The city of Atlanta is currently booming with talented hip-hop acts, quite possibly none more exciting than EarthGang.
In addition to signing with J. Cole’s Dreamville in 2017, the duo, made up of Johnny Venus and Doctur Dot, released two stellar EPs, Rags and Robots. With their third EP, Royalty, set for release this February, two constants have become crystal clear: Venus and Dot can rap their asses off, and their cover art is astounding.
While the two MCs deserve all the credit for their bars, their eye-candy artwork is the handiwork of FRKO, a 29-year-old graphic artist who was born, raised, and is currently based in Atlanta. His deep connection to the city is reason enough to have him illustrate the three EPs, but as it turns out, his first business meeting with EarthGang was actually on behalf of his wife, Biyunka.
“In 2017, Johnny [Venus] commissioned some custom-made outfits from my wife, who hand-makes clothing and 3D textile art,” FRKO explains. “We chopped it up at my studio while he worked with her. After that, they were ready for me to illustrate the covers.”
FRKO’s cartoonish and raunchy style pairs well with EarthGang’s main inspiration for each cover: scenes from the 1978 film, The Wiz. FRKO also ensured each cover included an overhead title, purple smoke, a strip club, and a red brick road as an allusion to Georgia's infamous red clay. Working closely with EarthGang, FRKO's aim was to produce three covers that capture the essence of the duo, the city, and most importantly, their music.
DJBooth’s full interview with FRKO, which was lightly edited for content and clarity, continues below.
How old were you when you got into illustration? What sparked your interest?
Since I could hold a pencil I've been illustrating. Art, in general, has just been a liberating tool my whole life. I'll never stop.
You’re 29 now. What has kept that love for art alive?
Art stayed relevant in my life because it is my life. I sleep, breathe, fart, and eat art all day long. This isn't just a fad or some shit to make me look cool, I been true to it all the way through.
How did you first link up with EarthGang?
I've known them for some time just out around Atlanta. They came to my book release and art exhibit in 2016 and was into my work. In 2017, Johnny [Venus] commissioned some custom-made outfits from my wife, Biyunka, who hand-makes clothing and 3D textile art. We chopped it up at my studio while he worked with her. After that, they were ready for me to illustrate the covers. I thank EarthGang for giving me the opportunity and shoutout to my mentor Chilly-O.
Was it all business from the jump or did you all spend time together before it was clear you’d be doing the covers?
Johnny was my main point of contact from the start and he had the vision for the projects. I listened and made it do what it do. I knew exactly what they wanted and gave it to ‘em through my interpretation.
Were the ideas for the covers all drafted at once? Or did you listen to their music for each piece and then put together the artwork?
No, they gave me the ideas one by one. I didn't listen to their music [to draw the covers], but I did watch a few videos for personal style referencing.
How hands-on were Johnny and Doctur Dot during the process?
Both were very hands-on. They would text me and give me feedback, of course. They weren't like a lot of people I work with that nitpick on shit just because they feel they have the authority to just because they're employing me. Them dudes were straight-up with me and respected my mind.
How much of your personal style made it into these covers, and what details can we see that reflect your artistic taste?
I'm honestly moving from one style to the next daily. Using different widths of pens and also just playing with new techniques constantly. I gave them the style that everyone likes from me, but it's getting old and I'm ready to move on. I pay attention to details so you can look anywhere and see some complexities. I take pride in my use of depth and angles, especially on the Rags cover.
Looking at Rags, what’s up with the girls on the cover having beaks and sunglasses?
EarthGang referenced the classic film The Wiz on all of the covers. The scene with Michael Jackson (Scarecrow) and the crows was the exact scene we used for Rags. I just made the strippers the crows, Johnny was the Scarecrow, and put the Atlanta hood strip club Peaches in the background. Real n***a shit.
Jumping to Robots, there’s the same purple smoke and general style, but it’s obviously more futuristic. How did you straddle the line between old and new on this piece?
It’s just another scene from The Wiz, with the Tinman, when he wakes up and needs some oil. Our take was having the strippers as Tinwomen and having them dancing with Dot as the Tinman outside of another Atlanta strip club called Blue Flame. All three covers are based on the same time period.
Aside from your line work and the smoke, what else did you do to bring a cohesiveness to the three pieces?
The titles obviously are all overhead and there’s the red brick road, referencing Georgia's infamous red clay, instead of the yellow brick road.
Was it daunting to produce three pieces that had to hit the exact same mark?
Not at all. I am a professional. I've done the same kind of work for other rap artists, companies, and corporations.
All that’s left now is their debut album, Mirror Land. Will you be illustrating that cover as well?
I hope not. I hope they will go with another artist or photographer. I think that will be more grand. The illustrations were just for the EP run, I think, and they served their purpose.
As a final note to young creatives, what is the best way to make a name for yourself as a young illustrator or designer?
I want the youth to know that it’s not about followers and likes. It’s about labor and precision. Do your art for yourself and nobody else. Create every single day, on multiple mediums. Go to museums, study the classics, study tangible artwork, and stop complimenting art with the ever so lacking word “dope,” and use some art terms like “balanced” and “challenging.” Educate yourself on all art fronts. Use that internet more as a tool, rather than entertainment. I have been in this game for 20 years selling my own art since age nine. Trust me, I know what it takes.