The Story and Sketches Behind Clipse’s ‘Lord Willin” Album Art
On the album's 15th anniversary, artist Vicki Berndt talks depicting Virginia Beach, Jesus and "a bigger butt"
Fifteen years ago, Malice and Pusha T released Lord Willin’, the world’s full-length introduction to Clipse. The duo’s debut is a stellar dedication to the brothers’ past occupation as purveyors of that white, pairing complex lyricism with the Neptunes’ envelope-pushing beats. The album houses “Grindin,'” one of the greatest rap songs of the 2000s.
It’d be perfectly acceptable to judge this album by its cover. The Lord Willin‘ artwork depicts the beauty and horror of Clipse’s Virginia hometown, portraying the two rappers cruising in a lowrider with Jesus in the back as they ride past abandoned buildings, graffiti, churchgoers and a “Welcome To Virginia Beach” sign. It’s become a legendary illustrated cover in the same way that Snoop’s Doggystyle has—both Marvel Comics and Gucci Mane have recently paid homage to the visual.
MASS APPEAL phoned up Vicki Berndt, the artist behind the cover, to deconstruct the Lord Willin’ image, discuss its legacy and reveal why it took so long to get a woman’s booty just right.
Were you born and raised in L.A.?
I’m from Northern California and I moved down here in the late ’80s for work. I was doing a lot of photography for bands and this is where I got more work—record companies and magazines. I was also painting at the time for myself but not professionally. As I was doing less photography into the early ’90s, I started doing more painting. And that is how I came to do these CD covers.
How did you first get into painting?
I started painting on the backs of denim and leather jackets. The first one I did was a painting of Little Richard as a Saint on the back of my leather jacket, because I was from the punk rock scene in San Francisco. I had my leather jacket and Little Richard was like my idol, I’m going to make him into a religious figure. I started wearing that around and people would ask me to paint their jackets.
I’ve seen your candles too with rock stars as saints.
Oh totally, I was making these religious paintings and it struck me that I could put these on candles and it would look like those that you find in the grocery store.
So how did you get into making hip hop album covers?
A friend of mine from the punk rock scene had been working at Geffen-Interscope-A&M Records. He knew of the paintings that I was doing of the religious figures and that sort of thing. They first called me for a 2Pac cover in 2001, so I did Until the End of Time for them.
When Clipse wanted their Lord Willin’ artwork, they wanted something in the style of Ernie Barnes, the painter featured in the TV Show Good Times. They wanted something in Barnes’ style and wanted Jesus in the painting. So my friend, Joe Mama, called me up for the Clipse artwork.
What was the creative process for building this cover? Did Clipse send you photos of Virginia Beach?
To put that together is kind of like a collage in your mind. I went to the library and got a book on Ernie Barnes. I asked the record company to send me photos of the guys and photos of Virginia Beach, like the “Welcome To Virginia Beach” sign. I asked what kind of car they wanted to be driving, all kinds of visual references and just put it together in my mind like a collage and then started the painting. Aside from what I want to paint it is also what they want, so I got as much input from those guys. I was in a conference call before I started with some guys in New York and made notes. I sent sketches and they approved them.
How many drafts did you go through?
It is mostly sketches first, just to see where everything is placed with the layout and all and then I get the OK. Then I started on the canvas and got the basics painted, sent a photo and get that OK’d. It was like half a dozen back and forths and took probably around a month.
It’s a canvas painting?
Yes, it was a long narrow canvas. The painting itself is twice the size than what you see on the square CD cover. There’s another part of the painting that wraps around on the inside. A guy sitting on the corner with a 40 in a brown paper bag. One funny thing is that there is a girl in a red dress and her butt is showing. They kept sending it back asking for a bigger butt! So I had to keep adding to this girl’s backside until they were happy with it. That is probably the funniest back and forth we had. More? Sure!
Are you aware of the love that this cover has received over the years?
Yeah! Because it was really different. I didn’t know of these guys until I got the job to do the artwork for them but I really admired the idea that they would get that far out of normal. They would take a chance and do something very unusual and with humor. Jesus in the backseat of the car is pretty out of the norm and I was so happy they wanted to do something like that. I thought these guys were cool, smart and had a sense of humor, which is like my artwork too. I try to make some beautiful artwork but not take myself too seriously. I really enjoyed doing that job for them.
I was just so happy they wanted Jesus in the car. I remember asking them if I can have Jesus rest his arm on the side of the car with the stigmata on the back of his hand. And they loved the idea and I thought that these guys were great because they would take it there.
Did you hear how your cover was parodied by another artist this year?
The Dutch rap group SBMG right?
Oh no, Gucci Mane.
Have you seen it?
No, I need to write that down! I was going to mention to you before we finished that I did another version of the Clipse cover for a Dutch rap group, SBMG. They tracked me down to do their cover as a tribute to Clipse. It’s four of them in a car, except it’s a Volkswagen Golf, a funny little car you would have in Amsterdam. [Looks up Gucci Mane’s Drop Top Wop cover.] Oh how funny! Oh, there’s the dog!
How does it feel to see this Gucci Mane artwork, which dropped three months ago, reference your piece that was released 15 years ago?
I love stuff like that. If you do something and somebody references it, that means you are doing something right because people are paying attention and using you as reference. I’m all for that. Take my thing, make your version of it and it just carries on. I’m looking at it and I’m like, “Oh perfect!” I love how they got that car but they don’t have Jesus though. I guess he was just busy that day and couldn’t ride with them.
Are you a big fan of hip hop in general?
At that time, I just had a couple of 12-inches. I’m more from the punk rock world, like ’70s punk rock. I have a Pharcyde tape, a 12-inch De La Soul single and, like, “Rapper’s Delight.” I knew those because it was pop music at the time but it was not my world.
After you made this Clipse cover did anything change for you as an artist?
Yeah, to this day I still get emails about it and people message me through social media. These Dutch hip hop guys contacted me all the way from Europe and you contacted me this week. So it’s an ongoing thing.
You can check out more of Vicki Berndt’s art at her Etsy shop.