Graphic design company based in Houston Pen and Pixel rose in the mid-90s as the masterminds behind some of the most legendary Southern rap album covers. Founded by two brothers, Aaron and Shawn Brauch, Pen & Pixel began as an in-house design company for No Limit Records and in its heyday produced artwork for Cash Money, Master P, Snoop Dogg, and lil wayneamong others.
One of Shawn Brauch’s last designs was for the cover of Birdman’s debut studio album, released November 26, 2002 via Cash Money Records.
Brauch explains the rise, fall and legacy of Pen & Pixel, as well as his collaboration with Birdman fka Baby on the cover itself.
Shawn Baruch: Pen & Pixel started after my brother and I worked at Rap-A-Lot Records in Houston. My brother was general manager there, and the company was actually doing very, very well – won a few platinums with the Geto Boys, and they started wanting to bring everything in-house. At that time, they made their album covers outside.
They were bringing in freelance artists and my brother knew I was a graphic designer and he was like, “Hey! Would you like to come here and try your luck and do storyboards for music videos? I was like, “Sure! Why not?”
The covers of the first album
I didn’t know any of that, but it’s always been a dream of mine to do album covers. I flew to Houston and started working there. One thing led to another… I was doing everything by hand when I arrived there. We did the photo shoot and then we sat there and cut out the photos and made photo montages with colored pencils, photographs and sandpaper… we would actually sand the edges. We would actually do these photo montages by hand. We would cut out the images, sand down the edges of the images, then spray adhesive on them – and glue them together and make these photo montages.
At that time, computers were almost unknown. I think Photoshop had only been out for maybe a year at the time? So I had a chat with J Prince, and I was like, “Hey, maybe this is the way to go since we do so many album covers. It might be a good idea to set up our own production department…”
We looked at the numbers and went through them… you do 40-50 album covers a year, so now it’s worth the investment. I have this first system [in-house production department] put in Rap-A-Lot Records and did a whole bunch of learning about it.
Rap-A-Lot obviously took care of signing as many acts as possible. These artists would come, and one of the benefits of signing with them was that the album cover would be unlike any other album cover because we had the capabilities at that time to start making it pretty exceptional.
They were like, “Well, we don’t want to sign with Rap-A-Lot, but we’d like the artwork done.” It started my brother and I thinking, “What if we set up an almost completely different division of Rap-A-Lot – like an artistic division?” We would do the artwork and Rap-A-Lot would obviously get paid, but my brother and I would get separate fees because we put all the energy and management into it. We presented this [a different division of Rap-A-Lot] to Little J and he looked at it, and we just couldn’t agree. He wanted more money than it would have been possible for us to make.
My brother looked at this and said, “Well, how much does the equipment cost?” We went out, made a business plan, then my brother bought all the equipment – basically the same as what Rap-A-Lot had – and we installed it in our apartment and that was the start.
I think we actually do more covers in the early days than a lot of people realize, and one of the things that gave Pen & Pixel its momentum was that we had accounts like Houston Records and Select-O- hit; it’s companies like CD Baby that only generated 30, 40 or 50 album covers a day because they’re the most basic you know.
Things started looking up…and they really picked up with Suave House. Tony Draper is the one who really put us on the map with 8Ball and MJG. It was an incredibly maverick album because no one had ever seen anything like it. Once he burst with that, everyone started coming towards us.
The Cash Money Records Connection
We were still working from our apartment at that time. Literally living and working in the apartment with full staff – we had a staff of 10 working in our apartment. The apartment has become too small. We moved into this house – maybe a mile away – and the whole house was completely absorbed in the business. We started doing business with Big Boy Records in New Orleans, and their direct competitor was Cash Money Records. We started generating things like Black Menace, The Ghetto Twiinz, J Dawg and a whole bunch of other wild and crazy bands. brian [Birdman] and Ronald Williams [Slim] saw this, and they were like, “Woah! It’s shit.
They were like, basically, “Where did you get that? Since we’re your competitors, we also want things that look like that. Next thing you know, this big entourage is showing up in our parking lot.
The importance of dissemination
It wasn’t just the artwork that Pen & Pixel was selling. That’s the other thing that people don’t understand about Pen & Pixel is the amount of business advice and number of deals done under the Pen & Pixel umbrella… major deals like Virgin Records, Epic Records and Priority Records have been blocked and plugged under our roof.
When Brian and Ronald came in, they not only wanted to talk to me, they wanted to talk to my brother because my brother had the distribution network. They were like, “Okay, so if we’re going to try this, we have to have a large-scale distribution.”
It was made by Southwest Wholesale with Robert Gillerman, and my brother and Robert Gillerman were like brothers. My brother would work on those deals, and those deals included: you get your work done here, we take care of your production, we generate posters, we give you all the tools to be successful, and we’ll connect you with broadcast. Eventually, later on, we even got into organizing concerts, managing security, hotels and limos.
It was this type of service and offering that was so appealing to these groups. They knew that if they were loyal to us, we would always be loyal to them – and that eventually these deals would eventually connect where they would get these massive distribution deals with these massive record deals. The record companies knew that the artwork would be of consistent quality, that the product would be delivered on time, and that they [the record companies] were always going to get what they needed to succeed. It’s really one of the great catalysts that allowed Pen & Pixel to explode.
We showed Cash Money what we could do in terms of artwork, and they said, “We’ll be back in about a week. And sure enough, they came back within a week, and they had four of their acts with them. Our relationship with Suave House was very close, and now with Cash Money it was really very close. They came to us until the last cover of Birdman. It was basically the last.
[Cash Money Records] had signed another contract with another record company at that time. Pen & Pixel was also starting to shut down. We had changed a lot of our style to what we call “millennial style”, which is what you see with the cover of Birdman. We had moved away from the ‘bling-bling’ thing because people were like, ‘The ‘bling-bling’ thing is so played man. We want to look like a movie poster.
The Birdman album cover[Birdman] is a really reliable customer. He called me to fly to New Orleans and he took care of [the] limo – the whole thing – to go to his hotel room for a photo shoot. I’d bring my whole studio with me – including an assistant – we’d settle into his hotel suite, shoot whatever shot we needed, then go back and go and produce the album cover.
On the cover of Birdman, it was a two-take process, which is unusual for Brian. It is totally organized. It had everything ready to rock, ready to roll. This is the house where he brings most of the buddies. He has another mansion like Master P that he doesn’t bring anyone into. It’s just for him and his family. That draws me to this house, and this house is between 7,000 and 8,000 square feet. There’s probably 50 or 60 guys in there. There is a jacuzzi in the middle of the living room. He’s like, “I need you to photograph this gem.” I was like, “You called me here for a photo shoot of some jewelry?” He says, “Yeah, I can’t pass that up because it was like $400,000 or something.”
So that’s where the photograph of that bird is that you see on the Birdman album. Then he made me fly again, and I only shot in his face. Then I said, “Well, I’m going to incorporate this eagle into your thing, and it’s going to be kind of a dark cover.” Then I started generating the rest of the parts, put them together, sent them over, and he said, “Yeah, I want it to be called No. 1 Stunna!” I was like “Oh! Okay, okay,” not knowing what a dizzy was.
We did t-shirts, illustrations of this, other posters, and this was the last cover I did for them [Cash Money Records]. I vividly remember that was the last cover we did. I thought it was actually one of my most creative. I also made another one that was very similar… very similar to Point Blank called The bull where you have this homogeneous half-animal half-human type thing. I loved the colors, and I loved that dark, mysterious thing. I love this sinister look.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in 2017.