The summer may be about blurred lines, but with fall approaching, Bun B and Shea Serrano want you to start thinking solidly. And in color. Serrano, a Houston-based teacher, journalist, and illustrator has teamed up with the UGK legend to put together first a Tumblr page, and later a Rap Coloring and Activity Book; stencils, puzzles, and crafts based around 43 hip hop artists, both current and historic. Serrano got on the phone with us to talk about the book’s genesis, how he put it all together, and some of his favorite rap illustrations. “Bun B’s Rap Coloring and Activity Book” hits shelves on Sept. 17, but you can catch some printed images from the blog in our Issue 52, and even an exclusive page from the book’s cutting room floor below.
Mass Appeal: I know you’ve spoken about this before, but how did the book come about? I had read that Bun just called you one day after you did a piece on him.
Shea Serrano: That’s right. We spoke the night before. I was writing for the Houston Press at the time, and I was asking him his opinion on a song that had a Pimp C verse on it, so I was curious to know how he felt about it and their process. I wrote this thing and then I didn’t think anything of it.
But then the next day, I was at work; I teach at a middle school in Houston, so I don’t answer my phone during the day. I got a voicemail from him saying he had an interest in doing a book and he wanted to know if I wanted to work on him. I live in Texas, I’m a big UGK guy, so I was sort of blown away at the opportunity. I called him the next day and we set up a meeting to go sit down and talk about what he wants to do. At the time I thought he was going to want to do some sort of UGK-type of thing, but he didn’t want to do a serious book. He might do something like that later, but he wanted to do something that was sort of fun or funny, and that’s why he asked me, versus a bigger writer, perhaps. He just knew that he liked the way I wrote, and made him laugh. We pitched ideas, and eventually the rap coloring thing came up and he was all for it.
I downloaded Adobe Illustrator and watched a bunch of YouTube videos and talked to some people, and took about a month trying to figure out that program. Once I got the pictures to look like I wanted them to look, I sent one or two of them to him and he said “Yeah, go for it.” So we put them online and about a week later, it popped, and went all over the place.
MA: How did the collaborative process with you and Bun go? Did you guys bounce ideas off, did you show him things, did he just kind of trust in you?
SS: When we first started the Tumblr, I was trying to get a feel for how he wanted it to play out, because when we knew we wanted it to be a book, and that was basically it. So if I did a page that I thought was kind of jokey — this is Bun B we’re talking about, this is his name on the book — I would send it to him. Like, we did the Drake page with the no eyebrows and you draw Drake’s eyebrows on. And I said, “This is the kind of thing I need to know. Can I get to this point? Can I go past this point?” So I sent it to him and he just responded back laughing. He thought it was super funny.
So once we got there, I slowly stopped sending him the pages because he basically said, “You’re the guy who’s making the book, that’s why I picked you, so stop asking for my approval for everything.”
MA: Bun has said some artists declined to be in the book, but he didn’t want to put anyone on blast like that, which is understandable. But I’ve looked through the book, so could it be inferred from the people who aren’t in there but maybe would make sense to be?
SS: I guess so. Well, we didn’t ask everybody. He had guys he wanted to ask and I had guys I wanted to ask. Like, we didn’t hit up Diddy. There were two people that were like, “Nah, I’m cool, I don’t want to be in that.” It’s because they wanted money. Everybody else did it for free. Even the photographers that we worked with. We had to get permission from everybody, basically.
MA: There are people who have been on the blog. Like, I’ve seen some Wayne drawings and Nicki, and Kendrick and stuff like that.
SS: Yeah, you know some of them… like I could never get in contact with Wayne’s manager, for example, or Nicki’s manager, so, in those instances, that’s what that was. But basically everybody we were able to show a picture to, they were for it. That’s usually how it worked. I would message, let’s say, Wiz Khalifa. I would get in touch with his label, and try to talk the idea, and didn’t hear too much back and then so I just drew a picture and went, “Hey, here’s the idea I had in mind, check it out.” So most of those pictures I drew before we had permission, and I just did them on spec basically, and sent them over and crossed my fingers. I knew that if I could get a picture in front of somebody that we had a much better chance of getting them in there.
MA: You said you got permission from everyone whose face is in it, but there are some people who are faceless; those too? Did that require permission, too, or is that kind of a grayer area?
SS: That’s a grayer area. Abrams is a really big publishing house. We had offers from smaller places to do the book, and if we had gone with them it was sort of no rules, you do whatever you want to do, but if there’s any blowback, that’s on you. But Abrams, they’re too big, they don’t play like that. So they have a legal department and we have to run everything by them. We knew we wanted to put, like, a Tupac in there or a Biggie in there, but it’s kind of impossible to get their permission. So I came up with some ideas, of ways we might be able to do that, and it grew into what you have now — the faceless pictures. Because those are guys whose images are iconic enough that you don’t have to see their face to know who they are. You have the bandana, the sweater.
