I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, but all eyes are on London in 2015. Music, fashion, art and design - this little island is making some big statements this year. At the root of this movement are the individuals that continually push the culture further. Those that are not content with sitting back and taking the easy yet mundane ride to the grave. Some are in the spotlight, most are in the shadows - but please believe that we are here and we’re multiplying.
Throughout this interview series, I’ve made a point of putting the spotlight on the people coming out of my city that are at the core of keeping things moving. The real ones. Next up to say his peace is GEO.
A couple of weeks back we pulled up to The London EDITION just off of Oxford Street, where Shadez had secured the hotel’s private Punch Room bar as the setting for our conversation to take place. Naturally, with the location being so luxe, I opted for wearing my most trashed pair of Vans for the occasion. It just felt right.
Myself and GEO sat down to chop it whilst the homie Jordan Green buzzed around on photography duties. We touched upon on a bunch of subjects, but namely how GEO has a vision to keep things realer than real, whilst continually pushing boundaries.
TOM WINSLADE: If we go back to square one, how did GEO start? Have you always had an interest in the arts, and particularly design?
GEO: It was kinda just by chance. I was always into art, despite getting an E grade for art GCSE when I was at school. They didn’t really have any faith in me there, but when I left school I kinda knew what I wanted to do. I started out making MySpace layouts, figuring out I could make a little bit of money off of it on the side. The MySpace layouts became mixtape covers, the mixtape covers became branding — it just grew like that over time. Over the last few years though, more recently, I’ve formed a team where everyone helps and gets their props and does their own thing; so now GEO is more of a design house in itself. We handle merchandise, album packaging, branding, videos - the whole thing.
Yeah man, that’s something I was going to ask you about actually. With it starting it out as yourself solely, before expanding into multiple heads; how fundamental would you say that team has been in developing GEO? Not only as a creative house, but also your growth as an individual?
Having a team just makes everything a lot easier. You can give everyone their set jobs, focusing what they’re best at, which makes it easier to articulate your thoughts and come with one stronger concept. It’s a natural process for us lot, we work together easily and it’s fun.
I guess a lot of people come across your work via the album artwork projects, specifically hip-hop, but GEO is obviously a lot bigger than just that. I was wondering how you would describe GEO as an entity?
Everyone knows us for the album covers, because that’s the roots. Especially when I started at DONDA, album covers were our main focus. We were doing a lot of different things, but the bigger projects and the bigger clients - which happened to be album covers - that’s all the majority of people would see. In the bigger picture, I want people to look beyond that. It’s websites, it’s eCommerce - it’s about changing the broader experience. I feel like for the most part it’s pretty boring online right now. Clothing, merchandise - overall we just want to work on a lot of product right now, and over the next couple of years. We want to push the boundaries a little further. Right now anyone can download a copy of Photoshop and make an album cover, you know? But not everyone can make a chair. So we’ll make a chair. Physical products. Things are way too accessible now, and there’s a lot of people getting props for bullshit, to be honest. I’m trying to move away from that.
I feel you man. Also, when you look at an album cover in singularity, despite it looking 2-dimensional, it’s always more than just a flat image. There’s a whole campaign based off that — the full packaging, promotional imagery, brand identity, website, merchandise, tour visuals etc. It’s always bigger than just an album cover, so I guess what you’re saying is that GEO has grown to be able to accommodate all those dimensions? Or at least that’s the goal?
100%. That’s exactly what we need to do. We kicked off this year with a meeting, the whole team, and we discussed the move into product - this move into doing everything across the board. We’re getting there now. For example, Jeremy Benson who works over at GEO, he’s working on stage design for rappers in Chicago right now. Sitting down with people like Vic Mensa and saying “Yo, how can we make this tour even better?” - the visuals, the tour passes, the merchandise. Handling everything.
It’s lit. If we talk about GEO’s successes to date for a minute, your client list is already pretty impressive. Kanye West, Kim Kardashian, Drake, Nicki Minaj - just to name a few. Is there a shortlist of people that you’d love to work with, but haven’t had the chance to yet? Anyone that falls into the “Fuck, I need to work with you” category?
To be honest, I don’t see that work as a success just yet. It’s more like, “I’ve done it, that’s cool” and then move onto the next. It’s bigger than that. There are definitely a few names I’d love to work with though. Outkast, N*E*R*D, Jay Z, Beyonc'e - they’re who come to mind. Tyler, The Creator, too. I’m not talking about album campaigns necessarily though. Working together across the board.
They’re some good shouts. I’d be particularly interested in seeing you work with Tyler, for real. What would you say has been the most inspiring project you’ve worked on to date, or even the most surreal?
Ah man, so many projects. There’s always like, 10 projects going off at once, you know? I mean, the Yeezus tour was very lengthy, and I learnt a lot from that whole process too. And to work on the merchandise and see people wearing it, that was pretty amazing. Just the way it makes it’s way around the world.
