5 November 1996 was a banner news day for the mainstream media. It was Election Tuesday – “Slick Willie” Clinton vs. “Old Man” Dole for the U.S. Presidency. Had rap superstar Tupac Shakur lived to see that day, he surely would have had something to say about the candidates. After all, he had taunted, “Mistaking me for Bill Clinton, Mr. Bob Dole! / You’re too old to understand the way the game’s told,” on his number one single, “How Do U Want It,” earlier that year. Tragically, however, Tupac had been murdered less than two months prior by an unknown assassin (widely believed to be South Side Compton Crip Orlando Anderson) and was, therefore, unavailable for comment.
Despite the absence of rap music’s most quotable icon, the Hip Hop press had a lot to be excited about on November 5th as well. Because of Tupac’s superhuman work ethic, listeners were blessed that day with the “realest shit [he] ever wrote,” the most provocative album he ever recorded, better known as The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory. At the time, few knew what to make of it. Killuminati was released under Tupac’s Outlaw alias, Makaveli, and contrasted sharply with his previous record, the sprawling double album, All Eyez On Me. Allegedly completed in just seven days, Killuminati exhibited every facet of Tupac’s musical personality: the general, the player, the lunatic, and the griot. The sound was unique, too. Instead of replicating All Eyez On Me’s commercial G-funk sheen, Tupac worked primarily with two unknown Death Row producers (Tyrone “Hurt-M-Badd” Wrice and Darryl “Big D” Harper), who kept him supplied with unpolished gems. Killuminati has a timeless sound, nothing before or since sounds quite like it.
Killuminati’s cover art depicting Tupac on a cross is the perfect match for such an unusual and mysterious album. I recently sat down with the Compton-based artist who painted it, Ronald “Riskie” Brent. What follows is our conversation about his life as an artist, his time at Death Row Records, his iconic portrait of Tupac for Killuminati, and various projects he has in the pipeline.
Riskie Explains His Beginnings & Meeting Tupac
HipHopDX: Why don’t we start at the beginning? Tell me a little about where you come from.
Riskie: I was born in Torrance, California [a suburb about 20 miles from Los Angeles]. We lived on the border of Compton and Los Angeles.
Riskie’s Mother: Please pardon my interrupting, but we lived in San Diego when Riskie was three until he was about six. That’s when I first realized Riskie could draw. He used to draw all over the walls! Fortunately, I always made sure to always give him washable crayons.
HipHopDX: Haha! Don’t worry about it. Thanks for the insight. Riskie, when do you first remember wanting to be an artist?
Riskie: I can’t remember any of that San Diego stuff. In 1978, my family moved to Compton and I’ve been here ever since. My aunt knew how to draw. Right around when I was about five years old, I used to sit on her lap while she drew. I watched her. That’s when I first realized I wanted to be an artist. Back then, I would trace out of my colorings books.
When I got older – elementary school, high school – I started painting more original stuff. I started doing graffiti, Hip Hop artwork like I saw in the movie, Beat Street. That movie, the character named Ramo in particular, really inspired me back then. I’d go to the art supply store, steal markers and shit, then use them to create my own artistic style. Me and my boys in the neighborhood had a drawing crew. They couldn’t draw like me, but they wanted to support me. We were all popular in school because of the artwork we did. We called ourselves DTS, Down to Serve, though we flipped the meaning all the time.
HipHopDX: Did any artists, local or otherwise, inspire you or influence your style?
Riskie: Other than Ramo, there were three Mexican artists from Paramount [another Los Angeles suburb] that really influenced me: Presto, Speed, and Hex. Hex was number one to me, he was like the King. When I was around 16 or 17, I used to paint with Presto’s Crew, the OCK (Original Crime Kings). I would go down to the riverbeds in LA or the Belmont Tunnel to check out their work and do my own shit. They were amazing. At that time, there weren’t that many black artists or artists from Compton.
HipHopDX: You’re best known by Hip Hop fans for the work you did at Death Row Records. How did you hook up with them?
