THE ART OF RAP - THE HEMU AGGARWAL INTERVIEW
Updated: Mar 10
By the time that I was 11 years old I had memorized the credits on the records that I owned, as well as my parents records. I knew that if Larry & Fonce Mizell’s names were on a Jazz record that it was going to be good. I knew that if a rap record was mastered by Herb Powers Jr. that it was going to be loud, and I had memorized most of the names of the key people behind the scenes at one of my favourite labels – Sugar Hill Records. Jiggs Chase, Sylvia Robinson, Steve Jerome, Doug Wimbish, Reggie Griffin, Eric Thorngren and Chris Lord- Alge were all names that were stored in my brain before I was a teenager.
There was also the name Hemu Aggarwal who was credited with the graphic design work on many of my favorite albums and some of the Sugar Hill posters that I had acquired. I had many questions regarding her work even back then. I would have never thought it possible that I would one day have the opportunity to ask so many of these people, who all greatly changed the course of my life, the many questions that I have pertaining to their ground breaking work. It was my pleasure to speak with the woman behind so many iconic images: Hemu Aggarwal.
It’s an honor to speak with you, I’ve admired your work for quite some time. When and how did you get into graphic design?
It’s my pleasure. Up until I was 15 years old I’d never drawn a single line or done any art, then my father got transferred to a bigger city and I went to a new school. This new school had an art teacher and art classes and it was part of my curriculum. This art teacher discovered that I had some kind of talent, and I loved doing it. During that first year I excelled quite a bit.
That art teacher wasn’t a graphic designer, but he was a commercial artist. I was very much under his wing, and I wanted to be able to do what he was doing. He had his own studio, and part time he was the teacher at my school. He would often take me to his studio and show me what commercial art was all about and I liked it. After 2 years when it was time for college, I insisted that I wanted to go to school for art.
The nearest school was about 200 miles away so I had to stay in a dormitory, and that’s how I got into fine art in India. Students at the school had to take fine arts, commercial art and sculpture. In the 2nd year you got to find out what your major would be, and I decided to go into commercial art. Mind you, in those days no girls went into commercial art. Even the dean at my college tried to discourage me from going into commercial art. I was determined, and there were only 2 girls in a class of over 200 boys.
So I got my first degree in commercial art, and I decided to go to some other countries because in India it was very limited for girls to study further in that subject or get any kind of job in art. I applied to college in the USA and in France. There was a very famous college in France for art . I decided to go to the USA because my Sister was already in the U.S. I got accepted in New York, Florida and somewhere else. I can’t remember right now. I chose New York because it was the center of commercial art. There in New York I took a major in graphic design.
How did you connect with the Robinsons? Were you already doing work with design in the music business, or was that your first entry into the music business?
I was already involved with the music industry. After finishing my Masters degree I started looking for a job, and this was the late 60’s when times were very different. The Vietnam war was still being fought, and I would go with other students to demonstrations. At the same time there was a great influence of The Beatles, and the Beatles went to India and brought back a lot of Eastern culture. It was a time when people wanted to know about Eastern and Indian culture. I happened to come in at that time and my portfolio and my illustrations were very much in demand. It was easy for me to get a job in the music business at that time (with my portfolio and background). That’s how I started in New York and this was 10 years before I met Mr. & Mrs. Robinson. I had already designed record covers for many famous artists before I met the Robinsons - artists such as Tom Jones, Mantovani, Engelbert Humperdinck, Frijid Pink, Marmalade, Brotherhood of Men, Ted Health, Frank Chacksfield, Will Mitchell, one of the last albums of the Beatles, singles for John Lennon and Yoko Ono and more.
I left that job and got married in '74 and had my first child in '75. I didn’t want to go back to New York City to work. We were living outside of Manhattan and it would have taken me away from my baby for a long period of time, so I decided to start my own company. I was looking for clients, and I sent out about 150 letters to different companies that were in driving distance. Remember back then we didn’t have computers, there was no Wifi or email. Sugar Hill as a label started in 1979, I started my company in June of 1980. I sent them a letter describing my work, and that’s how I got an appointment with Mr. Joseph Robinson. When I met him for the first time, I took my whole portfolio with me and he wasn't interested in seeing it. He refused to look at it. I asked him “please see my work”, and he said that he didn’t want to see my work – he wanted to see what I could do for him, then he would decide whether I was the right person for him or not. He gave me 3 albums to design. It took me a week, and when I went back and showed him he said “you are going to work for me”. I stayed with him for a long time – 15 years or so.
