Capturing the essence of a hip hop icon in his prime – BeatDust caught up with Los Angeles visual artist Ronald ‘Riskie’ Brent to wax poetics about his work on Tupac’s final and infinitely influential work Makaveli: The Don Killuminati -The 7 day Theory.
Revered by his peers as one of our generation’s most compelling figures, the impact of artist and activist Tupac Shakur on the public consciousness can not be understated. Weaving philosophy and literature out of words, Tupac’s potent poetics force fed the gritty street realities and revolutionary black panther spirit to a mainstream white American audience blind or reluctant to recognise social issues outside their own backyards. Like other artists who met an untimely demise, Tupac looms far larger in death than life. Entrenched in the theory of martyrdom -.Tupac has become the poster child for the exuberant expression of those without a voice, especially within the black community.
As the final release before his death, Makaveli: The 7 day Theory is a fascinating listen – splinted with both poetic beauty and venomous bloodlust. Unlike the more polished and mainstream monster that was his All Eyez on Me, Makaveli sees Tupac using the mic booth as a therapeutic medium for exorcising his many demons – taking the listener on an intimate journey through his battles within his internal and external worlds. While the social commentary of songs like ‘White Man’z World’ and ‘Blasphemy’ is often overlooked due to this album’s marinated street beef mentality, they rank as some of his most intense work and channels his namesake Machiavelli in his depiction of the unflattering relationship between politics and ethics. Equally as compelling and controversial as Makaveli: The 7 day Theory was on the ears, Compton’s Ronald ‘Riskie’ Brent’s prophetic portrayal of Tupac Shakur for the cover art still remains as powerful today as it did upon its release 19 years ago.
Explaining how he got involved with the project, Riskie notes to BeatDust “at the time I was on the label, I had just got hired by Death Row Records on January 1996 after doing my first project which was the insert for the All Eyez on Me album” After impressing both Tupac and the label, Riskie explains “I got a call from Norris Anderson who was the president at Death Row Records at the time – saying that he just got a call from Suge Knight saying that they wanted me to work on the Makaveli cover”.
Coated in dripping levels of symbolism and mystic, which turned to conspiracy and myth after his death – conceptually the Makaveli cover was always bound to elicit strong emotion. “Tupac had all the input in regards to the album cover and what he wanted to have done. They just picked for me to be the artist that would be the one to carry out that” Riskie explains. Throughout his short career, Tupac took upon himself the burden of being the orator of the oppressed – was he suggesting with the Makaveli artwork that he was a martyr of sorts, being sacrificed for what he believed in? did he feel crucified by the media who viewed him as only a criminal? sadly these questions will forever go unanswered. Conceptually evocative, Riskie’s layered approach to both the design and construction is instrumental in the images iconology.
Unlike the majority of Tupac Shakur art that relies on photorealistic regurgitation – the beauty of Riskie’s Death Row work is in his distinctive artistic voice. Sensitive to the power of suggestion, there are thick dehumanizing qualities throughout the Makaveli pieces – with a focus on abandoning realism and instead embellishing romanticized characteristic of the characters he paints. In regards to how the construction and artistic style of the cover art, Riskie explains “I was aloud to come up with whatever idea I wanted, the idea I came up with on my own, but the concept was Tupac”. He continues “once they called in with the concept I put together my own mock up and later on that night we had a meeting at Gladstones [restaurant] out in Malibu, Tupac wasn’t there cause I believe he was working on a movie set so I showed the idea to Suge, gave Suge the mock up and he passed it over to Tupac”. Seemingly influenced by the post 11th century depictions of the crucifixion scene – Riske’s image features Tupac as the emaciated figure with its head fallen on one shoulder with the crown of thorns fashioned into his trademark bandanna. Riske also managed to incorporate an element of social commentary in regards to censorship within the piece; “I put the parental advisory sticker over his private parts, [Tupac & Suge] kinda liked that – that was part of my concept and they kept it”.
Aware of how gesture, expressive marks, highlights and shadow can all communicate volumes to the viewer, Riske’s medium and tools were essential in expressively engaging and eking out the details that make the Makaveli portrait distinctive and appealing. “On the canvas I used airbrush and acrylic paints” notes Riskie. In regards to how long the cover art took to complete, Riskie explains “I know this is going to sound funny but it took me about a week to do it. It usually takes me one day to do a job, when I was at Death Row I was knocking out album covers in 2 days, but it took me about 7 days to do that because when I started on it Tupac was working on a movie set. I had already had the album cover drawn except I didn’t have the cross area filled in because I didn’t know what to put into that area, I didn’t know if he wanted me to do a cross or what he wanted me to do, so once he got back from his movie shoot I left the Death Row office and met him when he was over at Can-Am Building in Tarzana recording studio – I showed him the drawing I had and he saw the cross area was blank, so he asked me if I could put in a map, I didn’t really understand what he meant and he was like “I want a map of the city, and I want you to name out all the areas on the map. So I took that idea and went back to my office and started working on getting the map into the cross area”.
This idea of the map could again be related back to the religious beliefs/imagery of earlier times in which an inscription stating the nature of the condemned man’s offence was hung round his neck as he was led to execution, and was afterwards fixed to the head of the cross. The map also adds another layer to the artwork as the location names are acutely placed on top of the painting in decoupage mix media fashion.
Although it was absent when Makaveli hit the stores, Riskie also completed a bitter and antagonizing artwork for the back of the release that aired out the dirty laundry of the label and poured petrol on the flames of a beef that had been simmering in the streets. At the height of the infamous war with Bad Boy records, Tupac namechecks not only the record label and several East Coast emcees throughout the release, but also spits threats at a number of noted street hustlers who had ties with Bad Boy – including well known New York identities Jimmy Henchman and Haitian Jack for their role in the 1994 Quad Studio shooting. Using the same technique as the cover, instead of romanticizing the individuals, Riskie is able to use his skills to create a venomous work that discredits and lampoons Biggie Smalls, Puff Daddy and former Death Row owner Dr Dre. In an interview with rapireland.com, Riskie explains “I mean what it’s about – it was a diss. You got Biggy, Puffy and [Dr] Dre over there, that was the diss that was supposed to come out on Makaveli; the album was really meant to come out as a bootleg when it first kicked off but when Tupac died they turned it around and made it into a commercial release”.
With the release creeping up to nearly 20 years of age, Riskie is quite humble when he reflects upon the legacy he helped create with Makaveli: The 7 day Theory. Explaing to BeatDust “the album is a classic, I’m grateful that i’m considered a legendary artist due to the fact I did that infamous album cover and now that album is going down in history with my name. I feel like whatever I do it won’t succeed that, I feel that when I leave this earth, that will be my mark that will still be here to remind the world that I was here, I’ve already set that and that’s already installed because that album will go on forever”.
Sharing an authentic, original and influential artistic vision, Makaveli: The 7 day Theory showcases two artists in their prime. Pallet potent and unfortunately prophetic, Riskie’s work on the final Tupac release is the fitting visual epilogue for one of the greatest artists of our generation.
Peace to Ronald ‘Riskie’ Brent for helping out with this piece. Keep in touch with Riskie on his Facebook & Instagram pages. Riskie also has the West coast on lock with his personally run website Bomb1st which is the primer spot for new and classic West Coast music and information. Additionally make sure to peep Riskie’s official store at Tha Ink Well and pick up limited edition Tupac prints and skatedecks inked by Riskie himself.