Riskie: I’m from the same neighborhood Suge Knight [former CEO and co-founder of Death Row Records] is from. I grew up right around the corner from his childhood home. Suge used to be there all the time – every Christmas he’d put a huge Christmas tree up in front of his mother’s house [the home Suge grew up in] with CDs and ornaments as decoration. Anyway, I used to sell drugs on my street in the early ‘90s. One day, while I was in front of my house, I saw a line of ’64 Impalas driving down the street with different people from the Death Row entourage inside the cars. I noticed that one of those cars was the same black ‘64 Chevy that they used in Dr. Dre’s “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang” video and everyone was saying how it was Death Row’s CEO Suge Knight driving Dre’s ‘64.
Well, those Death Row dudes were legendary around here. I saw the artwork Joe Cool did on Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle and the work that Hen Dog [Robert “Hen Dog” Smith] did on Tha Dogg Pound album and I wanted to get on. I was already known around the neighborhood and at the Compton Swap Meet for my drawings. I used to airbrush t-shirts whenever one of the homies got killed and I also sold airbrushed t-shirts at the Swap Meet. I rapped at that time, too. I was in a rap group called Questions. In fact, the first time I reached out to Suge was on some music shit. That didn’t work out. One day, my “cousin” Gina took my art book to Suge. He liked my drawings and told her he wanted to meet up with me. That meeting never happened. Suge wasn’t the easiest guy to get a hold of, but I went to the Compton Swap Meet one day not long after that and there was a mob scene. 2Pac, Suge, and everybody was filming a video there.
HipHopDX: That’s the “California Love (Remix)” video, the one that Kendrick and his dad were at?
Riskie: Yup. Well, Suge had a million people that wanted to talk to him so I waited about an hour because I wanted his full attention and didn’t want to be overshadowed or rushed by the next person seeking his attention. I approached him. He said he remembered me and the artwork in my book and told me to get it. I was like, “you gonna be here when I get back?” and he told me he wasn’t going anywhere. I ran across the street to get my book and he was true to his word. He took it and walked me over to a white van. He opened the door of the van and inside was 2Pac and a bunch of girls. That was the first time I met 2Pac. 2Pac and Suge looked through my book. They liked what they saw, but I’ll never forget when 2Pac saw my drawing of Biggie. He made a gun with his hand, pointed it at the drawing, and yelled, “Boom! Boom! Why you paint him?”
Understand, I’ve always listened to music from both coasts. I’m bi-coastal. I fuck with Biggie’s music! I listened to everything back then: KRS-One, N.W.A., Eric B & Rakim, the Geto Boys, etc. But I wasn’t about to end my career over that shit before it even got started. I didn’t even know 2Pac had a beef with Biggie at that time. So I told him, “I don’t know. I just paint, man.” Before Suge and I exchanged numbers, 2Pac said to Suge he wanted me to do something for his new joint with Snoop, “2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted.” I’m not sure if I was supposed to do artwork for the single or for the video, but nothing ever came of it.
Riskie Talks His Beginnings At Death Row Records
HipHopDX: What was it like working at Death Row?
Riskie: It was some incredible, once in a lifetime, shit. The first day I started work there was the day Snoop got acquitted for murder. As soon as I walked into the office, I saw Luke Skywalker [from 2 Live Crew] in the lobby. It surprised the hell out of me.
Riskie: Exactly. At Death Row, you got to hear shit you wouldn’t believe, meet people you’d only read about. Every day was exciting. It was like working in a museum where history was being made every day. It was a fantastic voyage, you feel me? My first night at Death Row, the whole label celebrated Snoop’s freedom at Monty’s Steakhouse in Westwood [a frequent Death Row haunt], where I reconnected with ‘Pac. But before that first day, I had already worked on a Death Row project without actually being an employee.
HipHopDX: What was that?
Riskie: That was the painting on the inside of 2Pac’s All Eyez On Me. Hen Dog, the artist who put in work on Dogg Food and designed the Death Row logo, gave me a pencil sketch and the concept for it and I did the rest. The “FCK IT” license plate was my own personal touch on that. I did that because when I handed over the artwork the album’s credits had already been turned in so I didn’t get credit in the liner notes for that painting. When I found out how much I was getting paid for it, I put “FCK IT” as kind of a secret code to identify it as my painting. When I first joined the Row, I took the place of an airbrush artist named Chris Burch and I was just there to back up Hen Dog. Around the time of Makaveli, Death Row artists started to realize I could draw and paint on my own and also create my own pieces from scratch.
