There are two ways this can be viewed: utter lunacy or a kind of dedication that determines a life-long commitment. Some loves are just different, they say, and so, it must have been.
Mustaffa Ahmad Hidzir, 15 in 1970, cajoled a group of friends from his hometown, Taiping, to cycle all the way to Stadium Negara in Kuala Lumpur to watch Santana in concert.
Come show day, though, he found himself in the unenviable situation of having to ride solo. He got to Sungai Siput before suffering unbearable cramp pains, then ditched his bike for a pittance and hitched a ride.
Today, at 61, he can say he’s hitched on a few rides of life’s many blessings and lesser offerings. The revered, and consequently, renowned album art designer, is busy promoting his coffee table book, 12×12, featuring 200 of his works, replete with intimate details and commentary … and eye-popping pictures highlighting our cultural past and album art’s evolution.
“These images can be very powerful. They capture the period, the fashion sense then and even the type of fonts commonly used,” he revealed.
But it has taken a while, Tapa, as he’s affectionately known, will be the first to admit.
“I had left the project on the back burner. Then a former college classmate and friend of mine prompted me about it,” he said recently at his home in Petaling Jaya.
Step in Mohd Radzi Hanif, who immediately showed his credentials with some sample writing to earn the author’s hat. 12×12, which indicates the inch-per-inch dimensions of a standard record album sleeve, finally took off with funding from publisher Institut Terjemahan dan Buku Negara (ITBN). “I took about three years to collect material, including interviewing artistes for their feedback on my work,” he shared, detailing how he even ended up having to buy records and CDs featuring his artwork, which he no longer had in his collection.
He is also grateful to the numerous well-wishers and generous donors who have either graciously sold them to him for paltry sums, or just given him these old titles.
Along the way, though, the process exposed the many shades of white and grey in which our society thrives.
In one instance, a tease got him travelling across states for a photo opportunity of his album covers, to be denied at the final hurdle, with the collector’s steadfast refusal. The bizarre and disappointing aside, Tapa has a smile on his face when he relates his stories, perhaps knowing through his book, he is finally compiling his legacy.
Tapa’s Album Cover Design Exhibition is also on at Galeri Seni Matic in KL. It coincides with the 12×12 book’s recent launch.
And none of this happened by chance. He merged the two of his greatest passions – music and photography – to produce a formidable talent. And his source of inspiration is all around his condominium. Literally … left, right and centre … there are music artefacts everywhere! Posters, projectors, music software (the real stuff!), books and its related paraphernalia.
It all really started with his mum’s younger brother, Mohd Salleh Hashim, introducing him to rock music of the time when Tapa was around 10.
When the family was to relocate to Teluk Intan to follow his accountant father’s work requirements, he resisted, and managed to score a place in his school King Edward VII’s hostel in Taiping. The move enabled him to grow roots in a small town, develop sustained friendships and indulge in music, which was acquired from record stores around town and listened to on a turntable … in school!
“That was one of the best things. I had no player at home. So, I bought records from the shops and listened to them in our library, which was also a recreation centre,” he related, cracking up while recalling days gone by.
Upon graduating from Institut Teknologi Mara, a diploma in graphic design in hand, Tapa had a deal to settle. He returned to the EMI record label office he had interned at while researching his final year presentation on album art. There, the head of A&R for the Malay department, Wahab Yusoff and Raymond Hon, the marketing director, eagerly awaited to hire him.
“Wahab left a note on one of the display boards at my exhibition to look him up, so, I went the next day.”
Confirming his employment was a mere formality. Tapa not only became the label’s first album art designer, he was also the first in the country to earn that job description on July 1, 1978.
Two years there would allow him to not only hone his craft, but develop album art from mere artiste profile shots to stylised ones without them altogether. And he has the bumps and scrapes to prove his attempts at evolving the art form – the milk turned sour when he bumped heads with a renowned artiste.
But taking the good and leaving the bad behind, he still secured a retainer status with EMI after he left to pursue a career in the advertising industry, serving agencies such as Advertising, Marketing Communication and PTM Thompson, before ending up on his own today.
During the course of his career, he met and worked with some of Malaysia’s most celebrated artistes. He singles out Ramli Sarip, Amy Search and national treasure, the late Datuk Sudirman Haji Arshad, for particular praise.
“It was important to all of them to have their stamp on their covers, and they were all very involved. Personal relationships dictate the quality of the end product, too.”
Tapa’s work was omnipresent throughout the 1980s and continued in the 1990s. The recording industry, however, has since shrunk to quarter its size, but he is still first-call designer for his closest collaborators, and also takes on assignments where the expected quality is matched by the quantum of time (and budget) allocated. A poor composition once earned him a disturbing message from singer Hattan.
“He guessed that I had either become totally crap, or I didn’t have time to do that band’s album cover properly. I learnt then that I had to make sure I had the time when taking on projects.”
But he covets his achievements more, taking great satisfaction in the mood-setting cover for Sharifah Aini’s Malam and Man Bai’s stirring self-titled solo debut. Also earning pride of place are Search’s Terbaik, Wings’ Barbarik and Ramli Sarip’s Syair Timur albums.
If there is one thing he has learnt over the years, it’s that art is art.
And he firmly believes that an album’s first impression comes through its cover, which often decides if a title is picked up or left on the shelves.
“It doesn’t matter what technology you use … it’s just about creating something.”
Tapa has the rare privilege of having come full circle, starting with a vinyl album cover for Carefree’s debut and arriving at the recent reissued art for Search’s classic Fenomena album, which according to him, is an update job, above all else.
After all, he was weaned on the vinyl era, when, after seeing critically-acclaimed album art designer Storm Thorgerson’s landmark cover for Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here in 1975, his interest was ignited, and that torch has burnt bright ever since.
British artist Roger Dean’s landmark painted artwork with the progressive rock movement – Yes, Greenslade, Gentle Giant and Uriah Heep – of the 1970s further fuelled his passion, but his penchant for album art lies more in stylistic photographs.
“I am really into concept photos … and again, Storm Thorgerson is my favourite,” revealed the Floyd disciple.
And to get like-minded people onboard for his book, he didn’t have to look too far. Senior art director, lecturer, and most important of all, friend Kamarul Shah, volunteered to design 12×12. And adding icing to the cake was getting rock legend and buddy Ramli to write the book’s foreword.
“Besides being about the history of Malaysian music and my experience as a designer, this book is about sharing album art with the younger generation. There is no money in this, after all,” he intimated, adding that what he’d like to ultimately do, is give talks to art, graphic and visual communication students, pointing out to them how he succeeded in the analogue world.
It would be simple to judge his intentions as noble. But in reality, this is just unbridled enthusiasm and love. And this is also as much about a life of determination. Grit was something he displayed from as far back as when he attempted to bike down to KL to revel in Carlos Santana’s Latin jazz rock – a tale of an exercise in futility destined for heartbreak, one would think.
“Santana came up on stage and began with a prayer … and he only played his hits at the end of the show. But it was still a fantastic experience,” said Tapa, confirming what we knew all along – and like with most things in this artist’s life, he made it to the gig.
Tapa’s Album Cover Design Exhibition is on at Galeri Seni Matic, Jalan Ampang in Kuala Lumpur till June 4. Open daily, 10am to 6pm. Admission is free. Facebook: ‘12×12 Cover Album Book by Tapa’. The book will soon be available at all major bookstores nationwide. Browse: itbm.com.my.