An earlier generation of hip hop fans bought copies of The Source from a newsstand for in-depth news about rappers and their latest jams.
After checking out the cover, they immediately turned to the last page to see André LeRoy Davis’ illustration for his “The Last Word” column.
From 1990 to 2007, Davis infused his must-see illustrations with sharp-witted satire and commentary about culture and news of the day.
In those early years, as hip hop competed to secure a foothold in the national music landscape, there were countless doubters who dismissed the Black urban genre.
Through his platform, Davis created a buzz about the music, its artists and industry professionals. Today, hip hop is a global musical powerhouse that BET will celebrate on Oct. 5 at the 2021 BET Hip Hop Awards.
BET.com spoke with André LeRoy Davis.
BET.com: Your illustration of Eazy E and the FBI was your first drawing for the Source. What’s the story behind that?
Davis: After college, I started freelancing. I was in the city (Manhattan) one day and happened to see a Source at the newsstands. I wrote the number down and went to the corner booth and called about their portfolio policy.
Back then, freelance illustrators would drop off their portfolio at different magazines.
The original editor-in-chief answered the phone but didn’t have a portfolio policy. It turned out that he was a fan of Mad magazine (now out of publication), which always had a fold-up illustration on the last page. So he wanted to bring a similar element to The Source.
He was getting ready to close the issue but needed something to illustrate Eazy-E’s situation where supposedly the FBI was tapping his phone, and he was being investigated.
So I drew a sketch right there, and he was like, can you bring it back in two days? Back then, because they didn’t have any money, It was printed in black and white. So I painted it in grays.
I didn't think anything of it--probably just a one-time shot. The next month, he called me back.
BET.com: Why do you think the readers connected with your illustrations?
Davis: I have absolutely no idea. In the beginning, I illustrated whatever was happening in the news that was poignant. After that, my illustrations would sum up the whole issue with one drawing. It evolved into whoever was on the cover. I really didn't think anything of it. I was just trying to make sure my drawings were on point.
It wasn't until the 50th issue celebration when Heavy D popped up on screen and said, “When I get The Source magazine I go directly to the last page and look at the Last Word.”
I said, oh s**t. I had no idea. That’s when I realized it was making an impact.
BET.com: Did some people get angry about how you illustrated them?
Davis: People certainly would be mad and called The Source. I was told by DJ Quik never to come to California. This was in the early days, probably around ‘92. He was upset because I drew him with James Brown in a beauty salon waiting to get their hair done.
A day later, DJ Quik was on Yo!, MTV Raps. Ed Lover wasn’t on that episode; it was Dr. Dre and T-Money. They were messing with DJ Quik. All of a sudden, Dre pulled out the issue in front of the camera and showed DJ Quik in a beauty salon. You could see his face change. But his boys said, ‘that just means you made it.’ He smiled after that.
BET.com: Tell me about a memorable illustration, something that’s close to your heart.
Davis: There are some illustrations that I nailed. And by that, I mean, the joke was on point, and the likeness was on point. One of my favorites is Biggie. I drew it when the video for “Warning” had just come out and it was getting mad play. People were loving it for his paralleling [the movie] Scarface.
After watching the video a couple of times, I wanted to summarize it. So early in the video, he’s at the kitchen table eating cereal. And he’s also in bed with his pager going off. So I was like, how can I get all of that into one illustration where it makes sense and it will be memorable.
BET.com: Where does the inspiration come from that enables you to combine those two elements--the joke and the likeness--into an illustration?
Davis: Let's get a little wishy-washy. I know the gifts that I have come from the man above. I don't sit down and think about, oh, I gotta do this. Every now and then, there’s some kind of Rain Man s**t with ideas that visually pop into my brain.
Davis: I don’t consider Biz Markie a close friend, but he was someone I was cool with through the years. He was someone who would call me out of the blue on a Sunday and say, “What’s up?”
I first met Biz in 1988 at the Colosseum Mall in Queens when I was visiting my cousin Nyke Harewood of the Mighty Shirt Kings. Biz showed up, fresh from the studio. He grabbed a box and popped in a cassette of “Just a Friend,” and everyone was all smiles and laughter.
Skip to around 2003, and I'm sitting in a hotel lobby in the middle of 42nd Street interviewing Biz for a piece I was writing. I had a copy of a black and white illustration with me that I had drawn from The Source years before of Biz naked wearing a barrel. It was after Biz (and Warner Bros. Records) was sued for sampling. He signed it for me and asked me to send him a copy.
Around 2012, Biz called to ask my permission to use the hip hop head I had drawn of him. He was the first artist to ask me before using my artwork. The next thing I knew, my illustration of Biz’s face was prominently displayed on his laptop cover wherever he was DJing around the world.
In 2015, I had a one-man art show in Harlem called “50 Shades of Dré.” I had launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise money to help buy frames and for promotion. My phone rang and it was Biz asking me to meet him in downtown Brooklyn. I get there and he hands me a good amount of dough and says, ‘If you told me in advance about the show opening, I would have DJ’d it up for you for free!"
Watch the 2021 BET Hip Hop Awards on Tuesday, October 5 at 9 PM ET/PT.