Dan Lish may be the most passionate hip-hop-head-turned-illustrator of all time.
A veteran artist and hip-hop head who spent several years in the New York City b-boy scene battling, DJing, doing graffiti and the like, Lish’s love for hip-hop runs deeper than a simple simile can quantify. Now living in the UK, Lish has spent the past several years producing immaculate lithographs blending hip-hop history and all things fantastical per his egostrip art series.
His journey to becoming “the Robert Crumb of hip-hop,” as he describes himself over the phone, was not without hardship. After souring on hip-hop culture following some drama from his battling days, Lish returned to the UK with his ego awash with doubt. From that break and distance, though, came a reignited passion for hip-hop through illustration.
“When I first came back from New York [to the UK], my ego was out of balance and I just needed to take time out,” he explains. “One of my close friends says, ‘You’ve been into this hip-hop shit for so long, why don’t you just do some artwork?’ I just, I wasn’t ready then. I think I left it on a bit of a negative thing where there was a lot of drama with the battling. I didn’t go there, and then this thing just happened so subtly and organically, and it just snowballed.”
Above all else, Dan Lish is in love with the humanity of hip-hop, with the essence of storytelling. Over the course of our hour-long conversation, Lish revealed himself as spiritually devoted to the physical craft of pen to paper, as he is to honoring hip-hop history and culture. His passion lifts off the page in prose much like his illustrations command a room.
DJBooth’s full conversation with Dan Lish, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
I find that all artists in all mediums are linked by their desire to tell a story, so where does your passion for storytelling come from?
That’s a good point, there’s usually a little subconscious narrative running through the artwork. Sometimes it’s specific, sometimes it’s fantastical or made up, but I need to create a little story that links little visual analogies. It’s part of the way I create, there’s usually a little narrative going through. The craft, and even if it’s just a stream of consciousness, I’m crafting something out of my head. It gets quite cosmic, but you’ve got that connection to other stuff going on in the universe, you know? I just bring it down to earth and then little links happen in the visuals. It’s just trying to link things that make sense to me.
With that, what is the overarching story you’ve been telling across your career, perhaps subconsciously?
There is an underlying agenda under a lot of my work, especially the last four or five years with the curiosity of we don’t just live in this 3D construct. It’s a hell of a lot deeper, a hell of a lot more mysterious than we realize. I like to explore that, although, the last four years doing the egostrip project, which happened very organically, I’ve been delving down many rabbit holes of the internet. I love to explore my consciousness and other realms, and I just put a little of that in there, like there’s some other stuff going on that we really don’t know that.
I don’t know if I’ve answered your question, but that’s the little thing that I like to explore. Say if I’m drawing an artist that I rate or I haven’t listened to in 20 years, they just ping into my consciousness and I explore them. These other little things and the human journey comes into it, that’s a big part. Then, halfway through the illustration, their back catalog or whatever they’ve done is irrelevant and it’s just about the human journey and the little things I’m trying to explore in it. It’s quite subtle, but it’s important to me.
You mention going down the rabbit hole. Is illustration how you explore the consciousness you read about even more?
It’s just a way to explore and express myself. It’s the process as well, which is really important to me. It’s that connection to something else going on… It’s different and not the physical anymore. So I might be on the train, drawing, but I’m somewhere else. My consciousness is somewhere else. Sometimes I like to just bring it down to earth.
That’s what I’ve been doing lately and just celebrating the artists and the humanity in it, and the rawness and back to basics, instead of that etheric stuff. It did get pretty trippy at times, and I know it sounds silly because you see I’ve just created Rakim just writing some rhymes, but it was a lot more than that for me. I love to join the dots and get nerdy because I’ve loved this culture since I was thirteen years old. You know what I mean? It’s just gonna come out, and it gets sort of cosmic, and then it gets very grounded as well. Right now it’s been grounded.
What is it about hip-hop as a genre that you feel meshes with your art style and love of humanity and the esoteric?
Basically, I’ve just had a love for it for a long time. I’m also trying to think if it was a different genre—I love music anyway—it wouldn’t run as deep and far-reaching as hip-hop culture. I’ve just thrown myself into it, I got really obsessed with it, battlin’ and all this stuff… I’ve really sort of bled for it as well. I know it sounds crazy, an Englishman just going crazy in New York, but that’s the way it happened.
