Morgan has made art for an impressive array of musicians that includes Trey Songz, Nelly, Lil Reese, Ciara, and Bad Boy's Red Cafe, but it's his work with artists on Rick Ross's Maybach Music Group label that's helped Morgan get a lot of notice. He's done promotional art for an MMG tour, worked with Wale for more than a year, and, most notably, created the cover art for Dreams & Nightmares, the studio debut from Philadelphia MC Meek Mill (who headlined the Congress on Saturday). Dreams & Nightmares was one of the biggest major-label rap albums of 2012, and Morgan got plenty of attention for the artwork, which shows a gold Rolex chained to a single handcuff. It's a good example of Morgan's hyperrealist mix of gritty and glossy imagery. Complex magazine named it one of last year's 25 best album covers.
In addition to making album art and ads, Morgan also has his own streetwear line called Apparel Reserve. When I met up with him a couple weeks ago, Morgan showed me one of the pieces from his fall line (which he's dubbed "Carpe Diem"), a gray crewneck inspired by Peter Saville's iconic cover art for the New Order album Power, Corruption & Lies. Morgan sat down and spoke with me about Saville and De Stijl painter Piet Mondrian, grappling with chronic sinusitis while studying design at Columbia College, the inspiration for the Dreams and Nightmares cover, and how he's made a living designing art for rappers.
On the beginning of his design career and the roots of his brand:
When I was in college I was actually just like everybody else, probably: I was struggling financially. My first flyer, I'll never forget it, it was for my man Matthew [Bryson, aka Matt Mateo]. He was performing at an open-mike night, and he was like, "Oh Chaz, you can draw, sketch up this flyer for me." So I did, and it was horrible. It was like the sun in the background and some crazy stuff. I drew it out, and he was like, "How much do you want for it?" I was like, "Give me ten bucks for it." And he was like, "No, for real, how much do you want for it?" I was like, "I don't know how to charge." That was my first-ever flyer. He gave me $40 for it, and then my eyes lit up, so I started going and researching the business, the industry standards, and everything. I was like, "Man, I can really take this to the next level."
I just started getting good doing like pieces for myself. It turned into a journal for me; instead of writing down problems or issues that I had I would just go straight to the computer and associate colors with my feelings and images. Before you knew it I had piles and piles of portfolios, and I attached a name to it like a year or two later: One Forty Five South.
One Forty Five South was my apartment building in Maywood, Illinois, where I'm from. And it was off of Ninth Avenue. We moved around, it was a pretty rough neighborhood: a lot of crime, violence, drugs, whatever. That's where I really learned to appreciate a lot of things. I lost a lot of my peers coming up, whether it was to the judicial system, or people just suffering from apathy, just giving up, not having no proper influences around.
After high school me and my mom, we wanted a change. So we moved to like a nicer suburb—right after I graduated—named Westchester. I just knew I was starting a new path. One Forty Five South was my address, that was like the last place that I used to draw, I used to do everything there. This is like where I realized I would like to do art for the rest of my life so . . . I was paying homage to my neighborhood, where I learned all these experiences and where I made up my mind.
On his time at Columbia College:
I started fall 2005 and ooooweeee I flunked bad my first semester. That was bad memories, but I actually ended up getting it together the spring 2006. I went from like a 2.7 or some shit like that to like a 3.4. I was getting the hang of it, it was just real tedious. I didn't know how intense it was gonna be. My first semester sophomore year I had got really sick. You know how it's like 14 or 16 weeks in a semester? I got really sick because while I was learning I was also applying too: I learned something, researched it, it inspired me to go re-create something right. Then it started being like so lucrative for me and my family that I started doing that more, and that led to bad sleeping patterns, poor health, dehydration, malnourishment, all that.
