Few artists give a sense of scene like Wilfred Limonious. Booties bounce, rudeboy rats hustle beneath sound systems and a cartoon donkey tears off into the sunset on a motorbike. Once you know Limonious' signature style, it's impossible to miss it on any of the many dancehall LP covers he illustrated throughout the course of his career.
But while Limonious arguably created some of the most memorable reggae and dancehall LP cases of all time – and single-handedly inspired everything about Major Lazer's aesthetic output in the process – after his death in 1999 his name's been notably absent from retrospectives and conversations about other seminal music world artists, like Reid Miles, Derek Riggs or Storm Thorgerson.
That was until Christopher Bateman, a guy from Canada, and Al "Fingers" Newman, a DJ and cultural historian from London, came together to pay homage to the work of Jamaica's finest musical illustrator. After numerous trips to meet old friends and contacts of Limonious, the pair put together the book In Fine Style, the first compilation of the artist's vast portfolio. I had a chat with them both about all that.
VICE: What was your first Limonious sleeve?
Christopher Bateman: One of my earliest Limonious purchases was the LP for Original Stalag 17-18 And 19. It was a must-buy based on the cover alone.
Al "Fingers" Newman: It's the Stalag LP for me, too. It's one of Limonious' most well-known covers, set in a prison-yard-turned-dancehall with inmates and guards dancing and a pair of rats grinding in the corner. One of the rats is proposing marriage. The scribbled commentary is classic Limonious: "Bubble under it bredah rat," "A dem rat yah nyam up man ina prison" and, "This rat tail will bore coconut." That one gets me every time.
Where did it start for Limonious?
AN: As a kid he drew all over the walls and doors of his family home, then moved on to the chalkboard of Montego Bay Technical Institute, before his father took him out and enrolled him in the Jamaica School of Art.
Limonious was a busy man. He was a cartoonist, designed 7" labels, put out two singles of his own… who else was he producing artwork for?
CB: So many artists… Michael Palmer, Frankie Paul, Jah Thomas, Early B, Prince Jazzbo's Ujama label, Yellowman, Sugar Minott, Dennis Star's Dennis Star International label, Coxsone Dodd's Studio One label, Little John…
AN: Leroy Smart, Barrington Levy, Prince Jammy, Ossie Thomas, Tippa Lee and Rappa Robert, Winston Riley's Techniques label… the list goes on for a very long time.
How did he keep up?
AN: Limonious could draw portraits super quick. If you were coming up the hill by his house, he would have a portrait waiting when you reached the top. The same goes when he was putting out sleeves. Often he would get a concept from a producer in the morning and come back with a finished piece the same day.
His characters became one of his strongest standout trademarks – what else?
AN: He had a lot of trademarks that made him unique. The typography and signature lettering he created and developed, his use of dots and chequerboard grids, and super bright colours, like 100 percent yellow, 100 percent magenta, etc. But in terms of his characters, Limonious was a master of the human form. His work was done with an incredible amount of flavour. The ease and fluidity with which he drew his characters is unmatched.
CB: Limonious' covers came to be a mark of a really great album. People were buying albums off the strength of his cover alone. The angles of things like elbows and knees, or a quivering lip on Limonious' characters, were both realistic and impossible, and something that no other artists were doing. They're on another level
He was a master of the booty as well.
AN: Ha! Limonious loved to draw fluffy women! There is a quote in the book from Jamaican designer, Jethro "Paco" Dennis, who said that when artists in the studio got requests for LP covers featuring ladies with "big bottoms" they would be like, "No man, this one is directly a Limonious job."
You could catch his characters across numerous LPs, right?
CB: Yeah, definitely. He used recurring characters a lot, some fictitious, some caricatures based on people he knew. This not only strengthened his trademark and made his art more recognisable as being his, but added to this vast universe he was creating where you would see these same characters from one dance to the next. Like the rats or the screwface dancehall patron with his arms crossed who appears as "Scar Face" on the back of Arabic's Reggae Invasion album or "King Don" on the back of Johnny Osbourne's Bring the Sensi Come LP. I think he's probably my favourite.
AN: That guy is also on the back of the U-Roy Line Up and Come LP, I think. The rats are by far my favourite.
What surprised you most about Limonious when you were researching him and his work?
AN: What I found fascinating was that although his artwork is often loud and outrageous, people who knew him described him as a quiet and sensitive man who generally kept himself to himself.
CB: The biggest surprise for me was his work as an established cartoonist. His first ever published work was in 1970, for The Star, in a comic section called "Laugh with Us". Followed up in the 80s and early 90s with "Chicken", his most popular strip; "Shane and Shawn", which featured his own sons; and "Earth Runnings", which we literally just discovered – a comic where he namechecks many of his friends, producers and artists from the industry.
Being so notorious, how did he remain so unknown?
AN: Before word got out and artists went direct to Limonious for sleeves, his anonymity came from the fact that many producers in Jamaica back then handled everything in-house. Those early Limonious albums were very popular and so fresh that the producers initially kept Limonious' identity a secret, so that you had to go through them if you wanted his work.
On an international scale, it's true that the name Wilfred Limonious is virtually unknown, particularly in the art world. Which is crazy when cover designers from other genres like jazz and rock have been much more widely celebrated. Thankfully, I think that's changing, and galleries and institutions are beginning to recognise the importance of this art and the culture in general.
How difficult was it tracking down all the artwork for the book?
CB: I first became familiar with Limonious' work while on tour with a ska/reggae band I played in. I was collecting a lot of reggae LPs and I kept coming across sleeves designed by Limonious. I couldn't believe no one had put out a book on someone with his talent and ability to set a scene in such a vibrant way. Eventually, I became so interested that I found myself looking into the possibility of compiling this book myself. I wasn't a published writer, I wasn't a curator; I was just excited about Limonious' work.
I sent out a bunch of emails trying to track down anyone that knew Limonious. Eventually, I got a hold of Orville "Bagga" Case, a design contemporary of Limonious', and Jeremy of Deadly Dragon Sound System in New York. They were super supportive and gave me a bunch of names of people that I should talk to, so I bought a ticket to Jamaica and took it from there.
AN: Material for the book has come from collectors all around the world – some harder to find and photograph than others. In the last few years we came in contact with a collector in Japan who had a lot of later pieces by Limonious, which are really different to his other stuff.
My favourite pieces are these super rare works from the Deadly Dragon collection. Original illustrations and colour mock-ups of his LP jackets that show his work method – what he would submit to the printers, hand-written instructions relating to colour, etc. That said, I feel there's a lot more Limonious artwork out there still waiting to be brought to light, and maybe more of his music, too. So I guess the search continues.
'In Fine Style' is available to order here.
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