While the polymathic Kevin Lyons has held directorial positions at Stüssy, Spike Jonze’s Girl Skateboard Company and Tokion Magazine, his resumé hardly covers the wealth of material and influence he carries. A creative director, illustrator, typographer and designer, Lyons came up in the thick of New York City’s acid jazz movement, defining the visual culture of the famous Giant Step parties that hosted Digable Planets, The Brand New Heavies, Jamiroquai and Massive Attack. An art student at RISD from 1988-92, the Brooklyn native reminisces back on his college years as “the very height of sampling,” Lyons told HYPEBEAST. Having added, “I began to lift, push and pull existing logos and imagery, and then recombine them to attempt to make something new.” Not to mention, it was at this time that De La Soul’s Three Feet High and Rising had dropped, followed by seminal albums from A Tribe Called Quest, Stetsasonic and The Beastie Boys.
In his latest solo exhibition titled “Baker’s Dozen,” Lyons demonstrates the extent to which music informs his practice. Partnering up with Detroit’s Inner State Gallery/1xRUN, Lyons presents an entirely new body of work that showcases his signature monster characters as donuts. “The monsters are all self portraits of me in some way. They all have my personality in them. They’re all screaming, or blunted, or relaxed, or raging against the machine,” the artist professed. Hosted in Detroit, the exhibition serves as homage to the late, legendary producer J Dilla. Lyons dedicated his artist residency to create 31 donut characters, reflecting 31 tracks of Dilla’s classic Donuts album.
Read on to learn more about the exhibition as well as an exclusive look into Lyons’ origins and projects. “Baker’s Dozen” will be open to the public on October 21 from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. EDT.
Tell us a little bit about the concept behind “Baker’s Dozen.”
First and foremost, I tried to think of something that really would be fun to work on. Detroit is such a strange, amazing, quirky place; I wanted to try and capture a little of each. Because it’s Detroit and we just came off of Murals In The Market there was a certain sense to do something that had some connection to the city itself. I did a mural out on Gratiot that paid homage to all of these iconic jazz musicians who were born and bred in Detroit. Those included a few hip-hop heads that continued the Motor City jazz tradition like Karriem Riggins and of course, J Dilla.
As I painted each day I listened to a lot of J Dilla’s recordings, whether it be for Slum Village, with Madlib, De La Soul, or his solo stuff, so I was kinda in a certain mindset already. J Dilla was in my head, bouncing around in there as I started to conceive my show. On the mural itself, I featured Dilla as a donut, referencing his iconic Donuts album. I often draw donuts mixed in with my Monster characters, so the thought was to combine these two cultural elements in a creative way. That became the cornerstone of the show itself with what I am calling the “Donuts” Wall. The guys at 1xRUN had been encouraging me to do a Monster cut-out figure for a while, so instead of just doing my normal, typical Monsters, we thought a hanging wood donut character would be an interesting art piece. And with the Dilla Donuts inspiration, this seemed like the perfect opportunity. Graphically it looked fun and simple, and it gave me a great ground for color and various mediums, so we took the main wall and made this a cut-out “Donuts” Wall.
What’s the significance behind donuts for you personally?
Donuts are something that I’ve been drawing for a very long time. Ever since the Monsters came around, the donuts kind of appeared as well. I first started doing the Monster characters for my two daughters. My youngest daughter is obsessed with the look, the taste, everything about donuts as a whole. She’d often make me draw her donut dudes when she was little. As a natural result of this, I would end up including a donut in a lot of my Monster compositions. They are funny, round, goofy little guys. She just loves the whole aesthetic of donuts. It kind of made me see them the exact same way. There really is something very, very friendly about being a donut.
For those not familiar with the now classic J Dilla album, Donuts, and it’s significance, what about that album had an impact on you?
I was a child of punk and hip-hop, so sampling was really interesting to me. I began to lift, push and pull existing logos and imagery, and then recombine them to attempt to make something new. I think what Donuts represented some 15 years later was the continuum of that vibe that we all loved as teenagers – as Lower East Side kids who made art and design. When we first heard Donuts it literally took us back to that era – the samples were so thick, and so jazzy. The references were deep and layered. It was so spiritual. It was a fully realized album by a genius, who seemed to have perfected the idea of seamless, powerful sampling. Even though Slum Village definitely played in the background of my studio for nearly 10 years, it wasn’t until Donuts that an album really harkened back to De La Soul, and Tribe Called Quest, that era of truly great jazz sampling. The era that opened and expanded my mind and my work.
