One of our pet peeves is not being able to find an artist credit for album artwork. It’s often the first thing we want to know, and the same applies to music videos. Discovering Russ Murphy, a.k.a. RUFFMERCY, proved to be easy and I probably unnecessarily turned it into a game of art detective. However, it is a good way to demonstrate how his unique style gained momentum and became instantly recognizable and often imitated.
Though I didn’t know at the time, I first noticed his work watching wavy, psychedelic-looking lyrics splash across the screen in Schoolboy Q’s “There He Go” video. I continued, unknowingly, to watch his work as Run the Jewels released the title track off their first album, but by the time I saw Danny Brown’s “ODB,” I was certain all these videos were the work of the same artist—or everyone was copying each other. Throughout the last couple of years, RUFFMERCY has created visuals for everyone from Young Thug, Flying Lotus, and Earl Sweatshirt to Blu, DJ Shadow and Nas. Curious to find out more, I asked the UK-based artist and animator to explain what influences his approach to animating music videos and how that aesthetic has evolved with each new project. —Alex Nicholson
Russ Murphy: Me and hip hop go way back. My dad was in the Air Force and stationed in middle-of-nowhere Germany for a while. This was 1985, and I was 13. First, I got into the House sounds of Chicago, but when I met a kid at school who played Fat Boys, JVC Force, World Class Wrecking Crew, and Electro Whatever, for me, it was love at first listen. Being in Germany, there was loads of American servicemen, and the records shops always had amazing hip hop sections. Over the next few years, I submerged myself in those records and soaked up everything I could about hip hop from the album covers. I even managed to get my hands on Blues & Soul magazine. My first cassette that wasn’t a copy was one my dad brought me back from the UK, Public Enemy’s Yo! Bum Rush the Show. I blasted the fuck out of that on a little cassette deck that, in my mind, was a huge Boombox. I remember when the books Subway Art and Spraycan Art came out and they made a huge impact. From then on, me and all my friends used to draw our own designs and dream of putting them on walls.
I studied Illustration at Leeds Metro University in the U.K. While there, I started making short stop-motion films. Although I was never much a fan of MTV, I liked the little 15-second animated idents that they played. So, upon graduating, I sent my showreel to Peter Dougherty, the guy that was responsible for commissioning those here in Europe. Incidentally, he played a big part in the birth of Yo! MTV Raps too. Peter was a strict boss, kinda crazy but wicked sharp witted too. I went to work in his department making on-air promos and title sequences for shows. The on-air department there was pretty much an extension of college. Peter encouraged and nurtured creativity, letting us get away with all sorts of crazy ideas. It was a good place to learn. Unfortunately, Peter passed away not so long ago. Everybody who worked with him has a great story to tell. I was there from ’95 to ’98 before getting an iMac and going freelance.
I got started with hip hop videos around 2008. I have been a listener since ’83, so I’m an old-school head. I was fed up with making stuff for television and advertising, so I approached Blu directly through Myspace and asked if he wanted a video. Since I used to work for MTV, when I showed him my reel, I think he thought, “Cool, I’ll get a free video and it might get on MTV.” The track he gave me was an insane freestyle over a brilliant Flying Lotus track called “GNG BNG.” After that, an affiliate of his, Versis, hit me up for a video, and it started to pick up momentum after that.
Drawing on Footage
Schoolboy Q’s “There He Go” was one of the earliest videos I made and the second with my friend, director David M. Helman. Looking back now, it feels basic and clunky. Prior to that, we had worked on the Blu x Flying Lotus x UGod track “Doin’ Nothing,” which is the first one where I started to draw over footage.
David and Blu had approached me with a 6-frame GIF they found where someone had drawn crudely over six photos and looped it. They asked me if I could do that to a whole video so I bought a Wacom tablet and started the next day. It was a massive Eureka moment for me. I’m a big doodler and so when I got to bring that into the computer, it was so much fun, I loved it. That video was big for David and me in launching both our music video careers.
Owning a Style
After doing the Blu and Schoolboy videos, I was really aware that there might be a limit on how many times I could repeat it before people got bored. I loved doing it and also started to notice people copying it, so it made me want to do as many videos as possible in that style and really own it. I remember this video for Mac Miller’s “America” came out, and it totally jacked the aesthetic and that drove me to do more in the style to really say, “Hey, this is my thing.” I also felt like I was only just getting started so I wanted to see where it could go. After a few videos though, I was aware that I needed to try and evolve it so I didn’t get bored. I was also getting asked a lot to repeat it by artists. I feel it’s become a bit of a cliche in hip hop videos. At the moment I’m trying to go looser with it, make it quicker and more spontaneous.
John Carpenter’s The Thing
The Thing is probably my favorite film. Lots of early John Carpenter stuff inspires me. I was pitching on a DJ Shadow track from his last album, "Depth Charge," which sounded a lot to me like the opening scene from The Thing. I got excited about how I could pay homage, but then the label wanted a treatment for a different song, so it never happened. To be honest, I don’t really have a go-to for inspiration. I think inspiration can come from anywhere. I like to check out a wide variety of books and films. Juxtapoz has been a source of inspiration for a long time.
My twin boys inspire me and help loosen up my style more. When a child’s imagination is firing off, they are not bothered about the end result. They don’t care about that, they care about the doing. Recently, I have been trying to get into that frame of mind. Big inspiration from my kids!
There are a lot of artists whose work I love, but I think right now, Jason Jägel, Cleon Peterson, Parra and Paul Insect are people I’m digging, and I always love looking at Glen E. Friedman’s photos. I follow Jägel on instagram so I’m continually seeing his output. I love his stuff, and I have for years. I have one of his paintings, a small one, but would love one of his epic chaotic canvases.
Originally published in the April 2017 issue of Juxtapoz Magazine, on newsstands worldwide and in our web store.