Hardcore —Don Morris, The Artist Behind Slam and XXL Magazine

Don Morris’ art converged basketball and hip-hop into a cultural lightning bolt. While working for Slam, XXL and Honey, Morris tattooed his rebellious vision on iconic covers, logos and photos. Jimmy Ness and The Don nerd out over 90s New York, Slam’s underdog spirit, DMX and Stephon Marbury.

The Slam cover is a holy artifact. Iverson with the afro, Showbiz and KD, 1996’s Rookie class, these images are tattooed in memory. Slam is the people’s choice for good reason; it represents basketball’s soul. The athlete glaring off the glossy page conveys all of the game’s passion and fury.

Don Morris is the innovator behind Slam’s visual uppercut. As the publication’s creative director, and co-founder of rap digest XXL, Don’s style defined “urban” publishing. His abrasive template of aggressive imagery and bold, masculine font still resonates today.

While growing up in Plymouth, Massachusetts, Don didn’t fit the norm. He was into art and music. Don shunned traditional sports in favour of skateboarding. As a teenager, he stuck to extremes; anarchy, fistfights and loud guitars.

“For me, I hate team sports. I never liked them and where I grew up, I used to get in a lot of fights. And I would fight a lot of team sports individuals, right? That just wasn’t my place,” he asserts.

“I will say that once I got involved in the basketball community, there are cool people everywhere. I mean, people grow up and they act normal. I’m just not a sports person and I don’t care like that. I care about art, I care about design.”

Basketball never entered Don’s teenage bedroom. His walls were plastered with skate stickers and punk merch. Morris’ design introduction was the Cro-Mags’ H-bomb explosion or the militaristic Dead Kennedys logo.

“I went to art school in Massachusetts, while I was heavily involved in the hardcore scene. So the typography of the flyers or the albums; it all resonated with me. I saw a lot of similarities in hip-hop with the punk rock world. At the time, everybody was sharing rehearsal spaces. So you go into these rehearsal facilities and there would be all types of people and everybody was mingling. And you know, hip-hop and punk rock was counterculture. Before hip-hop got adopted and made pop culture — it used to be its own form of punk rock.”

Don says Massachusetts was “incredibly violent” in the 80s. The self-proclaimed skate-rat says crack-era New York felt safer than home. He’d been frequenting the Big Apple since stealing his dad’s car to see hardcore gigs.

“I came to New York in like, 91-ish, somewhere in the beginning of the 90s. I caught the tail end of New York’s greatness. To this day, nothing has come close to replicating that. When The Tunnel, Club USA and The Limelight was all poppin, all run by [famous “club king”] Paul Gatien, it was so much fun. I’ve never seen anything like that since.”

This was the New York of Illmatic. Rucker Park wasn’t yet a tourist attraction. The Gotham City of Mobb Deep lyrics. Graffiti marking every subway. Boosters stealing Ralph Lauren and tourists being mugged in Times Square. The era where Stephon Marbury, Biggie and God Shammgod hung out 30 deep in The Tunnel.

After studying fine art in Boston, Morris worked as an assistant at Art & Auction magazine. Tibor Kalman — ‘the bad boy of graphic design’ was redesigning the monthly periodical at the time. Kalman’s provocative attitude resonated with Don. He took this experience to Harris Publications, just as they were launching Slam.

“I didn’t even have a desk at the company. I think I sat by the freight elevator on the floor, ” he recalls.

Morris immediately knew Slam needed a revamp. Until then, hoops magazines promoted tradition and PR-friendly professionality. They were very white and very suburban.

But didn’t resonate with basketball’s growing multicultural audience, their stories of inner-city struggle and the connection to music.

“Hip-hop was a response to violence. It was ‘we’re not going to fight, we’re going to battle with verse, with pen.’ I thought that was fucking amazing. Like, I just thought it was genius. It was something really special and I just wanted to be involved. And then, when I got involved with Slam, I saw so much similarity in the character of the players with the characters in hip-hop, like they are similar manifestations of that same energy.”

Don banished the cheesy fonts, the boring photos and the newspaper headlines. He wasn’t trying to be Sports Illustrated or ESPN. Slam didn’t have the legacy. Morris stomped on tradition and became creative director in the process. He was just 25.

The new Slam was brazen, it was unapologetic. An exclamation mark in physical form. They used neon colours like a girlie magazine and the headlines read like rap lyrics. Players screamed at you off the page. What better way for a magazine to get your attention than John Stark posterizing the reader or MJ exorcising his inner demon.

“I think I’m just an aggressive person by nature, so I saw the aggression in basketball, and that translated a lot visually. I also saw, it’s like Fight Club, there’s a lot of posturing that goes on in team sports. So I related that to the music scene, I related that to hip-hop, I related that to punk rock, it all seemed one thing to me.”

Morris pauses to credit the wider team. The design and voice of a magazine is far larger than a one-man undertaking. Don was lucky enough to work with a passion-fueled squad of “geeks.” From the editorial department to the photographers they shot with, the team’s unity and underdog spirit propelled Slam’s new vision.

The mag’s attitude also aligned with an emerging star breaking tradition on-court; Allen Iverson. Philly’s favoured son encapsulated Slam’s spirit; the young bull charging through convention with hood pass intact. Iverson was the first cover star to wear jewellery. His Soul On Ice shoot also pre-empted the throwback jersey trend.

Don says Slam and AI connected “simply because he’s real.”

