One day you’re making smoothies and folding clothes, and the next minute, if you’re graphic designer Nicholas “NickyChulo” Fulcher, GoldLink’s manager is asking you to send over your portfolio. At 26, the Virginia-raised and New York-based Fulcher has worked with a slew of major labels (Universal, Atlantic, Motown), indie favorites (Visionary, Dreamville) and even interned for DJBooth.
Before the notoriety and the chance to make a living off of “art money,” Fulcher found himself in a 10th-grade computer graphics class, getting crucial encouragement from a teacher and being astounded by album covers like Lincoln Park and JAY-Z’s Collision Course and Lupe Fiasco’s The Cool. Wholly inspired, Fulcher took that energy and landed his first freelance gig for a local artist while still in high school and slinging smoothies on the side.
“I worked at this smoothie shop in Virginia and a rapper in my high school—I won’t say his name to embarrass him—says, ‘Yo, I know you’re good with the graphics, can I get a cover?’” Fulcher recalls. “I had just gotten a new laptop at the time, so I was like, ‘20 bucks and I got you.’
“I continued from there, and that’s when I met Henny [Yegezu] shortly after. I was working in this retail spot and Henny, GoldLink’s manager, walks in. He rapped at the time, I don’t think many people knew that. And he’s like, ‘I’m looking for a designer, send me some of your stuff.’” The rest is design history.
Fulcher’s rap sheet is miles long, and his talent is just as boundless. With a crisp style, fine attention to detail in typography, and an even more acute attention to the color balance in his work, it’s not surprising that he has had a hand in the cover art for IDK, GoldLink, and most recently, Cardi B’s forthcoming debut, Invasion of Privacy.
“My part in that was just the typography and the digital overlay, like the camera looking effect,” Fulcher explains. “It reminded me of Marilyn Monroe, so I’m like, ‘Let me do something somewhat feminine, but still powerful.’ So that’s why I came up with the script over ‘Privacy’ on the type logo.”
As methodical as they come, Fulcher always strives to communicate a message and not lose himself in ornate details. When it comes to working with artists, he finds that direction is key to satisfying the client and making the best piece possible. “It’s like, they give you a brick and you could build a house,” he says. “When you have direction, I can build you a city.”
DJBooth’s full interview with NickyChulo, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
Starting with the basics, how’d you find yourself in the world of graphic design?
It started in high school, I took a computer graphics class in my sophomore year of high school, and my teacher was like, “Yo! You’re really good at this.” She really boosted me up and kept me on that path. That’s where I got my start, and I haven’t stopped since.
Was there one advertisement or album cover you saw as a kid that had you thinking, “I could do this, and better!” that pushed you to make this your career?
I never thought I could do this and make it better, but “I wanna be a part of this” was my thought process. The cover that really sold me on this was Lincoln Park and JAY-Z’s Collision Course. That album was like, it was like the holy grail of album artwork to me. It’s expressive, it’s graffiti, and Lincoln Park and JAY-Z coming together? What! The cover brought that whole experience together.
Any other critical influences?
For album artwork, I would say, Lupe Fiasco’s The Cool. I worked at a smoothie shop when that came out, [laughs] so that was like me wanting to get into this world.
What was the transition like from smoothies to being an artist?
It wasn’t smooth, I’ll tell you that. I worked at this smoothie shop in Virginia and a rapper in my high school—I won’t say his name to embarrass him—says, “Yo, I know you’re good with the graphics, can I get a cover?” I had just gotten a new laptop at the time, so I was like “20 bucks and I got you.” So I did this illustration of him in DC, and he thought it was okay, he wasn’t in love with it. But I thought it was amazing.
I continued from there, and that’s when I met Henny [Yegezu] shortly after. I was working in this retail spot and Henny, GoldLink’s manager, walks in. He rapped at the time, I don’t think many people knew that. And he’s like, “I’m looking for a designer, send me some of your stuff,” because I was helping him choose clothes for a photo shoot. It took off from there. I did all his graphics, I was by his side. Went to shows with Henny, got to meet Big Sean and Wiz Khalfia. He was like half-rapper and half-party promoter and that expanded my network. So everyone knew who I was in the DMV area.
After that, I went to college for graphic design. I interned for DJBooth while I was there. Z was amazing. I didn’t graduate but I [eventually] moved to New York where I worked at Revolt for three years. I met more people, and the follow-up was Atlantic Records.
What does your day-to-day like working for Atlantic Records?
There’s really no two days that are the same. We can work on singles, album artwork, merch, almost anything music-related. On a good day, there’s a lot of cool stuff. You’ll like the artist’s music and the people involved, and there are no bad days, but sometimes it’s a bit of a struggle to get visuals out. Every day is an adventure.
How do you maintain your aesthetic while also working with this wide breadth of artists?
