Dan Lish Interview

In 2020 Dan Lish self-published Egostrip Book 1, a collection of his illustrations of legendary artists from hip hop’s golden era. We actually approached Dan about publishing it but he was already committed to his Kickstarter campaign. The books all sold out quickly and so Dan recently approached us to see if we’d be interested in reissuing it. Needless to say, we jumped at the chance.

The book is a beautifully designed collection of Dan’s stunning character illustrations from the world of hip hop and beyond. There are 138 illustrations of pioneering artists from hip hop’s golden era, such as De La Soul, Madlib, DJ Premier, Mobb Deep, Nas, Cypress Hill, J.Period, J Dilla, Kool Keith, MF DOOM, The Roots, Biggie Smalls, A Tribe Called Quest, Biz Markie and The Beastie Boys.

It’s also available as an exclusive 20cm square art print and free A3 poster of Dan’s illustration for our Bedroom Beats & B-sides book. We spoke to Dan to get the lowdown on this amazing artist.

Please introduce yourself
I’m a visual artist from England, primarily using the creative expression of illustration.

Were you a big comics fan when you were growing up?
I was a comic book and still am a comic book fan. From the age of 10 to 17 years, I loved 2000AD, the anarchic UK sci-fi comic book. I had limited access to US comics until I discovered comic shops, specifically Mondo Comics in Portsmouth, where my access to different artists and comic books expanded tenfold.

You’ve been described as the “Robert Crumb of hip hop”. Was Crumb an influence?
Robert Crumb was a significant influence in my younger years, as well as the French comic book powerhouse Jean Giraud, aka Moebius. I get influences from all over. If 90% of the information we receive is subconscious, who knows where my influences come from most of the time?

Did you immerse yourself in all four elements of hip hop (DJing, MCing, graffiti and breaking) to begin with? Was it always going to be the case that you specialised in the visual side of the culture?
Yes, I did. Having fallen in love with hip hop in the early 1980s (I was living in Thetford, Norfolk, at the time), I embraced them all, apart from MCing. I loved to dance, and I still do from time to time. I was b-boying from 13 to 35 until my body started hurting too much.

I was passionately involved in pirate radio on and off for nine years in Portsmouth, so this was a great excuse to create instrumentals to chat over. This led to The Go-Off, the first club night in Portsmouth that focused and embraced all the elements under one roof. I’d definitely be making music if I wasn’t creating visual artwork. I fell in love with graffiti art/spray-can art around 1984/85 but preferred to hone in on the art side rather than bombing.

You’ve done a lot of battling. Are you competitive by nature?
I used to be, but not now. I felt very passionate about the roots of hip hop in regards to the competitiveness of it. I also felt very protective of it, especially when I could see folks hop on and off the bandwagon and the corporate tentacles starting to get a stranglehold on some elements. There’s also some childhood baggage from my past that made me competitive, which is now thankfully being transmuted and in the current state of healing.

Tell us about your experience of living and working in New York…
My father was a born and bred New Yorker from Brooklyn, so I have dual nationality. I eventually went out there to live in my late 20s, where I worked in Manhattan as a book designer and then fell into concept art for the Video Game industry. I still work as a lead concept artist today.

Whilst living in NYC (first on Staten Island, then Brooklyn) I would travel to the Bronx as much as I could. I’d go to park jams in Crotona Park and the Disco King Mario tribute jam in Rosedale Park. I’d hang with the old school architects of the culture and learn, listening to their stories. I was dancing a lot out there. Also DJing at in-door and out-door jams, block parties, and b-boy battles.

With Ralph Casanova, aka King Uprock, we threw the monthly ‘Dollar Jam’. A six-hour event where we hosted dance battles and parties. Regulars and guest appearances included The Rock Steady Crew, Africa Bambaataa, Buddy ESQ, Special K from the Treacherous 3, The Devils Rebels Biker gang, Cosmo D from Nucleus and many legendary dancers from b-boy and Uprock history.

So much happened in those seven-odd years, from witnessing the Twin Towers coming down to the 33-hour blackout to block parties, battles, narrowly missing gun fights, a lot of drama, adventures, sorrow and strife. My wife and I would eventually move back due to a loss in the family.

There are always a lot of interesting narratives at work in your illustrations. How important is this side to you?
My brain is made and functions a certain way, for good or for worse. I probe deeply into the nature of our reality, and this will show up in the drawings. The nature of consciousness, the metaphysical aspects of reality are really intriguing to me.

What are your artistic weapons of choice?
I love the traditional method and am in love with the process far more than digital methods. My digital method, primarily the use of Photoshop, is a great tool and is far more suited to my concept artwork. But the process, the tactile nature of it, is missing for me.

Presently my tools of choice are a fibre tip pen and a good quality piece of paper. I often use watercolour mixed with ink, a technique called ink and wash. I’ve been focusing on ink and wash for larger pieces of work, occasionally mixing the mediums. I’d love to get back into oil painting at some point in time.

Although not having a finger in the traditional graffiti art pie, I still love to paint on walls, but it is more of an enlargement of my inking process, with a spray can underfill. Again, it’s the tactile nature of applying paint to a surface that I love.

