Before the days of on-demand music streaming, endless playlists, and bloated double albums, there was the mixtape era.
For Seoul-based graphic designer Rick “Rowdee” Cho, who got his first taste of hip-hop from television and a generous “online bootlegger,” the mixtape era sparked his passion for art and design. “I bumped The Diplomats tapes all day long and their tape cover arts were very fascinating to a Far East Asian kid,” he recalls.
It wasn’t until after his mandatory service for the South Korean military that Rowdee was able to pursue the arts. Following his time in the military, Rowdee began tireless work in the VFX industry, which wore down his health and creativity until he ultimately quit. Out of a steady job for two years, Rowdee finally caught a break when a few local rappers were in need of some cover art.
“Some rap friends from my neighborhood asked me to create their cover art, only because I can do Photoshop,” Rowdee explains. “That was my first-ever cover art. It was horrible with Jolly Rancher-worthy payment, but I thought of it like, ‘Hey, this can work…’”
In short order, Rowdee earned placements with Korean rap sensation Jay Park, who JAY-Z recently signed to Roc Nation, and American hip-hop stars and upstarts like Smoke DZA, 6LACK, Taylor Bennett, and Lil Skies. With his popular collage-style approach, Rowdee has been able to capture and reimagine the smallest musical details with a swath of color and each artist’s unique personality.
“One of the merits of collage art is that you can create something very quick,” Rowdee explains. “Maybe the quickest way to compile your mind. But you can't just cut and paste everything. It has to be something that relates to [the] music. Something that visualizes color and story perfectly.”
DJBooth’s full interview with Rowdee, in which we discuss his early influences and break down his process and work with 6LACK and Taylor Bennett, has been lightly edited for content and clarity and continues below.
DJBooth: How did you get into graphic design?
Rowdee: I'm a Seoul-based graphic designer and been a huge fan of hip-hop since I was in high school. My era was a super-mixtape era. No SoundCloud, no Datpiff.
It was the time when we were only able to listen to music on the TV and radio, or waiting for our fellow online bootlegger to post a zip file on the community website. I bumped The Diplomats tapes all day long and their tape cover arts were fascinating to a Far East Asian kid.
At what point did this become a professional venture?
After being discharged from military service, I used to work in the VFX industry. Visual effects on TV and movies. It was fun, but very stressful and exhausting at the same time. My health status was not good. I would say I was literally drained, so I had to quit. I was struggling to find new jobs for like two years, then some of my rap friends from my neighborhood asked me to create their cover art, only because I can do Photoshop. That was my first-ever cover art. It was horrible with Jolly Rancher-worthy payment, but I thought of it like, "Hey, this can work..."
Your aesthetic has evolved over the years, but who were your early influences?
Mixtape cover art legends like MiamiKaos, KidEight, MEF, and Mister Soul. In the beginning, my only goal was to make good mixtape art. But now, I get inspired by every media. I have been looking for my originality, but I realized that the word originality is a means to an end, a tool to convey a thought. It's more like designer fantasy now. So I reset my goal to make something good. Just like what my favorite designer Paul Rand said: "Don't try to be original, just try to be good." The genius is in the details and subtleties.
With your collage style, how do you decide which details get cut? Is it tempting to just leave everything because of the nature of the style?
One of the merits of collage art is that you can create something very quick. Maybe the quickest way to compile your mind. But you can't just cut and paste everything. It has to be something that relates to [the] music. Something that visualizes color and story perfectly.
How do you balance these details alluding to the sound or theme, but not giving too much away?
It varies between projects. Some need an eidetic imagery direction and some need an abstract imagery direction. I usually decide the direction of art after I listened to the music, which I consider the main priority.
What about the balance between your own creative lens and an artist’s personality?
My ego as a designer should never get in the way of the right solution to a project. Yes, I'm a graphics expert, but I don't wanna present myself as a dictator. When I work, I talk with my clients a lot. Even if clients tell me, “Do you,” I ask them various questions because I know every person has their own imagination. They just don't know how to express their aesthetic favors in proper words. If a designer fails in communication, that's no designer but a drive-thru ordering machine.
You worked with 6LACK on the art for his latest single, “Cutting Ties.” How did that collaboration come about?
I was working with Smoke DZA around 2013-2014 and his agent Steve-O introduced me to Carlon Ramong, one of the co-founders of LVRN. LVRN was making a buzz with Raury and they were gearing up for 6LACK as well. Carlon tried to put me in charge of 6LACK's creative direction and set his first SoundCloud release, but I was in the middle of other projects so had to pass it to other designers. After finishing "Cutting Ties," Carlon and I both recalled the past and said [the collaboration was], “Long overdue!”
What was the creative process of working with 6LACK?
LVRN works super fast. Always in a rush, but Carlon handles the process very well. Carlon gave me some basic conceptual aspects and words from 6LACK. I was planning to create something typographic first, but thankfully I already knew that 6LACK loves a minimal approach. The mood of the "Cutting Ties" demo was very gloomy but simple as well. So the keywords for the "Cutting Ties" art were basically: gloomy black, dark blue, murky but crispy texture-wise. When my first rough draft came out, everybody loved it and there were only a few revisions. I'd like to also credit Jordan Perez for blessing me with these marvelous shots.
Most recently, you handled the cover of Taylor Bennett’s latest single, “Minimum Wage.”
Joseph Cabey, a young visionary from Chicago, plugged me with several Chicago projects including Taylor's Broad Shoulders concert flyer. Joseph really liked my process and wanted me to whip Taylor's Restoration of An American Idol EP cover art. I made that cover art during my family vacation in Vietnam. My hotel room was messy with papers and my eyes were burning as hell because I had to work everything out of my small laptop. It was a fun experience, though.
There are a lot of moving parts to Taylor’s cover. What can you tell us about some of the messaging? Particularly, the image of Colin Kaepernick and the “we can’t survive.”
There is no way I can imagine living in the States as an African American. Like most of you cannot imagine my life as a man living in a divided country. However, like I stated before, my only concern is to visualize music at its best. Taylor is a happy person and tries to spread his positive vibe but that doesn't mean he's ignoring all the issues going on. He's just fighting in his own way, so it was my calling to portray his messages. Colin Kaepernick or John Carlos symbolize Taylor's ethic but the main focus is: "Whether you're white, black, brown, yellow, gay, straight, rich or poor, you're all here for music and I'm here for you." Nothing political but just wishing good life as a human being.
Did you ever anticipate getting these high-profile placements for your artwork? What does that feel like?
My parents [were] always worried about my future. Even when I started this business, my mom tried to convince me to have a "real job." My first-ever, official payment was $150, but after six years of running, I pay taxes, run my studio, and give speeches to young students sometimes. And the most grateful thing to have is now I can actually support young and independent artists without any hesitation or worries. This is more than a blessing.
Any advice you ignored when you were starting out that you wish you had taken?
Work hard and play hard—taking breaks is super mandatory.
Any advice you feel you’re in a position to give to upcoming designers?
Nothing comes for free and no one was born great. Taste changes constantly, but good work can always find its place.