It just got to a point where my body shut down like the 12th week of my first semester sophomore year in 2006. It was November 2, I'll never forget it. I had an acute sinus infection, and I was out from November 2 to like February 28. I did like two weeks in intensive care—the neuro unit—and they didn't know what the hell was wrong with me. I had like a pinhole, and it was just fucking me up, basically. It messed up my completion rate, so it kind of defaulted my loans. When I came back I really didn't waste no time because I really wanted to go to school. But it was really difficult for me to get back. Karen Smith, that was my adviser, she was like, "Go sit down, get on disability, enjoy your life, come back. School will always be here." I just didn't never feel like that; like, I'm not always going to be this young and assertive forever, I'd rather do it now. She just gracefully got my schooling situated. But after that, I had a girl at the time, she ended up, you know, getting pregnant around that March, and I had him later on that year, and that's when I really, really put school on the back burner. But I never put down design, and I took care of him, still, to this day.
On how he found stability creating art for others:
It was a group of peers that were all doing the same thing at the same time, like this DJ—well-known—DJ Sean Mac, and this promotional-event group called 3Deep Chicago, and One Off Entertainment Group. They all trusted me with their brands, and they have a large audience, but they trusted me with the look and the identity of their brand. I just spent this ridiculous amount of time with them to learn what they liked, and it didn't harm it at all that we were all cool too, and we still are all cool. We were just open and honest with each other, so they'll shoot things down. They'll sometimes not like something I do because it'll be so far gone. But that little tag, I came up with a little tag called GPX All Black [#GPX + @ALLBLCK] that I put on all my flyers to help brand, so it just started circulating like crazy. So people start reaching out to me and they'll find my portfolio. That was from my Chicago network.
On launching a streetwear line and the inspiration for his current line:
Whenever people describe my older portfolio, they're like, "It looked like some ads you'll see in the Gap." Or "You should put this on a shirt, I'll wear it."
It was getting so nerve-racking I said, "OK, so I put out these damn T-shirts, y'all better buy every last one of 'em." And I did, and they did [laughs]. I was like, hell no, like when it first started, the apparel division was called One Forty Five South Branded; it was just little rinky-dink designs, like inspirational quotes and stuff. But it just got better, and it's so fun watching my collection grow because it's like stepping outside of myself to see who I really am.
It's so true to me and my situation, it's that whatever I went through, I would communicate that with my clothes. Like the Carpe Diem upside-down, the logo; that really stems from when I was in the hospital and I didn't know when I was coming home. I was like, "Damn, I'm gonna die in this hospital young, black, and broke, with no mark to leave on the earth." I said, "As soon as I hop out this damn bed, as soon as I get all the way 100 percent . . . "
I had to have surgery, so I had to syringe myself twice a day, every day for six weeks, have the surgery—I had to flush myself like that because if I didn't they woulda had to cut my forehead down and weld the hole back. So after I syringed myself and I had that I was out for another three weeks on bed rest. I said, "I cannot fucking wait to touch that computer." I was depressed because I couldn't even fucking work; I went from working every day to not being able to at all for like two, three months. I know how it feels to not be able to do what you want to do, what you love, be around who you love, interact, all of that. It's a lot of people that hasn't been faced with a certain type of situation for them to realize how valuable and sacred it is. That's where the Carpe Diem came from.
On making the album art for Meek Mill's Dreams and Nightmares:
I had my name in the credits [for Meek Mill's Dreams and Nightmares] this year. I bought so many of those. . . . I had desired that so much that I didn't even consider what would have happened if I didn't get it, I just knew what it was going to do for my brand. I did so many fuckin' album covers, and it was crazy, 'cause that was the very last one I did.
I took the Mondrian approach, like with the elaborate trees and breakin' it down; I took all of that info and all of [Meek's] experiences and compiled it into one simple concept. His biggest fear was death or jail or failure, and then, "dream," who don't want a $30,000 Rolex? I just combined the two together, 'cause that's all he'd talk about in his songs too, it's funny as hell. I had learned that after he picked that one he was already gon' roll with three of the other ones too. They only wanted me to do like two or three—I did 12.
On what he feels sets him apart and his hope for the future:
I feel like what really put me up there was the fashion aspect or really like someone just grabbing you, like you're really gonna do this shit and take it there. I remember Peter Saville, he did New Order, all of their artwork, and he transcended that; he did things for YSL, he did all of the like Jil Sander and Raf Simons, their entire lines. It was just crazy to me to see how far one man went, and he 50. He was like, "At 25 I didn't see myself being like this at 50." That was the best piece of advice I had. So I try to do everything today for that 50-year-old Chaz to be happy.