Pen Game Sick
Artist and music enthusiast Jeff Jank draws everything in Madlib's mad, mad world — a place where janky means hella good.
Illustrations By Jeff Jank Words By Timmhotep Aku
“I’m labelled as a bad character /
No matter what I do I’m labelled as a bad character /
I’m labelled as a bad character /
No matter what I do I’m labelled as a bad character /
I’m labelled as a bad character, bad character.”
– Quasimoto “Bad Character” from The Unseen
You may not realize it, but Quasimoto is your friend. You know, the friend who trash-talked his way into a bar fight that ended with a brick bouncing off of some poor bastard’s skull. The one who convinced you that rolling to a Vegas strip club on ‘shrooms was a good idea. The homie your girl gives the stink eye because she knows a night on the town with him will end in either inebriation, an altercation, incarceration or all three. No matter how ill-advised hanging out with him is, you still do it. Why? Because, despite the danger, you know you’ll always come away with a story to tell.
Jeff Jank has a story to tell too. He’s the Stones Throw Records art director and in-house illustrator who took Madlib’s mischievous alter-ego and created the character we see today. Though Lord Quas was born on Madlib’s personal beat tapes in the mid-nineties, Quas, the “Bad Character,” wasn’t visually represented until 1998’s “Microphone Mathematics” single, when DJ Design (then known as Keith Beats) drew him as one of three aardvark-like creatures sitting in a classroom holding a mic. Jank adapted the character for the booklet in Quasimoto’s debut The Unseen and so began the visual history of the boozing, pot-smoking, up skirt-looking, diminutive creature.
This June, Stones Throw released Yessir … Whatever, a compilation of unreleased and extremely rare songs from Quasimoto. Accompanying the music were some equally rare and unreleased illustrations of Lord Quas by Jank himself. To celebrate our favorite imaginary friend, we spoke with Jank about his creative process and he blessed us with some of his early sketches and artwork. Get to know the best west friend you’ll ever have.
Mass Appeal: I wanna talk about the inspiration. I’ve seen the Yessir … Whatever album art, talking about where Quas came from. Recount that story for me, the visual representation of the character and where it came from.
Jeff Jank: Well, it goes back to when I first started to do some covers with Wolf and the newly started Stones Throw label. The first Quasimoto 12” single was “Microphone Mathematics,” and that was designed by DJ Design. I think he used a different name on the credits, like “Keith Beats.” That was a really bizarre cover. I mean, this was a very creative time in hip hop, so a lot of interesting things were being done. But I’ve never seen a cover that was like these … animals or … I don’t know what the hell it was. I just knew he had like, three of them — a purple one, a red one and a green one. And I’m not sure if I understood right, but I thought that those represented the three guys of Lootpack, ‘cause that was considered to be Madlib’s main group at the time and Quasimoto was just this thing on the side. You got Madlib, DJ Rhomes and Wildchild. We were starting the album artwork at the same time and I just didn’t know how I was gonna work on this character, but I just loved that cover so much that I wanted to adapt it. I began listening to The Unseen like nonstop four or five times a day and the character to me represented the song, “Bad Character.” It felt like it was Quasimoto’s theme in a way.
MA: Like the trouble-maker.
JJ: Yeah, the trouble-maker. He’s doing all the stuff that Madlib doesn’t do. I just sort of developed a character, put him in different settings. But still, it wasn’t supposed to be necessarily Quasimoto — it was this Bad Character guy. Like you were saying earlier, Quasimoto himself was The Unseen; you weren’t supposed to see him at all. But very quickly, people started identifying this character as Quasimoto and we more or less just went along with it.
MA: Tell me about how Quasimoto looks and what informs his look. Obviously there was a seed idea for what Quasimoto kind of was, but you fleshed it out. Tell me about what formed the way you fleshed it out and why you took it the way you took it.
JJ: Well, part of it was a straight adaptation of what Keith had done, and another thing was that he reminded me a little bit of Cerebus, reminded me a little bit of Alf. Also a little bit of those characters — I don’t know what they’re called — but there’s a character in the movie Fantastic Planet, (La Planete Sauvage), and it’s a French animated film from the ‘60s with an outstanding soundtrack. And I knew that this was a film that Madlib was watching a lot and even sampled on one of the tracks. And Madlib told me he had even made his own soundtrack to the movie at one point, but lost it or something. Like I said, I don’t remember the name of these characters, but it’s these small characters with these round heads and long noses that run around in one or two scenes. I just kind of think of all those forms together and Quasimoto continues to look a little bit like all of them. When I put the brick in his hand, that was straight from the “Bad Character” lyric and the brick just cracked people up, so it became the main image: he’s always having a brick in his hand. By the time Otis got to the second album, The Further Adventures of Lord Quas, he actually had a lyric in there talking about his brick, and so the character had truly become a player in this whole world of Quasimoto. It became a collaboration in that small way; Quasimoto was no longer unseen, he was just this character.
MA: The character pretty recently got the key to the city — I’m not sure if that was 100% real or what?
JJ: [Laughs] That was actually real, what I realized later is that a lot of people thought that we made that up, but we had someone at City Hall that worked it out. This piece of paper came from City Hall; the mayor and all the thirteen city council members signed it. It’s real.
MA: That, to me, is amazing. So apparently there are Quasimoto fans possibly in City Hall in Los Angeles?
JJ: Yeah, and another funny thing about it was that it was right before this mayoral election and we put the news up about five days before the election. And the guy down in City Hall got kind of nervous and asked us to sort of tone down the press release a little bit.
MA: So tell me about the actual Quasimoto suit.
JJ: Aww man, that’s kind of a sore spot, but …
MA: Uh oh, what happened?
JJ: Well the suit was, I don’t remember where the idea came from. But it came time to release The Unseen and there was gonna be some shows associated with it. So the suit came together and it didn’t look very good, but I guess we were trying things out, figuring it out as we went along. So we had a couple shows where someone was wearing the suit.
MA: Was that someone ever you? Were you ever forced to wear the suit?
JJ: There was a few people in the suit. I think the idea was something like, let’s make people guess who’s in the suit. So you’ll see Madlib with a guy in the suit, and then you’ll see someone in the suit rapping and maybe it’s Madlib. The whole thing was just so embarrassing. The first show was in San Francisco, and the second was in LA, and I actually left before the whole suit thing because I didn’t want to see it again. We kind of made up a story later on about how it was like not even Stones Throw-associated and it was someone else. But yeah, the suit eventually got put somewhere where no one would ever see it again. There was a couple other people with their suits, LMNO I think was — actually I’m not entirely certain it’s elemental, but there was a kid that showed up on line in a Quas suit for Halloween; I think it was LMNO’s son, but I’m not certain. Then these guys out in Norway did a video for Quasimoto for this Stones Throw video contest a couple years ago and they had a pretty solid suit that they put together. The only thing that was not right about the video is that the track, “Low Class Conspiracy” is about Black kids getting harassed by the police and I guess there’s not too many Black people in Norway, ‘cause there’s none in the video.