"I certainly don't keep up with hip-hop but I'm trying to now," says iconic British illustrator and painter Ralph Steadman, best known as the twisted mind behind the dark, grotesque, hilarious, disturbing art that accompanied the early-1970s gonzo journalistic screeds of the late Hunter S. Thompson, including his 1972 novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and various Rolling Stone covers.
What made Steadman, 81, decide to expand his musical horizons? In early December he was enlisted to draw the cover art for Huncho Jack, Jack Huncho, the debut album from Huncho Jack, the hip-hop duo of Travis Scott and Quavo of Migos.
"I listened to their music, realized the energy in their performances and translated that performance visually," Steadman says of the project, which he completed in less than a week's time. When the rappers saw his completed work – a demented, slightly sinister portrait of the pair, flanked by cacti, crows and bats, all in the artist's signature scribble – they told him over the phone, "It's a vibe." Steadman, not one to keep up with the latest in hip-hop vernacular, admits he had no idea what they were talking about. But, as he notes with a laugh, "I said, 'OK. I must have caught the vibes a bit then, I guess.'"
Before taking on the Huncho Jack project, Steadman had never listened to either of the rappers' music. "That's the weird part about it," he says. "They came out of nowhere to me. I'd never heard of them. The rapper culture wasn't familiar to me. And apparently they're big in America. Aren't they associated with the Kardashian family or something?"
He learned they were fans of his Fear and Loathing work, as well as drawings of his that had appeared in the pages of Rolling Stone. "They sent me sort of photocopies of lots of my pictures from Rolling Stone and Fear and Loathing and all that stuff," Steadman recalls. "I sensed that they had picked up on my drawings with Hunter Thompson. I also sensed that they wanted portraits in the gonzo manner. They liked cactus plants, bats as well, and parallel lines, like the desert scenes from the Las Vegas drawings."
Ultimately, Steadman explains, it was the rappers' dreadlocks that drew him in. "I felt like, oh, this is interesting. Most of my friends haven't gotten any hair anymore," he laughs. "I just really thought they were quite funny. And I wondered what I could do with them or how I could draw them. And I just did it in the best way I could."
Steadman's association with contemporary music "makes me feel old," he offers. "But I was flattered that they should even bother in thinking that was the thing they wanted. It's kind of nice. It's really a compliment – and particularly in the musical world where all sorts of new things are happening."
Right now, however, if there's one thing that's continually holding the attention of the man who drew a decaying Nixon on a 1973 Rolling Stone cover, it's President Donald Trump.
"It's just so shocking and so terrible – the shock and horror," he says of our commander-in-chief. Despite not living in the United States, "we're all to blame," he says. "He must have aged a lot of people."
Some of Steadman's most famous works were overtly political so it's hardly a surprise to learn he's drawn Trump several times in the past year. In addition to depicting Trump as a baby "shitting out the American flag"' for his "Porky Pie" drawing for The New Statesman, as well as posting on his Instagram an image of Trump decapitating the Statue of Liberty, with the caption "Statue of Liberty takers," Steadman reveals he's also drawn Trump as Trumpelstiltskin. "I don't think he cares about anyone," the artists says of the President. "His wife's a trophy and she looks as if she's been caught in the headlights."
When asked what Thompson would have made of Trump, Steadman can only laugh. "Jesus, he would have gone after him, I think. I cannot imagine what he would have thought of him. I wish he'd stayed around for this. It would have been great. That would have been something. He really could bring a President down."