Under Covers: The untold story behind Tupac’s haunting The 7 Day Theory artwork
Under Covers is a new series tracing the stories behind classic and groundbreaking album artworks. Artist Ronald ‘Riskie’ Brent went from airbrushing t-shirts at the Compton Swap Meet to designing the cover for Tupac’s darkest masterpiece…
The atmosphere of dread that permeates through Tupac Shakur’s dark 1996 masterpiece The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory is so heavy it can feel like you’re sinking in quick sand. Shakur, rapping under the alias of Makaveli due to his admiration for the dictatorial leadership ideals presented in Nicolas Machiavelli’s political treatise The Prince, presents sinister aggression (Against All Odds) and liberating activism (White Man’s World) side-by-side, acutely aware that a black man must wear many masks in order to survive in America.
The 7 Day Theory, named after the condensed period it took to record and mix the album, was released on November 5 1996, less than two months after Shakur, 25, was murdered in a drive-by shooting on the Las Vegas strip, following close friend Mike Tyson’s fight with Bruce Seldon. Subsequently, the record, completed while the West Coast rapper was still alive, naturally inherited an eerie feel.
On Blasphemy, Shakur predicts that living a gangster life will result in his death while weighing up what awaits him in the next world (he speculates: “Everybody kissing ass to go to heaven isn’t going, I put my soul on it!”). The gangster sermon Hail Mary, meanwhile, sounds like Shakur’s spirit is literally haunting the booth, with some of the lyrics – “When they turn out the lights, I’ll be there in the dark” – so chilling they’ll make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. The fact the record still makes room for music for the clubs (Toss It Up) is testament to Shakur’s infinite range.
These mostly morbid songs are summarised perfectly by the record’s sinister artwork, which depicts the crucifixion of Shakur. The rapper has mournful eyes and blood trickling down his naked body, the names of American cities pinned to his cross. In 2019, this image feels prescient, Shakur’s corpse the byproduct of an unequal American society that continues to tear down young black men, almost at a whim. The fact this artwork was recently referenced so obviously by West Coast upstart 03 Greedo, for his brilliant God Level album, serves as proof of The 7 Day Theory’s continued cultural relevance.
Compton native Ronald “Riskie” Brent was just 24 when he created this haunting image. He was plucked from relative obscurity by Death Row CEO Suge Knight, who recruited Brent as one of the label’s in-house artists. Crack Magazine caught up with Brent to find out how this haunting artwork came together.
You went from doing graffiti and making t-shirts for your friends to working with Tupac Shakur at the height of his career. How did that happen?
My aunt got me into art at a young age. She drew stuff when she would babysit me and I would copy her drawings. When I was in high school, I did graffiti and started airbrushing t-shirts at the Compton Swat Meet and people would pay me well to do their clothes. I developed a buzz around the city and it must have got Suge Knight’s attention.
I give Suge all the credit as he literally plucked me out of the streets and gave me a position at the biggest hip-hop label in the country. The media loves to paint Suge as this bogeyman, but he would pass out turkeys to the poor on Thanksgiving, give out toys to school kids at Christmas and on Mother’s Day he would host Death Row events for mothers without money. A lot of rappers like to rep Compton, but they don’t really give back to the community like Suge did. You gotta remember that nearly every member of the staff at Death Row was someone plucked from the ghetto! It was the very definition of a black-owned label; he gave opportunities to people who had nothing!
Anyways, so Suge showed Tupac my portfolio, he liked it, and from there I did a cartoon for the All Eyez On Me liner notes. I literally started as an in-house artist on Death Row the day Snoop Dogg got acquitted for murder.
What was the atmosphere like? People say the Death Row office was filled with gang members and that fights could break out at any second…
I walked through the door and there’s this huge Death Row platinum plaque on the wall and in front of me is the conference room. There were a lot of the artists in there smoking weed and eating chicken wings. Next thing I know, MC Hammer walks in and says: “Which one of you is Riskie? Suge will be here in a second to talk to you!” I didn’t see Tupac until later that night at Snoop’s acquittal party. Nate Dogg, The Dogg Pound, Snoop… I was surrounded by all these rap titans, it was crazy! Look, I never felt I was in a dangerous situation at Death Row at all! I felt more in danger being in my neighbourhood, surrounded by gangbangers, in Compton than I did at that office. If anything, it kept me out of trouble. It was my safe haven.
What did you learn from Tupac and how did The 7 Day Theory artwork come together?
He was only a year older than me, but Pac was the big homie! He was so generous and a crazy workaholic. I remember I went to his house and Pac had this table set up where he would write. It was surrounded by these opulent red curtains, like this grand cubicle he could concentrate at while writing. It wasn’t an area you would expect a rapper to write at, it looked more like somewhere James Baldwin would write at! When Pac would write, it was like he was putting blocks together. The lyrics just poured out of him so quickly.
Being in the studio with Tupac, he would speak a lot about feeling like he was being crucified by the media and being blamed for things that he didn’t have any control over. The concept [for the artwork] was all his, with the different cities on the cross showing he was the most hated wherever he would go. His crucifixion was supposed to be a statement about race and what it felt like to be young, rich and black in America. The 7 Day Theory was originally going to be this underground album; Pac predicted the rise of mixtapes and was only going to sell it only at the mom-and-pop stores. It only turned into a commercial album after he died.
Do you remember his reaction when he first saw the artwork?
It was September 6, 1996, [the day before Pac was shot in Vegas] and I went to visit him in Malibu, California as Suge wanted a first draft by then! Pac loved it, he was in good spirits and thanked me for making what was in his head a reality. Death Row had just given me a budget to buy more arts supplies and canvases, and Pac wanted me to make paintings for his house. He promised when he got back from Vegas he would host an art show introducing my work to the music industry. Unfortunately, he never made it back.
That must have been a bittersweet feeling…
That album is a gift and a curse for me. It’s a gift because I got a chance to work with the greatest rapper of all time and it opened doors for me, but it’s a curse because he died in such a brutal way. It was such a bittersweet moment. The album changed a lot when Pac died, it was no longer a mixtape and they made it into a studio album. The original artwork had images I did of Biggie as a pig and Puffy as a ballerina, because Pac was still at war with them. That all got taken out when it became this commercial project.
I will never forget Tupac’s generosity. You got to remember, I was just some kid at the Compton Swap Meet, but he saw my work and gave me an opportunity. I still live off my work with Death Row, so I owe Suge and Pac everything I have today!
Some people believe The 7 Day Theory is littered with lyrics of Tupac admitting he faked his death. They think the words “Exit Tupac, Enter Makaveli” on the artwork was Pac, like Machiavelli before him, advocating faking one’s death in order to fool their enemies. Did the album have an eerie feel to you when it came out?
It definitely did, but had Pac not died that eeriness wouldn’t have existed. His death made it sound darker than it was. Maybe [ad-libs] and stuff was added to the album after Pac’s death to keep him feeling alive. A lot of people still think I was a vessel for a bigger plan, but look: if Pac was still alive, he couldn’t have kept quiet all these years! He would have come back by now as he was too outspoken. The Outlawz [Tupac’s rap crew] said they smoked Pac’s ashes and I believe them.
This conversation has been edited for clarity. You can find Riskie’s work over at https://riskieforever.com