That’s tough. I try to be different, I try to speak with the artist and their management and have a clear and concise vision before I start working on anything, and that’s within Atlantic. Now, when I do freelance stuff, when I’m working outside of Atlantic, I feel like I can kinda go off and have more free reign. Here, I try to keep it more clean-cut and have a plan. My freelance stuff is more expressive and my Atlantic stuff is more commercial, I guess you could say.
There’s a crispness to your style. What other elements do you try to carry from cover to cover?
Thank you for saying that. I never really look at my stuff, you know? I kind of work and go, work and go, but I was looking at my stuff the other day and I think color relationships are important. The relationship between blues and yellows, and there has to be a balance. That carries throughout all my work, that’s imperative. There’s nothing that’s gonna be off about the coloring, at all.
Usually, the artist has a message, so you have to communicate over decorate. Some people kinda go crazy. When someone sees the artwork, you wanna give them an idea of what they’re going into. It’s like a gift, and I have to get the wrapping paper just right to have you open the gift.
You have a hand in several facets of design, but typography appears to be your specialty.
Typography has made me the most money [laughs], I love it! It’s communication with a little bit of kick. If I can switch these letters up just right, it’ll have a different feel. Like a stop sign, you can have a really small font that seems like a whisper, or you can have a big, bold, fat, “STOP” with an exclamation point, and that’s kind of urgent and kind of screaming in your face. For me, typography is a way to form letters to say something a little bit more clear.
What else goes into the making of your artistic statement? I’m thinking of a cover like IDK’s “OMW” single that is simple, but so punchy.
It depends. IDK, he hit me via text and he was like, “Nicky, I need something quick, simple, and clean.” So that was his direction already, and he’s one of those artists that’s very involved in the artwork. I had other favorites, but he chose the most clean one.
Is that your preferred workflow?
It’s much easier when the artist has an idea of what they’re going for. When they don’t have an idea, it’s kinda like you’re taking shots in the dark and it becomes more of a sales game. I have to sell this idea to you and why it’s going to work for you, which is okay, too. But when an artist knows, it’s a more seamless process and we can do so much more to expand how we promote it. It’s like, they give you a brick and you could build a house. When you have direction, I can build you a city.
Most recently, you had a hand in Cardi B’s debut album, Invasion of Privacy. Break down your contribution to the cover.
Jora Frantzis did the heavy lifting there, she did the photography. My part in that was, just the typography and the digital overlay, like the camera looking effect. Although we went through a bunch of different concepts and ideas, that was the final, but I must have made ten different variations. I wanted something clean, something timeless… It reminded me of Marilyn Monroe, so I’m like, “Let me do something somewhat feminine, but still powerful.” So that’s why I came up with the script over “Privacy” on the type logo.
Can you talk at all about how the cover design relates to the music?
I heard a couple tracks. I think it’s gonna be a hit, 100%. With that being said, I heard “Bodak Yellow” early and I didn’t necessarily think it would blow up the way it did. I think [the album] is gonna be great, it’s gonna be an exciting moment.
You have a working history with Cardi. How has that relationship evolved from cover to cover?
It’s all through the label. I’ve been around her, I guess you could say [laughs]. “Bodak Yellow,” I wasn’t a part of it, but “Bartier Cardi” and the album I was a part of. “Bartier Cardi,” I got to hire a friend from college. He’s a phenomenal photographer, he goes by Revive The Cool. That whole shoot was just amazing. Cardi was like, “I want this, can we change this?” We ran around and got everything together, and the shoot went seamlessly. So “Bartier Cardi” I was involved more, and this album, I kinda came in at the last minute and smoothed everything over.
Have you had an “Oh my god, this is my life!” moment yet?
Ah, [laughs], I do two or three times a year. I’m really doing this. Art money brought me here. I’m living in New York, I’m going on trips. I haven’t worked a real nine-to-five in almost a decade now. It’s surreal, but it comes from a good place.
Is that your definition of success, avoiding the nine-to-five?
No, only because for some people the dream is a nine-to-five. If that’s your dream, then take it. For me, it’s about freedom. This is a nine-to-five, but one day I wanna be able to work on my own time and have a team and get shit down and play by my own rules.
How would you redo any album cover that’s already out?
I think it would be dope to do 4:44, to do that over. It could have been a more regal moment. I understand the branding was flawless and they did it right, but I think [something] more regal, more personal… There could have been more subtle touches of his personal life, maybe like his hands or rings on his hands. Just something that’s like, “I’m about to invite you into my life,” that’s a photo I think would work for 4:44.
If you could take one of your pieces and show them to your younger self as a form of inspiration, which piece would you show off and why?
The illustration work I’ve done for Ciscero, that’s freelance, that’s more expressive. I think my younger self would be thrilled to see that I’m not staying in the lines and I’m expressing myself. It’s not always a straight line when it comes to reaching your goals and chasing your dreams, so having that amount of freedom is something special. I think my younger self because I was a reflective ass little kid, my younger self would appreciate that.