It’s more tangible too. When you see someone wearing it, it brings it to life like that.
Yeah that’s what I’m saying, and the feeling to open that box and pull those shirts out like “Yo, we made this” — that really set the tone. You’ve seen those vibes replicated since then, touching upon the Wes Lang imagery etc. So yeah, I’d say that’s probably the stand-out project.
Would you say that’s also where you got that more recent taste and excitement for product, too? That sort of physicality, a new canvas to flex on?
Yeah 100%. It just made sense to me.
You’ve worked with a whole bunch of fashion brands too. Off-White, Fear of God, Been Trill — even Kanye’s Yeezy Season One collection with adidas. So I was wondering how you compare working in those two worlds, both music and fashion, and the parallels between the two?
They always collide. It goes hand in hand, really. I can’t create something to do with fashion without music, and vice versa. No matter the client, I’m always looking at references points from both perspectives and the culture in general. There’s a lot more leniency in working within music than in fashion, though. In fashion you have different limitations depending upon the brand and what you can actually get produced. Certain fabrics, colours etc. There’s definitely differences, but they’re both good and bad.
Is that why you enjoy working in both fields particularly? I’m kind of the same in that respect. It keeps it fresh with there being specific pros and cons on each side of the coin, you know? You can mesh the two sides together to create a very unique perspective.
Yeah exactly, so I can take the experiences from both music and fashion and apply them across the board. It actually makes it easier to see if there’s something going wrong with a project a lot more clearly, just learning from those previous experiences. It keeps it all going smoothly.
In the same vein, talking of fashion, you’re currently looking at developing GEO into a fashion brand in itself, right? Releasing some clothing under your name. I was wondering if you could speak on that just yet?
Yeah man, so I’ve been working on clothing for a while now. Years, in fact. I was working on a skater brand around 5 years back. It was very similar to Vans or The Hundreds, actually. I just never got around to releasing it as I didn’t have the experience when it came to print and stuff like that. Now, I’m just working more on refining my brand and producing product that people can’t necessarily recreate. It’ll consist of a few cool pieces; some tees, some jeans - I want to work on a nice bag as well. Some furniture, some household items. Small things that people tend to overlook. That’s where I want to take it, but I’m not sure if I want to call it GEO yet, or a new name for it entirely. It’s hard to find a name that sticks.
Would you say the whole mindset behind that is almost a direct response to a void that you think exists? So for example, when you’re working with all these other brands, and they’re asking you to produce a very specific thing, this is a place to express all those ideas that don’t fit into their vision? Or even, just seeing what other brands are doing and thinking “That’s shit, it should be done like this” - Is that the core inspiration?
Yeah. I mean, when working with these other brands and seeing how they operate, it gives me a unique opportunity to note down what I would consider to be flaws. Constantly learning. From there I can remove the bullshit and streamline my vision.
Let’s talk about the power of collaboration. It’s the key to everything in the creative playing field, and has obviously had a direct impact on your development thus far. What’s your perspective on that?
Working with other people helps me to learn from them. That’s number one before everything; just to learn. With learning comes new ideas, new ways to do things. It just works. You can see with me, Sam and Ace - we do our thing - and then I’ve got my GEO team; so me, Shadez, Jeremy, MRWIZE, Apostle, Kwame and Mike. We all do our thing. I have many different pockets where I can do what I need to do. I can also sit down and talk to Virgil about certain things and get new perspectives there. Everyone’s always got different ideas, so it’s nice to get a feeling for stuff like that. Shared experiences.
It’s that connection that runs between everyone too. Sharing an idea from A to B, B shares it with C, comes back to A with both B and C’s perspective. It’s just richer like that, right? Everyone rises.
Yeah that’s it exactly. And even when Tyga was down here a few weeks back, we were talking about working on some merch and taking his Last Kings label up a notch. Trying to see if we can creative direct him as a whole.
And it’s popping like that right now in London specifically. Growing up here, how would you describe the city’s impact on you?
I love the culture. I love London. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. I mean, if we had good weather all year around it would be top class. I feel like you’re very boxed in here though. There’s a lot of egos. I kinda worked backwards, too. Working with a lot of American clients first. There’s only a few select people in the UK that I can sit down with and just get shit done. Another couple friends of mine; G FrSH and Tinie at Disturbing London - it’s just easy to work with them because they get it. G FrSH always wants to take it further than what it needs to be, whereas many people in the UK are happy to just settle. Look at spaces like GRM Daily, for example. Think of how many things they could do with that site.
So true. It’s frustrating to observe shit like that, but at the same time it works as a catalyst. Like, a backwards inspiration to fire you up and force you to make something extra dope as a response to that. To stunt.
There’s just that fucking frustration, like, “Fuck, I’m gonna do it myself.” I’m gonna do it my way, how I wanna do it and then when I do it better, they can come talk to me. No ego shit, but on a real level, let’s just up the bar.
