One of the most well-known examples of cover-art sampling, The Clash’s London Calling was musically and visually iconic upon release. It’s pastiche of the rock n’ roll classic, The Elvis Presley Album suggested that the band was ready to revolutionize music in much the same way as the King once did with his debut. The image of Clash bassist Paul Simonon smashing his bass was the perfect hallmark of the rebellious energy The Clash brought to the music, and combining it with the historic pink and green text from The Elvis Presley Album helped cement their place in history right alongside the King himself. Rock n’ roll would never be the same again...again.
The coolest thing about the way Gorillaz sampled Let It Be’s cover art is the detail. The Demon Days cover uses the same format as the Beatles’ album, but inverts it. All the musicians are facing away from their cartoon counterparts - Ringo and Russell, both drummers are on opposite squares, as are guitarists George and noodle, singers John and 2D, and bassists Paul and Murdoc. Another cool detail is regarding these last two. Notice how Paul is the only Beatles member who faces towards the camera and is the only one with a red background. On the Gorillaz end, Murdoc’s eye is turned towards the camera, and he is cast in a reddish tint. Coincidence? I think not.
Joy Division’s brilliant debut, Unknown Pleasures features some of the most tumblr-approved album art of all time, to say nothing about how incredibly influential the music was. Rather than doing an obvious lift of the iconic cover, German pianist/producer Nils Frahm opted for a more subtle approach in line with the minimalism of his music. Musically, Joy Division’s post-punk brooding and Nils Frahm’s gentle melodies couldn’t sound more different, yet their darkly beautiful philosophies seem to imply the same sense of melancholy. Visually, the blacks and whites are all inverted but the overall structure is unmistakable and both album covers evoke a similar sense of implicit structure in darkness and formless mystery in space.
When Wiz Khalifa put out his legendary mixtape, Kush & OJ, he needed an image to give off the same sense of lavish luxury and high-living he wove into his music. There was no better source of inspiration than David Ruffin, the debonair lead-singer of The Temptations whose final solo album, Gentleman Ruffin was an entry course in suave. The only difference between the two covers is Wiz’s head photoshopped in and the pot plant growing in the background. Talk about a direct sample.
For great record covers, look no further than the Blue Note Records catalog. They are the epitome of cool. There have been many homages to these beauties over the years, but Atmosphere’s Overcast! is one of the coolest. Before you hear the first track of Overcast!’s laid-back, jazz-heavy boom-bap, the cover sets the mood perfectly. The cool blue tones let you know you’re in for a smooth ride, but the tagged brick wall reminds me that this is still classic New York hip-hop.
Kanye West = Sampling. Plain and simple. He wears his sonic inspirations on his sleeves, and for those with a keen eye, his visual inspirations as well. Although “Nothing Fails” is a single, its cover art inspired the art for one of the most talked-about albums of recent times, The Life of Pablo. Whether Kanye is trying to send some sort of message by giving a nod to the pop queen, or if he just dug the look, the similarities are plain to see: from the layered text, to the tiny photo in the corner, to the pastel orange background, this is another Kanye sample for the ages.
When Childish Gambino dropped his third studio album, Awaken My Love, fans were blown away to hear the rapper/actor turning from his brand of hip, manic, hilarious rap and instead trying out a completely different sound: heavy psychedelic funk. But anybody who knows their classic album covers could have seen the change coming a mile away. Awaken’s cover bears a strong resemblance to the definitive psych-funk album, Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain. And the music is just as similar, like a spiritual successor to the ‘70’s classic. Playing the two albums back to back, you can feel a link across musical generations, and these covers are the gateways for that journey.
When Roy Ayers formed his 70’s group, Ubiquity, he helped pioneer the combination of jazz and funk. He’s Coming was the second effort from that group and helped to cement funk as one of the great forms of American music. Smif-N-Wessun’s killer 90’s debut, Dah Shinin’, did much the same for concrete east-coast rap. Smif-N-Wessun even sampled Ayers’ “We Live in Brooklyn, Baby,” on their track, “Home Sweet Home.”
The late Sean Price was one of New York’s most versatile MCs. He was the type of rapper that could sound good on any type of song. And Stevie Wonder is the type of artist could write any type of song. Both artists boast immense talent and flexibility. Both artists get endless praise from their respective peers. So it makes sense that Price’s posthumous release, Songs in the Key of Price would give a nod to Wonder’s ultra-classic, Songs in the Key of Life.
Arguably the most popular album of all time, Michael Jackson’s Thriller blended pop sensibility with horror movie motifs. Lacking in pop sensibility, Tech N9ne took the horror movie concept and ran, opting for a bloody red font and a straight jacket instead of Mike’s slick pink script and white blazer. The sounds of these albums couldn’t be more different, but each makes bold statements.
So, there you have it. People have been sampling each other’s visuals just as long as they’ve been sampling each other’s sounds. And just as a bonus, I leave you with this:
Coincidence? I leave it to you to decide. All I know is that both women worked with song-writer/producer Guy Sigsworth at different points in their careers, and that in 2007, when Britney was really going through it, Björk sent Spears a letter offering up her Iceland home as a retreat from the public eye. It’s weird to think that the queen of early-2000’s teen-pop queen used the cover of her first single to pay homage to the queen of avant garde electronic music, but I’d like to live in a world where that’s the case.
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