Words and photography by Seher Sikandar
With iconic album covers like Jay Z’s Blueprint 3, T.I.’s Paper Trail, Missy Elliott’s Supa Dupa Fly, and JET’s Shine On under his belt Greg Burke has long proven himself a mainstay in the musical art world. Having held art director positions at Island Records, Tommy Boy Records and Elektra in the past, Greg has now been at the helm of Atlantic Records’ creative team for the last 10 years.
First getting the spark by watching his father draw for him as a child, art quickly became his passion and focus. Naturally sharp, he quickly became exceptionally efficient and skilled at problem solving through his stints at a small design firm, type house and fashion magazine, ultimately talking his way into a gig at Island Records where his music industry career began.
Though initially reserved and unassuming, Greg is anything but. Awesomely candid and hilariously unabashed, he exudes boundless dynamism all while maintaining a playful lightness. Time at his office and home easily turned into hours of thoughtful and entertaining conversation about family, art, weird neighbors, annoying celebrities that shall remain nameless and a tiny bike that functions as a “family car” fitting 3 people at once. I was ready to move in after inhaling homemade apple pie offered by his equally charming and colorful wife, Kiyomi. Always keenly aware, it’s clear that Greg lives life as an ongoing exercise in observation and storytelling – a true artist.
Bevel Code: What made you decide to work in the music industry?
Greg Burke: I’m Jamaican, and we were always raised to be proud Jamaicans; I grew up with my dad playing Jamaican music in the basement. In my mind, I was like, “I’m going to do great packaging for reggae albums; I’m going to show my dad, he’s going to be proud, he’s going to show my uncles.” There’s this family pride. I found out really quick that no one cares about good reggae packages, though. I ended up not doing any reggae packages; I was doing rap and pop.
BC: So, why’d you get into and stick with music?
Greg Burke: When I started, music was one of those fields that really allowed you to create. There were so few rules about it – you could really do what you wanted to. That’s why I stuck with music. People always asked why I didn’t go into fashion or advertising, but music was one place where I really got freedom.
BC: What is the most important thing to keep in mind to put together album packaging?
Greg Burke: A lot of people fail to realize when they are designing: this is a commercial field. Though I love to design, and I love art – there is a client who’s the recording artist. A lot of people have the tendency to forget that at times.
The truth of the matter is that: yes you designed it, yes your work matters – but this project does live on as an identity for this artist for the rest of their life. I think you have to respect that, and look at it for what it is. You have to know who the artist is, who their audience is, you have to understand that the artist is your client and it is about them.
BC: What is it about art that drives and ignites you?
Greg Burke: There’s a beauty of problem solving. Every piece that you get is a bit of a puzzle. Going back academically, with math and all that, I wasn’t great – but these puzzles I can solve, and always figure it out. Because it’s a commercial thing, the client has what they want, the label has what they want, the managers have what they want; you’re juggling all of that and still figuring out, what do you want? You have to get that across.
There’s a beauty of problem solving. Every piece that you get is a bit of a puzzle.
As a designer, if you really really love it, you’re always looking at things, and there’s always something that fascinates you. We get on the subways and we look at type and what’s bad, and think, “someone had to design this.” Then you think, “why’s this like this?”
BC: Having already achieved so much, are there other passions that you would like to pursue?
Greg Burke: It’s funny because to date, everything that I’ve done is predominantly print design. It’s only in the time at Atlantic where I’ve kind of toyed with the idea of doing motion and video and stuff like that – it really does fascinate me. I’ve done a few things, but I’m speaking about doing my own personal video project.
I don’t want to be a video director, though. When I think of these things, it’s not that I’m looking at a career path, it’s kind of flexing creative muscles, and really exercising your creative brain. As the mediums and the venues have changed, I change with them.
What will I want to do now that I’ve accomplished so much? Well, I never think that I’ve accomplished so much, to be completely honest. I can say: I don’t know, and I like the fact of not knowing. I like it being open-ended.
BC: In an alternate reality, what would your dream job be?
Greg Burke: People always ask me, “was this your dream job?” My dream job was to be a pre-K teacher. That’s really what I wanted to do. There is something so fun about 2-5 year olds. It’s the best thing ever. It is one of those things that I really do enjoy watching them grow, watching them absorb things like sponges.
BC: As someone immersed in the aesthetic, how would you describe your personal style?
Greg Burke: I am one step or two above looking like a homeless person. I am half telling the truth. I wear my same jeans that I love. I don’t want to buy old beat-in jeans, I want to wear them and beat them in.
There are people who look at me and think I’m fashionable, and there are people who look at me and think that I’m homeless. I can get on the subway now with it being crowded, sit in the little three-seater, and no one sits next to me. I am always like, “wow, that’s great.”
When I was younger I got whatever I wanted, whether it fit or not. Now I make sure it fits properly, it has longevity; I’m not buying it to be in style. I need to wear it for the next ten years. I have these key pieces, some things that I spend a lot on and some that I don’t. The things that I spend a lot on, it still looks like I’m homeless. Someone who may notice what I’m wearing is like, “no, that’s not a homeless person.”
I am comfortable within myself. I am really skinny, and that’s always been a thing; if you are the same weight forever, you’re always going to get all the jokes about it. Suck it up and deal – it’s who you are.
BC: What inspired your current hairstyle?
Greg Burke: My hairstyle is my one connection to my grandma. When my parents left Jamaica, they left the kids behind, and my grandma took care of us. It’s a crown of pride of who we are. We may not go back, but we know exactly where we came from, and the sacrifices that were made to get us to where we are today.
Tying it up really stems from it getting long needing to keep it out of my face so I can function properly. As it got longer and longer, I had to get structured in how I tied it up. I also started looking at others with dreads. It’s always amazing to me – I don’t think people realize it – but hair has weight; If you have dreads tied up, it’s actually pulling at your scalp, it can possibly not be good for your roots, and your hair can start to recede. Someone said, “maybe you should try to tie it a bit more up top, so it doesn’t pull back on you.”
Everyone thinks there’s this big secret to it – you tie it up to keep it out of your face. There are times when it’s tied up and it looks crazier, there are times when it’s tied up and it’s neater.
BC: You now have your brand new Bevel kit, is there anything you’re excited about testing out?
Greg Burke: When I watch the tutorials, I remember when I used to watch my dad.
He used a razor kind of like the Bevel razor – that’s how it was in the beginning. You unscrewed the bottom, you opened it up, you screwed the razor up top, he lathered up his face, and the shaving cream really stank. But then he would shave, and you watched it, and growing up, you couldn’t wait your turn.
I’m excited and scared all at the same time. I want to trim up under my neck, so it’s a nice clean thing under my neck, and kind of the side where my chin is so it’s really lined up.
Enjoy life – you only get the one that I know of.
BC: Do you have a personal motto you like to live life by?
Greg Burke: Enjoy life – you only get the one that I know of. If there is another one, why waste this one? You should enjoy life. It’s weird, a lot of people laugh at me and say, “you don’t seem stressed.”
I do have things in life that stress me, but why stress about most things? There are always things more important than you are. If you can keep that perspective, you should always have fun in life.
I have one friend – he’s a grown man – and he will skip down the street. He is skipping down the street, and the rest of us will just watch and make fun of him. But I don’t think anyone truly understands how amazingly beautiful that is. As a grown up, try to skip down the street and you’ll be self-conscious of so many things. For him to skip down the street – you’re a better man than me.