That’s interesting that he didn’t want to see your portfolio.
Yes! I had been on several interviews before, and he was the first person that didn’t want to see my portfolio.
So was AQ Graphics the original name of the company that you started and was it an acronym?
Yes, AQ Graphics Inc. It didn’t really stand for anything. My last name starts with an A – Aggarwal which sounds very foreign, so I didn’t want to use the whole name. I was going to use ACCU which is short for accurate – and that means precise or perfect. I didn’t like ACCU so I just used the letter Q.
Mr. Robinson asked you to design 3 record covers. Do you remember what they were?
Oh my, I knew you were going to ask me this question. I can't remember, but I don’t think that they were ever published. He just wanted to see what I could do. Then he gave me a real assignment that was actually published, and that I believe was the Sugar Hill Gang. Not the Rappers Delight album - that was already done when I arrived, along with the candy stripe logo for the label.
So you’re talking about the 8th Wonder album, where they are standing with the artifacts?
Yes, and most of what I did was on the Sugar Hill label. Then Victory came, and I designed that logo and the Positive Express record that was on Victory. I also designed the Jersey Connection logo.
Rap was so brand new then, and the Robinson’s brought it to the rest of the country and later the world. Did you enjoy it at all, and did you understand it?
I was into the music of Tom Jones and The Beatles. Rap was very new for me. They were talking rather fast and I couldn’t understand all of their lyrics. But what I liked best was that these were young people who were full of energy and enthusiasm and I knew that they were bringing a new message to society. These kids were also rebellious. You have to keep in mind that I come from a country where they don’t even educate women, forget sending them alone to another country without marriage, so I was kind of a step up in that society. I was a bit rebellious and breaking that society’s norms and rules, and that is what these young people were doing and I liked that very much. Mr. & Mrs. Robinson were very nice to me, and I would ask them for the lyrics so that I could understand what the artists were saying. The music was very new to me & everyone was saying that it was a fad that wouldn’t last.
Did you have much communication with the artists at all, or was it strictly with the Robinsons?
Yes, I was with them all the time whether it was going out to photo shoots together or waiting in the reception area for Mr. or Mrs. Robinson to be free. There were always artists hanging around. I used to talk to The Sequence girls all the time, and Wonder Mike from The Sugar Hill Gang – really all of the Sugar Hill Gang members. Big Hank was the most friendly.
Were you working exclusively for the Robinsons during the time that you were with them, or were you working with other clients as well?
I had other clients as well during that time, especially in the record business. I was working with Laurie Records and their subsidiary 3C Records. They were releasing music by Dion (& The Belmonts), Richie Valens, etc. I designed the 3C logo and I handled their color separation and printing supervision. Same with Sugar Hill. Not only was I doing design, I was in charge of all of the printing, production, placing ads in Billboard and other magazines. Color separation has totally changed now because of computers, but color separation was done much differently back then.
Yes , with Photoshop and all the technology that we have now, I'm sure it’s a lot easier…
Oh yes. Back then you had to tell the printer to use 10 % magenta or 30% cyan to make a color. Because I had my Masters degree in graphic design, I was very good at knowing what combination of screens would make what color. It’s very different today because the computer does all of the work.
Did you have your own office at Sugar Hill, or were you working from your own office at AQ Graphics?
I had my own studio, and I had 3 or 4 people working for me. I was a busy woman – not only was I doing design for the music industry, I was designing for Welch’s, Kleenex, Buddy L Toys, GI Joe and others.
Tell me about The Message album cover by Grandmaster Flash and The Furious 5. That’s pretty iconic.