My youngest daughter is obsessed with the look, the taste, everything about donuts as a whole. They are funny, round, goofy little guys.
Tell us about the three different donut characters.
I did three variations because I thought it was a nice mix. They are three of the main characters that I do: the sullen eye dude, the “I’m up to something” kinda dude, and then the more kinda cutesy relaxed, mellow dude.
What about the rest of the show? You have a lot of other work and drawings in this show aside from the Donuts…
The rest [of the show] centers really around this “Monster Party” that I continue to do, which is basically a pattern, or a group shot of my Monsters celebrating, or partying, or protesting, or rioting, or whatever the case may be. I wanted to experiment using all of the talent that 1xRUN has to offer in terms of silkscreeners and artists that are here. People who are really good at technically printing or using materials. That type of thing. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to use the studio here and do a little mini-residency where I’m doing something new and making one-of-a-kind Monster parties, versus doing a serial edition of 100 digital or silkscreened prints. These pieces in this show are much more exclusive and much more individually driven. Each piece is truly unique unto itself.
What are some of the elements of these pieces that you tried to approach differently with this show?
The monsters are all self portraits of me in some way. They all have my personality in them. They’re all screaming, or blunted, or relaxed, or raging against the machine. Whatever it is that they do, they are all aspects of my own personality. How I configure them and draw them is very much like like I’m giving each one a personality.
What were you doing before the Monsters stylistically?
I was doing mainly graphic design. I was taking hip-hop quotes and doing a lot of hand typography. Some of it would be silkscreens over photographs, lots of concept work, painting on album covers. Things like that. It would be primarily words and a little bit of imagery, but it was usually sampled imagery — a photograph or a graphic or a logo rip off. Some take on that. For me, my Monsters made it possible to break away from design by prescription. It was really interesting to all of the sudden have something that was unique, and that I could do for other people and they would want me to do it, versus being a creative director, an art director or a designer, when you are basically told what to do, I need this by this date, and it should look like this. Whereas when you do “art” or personal work, in this case, these characters, it changes the whole way people approach you. When you create something original, it has no rules. Clients go from prescribing a project to simply asking me to do me. It really freed me up.
Where did music begin to fit in for you?
As a kid in high school there was alternative music, like The Smiths, stuff like that. Any kid that had a little bit of angst back then listened to The Clash, The Ramones, The Talking Heads, as they were all anti-establishment bands. They weren’t your traditional pop. Then I got into punk pretty hard with bands like Minor Threat and Bad Brains. I was huge into Bad Brains.
Then one day I’m in the punk section of a local record shop and I see an album by a group called Public Enemy, and I just thought they must be a black punk band like Bad Brains, so I bought the album. That album, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, changed my whole shit up. It was my gateway into hip-hop and altered my life in so many ways. To me hip-hop was taking over where punk left off. It was anti-establishment. It was angry. There was lots of energy. I was a young kid, and I thought I was going to go up against the world and do a bunch of revolutionary shit, fight the power and everything else. As a kid I was an 18-year-old transitioning from punk into hip-hop and wanting to make some sort of mark on the world.
So, listening to hip-hop really got you into jazz?
Yeah, it did, through all of the sampling. With hip-hop they were pulling all these Pharaoh Sanders and John Coltrane samples. Blue Note Records. James Brown. Lonnie Liston Smith. Grover Washington, Jr. Quincy Jones. Lou Donaldson. Freddie Hubbard.
Do you remember the first jazz album that really resonated with you?
John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. It is the closest thing to church to me. Close to a higher power.
Were there any live shows that made any impressions on you or was it mostly studio stuff?
For live shows that wasn’t until when I got to college. In high school it was some hip-hop shows, but it was smaller bands. I went and saw 2 Live Crew, Ice T and The Meat Puppets. They were big concerts because it was the era of the big ticket. Def Jam tours. Stuff like that. Even from the point of college I was a bit of a workaholic, and I would just listen to music all the time because it was always the background to my work. I became this sampler, because I’m a designer I always need a bit of content to work from. So I would use hip-hop lyrics for my inspiration for my pieces, t-shirt designs and everything. It’s not just the beats. I love words like “bubblegoose down.” and “ski goggles.” Those words are really fun to draw.
What else do you have in the works as 2016 wraps up?
From here I go to Paris for a project with Colette and Mr. Men & Little Miss. I am also working on a project related to the NY Knicks through Los Angeles-based Monorex. Plus I am launching a t-shirt line of my Monsters… called Natural Born Monsters.