Lionel Pickens, aka the rapper Chinx (formerly Chinx Drugz) was murdered on May 17, 2015, weeks before the release of his first studio album. Beginning in 2013, I worked with Chinx and his team on several projects. In his memory, below are some thoughts, photos and artwork from that time. — Andy Sheffield, Creative Director
I’ll Take it From Here
Chinx didn’t have to like me. I was some guy other people told him to trust with the artwork for his upcoming EP I’ll Take it From Here. It was September, 2013 and I was working with executive producer Rick Steel and NuSense Music Group to bring a new perspective to the brand of Chinx Drugz. After a successful run of mixtapes, the goal was to take everything to the next level; the music, the look, the record deal. Photos and branding were needed to match the 5-Track EP with an elevated sense of musicality.
The first time I met Chinx was at the photo shoot for the EP. I recall him not being entirely comfortable in front of the camera, not to mention being distracted by the 30+ people that showed up to hang out. Directed by myself and Rick, we listened to ‘In Ya City’ on repeat, and at the end of a few hours, a much more comfortable Chinx had his first photos ready to go.
The question of ‘Drugz’
In tandem with the cover art, we were also navigating the concept put forward to rebrand Chinx Drugz into just Chinx. Ultimately the solution was to quite literally wipe the ‘Drugz’ out of his name for the cover of the EP, marking a next step in his evolution as an artist, while keeping a knowing nod to the past. While there was some expected backlash online about this decision, it was all business — and a smart one. ‘Drugz’ was a common nickname I heard from his closest friends, but as he put it in an interview “Pepsi’s not going to do anything with Chinx Drugz.”
Evolving the Logo
With Drugz being removed, a new logo was in order. After a few exercises, Chinx decided he liked the feel of his old logo, so it was redrawn for use as only Chinx. An alternate was created for the front of the EP with the final powder-version of the Drugz being swept away.
The EP & Feelings
Following I’ll Take it from Here, we went on to create cover art for one of Chinx’s biggest singles, Feelings, featuring his Coke Boys mentor French Montana, utilizing a similar style.
CR4 & CR5
After the EP, the logical next step would have been a full studio album but Chinx insisted on continuing his Cocaine Riot mixtape series, releasing music for his fans on a regular basis. Working with manager Doug Ellison at Four Kings Productions, artwork for CR4 and CR5 were both designed, produced and finished in under 24 hours to meet the release deadlines. The CR5 cover was always a favorite of mine in its simplicity, and was approved immediately by Chinx. It is now the most haunting image I ever made for him.
Over the course of the next few months and years I would see Chinx at a variety of listening parties and events as his career moved forward. My favorite quote of all being from the I’ll take it from Here listening party;
“Shout out to my dude Andy, I don’t fuck with nobody else with these graphics”
One More time in the Studio
My last conversation with Chinx was on April 25, 2015. We were back in the studio photographing the looks that would become the cover art and promotional images for Welcome to JFK, his first full-length studio album. It was a familiar team, Kent Miller behind the lens, Duckie Confetti styling, Doug Ellison handling the management, and myself for Creative. Things were business as usual. As he got his hair trimmed up in the hallway, we discussed his reasoning behind the title of the long-awaited album and heard several unfinished tracks.
To my memory of that conversation,Welcome to JFK represented both an opportunity and a trap. Far Rockaway, Queens, where Chinx grew up and resided, is near the iconic John F. Kennedy airport in New York. While so close to the international travel and escape that it provides, he was also trapped in the situation and surroundings of the Streets of Queens. Chinx had aircraft tattoos all over his body, the ones on his hands would eventually become the cover to the album.
After expressing some chiding jealousy at my ability to walk in and take a decent photo during lighting tests, Chinx told me that today,
“No poses Andy, I’m just going to do my thing.”
So we stepped back as photographers and art directors and let him work. They are some of the best photos we ever took. As was now tradition, we signed off with one last glass of Hennessy with the team before going our separate ways. 3 hours later, we were wrapped. 3 weeks later, he was dead.
