It may have taken SZA more than five years to release her second studio album, but for Jas Bell – aka Leonardo Chop, her head of design and artistic director as well as the founder of streetwear brand Hazelwood – the job is not s is never stopped.
It is undeniable that the gap between CTRLSZA’s debut album, and recent S.O.S. is long, but Bell doesn’t see it that way. Instead, they used the TDE stalwart’s unique artistry to create “massive moments” peppered throughout this five-year interlude. “’Good Days’ was a moment. “I hate you” was a moment. When we took out the CTRL five-year-old birthday stuff, that was a moment,” Bell says. “SZA is a gem in that these moments she created transport us through the ages. There is always inspiration flowing and we are always creating.
Through Bell’s stories, it’s evident that there’s a lot of chemistry and faith shared between him, SZA and his label, so much so that they entrusted him with the unique art of his December 2020 track.” Good Days” – even though it was only her second time designing a cover. Discussing ideas and concept art with SZA, MeLisa Heath, and label president Terrence “Punch” Henderson until 4 a.m. would make anyone nervous, but Bell’s confidence moved the conversations forward to deliver the one of the most memorable deployments in recent music history. “SZA invested so much in me that my creative mind was comfortable exploring with hers, and we created a historic cover for the single ‘Good Days’. That energy flowed into the merchandising, and we released the ‘one of the best capsules an artist has ever published,’ he recalls.
“I think the one thing that’s really helped me is knowing that the sooner you fail, the sooner you’ll have time to pick yourself up and be even better and figure it out.”
However, being an art director wasn’t exactly on Bell’s mind at first. He initially wanted to be a musical artist, but eventually he had an honest conversation with himself and realized that making music wasn’t creatively fulfilling. However, he stayed close to the music during his period of introspection and eventually found himself falling more and more in love with creating art, merchandising and visuals while on a musical rollout. It wasn’t until his stint as NERD’s roadie for their 2008 “Glow in the Dark” tour – which featured Ye, Rihanna, Lupe Fiasco, Santigold and Nas – that he slowly began to accept that a career change might be in order, greatly crediting Pharrell’s ingenuity. “I’ve always been very inspired by everything that was going on in fashion at the time. I got to see Pharrell up close and all the things he had his hand in, and that inspired me man,” he recalled. “It allowed me to accept taking a different route, and that’s how I ended up here.” Bell then studied audio engineering and ended up working as Drake’s roadie for four more years before coming full circle.
After his stint with The Boy, Bell returned to Atlanta and teamed up with budding rapper Smino to design his merchandise collection. Smino and Bell joined SZA on her CTRL tour, where Bell and SZA “clicked instantly on a creative level”. He started designing custom pieces for her and the Sustainability Gang — his initiative that sends 100% of its profits to efforts to protect our oceans — and their friendship grew from there. “It was scary to take a completely different path in which I had no formal training,” he admits upon joining SZA’s creative team. “I just knew I had the vibe and the eye, and I had to believe I could relate to it.” He tells Hypebeast before S.O.S.‘, “The only way to overcome this is to do it. I think the one thing that has really helped me is knowing that the sooner you fail, the sooner you will have time to pick yourself up and be even better and understand.
In three words, how would you describe your job to someone who doesn’t know the music industry?
Creative. Storyteller. Through the clothes. It was four, but it was too appropriate to pass up. [laughs]
Can you tell us about a day in your professional life?
It changes; no two days are alike. Right now, we’re in the final stages of this one-album masterpiece titled S.O.S., so for me it feels like finalizing some pieces for our merchandising launch and coming back to touch up any creative elements we might need for the album rollout. We had over 30 pieces for the collection, so we’re narrowing it down to the best pieces, while also considering which pieces we could save for a later date or possible second merchandising release!
Along with that I have my own brand, Hazelwood, which I run on a daily basis, so there are moving parts that need to continue on that side as well. It might look like making sure the orders for the week are shipped by my team and creating new pieces for that new delivery. That there is never a dull moment.
“Sometimes the things we think are the ‘thing’ aren’t, but they lead us to what is. Don’t be afraid to listen to that nudge your intuition gives you.
Can you walk us through your typical process and timeline for creating something significant and memorable, whether it’s merchandise or any other visual aspect?
This question is interesting, because as I said before, we are always creating. But there are often times when I have deadlines and sometimes you have to create on the spur of the moment.
For example, when we released “I Hate U” on Soundcloud, none of us had any idea it would explode as fast as it did. It went viral and we needed artwork for the single within days. I think in times like these, having ultimate faith in our team is what keeps us going. SZA had an idea of what she wanted to do when we started creating the work together. We started creating this art on the concept of writing a letter saying, “I hate you,” but then we were all like, “Nobody sends letters anymore.” So I suggested a voicemail and showed it as a visual voicemail on the cover. Then he hit SZA, who suggested a text message.
When I went to execute it, I wanted the art to almost feel like you were actually reading some text from her. So I incorporated a photo of her with a super genuine camera for the contact photo, and I wanted it to be accurate. Like, if you’re reading this from a girl, this is it. She hates you, it’s over. We did, and it was amazing. People started creating their own replies to the post and everything. It was awesome.
What do you think is the most exciting project you’ve worked on so far?
If we’re talking about excitement then I gotta say the moment we’re in now that’s S.O.S.. That’s who I am right now. This new era!
What are the necessary first steps a young person must take to enter a musical career as an artistic director?
The first step I would say to a young person who is getting into anything is to not be afraid to know yourself. Your journey is your journey. Learn to love it, embrace it, and not compare it to someone else’s. Sometimes the things we think are the “thing” are not, but they lead us to what is. Don’t be afraid to listen to that nudge your intuition gives you. The possibilities are limitless.
What is one thing about your work that most people would find unexpected or surprising?
Half the time, the things that end up as the best art are the ones we almost throw away. It’s so ironic, it catches me off guard every time.
Is there a secret to career longevity in this industry?
I don’t know if there’s a secret, I’m still learning. I just know that if you are on the right track and put your all into it, it will show.
What habits do you regularly follow to always keep a good headspace for work?
I pray and take time for myself. Learning from those who came before me helps, and I’m also a fan of interviews and documentaries. I think interviews and documentaries help me keep a good headspace, while also putting information in my head. The best of both worlds.
What does a rest day look like to you?
I haven’t seen one in a while [laughs]. You never really want a day off when you’re doing what you love. It’s rare that I’m not working on something, whether it’s with SZA or on my brand; the machine is still running. But there are short breaks in between when I enjoy working out and eating an oatmeal pancake from Flying Biscuit. All is well with the world at such times.
“If you look at Tyler, the creator, and Travis Scott, they’re making this thing a lifestyle it.”
How do you see your work evolving with the music industry in the next five years?
It’s a good question. I see it evolving in terms of quality and lifestyle. I think merch becomes more like a statement. It’s more like a piece to have in your closet, not just something from your favorite artist. If you look at Tyler, the creator, and Travis Scott, they’re making this thing a lifestyle. .
As for the visual assets, I’m not sure. Everyone has their own level of taste. We have this thing that we do really well that I call complex simplicity. I think we’re doing it really well, so I’m just worried about us and how we’re breaking down in that regard. [laughs]
If you weren’t working in music, what would you be doing?
I’m not sure I’m at the point where I even want to think about it… We still have things to do.
Stay tuned for more features with music industry professionals – from managers to recording engineers, stagehands and more; the people who make the world of music go round without standing behind a microphone.