HipHopDX: What was 2Pac like?
Riskie: VERY energetic. Very serious about his business. He was real. If you were down with him, he was down with you. He took care of the people at Death Row and was very helpful. He hated fakes, though. He wasn’t no “studio gangster” either. If he said he was gonna whip your ass on a record, he would definitely do it in person. He was like a living “48 Laws of Power.” He was super intelligent and always strategizing. He felt like he was in a war and every move he made had a lot of thought behind it. I do remember a few staff members complaining that he could be too bossy at times, though.
How The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory Artwork Came Together
HipHopDX: We’re here to celebrate The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory today. You played a major part on that album. When and how were you assigned to paint the cover?
Riskie: It was around mid-August 1996. I was in the back office I shared with Hen Dog at 9171 Wilshire Boulevard, which we had recently moved into. Hen Dog and I used to smoke weed back there all the time to keep our creative flow going. We would blow the smoke out of an open window. Norris Anderson [Suge’s brother-in-law], who was Death Row’s general manager at the time, called me into his office to tell me about a new assignment. He told me from the jump that “it’s gonna be something crazy.” Apparently, Suge and 2Pac had a meeting and wanted me to paint 2Pac on the cross for the album cover. The concept was all 2Pac’s. Norris said I needed to have a mock-up ready that evening for a Death Row staff meeting with Suge at Gladstone’s. I thought about it a bit, found a painting of Jesus Christ, and cut out a photo of Tupac’s face from the March 1996 issue of The Source to put on top of it. I showed it to Suge after the meeting and he said, “That’s it. Get to work.” He also told me that he wanted me to work with Joe Cool on Snoop’s Doggfather project at that time.
HipHopDX: Was 2Pac at that meeting at Gladstone’s?
Riskie: Nah, he was filming Gang Related that night I think.
HipHopDX: Did you ever meet up with 2Pac to discuss the cover?
Riskie: Yup. A few days later, I went to see him at Can-Am [Death Row’s recording studio in Tarzana]. I brought the unfinished canvas painting with me. The cross hadn’t been filled in yet. 2Pac asked me, “Yo, can you make the cross into a road map?” He told me the cities he wanted on there, where he wanted them, and that he wanted a compass on top of it to signify east to west. The compass was real important to him.
HipHopDX: Did he ever tell you why he wanted a road map?
Riskie: No, not fully. He told me he felt that he had been crucified by certain cities and that he wanted to shout them out. After our meeting, I cut up a Thomas Bros. map guide and pasted everything together. The holes in the map with lights coming through them were my idea. ‘Pac’s body and the background was all air-brushed. It was a real work of art.
HipHopDX: How long did it take you to finish the painting?
Riskie: A total of about three days but most of that time was waiting to hear from 2Pac. Most of my paintings for the label took a day or less. I wanted to finish them quick so I could get back to the streets and do other shit.
HipHopDX: Did 2Pac ever get to see the finished painting?
Riskie: Yeah. I went to his penthouse on Wilshire Boulevard the night before he got shot in Las Vegas [September 6, 1996]. He told me, “this shit is dope!” He loved it, raved about it for a few minutes. All of the Outlawz were there, too. That night 2Pac told me he was going to host a gallery showing of my artwork. Death Row had already given me a budget of $5,000 for materials for it and everything. Unfortunately, because he died and Suge went to prison, that never happened. 2Pac also told me he wanted me to do artwork for his new house in Calabasas and for his penthouse. I’ll never forget that.
HipHopDX: Did you do any other artwork for Killuminati?
Riskie: Yeah, I worked on the back cover for it that was never used. 2Pac came up with the concept for that, too. I painted Biggie as a pig and Puffy in a tutu. Hen Dog did the drawing of Dr. Dre getting hit from the back by a drag queen. After ‘Pac died, they decided not to include that.