I didn’t take the pictures for all of the album covers, many I only designed. But I was the photographer on that. I went with the group to New York City up near 10 Avenue uptown. We were there for a few hours and I shot over 200 pictures for that cover. Mr. & Mrs. Robinson allowed me to choose the one which would make the final album. They gave me full creative control to choose the photograph that I liked best, crop it how I liked etc. I chose those 2 pictures (front and back) and that cover became famous. But I did not promote myself as a photographer. I only took pictures when they asked me to. I promoted myself as a graphic designer.
I remember seeing your name on some Bon Ami and New Day Records (early 90s labels run by Sylvia Robinson) like Grandmaster Melle Mel & The Furious 5 and The New Style (later Naughty By Nature). When did you stop working with the Robinsons?
I continued working with them until 1994 or ’95. See in the mid 80’s they got into some trouble and had some financial problems (the partnership with MCA Records), and I was one of the creditors that was owed money. They worked out some kind of settlement, but Mr. Robinson told me that no matter what, he would always have work for me. Then I started doing work for his son Joey Jr. because he had his own record company.
When you first witnessed this music, did you have any idea that you were part of something that would grow to be a world wide phenomenon?
Not at all. It would have been impossible to predict. It has become so big that you see rap in Bollywood movies, and I would have never guessed that it would grow so big. It’s international and even White singers have copied it.
I’ve seen some of your current work and it looks like you have really branched out in many directions artistically.
Yes, I don’t do much graphic design anymore. I went back to my first love which is the fine arts. I’ve started to do paintings, and I’ve entered my paintings in various competitions. One of my paintings won 2nd place on an international level. My work has been displayed around the world, and in the last year or so I’ve started to combine fine art with fashion and I started a company called Fine Art Fashions. I've put my art work on clothes and scarves. I’ve manufactured my own silk scarves and I have been very much involved in that.
Of all of the work that you did with the Robinsons (including the re issues of the Chess catalog), what are your favorite and least favorite pieces?
Well from a design point of view artists are never happy with their work, and always feel that they could have done better. I always see room for improvement, and this one album really bothers me whenever I look at it, and that’s the Positive Express album. There are these kind of flashing lights in the background. I didn’t really like how that album looks. I think that it’s terrible (laughs from both Hemu and JayQuan). If I had to do it again I would do it totally different.
The design on that one reminds me of the album you did for Trouble Funk on Sugar Hill. It also had that flashing light look to it.
Yes, I remember that Trouble Funk album. I don’t exactly remember what it looks like, but I remember doing it. But I hate looking at that Positive Express.
Yeah, 1 or 2 members of Positive Force went on to form Positive Express. You designed the Positive Force album as well right?
Yes, I did design Positive Force. That’s one of the early ones that I designed for Sugar Hill. That’s the one where they are all standing in line against the wall right?
Yes it is.. So what is your favorite design?
I can’t say that I have a favorite. I really enjoyed working on all of them. There was one that I did of the Sequence, and I did a full illustration of all three girls. I really liked that one.
Yes, the one that looked like water color painting almost.
Yes I really enjoyed doing that, and it took me awhile. I thought that it came out pretty nice. I also enjoyed doing this full illustration for a New Orleans Jazz lp, I cant remember the name of it though. I believe that I did 3 Sequence albums.
Yes there were 3. Sugar Hill released more full length lps on the Sequence than any other group on the label. The greatest rap hits vol. 2 that you designed was special for me. It was released in 1981 or so, and it was the first time that people outside of New York got a chance to see what these groups looked like. That album was on my wall for quite awhile right beside my Incredible Hulk and Super Man posters.
I vaguely remember that one.
How about Reggie Griffin and The New Guys On The Block. Do you remember those?
Yes, Reggie is holding a guitar. I took the picture for that and did the design. New Guys On The Block – yes, the guy who looked like Michael Jackson. He wanted to pose just like Michael on the album. He wanted his hair exactly like his and everything.
How about the group with Sylvia’s son Joey – West Street Mob.
Yes that was Joey and his friend, I forgot his name..
Yes, they came to my office and I took their picture, in fact I took several pictures of them that were used later, but not the one for the cover, where they are standing in front of the Ferrari.
How about the Philippe Wynn album?
Yes, I remember that it was just cursive type, with no picture on the front. I also designed an album for Mrs. Robinson.
It’s been really good speaking with you and getting some behind the scenes insight about those labels, and those iconic images!
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