When I first came back from New York [to the UK], my ego was out of balance and I just needed to take time out. You know, family happened, and one of my close friends says “You’ve been into this hip-hop shit for so long, why don’t you just do some artwork?” I just, I wasn’t ready then.I think I left it on a bit of a negative thing where there was a lot of drama with the battling. I didn’t go there, and then this thing just happened so subtly and organically, and it just snowballed. So it’s really hard for me to answer that directly because it just seemed like a natural path for me to take. It wasn’t planned.
There’s obviously a great humanity in hip-hop, and for me, it’s very subjective, it was just a great way to express myself. I didn’t know I’d be doing this in this illustrated form. I didn’t know I’d be the Robert Crumb of hip-hop. I didn’t realize… I knew it ran deep for me, but I needed a breather. I’m sure you know what I mean. But I got really obsessed with it, and it did affect relationships. So with all that baggage, there’s got to be some good stuff to come out of it.
All creatives really have an obsessive nature.
I’ve got a bit of an obsessive nature. It’s healing as well. Artists, we’ve all got our [own] traumas that we’ve built up through our lives and this helps to heal them as well. Even if it’s the simplest way of just physically touching a surface with something, you create a lot more neural connections. The physicality of illustration, that’s healing. The therapeutics of the physicality, that’s how I keep the consistency as well as a love for the subject matter. For me, I take the macro approach. I can pull out and then go straight deeper. I just love to join the dots and I see the bigger picture of things.
You and J.PERIOD worked together before #WAKANDAFOREVEREVER. How did you two initially connect?
I didn’t know who he was, and he went to the Native Tongues that was a couple of years back in Manhattan. He purchased the De La Soul print, I had about five or six there. He purchased it, reached out to me, and I thought that was great. I did a bit of research and thought, “Oh! I slept on his mixes pretty badly.” I didn’t know that he was Lauryn Hill’s tour DJ, I didn’t know that he did stuff with The Roots, and I just loved his craft, really. It was quite similar, audibly, to what I’m doing. It’s like a tapestry, you know? I’m creating a visual tapestry and he’s creating an audible tapestry, telling stories through his mixes.
He reached out and said, “Yeah, I might want you to do some covers in the future. For now, it would be great if you could work on this OutKast mix.” So I listened to his mix during the bike ride from where I lived to the train station, and from the train, I take the train to London, and in that time, I created the cover for the first OutKast mix he did. It went very well, very smoothly. We’re quite similar in a way, quite obsessive about detail.
How did he approach you for #WAKANDAFOREVEREVER?
That was the same thing, really. He just reached out. He didn’t tell me too much, just, “Have you seen the movie?” I made an effort to go and see it, loved it, and then we talked about the project. It snowballed from there. He kept on sending me little updates [of the mix], just to get the juices flowing and the vibe right. I wanted it to look right, and it’s hard to explain because it was challenging, but it was worth it.
He really pushed me just to get it right, because when he was sending me snippets of his mix, it was just rough edits. So by the end, I’d almost finished, and the last bits of the illustration were taking a long time because I was struggling to get the general vibe of his mix, but when it came together, that was cool: “Right! Now, I know where you’re coming from.”
What do you listen for in the music to inform the illustration?
With the OutKast images, to be 100% honest with you, I didn’t really know their music that well. You gotta understand, I come from that b-boy aspect, battlin’, graffiti, DJing as well… This is gonna make sense in the long run. When I eventually got to New York, I was in my late 20s and my taste had been refined, so I just went to my roots again. I was hanging out with all the old rockers, the gang members, the Zulus in the Bronx River, all this crazy shit.
Everyone and their grandmother was rhyming. I was getting into the essence again, getting all obsessive. So what I’m saying is, when it comes to the music, I can get into the vibe quite quickly without knowing their music too well. I can just get a vibe, and J.PERIOD’s mix did that quite quickly for me.
With so much experience, what is the one piece of advice you’ve carried with you across your career?
I have a handful, really. Just be in nature as much as possible. Be open to all sorts of inspiration. We take in over 90% of our information as subconscious, so who knows that’s getting sucked into that sponge and spat out later on. Draw. Draw, draw, draw, and try not to get too caught up in style. Embrace the process and try not to get too caught up in the final look of it, it’s just the being present while you’re there, and not getting caught up in “Oh, what if it turns out like this.” Just get on with it and soak it up, every time you create something, just be there with it.