“Quite often, in society, when people make it to a certain level, they’re expected to behave a certain way, right? That’s the law. But that’s just not right, it’s bullshit. When you go to a street ball game, it’s like a battle, it’s a hip-hop battle. There’s no difference. It’s the same energy and the same characters with a different expression. And you can’t miss it. And who would want to suppress that in the first place? It’s so dope, his expression of energy.”

Morris crafted Slam’s logo to further convey their tenacity. “That font is called Harlem. I go off intuition, and intuitively, it felt perfect for the brand. The stars, I got from military-inspired fighter planes. I think stars denote quality and strength.”

He later conceived XXL Magazine’s heavyweight red logo and later in his career, became editor of The Source. While basketball and hip-hop seem integrated at this point, the old guard resented the genre. The traditional hoopers felt rap’s influence removed the “civility” from basketball. Players weren’t meant to dress like rappers, have tattoos or wear jewellery. It was undignified.

Morris interrupts our conversation because he’s so passionate about the subject.

“Yo man, I can’t even tell you, my life, even to now, has been fighting with those people. When I got into the magazine world, I was immediately like, ‘all these people are all old and they don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about.’ And I think I’ve had discussions in the past where certain brands didn’t survive certain periods. One of the key things that was involved was people didn’t recognise hip-hop for what it was. It was more than what it appeared to be and is still more than it appears to be to this day. I look at hip-hop as a spirit that’s moving through society and culture. And if you didn’t respect that, you weren’t gonna survive. So we were constantly fighting for that.”

Years later, Slam continues to revisit Don’s radical design. They remade the 96 Class in 2014, and paid tribute to Iverson’s cover with Joel Embiid in 2017. Kevin Garnett’s 100% Real Juice title was also reshot with Karl Anthony-Towns in 2016.

Since leaving the commercial world, Morris now works in philanthropy and has several documentaries he aims to someday complete.

You can find Don’s portfolio here.

And more of my writing here.

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Bonus: Tales of hanging out with Stephon Marbury, Ghostface Killah and DMX in full unedited glory.

In 1997, Don and other members of Slam had the idea to fill a gap in the music magazine marketplace by introducing a new rap oriented title. At age 28, he co-founded XXL Magazine.

“I was in bookstores all the time, I lived in bookstores, flipping books. Like I tell people, even the name XXL is from a Bruce Mau architecture book. I think it was called Small, Medium, Large, Extra Large, and I thought ‘oh it’s perfect’ because the Beastie Boys had X-Large clothing too. It was just perfect. And then that [XXL logo] font is called Garage Gothic, which is actually taken from parking garage tickets, which to me was just super street. And then the red logo, it’s from Life magazine. I was looking for magazine archetypes that resonated and that one couldn’t have been stronger.”

On coming up with the slogan “hip-hop on a higher level” and the general feel of the magazine.

“I wanted to make it more valuable, treat it differently. For instance, The New York times and The New York times logo, there’s a sophistication that comes from that. People just see it as an authority. So like I was trying to take hip-hop and give it a more authoritative visual, a stronger visual, in my own mind.”

On shooting Stephon Marbury in his hometown.

“Coney Island is a unique place, especially off-hours, and especially back in the 90s.

I had got there really early, and met this guy named Damien that lived in the building, who knew Marbury. [Marbury] was still down with the neighborhood. He’s just a nice person. Like he was a good person, you know what I mean? There are people, I don’t know if you’ve experienced this, but you meet these people and they can act all kinds of ways.

Stephon was great. We hung out so long. We had a blast. He was just really nice, respectful, and patient. Even this guy, Damien, that I met. Damien ended up working for me at XXL. But Marbury was looking out for that guy so he helps me out during the shoot. And you know, anybody that looks out for me, I look out for them. So he ended up working for me for years. He was a kid from the projects. So I got him into the [XXL] system, and he was there longer than I was.”

On hanging out with Ghostface.

I’ve had people bring me back to their homes. I’ve had people’s parent’s cook for me. Ghostface Killah took us home to his mom. I have a picture somewhere, it was right after 911, cause I have a picture of him reading the newspaper. She made fried chicken.

He was trying to bring people together and educate people. So he literally wanted us to see how he lived and I remember him calling his man aside and saying something to him like “we got to make sure that people know.” He was communicating with us so that we better understood how [all types of] people exist. He’s really fuckin smart. “

On waiting eight days for DMX.

We had this beautiful studio in Miami, like one of the most beautiful studios I’ve ever been in. It was just this beautiful, big, building. I had been waiting for him and hunting him for days.

He would say he was going to be somewhere then he didn’t show up. It just didn’t work out. And finally, we’re going to be in the studio. He was doing another shoot at the same time that he was shooting with us. So I’m looking through this crack in the wall and I see DMX show up with this super hot woman.

I was like ‘holy shit, like good for him. Woah, that’s so special.’ So, he showed up with something really special. Then a fucking truck pulls up and they pick a lion out of the truck, right? And I swear to you with no hesitation, and this girl is basically wearing a bikini, she just literally, as soon as she saw the lion, she walked over to the lion, got on the lion and started riding it around the studio. Like, you know, it was like ‘she’s so fucking bad, it’s crazy yo!’ And the lion trainer got so freaked out. He’s putting down on everyone. He took the lion and he left. I forget what happened afterwards, but then DMX left as well and we didn’t get to do the shoot and I had to continue hunting him. And when I say hunting, it’s me following him around, waiting for somebody to tell me he’s going to be somewhere and that he’s committed to do something, and then it would fall through. We finally ended up playing pool together and I got shots of him while we were shooting pool, and it actually worked out well.

Melbourne based Kiwi. I write words and take pictures. I also enjoy people rhyming over beats. www.jimmyness.com