Grey Organisation. Album cover for De La Soul, 3 Feet High and Rising. 1989. Lithograph, 12 1/2 × 12 1/2" (31.8 × 31.8 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Committee on Architecture and Design Funds

Both visually and sonically, De La Soul’s 1989 debut album 3 Feet High and Rising marked an evolution of hip-hop as we knew it. In an era dominated by gritty, hypermasculine imagery, 3 Feet High and Rising’s playfulness and Daisy Age (an acronym purported to stand for “da inner sound y’all”) aesthetics stood in stark contrast to the prevailing modes of hip-hop. The album’s blend of quirky skits and poetic interludes and its masterful use of obscure samples opened new realms for hip-hop to explore and thrive in.

The cover of 3 Feet High and Rising, created by Toby Mott in collaboration with the Grey Organisation, immediately captures the eye. Cutouts of black-and-white portraits of De La Soul’s members—Posdnuos, Trugoy the Dove, and Pasemaster Mase—converge to create a triangle against a bright yellow backdrop. Their portraits are juxtaposed with a kaleidoscopic array of 2D flowers, peace signs, and playful text, signaling the album’s intent to chart a new course. The cover became a visual manifesto for De La’s unconventional approach to hip-hop, adding to the complexity and depth of the genre. MoMA acquired the cover design for the exhibition Making Music Modern: Design for Ear and Eye; it remains the sole hip-hop album artwork in the Museum’s collection.

The Grey Organisation, an artist collective that existed from 1983 to 1991, was notorious for a series of provocative actions—its members smuggled a painting into an art fair and vandalized galleries—that eventually got them banned from central London. Having relocated to New York, they produced a series of album covers and music videos for various artists. In honor of hip-hop’s 50th anniversary, I sat down with Toby Mott, the Grey Organisation’s founder, about his collaboration with De La Soul more than 30 years ago.
—DaeQuan Alexander Collier, Content Producer, Creative Team

Grey Organisation. Album cover for De La Soul, 3 Feet High and Rising. 1989

Grey Organisation. Album cover for De La Soul, 3 Feet High and Rising. 1989

GO ID Card, issued February 1, 1984

GO ID Card, issued February 1, 1984

Can you talk about how the Grey Organisation was formed and its mission?

The Grey Organisation was an artist collective established in the mid-1980s in East London. The name was inspired by the depressed and gray nature of London at that time, as well as the context of the Cold War. The four original members adopted a distinctive appearance, combining Western capitalism with Soviet-era Communist imagery, by wearing gray suits and white shirts. We shaved our heads and spoke with one voice. We operated like a band—creating art, videos, and Super 8 films—while challenging the prevailing status quo in the arts.

Britain was then very much run by the establishment in all areas, including the arts. There’s a street in Central London, in Mayfair, which is a very exclusive bit of the city, where all the main art galleries were. And one evening we covered the windows of all the galleries in grey paint. That got us a lot of attention from the authorities, including in the graffiti world of New York. We were written about in Graffiti Times International. So we had developed a relationship with America, but were getting hassled by the authorities in London, because we had upset a lot of important people. So we ended up relocating to SoHo in New York. We had a loft on Mercer Street. New York then was a playground, and it was affordable.

How did you come to work with De La Soul?

We knew a music video director named Mark Pennington, and one day he asked us to art direct a music video for Information Society, an electro-pop band from Minneapolis that was signed to Tommy Boy Records. The video we did was very successful, and it got repeat play on MTV. Everyone was happy with our contribution. And then Tommy Boy sent us a 12-inch by a new band they signed called De La Soul; the 12-inch was “Plug Tunin’.”

We saw De La Soul play at Payday, one of these one-night clubs that moved around the Lower East Side. We were involved in hip-hop because hip-hop in the States was a bit like punk, which I had experienced when I was younger in London. So, we went to see De La Soul, and they had this thing, the Daisy Age, and they were at odds with the prevalent kind of hip-hop image, which was very macho, boasting about cars and girls, and also had a violent edge to it. But De La Soul weren’t into all that. Also, at the time in London, it was the beginning of Acid House, which had a totally new identity compared to what had come before.

“There weren’t any consequences and everyone was young and making it up as they went along.”

We did a video for De La Soul and shot it on Super 8 out in Amityville, Long Island. When we got around to doing the album cover artwork, we had them come over to our loft, which was then on Grand Street downtown. You’ve got to remember, it was no big deal. There weren’t any consequences and everyone was young and making it up as they went along. So we laid them down on the floor of our studio and photographed them with their heads touching like a triangle. And that was it. And then we printed it 12 × 12", the size of a record sleeve. I was rediscovering psychedelic graphics and, having been influenced by that, we laid acetate over these images and drew flowers and the lettering of the band’s name and the name of the album, 3 Feet High and Rising. And then we chose a variant from out of many. The whole visual identity of the Daisy Age was born, and it never left them.

