When Nick Gazin was tasked by indie hip-hop icon El-P with designing album art for Run the Jewels, the producer’s hip-hop collaboration with Atlanta rapper Killer Mike, he had no idea what the name even meant. He still doesn’t. Gazin said his initial concept was “something based on a Double Dragon ‘80s action film thing of [El-P] and Mike together in a fighting stance,” but El-P was insistent that it should involve a hand gesture. They settled on a pair of dismembered appendages, suspended in space, holding a golden necklace.
“They’re kind of these blue demonic hands and there’s something either frightening or friendly about them,” Gazin said. “I see them as being this kind of ‘haunted house’ aesthetic, not necessarily satanic. They’re kind of menacing but also kind of cartoony.”
Run the Jewels’ music can be similarly unpredictable in tone, shifting from violent braggadocio to dark introspection depending on the track. As that music evolved on the second RTJ album, so did the art. The cover of Run the Jewels 2 resembles the first, except now the hands are covered in thick bandages.
“The blood stains almost imply a horror movie, but I see it as the hands have survived things,” says Gazin, who likes to imagine narratives for all his art. “I think it makes sense considering the year we’ve had. The whole image is about coming back after having been beaten down.”
Run the Jewels 2 received rave reviews and grabbed a top spot on many year-end lists (including EW’s). Gazin’s logo has become as popular as the music itself, appearing on everything from tattoos to Christmas ornaments. Run the Jewels’ manager, Amaechi Uzoigwe, even organized a project called Tag the Jewels, a compilation of graffiti from around the world inspired by the Run the Jewels art. Most recently, Marvel Comics revealed that two of their upcoming comics, Howard the Duck issue two and Deadpool issue 45, will feature covert art inspired by Run the Jewels. Marvel editor-in-chief Axel Alonso told Rolling Stone he got the idea after watching his son make the Run the Jewels gesture after scoring a touchdown in a high school football game.
“To see your work imitated on the cover of Marvel comics is awesome,” said Gazin, a lifelong comics fan and editor of Vice’s comics section. “I like that they went with goofy characters. There’s something fun about Deadpool—he captures what’s fun about superhero comics to me.”
As Gazin notes, in addition to being imitable, the Run the Jewels logo is also fairly unique in hip-hop.
“Having undead mascots is something normally just for Iron Maiden and Motorhead, not really in hip-hop because people would rather put their photo on the cover,” Gazin said. “It’s cheaper and faster and feels good to have your photo on the cover. But I think it was really smart and forward-thinking of El and Mike to use this other kind of identity for them as a group.”