The Classics – The Interview: Jim Debarros, Part 2
Describe your thoughts when you were first introduced to Super Cat’s project? Were you familiar with him prior to his US release?
I wasn’t aware of him but I knew that dancehall was becoming popular because someone else was working on Shabba Ranks. I don’t recall a specific feeling about the music but I remember our first meeting at Sony Music. We spoke a bit about what he wanted for the cover and getting new photos for press. It was a little hard for me to understand him because his accent was thick. I kept asking him to repeat himself. Hopefully he wasn’t too annoyed with me.
Were you at all a fan of reggae and or dancehall music? What were your initial thoughts after listening to some of his records?
I was probably a ‘casual’ fan of reggae. I listened to Bob Marley and the Wailers of course, but I wouldn’t say I was an enthusiast or super knowledgeable. At the end of the day, I didn’t need to be a fan personally but I did need to know what Super Cat’s fans liked about him and what were their expectations for the artist.This was his first US release so was he regarded as a “big deal” by the label?
I think they were eager to follow up on the success that Shabba Ranks was enjoying so in that regard, yes it was a ‘big deal’.
What album covers were you brought in to design?
I worked on ‘Dem No Worry We,’ and two or three singles.
Were you given much creative control or was there a general direction that you were given?
I had some liberty. Outside of being asked to keep an ‘urban’ look, there wasn’t that much input from management or marketing. Cat had one specific request that the photographer I hire not be gay and that we not shoot any red bricks since they don’t exist in Kingston.
Before this experience had you designed covers for any other reggae/dancehall artists?
Can you briefly discuss the design concepts behind “Dem No Worry We,” “Ghetto Red Hot,” and “Dolly My Baby?”
I’m not sure if I had a strong concept so much as I was interpreting the music visually. I wanted to go for a modern take on what was a traditional Caribbean look. So the colors and hand made element referenced the past but the fonts and layout were a bit of the ‘new.’
The music industry moves extremely quickly – how much time were you given between records?
I really don’t remember. Normally we’d have at least three to four projects going on at the same time at various states of completion. I guess I had a ‘normal’ turn around time of a bout 2 months from start to finish for the main package. The singles usually happen on a faster timeline of about two to three weeks.
Did you ever meet Super Cat or his management? If so, what were he and or they like?
I did meet with him and them. He was a bit laid back but also intense. It was hard for me to understand every word he said because of the accent. We seemed to get along.
What elements do you think were key in making sure his album covers were successful?
As long as I listened to him and respected his audience, I think the work could be considered a success.
What kind of feedback did you receive with the release of each cover?
Other than the choice of the photos, talent was pretty hands off. Marketing just wanted to make sure that his name was big enough to be read.
As far as reggae/dancehall, during that time, he was a pretty big artist. What was the atmosphere like at the label as his popularity began to mount?
I can only speak for myself, I didn’t see more attention or less when compared to an artist like Mariah Carey or Michael Bolton. To be fair, Super Cat was not romantically involved with any of the senior executives at Sony. (at least not that I was aware of)
Most eras have definitive trends (fashion, music, etc) that defined them. What were some of the design trends during that time?
I would say, distress, a dark edge, recycled or sampled sounds and looks. The 90’s, in my opinion were exemplified by distressed graphics and sounds. There was a mix of organic and industrial sounds in the music but it was also present in design. Look at David Carson and what he was doing with Ray-Gun magazine. Sampling and repurposing (or remixing) was also a common element.
Aside from basic packaging needs, why do you think album cover art was held with such high regard?
I think there are many elements in our everyday life that blur the line between art and utility. The album cover is one of those classic surfaces where it’s more about expression than utility. Where else in print would you get a collaboration of graphically interpreting someone else’s ideas or stories? The music speaks to us on an emotional level. People attach special events and memories to their favorite music and the album cover is part of that experience. You think of your prom song or the song you were listening to when you first kissed and I bet you can recall the cover art that went with the song. Even if the design isn’t great, the whole package is elevated in your mind because you love the music.
What were some of your favorite album covers that you designed?
I really liked stuff I did for this group called The Old 97’s and a group that didn’t go anywhere but I enjoyed working with them, The DeadLights. These two were while I was at Elektra Records. I am also proud of the second and third Better Than Ezra releases.
As technology began to change the media landscape followed were you pretty open to the new developments and advancements?
I have mixed feelings on the subject. As tech became better and cheaper my role in the process became less important. Today a musician with a laptop and the right software and a decent digital camera can put his/her own package together on their own and post the elements to a mySpace page. No need for any middle-men. No need for a package. I don’t mean to diminish the tradition, but it’s a smaller field now than ever before and the people that keep it going are doing some great things. Obviously the mp3 and all the devices designed to play them have eviscerated the business but for a fan of music it’s been great. I am heartened by the fact that a new generation of music lover is embracing vinyl. That means there are people designing 12 inches again. It’s made things a bit more precious so as an art form, I think it’s good but it’s not a business anymore.
What led you to your current role at MTV and what is it that you do?
See previous answer. : ) Kidding aside, I grew bored after ten years and was looking for a change. Initially I went into advertising but after eight months at a small agency, the position of Design Director opened up at MTV and I went for it. Now I’m Vice President of Off Air Creative and my team is responsible for ads, logos, packaging, consumer product creative and a variety of other design needs supporting the shows and events on the channel.
Not sure what trends are forming in design but music continues to evolve and change as the audience changes. Tech has given Indie music a greater presence in popular culture. The fact that a band (Fall Out Boy) can communicate directly with their fans and go from you Tube to MTV and Madison Square Garden is amazing.
So what’s next? Do you have any upcoming projects that you care to discuss?
I am finishing up creative for a new series called The Hard Times of RJ Berger about an awkward 15 year old boy with an extra big dick. Think The Wonder Years, Super Bad and Boogie Nights.