At the time, the cartoon-like lettering and the flowers were odd because they created an identity and a moment which was at odds with groups like Public Enemy and EPMD, and more aligned with the collective called the Native Tongues, which also included A Tribe Called Quest, the Jungle Brothers, and others.

Physically making the artwork had a lot to do with Posca paint pens, which were a new thing. They allowed us to apply this really dense liquid paint, but with a marker pen. This drawing with them on clear acetate gives a very smooth line. The result was really bright, very poppy, and I put a British twist onto music that was coming out of Long Island.

The record company and everyone else was very happy with it. Then the record exploded on what was then called college radio. What this meant is they were played on white radio, which was new for a hip-hop band. You had Run-DMC play with Aerosmith, but hip-hop was just not played on white radio. College radio was a bit more experimental, but it was white, and they embraced De La Soul and that album.

And De La Soul crossed over, which meant they sold a fucking lot of records compared to what they would have done if they were stuck with the hip-hop market. At the time, hip-hop wasn’t the dominant music, but this thing out of New York released on independent record labels. It was the equivalent of what punk was back in the day. And De La Soul are one of the first hip-hop acts that became big in all markets, and I guess the artwork helped establish their identity, and the identity helped. Some people have written that it wasn’t threatening, but that wasn’t our intention in creating it.

What led you to begin designing album covers, and hip-hop album covers specifically? How did the genre align with the Grey Organisation’s mission to challenge the status quo?

Prior to social media and cell phones, there was the idea of place. In London, there were certain pubs in SoHo where creative people and outsiders would gravitate. And in New York, there was the East Village. Even having a telephone was a rarity and an expense that a lot of people didn’t have. You just needed to know where to go. You went there to meet other people like yourself. Social media is great because you can be in a basement in Tennessee and connect with some guy in Japan. But back then, you’d have to leave Tennessee and come live in New York (which now is a big deal because it's unaffordable). These cities were magnets for creative kids.

We were in New York at the right time. New York was the center of hip-hop then, with all these labels: Tommy Boy, Sleeping Bag, Def Jam, Priority, loads of them. I met Monica Lynch at Tommy Boy and made a video. It all leads from my background being punk, which was obviously tilting against the status quo of that period, the late ’70s. And then coming to New York, we found that energy in hip-hop. And then, luckily, we were embraced in the hip-hop community. I worked with A Tribe Called Quest. I worked with Public Enemy. Of course, at the time, it was just something to do. I wasn’t going, “This is monumental.” But I knew working with Public Enemy was a big deal. It had the same energy of punk—kicking against the machine.

Do you think the album’s design changed what hip-hop could look like? Could you feel in the music that De La was working against the raw and the hyper-violent, hypermasculine type of depictions?

There was a moment in the late ’80s and ’90s with the Native Tongues and other acts, like the Fugees. It was another kind of hip-hop, and De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest really voiced that. That energy is still there, but it was certainly new and radically different when it happened.

We used to listen religiously to Red Alert on Kiss FM, on Friday and Saturday nights, and he embraced it and also had the whole reggae thing. In the UK reggae is massive and always was, even during punk. Obviously hip-hop’s roots are from reggae—DJ Kool Herc is Jamaican—and I recognized that in the music. I liked bands like EPMD and Run-DMC, but obviously, I was aware that these acts, which also included Monie Love from the UK and Stetsasonic, were different. This was a new, fresh voice.

Grey Organisation. Inside album jacket, De La Soul, 3 Feet High and Rising. 1989

Grey Organisation. Inside album jacket, De La Soul, 3 Feet High and Rising. 1989

Grey Organisation. Back of album cover for De La Soul, 3 Feet High and Rising. 1989

Grey Organisation. Back of album cover for De La Soul, 3 Feet High and Rising. 1989

What is it like to look back at the cultural impact of the album?

Actually, I wouldn’t say that there were even 100 other hip-hop albums, or even music albums, parodying or influenced by that artwork because it’s too unique. Now there’s so much money involved, and I don’t see much creativity. Because it’s all market. If you do anything by committee, you’re not gonna get anything fresh.

Tommy Boy was an independent label, and no one had any idea that this was going to be significant.

3 Feet High and Rising is the only hip-hop album art in MoMA’s collection. What do you think it means for an album’s artwork to be exhibited in a museum?

I think it’s kind of more interesting than a lot of art, which is just self-indulgent. This art served a purpose and it was part of a real culture, and it wasn’t motivated by money. And there’s also the strength of its popularity, so it deserves to be at MoMA, and I’m pleased that they recognize that.

Museums really need to embrace popular culture. Otherwise they just end up with this elitist audience and they’re just talking to each other in a little white room. Album art really does engage with people, and obviously artists like Andy Warhol did that too. It’s just another kind of format for creative expression.