Unfortunately that makes so much sense. On the flip side though, there is this real positive energy bubbling up in London right now. A select few heads that are on same wavelength as us with regards to pushing shit further. But what would your message be to some young kid whose overexposed to the bullshit, to help dial them into the correct mindset?
I’d say they need to take some time out. Go somewhere else, try not to be on the Internet too much and create how you want to. Don’t listen to no one else, and just do what you want to do. Just a personal project, don’t do client work - just do you, and see where it takes you. Sitting on the Internet is the worst way of developing a personal style. Like, you won’t know it, but you’re just taking in all of this information every single day. How many images do you look at in a day. Absorbing all that shit reflects on what you put out. When you’re doing that, the same thing as everyone else, we all just end up being influenced by the same shit.
It’s too closed-minded like that, right? So much stuff looks the same now because people are being influenced by the same secondary reference point. Tumblr aesthetics. Yeah it looks nice, but what’s the meaning behind it? Before the Internet, when people had to go out and find those reference points on the ground, that’s where the diversity came from. There’s this weird disconnect where everyone is super 'creative’, but not really creating.
Yeah, it’s this whole facade. “I’m a creative genius,” “I’m a graphic designer” - yo, these titles don’t mean shit anymore. Everyone’s everything. Everyone’s important and everyone wants to be this or that, and it’s like, no, hold on a minute, look at yourself. Who are you really? It’s cool, like, a couple of months back I was on a boat going to Mexico and Jamaica and all these places, and I had no Internet, so I was just working on my own personal stuff as I couldn’t contact clients and I came up with some of my best work because I wasn’t on the net. I wasn’t being influenced by all that.
I was gonna mention your travels, actually. There’s that quote about how “Travel is the only thing we can buy that makes us richer” and I feel like that kinda applies directly to your outlook on it, and how you feed that inspiration back into your work.
For real, it refreshes the mind. From being in my room, in my office space, working every single day and then taking that break and seeing some new colours, you know? London’s built up from a lot of grey, it’s very monochrome. When you go to Miami, it’s very bright. You’ve got the palm trees, the sea. The greens, the blues, the yellows. You can take away from that. The best place I’ve visited to date is probably Tokyo. The culture, the art; everything. It’s just crazy.
That firsthand shit is the stuff you’re not going to find on Tumblr, either. You’ve gotta go out and find it for yourself. You can make it yours like that. The thing about those blogs is that if you’re finding something on there, so are thousands of other kids. Whereas if you find some low-key obscure packaging out in Tokyo, for example, that’s personal to your and your experience.
Literally. If it’s online it’s already out there for people to be exposed to. Like, even out there in Tokyo, they hand-paint the road markings, whereas out here we’ve got a machine that does it for us. Out there, they line it up with chalk and they paint it. It’s insane. They just get it and that inspires me. Taking that mindset and applying it to what we do.
It’s obvious that you’re highly motivated in what you do. Would you say that motivation stems from simply not being satisfied with the way certain things are designed? Or even more so, when you see people getting praised for something that’s whack?
Yeah the whole thing is frustration. That’s the drive. Trying to get my own way of doing things across. Sometimes I’ll say a few things on Twitter and my mouth does get me in trouble a lot, but don’t mistake honesty for hatred. It’s really that simple. I’m just gonna put it out there. I’m gonna say something and if you like it, cool, if you don’t, then fast forward.
There’s a certain value in just being real as well. Anyone can come across a certain way online now and for that reason everyone comes across the same, because everyone’s just looking to each other like that.
People can talk a good game on Twitter but when you see them in real life they don’t have shit to say.
I’m literally that guy.
[Whole squad laughs real quick]
But nah, for real, that’s so true. It really is like that.
It’s a joke, man. People just need to come back to reality for a sec.
There’s obviously a bunch of kids online that look up to what you do though. They value what you have to say and they look at the work you’re doing now as the end goal. How do you approach pushing yourself further, to raise the bar higher?
When you start setting rules and boundaries for yourself, it stops you creating. Taking it up a notch is just to do whatever you want. If you think it’s the right thing to do, then do it. Put it out there and see how people react. So that’s how I approach it. It’s all trial and error these days.
Vibes. With all that in mind, what does the near future hold for GEO — both personally and as a collective?
Definitely going to push out this clothing and see how people react to it. I’m gonna take the way that I’ve tackled album covers initially and apply that across multiple products. I normally make things that I struggle to find or can’t afford. For example, a nice chair that costs a grand - I’m not gonna spend that - so let me try and make something for me, and if people like that, we’ll get some more made. It’s really that simple. That’s my side of things, then for GEO on the whole, the team has their say in their own areas and we’re just looking to push out more personal things. More things that people can relate to, that aren’t album covers. It doesn’t start and stop with that. Album covers are the equivalent to Gucci belts. You can go in the Gucci store and it’s the cheapest object in there, and everyone fucking has one. How many guys can go in and buy a bag, or a suit? It’s completely different. That’s my comparison. We’ve got to take it up a level.