May 17, 2o15
I had two things to get done for Chinx on Sunday May 17, 2015 — send my photo selections to management because “Chinx picked all of them,” and begin cover art for the first single from Welcome to JFK. Unknown to his fans, a new summer anthem song was being prepped for radio to be released in the next week or two. We were all excited to put the project together and how we could take it to the next level. After an early meeting I was a few minutes away from starting that work when the first text arrived:
“Is this shit with Chinx real?”
It’s an odd feeling to sit by yourself with your phone and Facebook and learn how someone you saw a few weeks ago was murdered only hours ago. As the reality sunk in, all I could do is pause, reflect, and put some remembrances out in the world.
An Unexpected Task
It was several days before I eventually talked with Chinx’s management to regroup. Through the grief there was still work to get done. My role as designer for Chinx and member of the team came to fruition in a way I’d never considered — we were laying out his funeral booklet. Collecting photos, putting together a prayer card, making sure everything was up to the quality Chinx would be proud of. The first use of the new photos we just took was for the service.
The funeral was a surreal experience, and thankfully a peaceful affair. Fans gathered, Stop the Violence demonstrators stood by, reporters swarmed and the NYPD came out in force. Throughout it all, cars drove by with the windows down, Chinx on high volume.
Not long after the funeral we pulled our collective focus back to the music. There was some small solace in the fact that Chinx had in fact heard all of the completed tracks on JFK before his death. It was finished. First came the single art for On Your Body, followed by Yay. The direction received was simple: full color photos of Chinx.
Welcome to JFK
A month before its release, a small group of friends, family and colleagues gathered at Stage48 in New York to hear JFK fully for the first time. It was both sad and raucous, quiet and loud. I met his wife Janelli for the first time.
Welcome to JFK was released on August 14, 2015. Focusing only on Chinx’s clasped hands, highlighting his aircraft tattoos, the entire packaging kept a strict black and white color palette. In a detail I didn’t realize until later, the front cover visual of JFK is reminiscent of the not-often-seen back cover of I’ll Take it From Here, our very first project.
There are a lot of people that knew Chinx far better than I ever did. After his death, as I watched social posts of remembrance roll in from those who knew him both intimately and casually, I was struck at how similar many of the sentiments were. Chinx was always respectful, humble and professional. Genuine and sincere. When he asked me how I’d been doing after months between projects, I knew he actually meant it.
Lionel Pickens came from a real life on the streets, lost a close friend to murder while in prison on drug charges and rapped a tough game. From the outside it’d be easy to characterize him as some rapper who got shot, but he was far from it. As a middle class kid from Ohio, our differences likely outweighed our similarities, but we still ended up intersecting for a short time pursuing our creative dreams. I’ll remember a guy who didn’t like getting his photo taken in a room with 5 people but could walk out on a stage in front of thousands.
He was an artist, son, father and friend. A guy from the streets trying to make it, and now unfortunately another statistic of rappers, young black men, and Americans who are gunned down by the thousands every year in our country.
May 17, 2016
Even in death, new music will still be heard, new photos and artwork will be shown. We’ll do our best to keep your memory and music alive. Rest in Peace, Chinx. Legends Never Die.
A special thanks to everyone that I worked with during my time on Chinx’s projects. A long list not limited to: Lionel ‘Chinx’ Pickens, Rick Steel, Tim Bello, Doug Ellison, Kent Miller, Marco Giannavola, Vashon ‘Rap’ Straws, Lola Plaku, Dafina Zeqiri, Blickie Blaze, Meet Sims, Matt Brevner, Jon Thomas, Duckie Confetti, Terence Osborne.
Andy Sheffield is a Designer and Creative Director living and working in Los Angeles, CA. You can find more of his work at andysheffield.com | His favorite Chinx record of all time is Track 1, from Project 1: Wake Up with Dafina Zeqiri from I’ll Take it From Here.