“Charlie Hustle, I got a few mathematics,
I’m doing a compilation, should I go with Phunky Phat Graph-X?
I tell them, ‘Hell yeah that’s a done deal, dude them be off the hinges
Dude them did my cover and my bus benches”
E-40 ‘Hope I Don’t Go Back’
Today I’m talking about tote bags…I’m just fucking with you. I’m talking Phunky Phat Graph-x. That was the company’s name incidentally—I haven’t just returned from a Tory workshop on “yoof” speak. A couple of years back, my good friend Nick Schonberger asked me to write a piece on the well-known (even if it’s with a certain smirk) Pen & Pixel album cover empire, which ultimately, despite late ’90s ubiquity is line with the explosion of major-licensed empires like No Limit, Suave House and Cash Money appears to close doors to make way for Smart Face Media Management and Creative Resource Managements (though Shawn Brauch has mentioned plans to distill all 19,0000 covers in his archive into a book), their rival before Pen & Pixel truly owned the market was Oakland’s Phunky Phat Graph-x. Hardly as prolific but still commonplace in my tape collection, if you liked B-Legit, JT the Bigga Figga or early E-A-Ski (and the homie Maxime at ‘Sang Bleu’ knows the deal), you were drawn in by some lurid act of brutality by O-Town’s album sleeve maestros.
If, inexplicably, despite being a pasty Brit, you laid hands on Mista Boss Mann’s pimptastic output, you probably knew the power of Phunky Fresh. There was rarely ghetto glamour on commissioned work. After effects, yes, but significantly more grime. According to legend, Master P tired of their turnaround times and while P had been loyal to the Phunky Fresh for TRU and other early releases—even back when the company was called Underwood Works after founders Thomas and Tracy Underwood—and switched to Pen & Pixel. Sick Wid It seemed to stay loyal. There was room in my heart for both creative outposts. Phunky Fresh defined this curious aesthetic before I ever set eyes on their rival’s work. I still don’t know what happened to Thomas and Tracy (that’s what the comments section is for, after all), but vice-president Johnel Langerston runs a company called PHATEFX that offers a similar service. It’s too easy to sneer at a curious time for the industry as dynasties were forged before politics, gullyness and the dreaded right-clickers put a dent in those gold-plated mansions.
There’s no Bay Area sounds currently blaring via my iTunes—just an unofficial but slickly packaged Cam’ron and Vado mixtape called ‘Polo Sport’ that flips some of Lauren’s branding effectively on the cover art. The lineage is in full effect. Tastes changed, but the cult of lurid art lives on in the mix and street CD circuit. More often than not, these are part of a tactical leak, and are barely seen outside of a hi-res jpeg, but at least the spirit’s there. I hope all involved continued success, and remain in awe of their street-level excesses. Whether the Retweet takes prominence over curious or brilliant design to shift an album isn’t even open to argument. It’s done, but I still keep hope alive that another powerhouse of go-to guys will arise, and maintain this level of lunacy.
It’s worth noting that this entry was originally meant to have some jacket talk too because of some fine new acquisitions from Arc’teryx Veilance and Dickies and some talk of the new Rig Out too, but it jarred too hard for the above—even by my usual standards the transition would’ve been deeply awkward. I guess the Dickies associations are certainly there.