MA: Yeah, you’ve got, like, the tilted Jay Z Yankee hat, you know exactly who it is.
SS: What’s crazy is, for all those other pictures, the label would send us a picture. “Ok, Big K.R.I.T. wants to be in the book, here’s the picture we want you to use, we get final approval of the artwork,” whatever. With those ones, I couldn’t just grab a picture off the internet, so what we had to do was, my wife is a photographer, so I posed for those pictures and then I just drew them off of those. So, there’s no Tupac back there, that’s me. There’s no Biggie, it’s like me in a big Spurs sweater with a blanket tucked underneath, and then I’d draw that. If you sort of squint, you can tell, I can tell, that it’s me.
MA: On the press release, it says T.I. is in the book, but he’s not. Is there a story there?
SS: So Trae [tha Truth] is in the book. Trae and Bun are super close and I’ve written about Trae in the past so I had contact with him. I messaged him [and] he was all for it. And then like an hour later I got a phone call — this is with no prompting at all — and it’s Trae. He said, “Hey T.I. wants to be in the book, B.o.B. wants to be in the book, you can basically use anybody with Grand Hustle if you can throw them in there.”
We had a page all set up for T.I., but he wasn’t able to get his paper (contract) back in time. We had an order of people who wanted to be in there that had turned in their paper, and we didn’t want to risk something crazy happening, or him deciding after it came out, like nevermind. So I actually have the page, I might just throw it up on the Tumblr or whatever [Note: or give it to us]. I think he was on tour or something and we couldn’t just get a manager to sign, we had to have T.I. sign it or his lawyer, and right at the time when we needed to turn everything in, he was unavailable. So that’s what it was.
MA: Is there anyone you wanted to include, but didn’t, beyond just communication? People maybe lesser known?
SS: [Laughs] Yeah. I wanted to put El-P in there, I really like him. And then after Run the Jewels came out I was like “Goddog” we should’ve had him in there. That album was amazing. But we got Killer Mike, you know him and El-P run together all the time, so we had a line to him and everything.
And also [I] sort of joked with the publisher about putting Nardwuar in there. We were going to have an activity page where we draw him doing his “Doot Doot Doodle” thing and there’s an empty space next to him and you draw yourself getting interviewed by Nardwuar. But we didn’t do it.
MA: There’s a “Gangsta Rap Coloring Book” that came out in 2007. Did you guys look at that all? And how is this different, or how did you try to make it different?
SS: I saw that after we put the cover up. Somebody messaged me, they thought that I had done that one. So then I tried to check that out. I never got around to getting a copy. I saw pictures of the inside, but best I could tell, that one was just a coloring book and the artwork is a lot different, I think he might’ve hand drawn and scanned it. I’m not sure how he did it. I think it came out earlier than 2007, though. I don’t know. I don’t remember. I tried to message him — the guy, Aye Jay — I found him online and sent him an email, but never heard back.
MA: I only said 2007 because I saw an article about people up in arms about some of the imagery in the book.
SS: [Laughs] Yeah, I didn’t want that to happen with ours. All of the stuff in the book, we tried to make it as consumable as possible.
MA: The only things I saw were, Action Bronson’s got a big long joint in his lips and Ice-T’s got a gun necklace.
SS: When I showed it to my father-in-law, he was going through the pages, and he saw the Action Bronson page, and said that he thought it was a candy cane. So I’m going to go with Action Bronson had a candy cane in his mouth, I’m going go with that.
MA: Do you think people need to buy two copies of the book, because some of the pages, like there’s a Joe Budden cut out, that are going to damage the opposite page. So it’s this decision you have to make to put it to use or keep it mint, right?
SS: [Laughs] Yeah, yeah. You should definitely buy two. Maybe three, and then you can keep one that you never ever touch. Just put it in a safe or something. I thought the book would be more pages, I made more pages than we had space for, and I really like the Joe Budden one and I really like the Left Eye Lopes one.
MA: There’s a Houston lean to some of the artists – you have UGK, Chamillionaire, Slim Thug, Trae, even Riff Raff – is that something you guys purposefully did? And where did you decide or try to draw the line?
SS: I live in Houston and I’ve had the chance to speak with some of these guys and they’re just very cool. It’s sort of like an appreciation thing. I care about what happens in the careers of Trae or Slim Thug, and these guys. We probably could’ve done a whole Houston book.
MA: I know you have some young boys, have they torn into the book yet?
SS: Aw, no. They sent me two copies a couple weeks ago, the publisher did, and I gave Bun one and I kept the other one. But nah, I didn’t let them color in those ones, I’ll give them some other book. I printed some pages out, but they can’t touch that first one for a while.