HipHopDX: Wow. For fairly obvious reasons I imagine. When was the last time you saw 2Pac?
Riskie: I was shooting dice at the MGM Grand the following night. I saw him and Suge walk passed me, but I had money on the table so I didn’t follow them. It was probably after the fight they had in the lobby based off of how fast they were walking. Hours later, I got to 662 [Suge’s Vegas nightclub] and by that time the rumor was spreading that 2Pac and Suge had been shot, but I didn’t find out for sure until I got back to the hotel room and it was on the news. Six days later, I was sitting in the office on Wilshire when Linda Tubbs [Suge’s sister, the office’s manager] told the entire staff that he had died. That shit fucked me up.
HipHopDX: What do you remember most about him?
Riskie: That last meeting in his apartment, his enthusiasm for my artwork, and the show he wanted me to do.
HipHopDX: What did you think of Killuminati?
Riskie: It’s a dope album. Historic. I can still listen to it today like it came out yesterday. It’s my favorite 2Pac album, mainly because of my personal connection to it. My favorite songs on that album are “Krazy” and “Against All Odds.” Personally, I feel like the cover I did for that album will forever be tied to 2Pac’s death, more than anything else.
HipHopDX: Pretty tragic. You continued to work at Death Row for almost two years after that. What else did you work on?
Riskie: A lot of shit. Daz’s Retaliation, Revenge and Get Back, Death Row Greatest Hits, Christmas on Death Row, Snoop’s Tha Doggfather, and Soopafly’s Dat Whoopty Woop, to name some of them. I also did a lot of art that never ended up getting used, stuff for Lady of Rage’s Necessary Roughness, 2Pac’s One Nation, and the Too Gangsta for Radio compilation for example.
Riskie Explains Why He Left Death Row & His New Book
HipHopDX: Why’d you end up parting ways with Death Row?
Riskie: Because of a situation with Nate Dogg leaving the label and going to Breakaway Entertainment. I did a character for Nate Dogg, not knowing that he had just left Death Row, and Breakaway put it on the cover of G-Funk Classics without my knowledge. When his album was about to come out on Breakaway, Suge found out and I was put on two weeks leave. Having seen other employees being placed on two weeks leave and never returning, I knew I was fired.
HipHopDX: What are you currently working on?
Riskie: Other than commissioned projects and art for sale on my website like prints of the Makaveli painting, I’m working on my “artistic biography” that’s going to be published by Over the Edge Books in the first quarter of next year. It’s gonna be titled Riskie Forever – From the Streets to the Industry: My Life and Artwork on Death Row Records. There’s going to be a hardcover edition and a soft.cover one later on. It’s got all of my artwork, including a lot of pieces I did for Death Row that no one has ever seen, stories of my experiences at the label, and my life as an artist. I talk a lot about what I went through on the streets in order to get to where I was able to do some historic shit that will always be remembered. I’m also working on a clothing line with Hall of Fame and Joe Cool [who painted Doggystyle and other Snoop Dogg artwork] that’s connected with my book and should be out around the same time. Joe and I also have plans to put on a show celebrating our artwork at Hall of Fame’s store on Fairfax in West LA so look out for that, too.
As you know, I’m also in talks right now to illustrate your upcoming book about Tupac’s music.
HipHopDX: How can fans of your artwork keep up with you and what’s going on with your various projects?
HipHopDX: Before we end this interview, I wanted to know what you think of the state of Hip Hop in 2015?
Riskie: It’s not the same. Too many people trying to do the same things. Don’t get me wrong, I like some artists. I just listened to The Game’s Documentary 2. I like YG, Drake, Lil’ Wayne, and, being from Compton, I like Kendrick Lamar, too. Still listen to Scarface, of course. I like all coasts. Not into trap music or all that shit, although I do like “Trap Queen.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m just not in the trap anymore. Although, I may feel different if I was.
HipHopDX: One last question: do you have any advice for aspiring artists or people who want to break into the music business?
Riskie: Never give up on your dreams. Stay focused on creating the reality you want to spend the rest of your life in. Anything can happen with willpower if you keep working at it. I always say, whatever you put out into the universe, is what you get back.