Tell us all about your Egostrip art project and book…
The project started on my train commute from Brighton to London in the summer of 2014. I drew whimsical freestyle/spontaneous illustrations of Rakim, Pete Rock and Paradise Grey, all of who loved the Breaksploitation cover art I created for the late great Break DJ Leacy. I chose a relaxed pose, non-b-boy, in the moment of a creative process or in a state of contemplation.

It felt natural, a lovely organic process whilst scratching away with a black pen in a small black book. I’d later scan them and colour them in Photoshop, and then (thanks to my wife) I begrudgingly posted them on the usual social platforms.

To my surprise, they really took off and became popular, So after a couple of years of continuing the now-formulated project, it made sense to collate all the artwork into a tasty book. The title is based on the focus of creativity/being in the fabulous middle world where time is irrelevant. I purposefully focused on taking away the egoic bravado associated with hip hop (and myself).

What was your reason for reprinting Egostrip Book 1?
My audience has grown substantially due to social platforms, murals, the gallery show and the artists I’ve worked with, so re-printing the book made sense. It’ll be the same high quality in print, with the addition of listing all the wonderful people that pre-ordered the book and art print/poster bundle. I’m truly grateful.

Many of your illustrations are from the so-called 80s/90s golden era of hip hop. What do you make of hip hop nowadays? Is there anyone you’ve drawn recently?
I drew Run The Jewels and Stormzy a while back, but even these artists aren’t very contemporary with the speed and access folks have to music nowadays. To be honest, the contemporary artists that I draw have been commissioned pieces. How do I/we perceive what is contemporary? If it’s a couple of years ago, it’s probably looked at as old. Depends on what generation this question is asked, I guess. I’d like to draw an ode to Homeboy Sandman and Edan, but they may be perceived as a ’throwback’ sound. Time is a fickle mistress, isn’t it?

You illustrated our Bedroom Beats & B-sides cover and it was an enjoyable experience seeing how you work from the inside. I actually had a photo I liked but couldn’t use and you interpreted it. Is it easier when a client has a strong idea of what they want, or do you prefer to work from a blank canvas?
I had a great time with that cover. It depends if the idea is an original vision or a convoluted mess with too much going on. This has happened in the past, where I’ve had to simplify the idea and then steadily build. I generally prefer to have carte blanch, as I can create a couple of ideas (usually in pencil) and take it from there. Sometimes the client has a general idea of what they like and leaves the rest to me.

Bedroom Beats & B-sides cover

You’ve worked with J.PERIOD for several years now. Is the relationship more like a collaboration now? Tell us about the All In Your Head official lyric video.
That is a good way of putting it. Yes, I do feel it’s more of a collaboration. From the album and single artwork, I then have to digitally chop it up and re-draw multiple assets to be animated. It does get laborious, only because my style is quite labour-intensive. Olise (the NY-based animator) then makes the magic happen in Adobe After Effects. Because Dave Chapelle is on the LP, it was a great surprise when Dave gave my book a shout-out. That’s the cool thing about working with J; his proverbial arm has a long reach in the industry.

What other artists have you worked with, and is there anyone you’d like to work with?
Looking back, I’ve worked with a lot of artists and labels. Omar, Raekwon The Chef, De La Soul, Goldie, Large Professor, Georgia Anne Muldrow and Deklaim, Rakim, Tony Allen, Tall Black Guy, Rodney P, Cypress Hill, Cardi B, D.I.T.C, Mellow Group Music and lots more. Artists I’d love to collaborate with would be Kamasi Washington, Edan, The Roots, Common, DJ Premier, Kraftwerk, Nas, Busta Rhymes, Ahmad Jamaal. Working with more up-and-coming and legendary jazz artists would be great.

Does your work have any overarching themes?
Yes, it does and will do more so when I make a start on more personal work. In my current work, I explore the nature of consciousness, the mystery of the sun and our connection to it, the nature of human creativity and our connection to the source/the divine. I feel it’s important to have a sense of play within my work. I also like to explore more esoteric topics. You could say occult (meaning hidden) symbology or alchemical symbology. This is all wrapped up in a stream of consciousness.

Does it matter to you whether your work exists physically or not?
Yes, it does matter a lot. I personally benefit from the tactile nature of the physical surface, the sound, the smell, the mistakes I make, and the way the light catches the paper. We, as humans, create more neural pathways by mark-making on a physical surface. It’s how we interact with our physical reality. It’s a much deeper and more fulfilling experience.

What are you listening to at the moment?
My taste in music is much more eclectic than it used to be. I listen to a lot of jazz. Obscure soundtracks, library records, some classical music, some folk, some obscure music that doesn’t really fit into proscribed genres. Mostly instrumental music.

Are there any other creative projects you’re currently involved in?
I’ve just completed my first solo gallery show at the wonderful Brighton Gallery 242. The opening night was fantastic! I had DJ Format play a great, all-vinyl set to almost 300 people that came through!

I’ve been focusing on murals, local and wherever I’m asked to paint. My technique used to be traditional spraycan, coming from the lineage of graffiti writing. I incorporate my inking techniques now, taking inspiration from my sketchbooks. The colour fill in is spraycan, then it’s all shaped up with Posca Pen markers or larger (Molotow) paint markers.

I’ve also been busy chipping away at Egostrip Book 2, which will be a larger page count than book one. I’m taking my time. No need to rush this project, especially in this bizarre financial wobble we’re currently going through.

Any final words?
Keep creating, exploring and play more often.

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