Take Cover: Ghostface’s Ghostdini: The Wizard of Poetry in Emerald City
Artist David Russell discusses his amazing album cover. Take Cover: Ghostface’s Ghostdini: The Wizard of Poetry in Emerald City

Notable album covers catch the eye, dribble it around a little, and then snap it back into place, forever skewed. They can be funny, gross, shocking, stunning, or just plain wrong. They can define artists.

With Take Cover, we aim to track down the most striking new album covers taking up web space and vinyl bins and get the story behind them. In this installment, we check in the American-born, Australia-based artist David Russell. Russell’s long career has mostly involved conceptual and storyboard art for a huge number of movies and TV shows, and his credits include Return of the Jedi and Terminator 2. But Russell also did the ornate, fantastical cover of Ghostface’s Ghostdini: The Wizard of Poetry in Emerald City. Check below for our conversation with the man responsible for that mindbending image.

Pitchfork: How did you end up doing this Ghostface album cover?

David Russell: [laughs] It was a surprise to me, too! I got contacted by Island Def Jam Records’ art director. Ghost was looking for someone to do something unusual for his next cover, and the art director had come across my website and seen this Wizard of Oz, Emerald City image that I had done for a film project. I had a good laugh. It’s hard to imagine Ghostface Killah having an interest in the world of Oz, but it was a wild idea, so we got it together.

Pitchfork: Did you speak directly with Ghost?

DR: No. Even the art director had a hard time reaching him. He was on tour most of the time. But Ghost was involved throughout the entire process. We went through several versions of what he was looking for. He had a good idea of what he was trying to get to.

Pitchfork: It’s definitely an eye-grabbing piece of work. It’s just so lush and opulent.

DR: Yeah. That quality that he saw in my Oz Emerald City painting was exactly what he wanted to transfer to the CD cover. In that sense, it was not hard to do the job. I had a good idea of his stylistic vision. It’s easy for me to work in that beautiful, lush style because I’ve been working mostly in the film business for the last 20 years, creating high-key and high-intensity images for major films.

Pitchfork: Did you paint the girls in there, or did they get Photoshopped in later?

DR: They went out and shot some girls that Ghost favored. They gave me those girls and wanted me to draw them in. They wanted it to be poster-like and pop out because the other image was so soft and dreamy, so there’s a slightly different stylistic look with that. It was an interesting challenge, blending several styles at once. But everything was very deliberate. It’s designed to catch your eye and keep it.

Pitchfork: Is this your first album cover?

DR: It’s been a while since I’ve done any illustration work outside of film. Sometimes I do book and magazine illustrations, and I’ve consulted on other projects, doing a bit of art correction for rock videos, things like that. But yeah, I’d have to consider it a first in the world of hip-hop.

Pitchfork: Do you listen to Ghostface?

DR: I listened to a couple of his tracks on this one. I’m waiting to get my signed copy. I know this artist, and the Wu-Tang Clan made its impact on me years ago. I think people debate whether he was stronger when they were all together or when he was a solo artist. But from my take, he blossomed more when he became a solo artist. I mean, this man is a serious poet. I can relate to what he’s doing because we’re both storytellers, in our own way. We have different mediums. He’s made pretty strong statements with things like Fishscale and Ironman, and I’m all for that, man.

There’s something else, too, that connected us. He’s obviously got some sentimental feelings toward The Wizard of Oz, but he’s an old Marvel Comics fan as well. He’s made that very clear with the personas he’s taken on, as Ironman and Tony Starks. And that’s where I started in the business. I fell in love with Jack Kirby comics and the whole Marvel scene. That’s where I got my basic training as an artist, studying and copying Jack Kirby comics when I was a teenager. I worked with Marvel in their animation division in an early stage of my career. Jack Kirby was a personal friend and a mentor, right until the day he died.

Pitchfork: Have you been into a record store and seen this Ghostface album yet?

DR: [laughs] Yeah, and I’m beginning to get emails about the cover. I just love it because it seems to provoke a lot of very strong opinions. But Ghost’s demographic loves this image, and they realize it’s something special. I’m very happy about it. Ghostface is a fucking good poet. He’s a good artist. He’s speaking from the heart of the African American experience. This man has received his bruises, and he translates it back into art. And that’s what art is all about– you take control of your emotions, and you translate them into something everybody can understand. He’s able to do that.

Pitchfork: Do you have any favorite album covers?

DR: That question could go way, way back in time. I’d have to send you a list, and I’ll do it. They jump all across the stylistic range. As an artist myself, I like diverse styles. To me, it doesn’t matter what the genre is. There are tricks in this business. You design these images, which end up pretty small on the CDs, and they have to jump out at you. They have to grab you as soon as you’re walking past the rack. You’ve got to get that eye, and there are tricks you use to do it. We put those tricks into the Ghostdini cover. They’re there.

The next day, Russell sent an email with this list:

Disraeli Gears
Cheap Thrills
Rage Against the Machine
Straight Outta Compton
And hell yes, Ghostdini

Posted by Tom Breihan on October 16, 2009 at 8 a.m.

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