed in everything else that came after. The project consisted of over 200 cover variations, and took a total of 1200+ hours to complete. I still look at the final physical product and think to myself, “it’s so simple, yet it took so much effort.” Art director, Guido Callarelli, and I worked over Skype for hours trading designs and ideas for the packaging. Guido had been formally trained in design and I had not, so the information I picked up from him on the rules of design were invaluable. I also learned a lot about artist to artist communication and how to keep people motivated through the long and sometimes grueling hours of busy work. Most people don’t think of computer work as being physically taxing, and I didn’t either to an extent until I experienced 4 months of 14+ hour days every day. I finished Cruel Summer from my bed with ice packs on my ankles while taking naps in between work as I waited for feedback. I think the intensity of the work in combination with the mental and physical challenges it presented made for a very rewarding finished product.
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They say that imitation is the best form of flattery, but a lot of your work —the Life of Pablo merch is a mighty fine example— has been completely replicated with zero subtlety in the matter. How do you feel about that?
I feel good about it. When people blatantly copy art or make bootlegs it creates value and this sense of credibility is transferred back to the original artwork or its creator. The Pablo merch lent itself to personalized reproduction and customization because it was an open source merch. It’s a simple design that can fit a myriad of sayings, lyrics, or quotes. It’s pretty much like wearing a meme.
The list of inspiring individuals within the Donda creative is too long to list but with the likes of Virgil Abloh and Matthew Williams, there must be an approach to working collaboratively and bouncing off of each other's’ ideas. Is this something that you miss now that you’re freelance or does it give you the freedom to just do you?
Yes, of course. I think every creative group has their own process. I can’t go into too much detail, but believe me, we all mastered the art of sharing research and ideas over email and texts. This way of working and sharing information was dictated by travel based lifestyles and the advent of smartphones. I remember ideas that were doodled on inflight napkins and sent to me via text. I have to hand it to Virgil because he is the mobile master. He is so focused and locked in on his phone while he’s working that it’s like watching a professional musician play an instrument. There is a part of me that misses the back and forth with the team, absolutely. I miss the constant flow of references, knowledge and ideas. I miss seeing other people’s creative thought process or seeing how they attacked the same assignment from a different perspective. There was never a lack of inspiration from Donda.
When you’re working with an artist, are you able to design from your own head and utilize your own references or do they usually know what they want the result to be and what they want to achieve through it?
It varies, there are artists that I have worked with, such as Kanye, who are extremely visual and they have a sense of subject matter, colour and technique coupled with a clear concept and execution. Other times, I find myself working off of an album title or the lyrics as inspiration for the visuals. There are always projects where it’s completely open and I can explore how I connect to the music at an emotional level. When working with a music artist I always push for a sit down, if not a meeting then a phone call before proceeding into the research phase. In these conversations, I delve into their inspiration; what drives them to create. I want to get a sense of where their creative headspace is at so I’m asking as many questions as possible. It’s about their music after all, and I want them to be well represented.
If you could work with anyone who you haven’t already worked with —dead or alive— who would it be and why?
My 16-year-old self would say Metallica. So yeah, Metallica. I saw them perform in 1996 at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, and it was fucking epic. I just recently and indirectly submitted some work to them, so technically this answer is on the fence. They were my first real connection to music, and I still listen to them while I design. Metallica inspired me to pick up and learn guitar when I was a freshman in high school and I used to get my chops busted pretty regularly because I wore a different Metallica T-shirt everyday for a year —and this was in 1994, back when it wasn’t dope to be wearing metal tees. You can clearly see the influence this group has had on me as an artist especially with the second version of the Yeezus logo. Metallica has the best band logo ever, and it’s one of my oldest design references. I’d love to work with them directly.
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What’s your favourite thing to do when you’re not working?
I love the whole experience of going to the movies; driving to the theatre, buying popcorn and then viewing the films as the director intended them. A film is this massive collaboration of multiple art disciplines that basically come together to create a mini universe that we get to explore. I’m constantly studying every piece of every movie I watch, plus I still feel like a kid every time I walk into a theatre because for me there is a sense of watching magic unfold.
Do you think that music fans digest and appreciate album artwork in different ways now than they did, say, fifty years ago when it was in physical record sleeve form as opposed to a flat images on an iPhone screen?
Yes, of course. You’ll have a different connection with an album that you can hold in your hands vs. a cover that you're viewing on your spotify. I believe we’re going to see an evolution in album art as technology progresses. Interactive, and immersive art experiences could create new connections between fans and artists that you’d never get with a physical album. Right now we’re in a transition as physical albums are being phased out of production thus leaving this tangible product gap between artists and fans. That’s why we’re seeing a boom in music merch, it’s now that physical connection between people and their favourite artist. As far as album art, I’m excited at the possibilities of what it could become in the next 5-7 years.
From a viewer perspective, what elements of design catch your eye or draw you to a piece of art the most?
It’s the emotional resonance coupled with the artist’s unique point of view that draws me into a piece. One of my favourite album covers is Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here. The cover works on so many levels, and conveys so many messages and emotions. The album’s themes deal with the loss of group’s camaraderie while traversing the perils of the music industry with its hyper-focus on greed and success. In the artwork, we are transported to a stark exterior of a Hollywood soundstage and see a lone figure shaking hands with his doppelgänger who is on fire. This could be interpreted in so many ways… he could be making a deal with the devil, or he could be embracing the destruction of his own personal identity through the ‘Machine’ that is the music industry.
There’s talk of you creating a Pyrex/Been Trill style merch line. How are things shaping up with the project?
My line will be unique to my own style and unlike either of those brands. It will be all the visuals that inspire me. I loved my time at Donda, and really enjoyed working on the Yeezus and Pablo merch but at the end of the day it was a collaboration of Donda, ‘Ye, Wes Lang and Cali Dewitt. There were only so many ideas that I could contribute. Now, I can focus on my own artwork along with the branding. I can focus on the quality, and fit and I can explore and experiment with no restrictions.
What else can we expect to see from you soon?
I think you’ll see me developing larger merch and clothing lines that bring other cities and cultures into the circle of streetwear.
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