(header photo by Jermangos)
Hey guys, I’m DJ Diabetes. I’m a Chicago-based graphic designer specializing in designing single/album covers and also am one of the hottest aux cord DJs in the game hahaha. Oh, and yes, I actually have diabetes.
When/how did you first start getting into graphic designing, and how did you start working with artists?
I started taking graphic design seriously a little under two years ago. Never had taken any classes on it or anything, all strictly self-taught with some help from friends here and there. We had Photoshop installed on some of our computers at my middle school, and so when the teacher wasn’t looking, I’d occasionally open it up and start messing around with it. Being an extremely OCD person and frequent LimeWire user at the time, I had a large collection of music on my iTunes but was annoyed by the majority of the song files not having an album cover. I started downloading the proper album covers off google images and added them to the songs in need. Every once in a while, I came across the problem of not being able to find the album artwork I was looking for, and with my OCD kicking in, I decided to make my own. In total, I probably only made like ten of them, and I wasn’t even making them out of love for graphic design, it was just to keep my iTunes library looking perfect. Just to be clear, these covers were awful haha. For the majority of them, I just copied Kanye’s G.O.O.D Fridays covers from 2010, just changing the black and white background images and red text for each song. Until nearly two years ago, that was the extent to which my graphic design knowledge went. There was maybe a five-year gap between making my last fake album cover and opening Photoshop again.
Before taking graphic design seriously, I actually started off as a music producer in high school. I was decent and had made a few connections through sending out beats. I produced one song that sort of blew up, “FBG Duck x Billionaire Black – Bet U Can’t”, but still struggled with getting a placement with bigger artists. I began noticing a lot of artists were tweeting about needing cover art at the time, and since I had that little bit of experience with designing them, I figured it might be a good way to make connections so that I could later potentially produce for these artists. It was 2014, and Katie Got Bandz was going crazy at the time and was someone I really wanted to produce for. She tweeted that she needed artwork for her “Drillary Clinton 2” project, and so I decided to shoot my shot. I knew her manager at the time, and so I knew I had the connections to get my cover to her, but didn’t think that I had the design skills. So, I hit up one of my best friends, and owner of Accendi, James Cannella. He was doing a lot of graphic design work at the time and had done a few covers for some local rappers at our high school, so I figured by teaming up we could kill this cover together. I sent over what we made, and Katie called me right away. We made a few small changes that she requested, and since we designed and finalized the cover in just a few hours, she trusted us and gave us another job right away. She was dropping a “Chiraq” remix that same night and needed artwork for it. Wow, I miss those “drill music” days hahaha. Again, we knocked it out in just an hour or two, and boom, the song premiered on Complex with our artwork.
With that instantaneous success, I realized how big all this could potentially be, but still didn’t think my skills were up to par since James had done like 90% of the work on these covers lol. However, I didn’t want to let this opportunity go to waste, so for the next couple of years, I helped James out by keeping him working with Katie, and getting him new clients. I was basically his manager. Later, I began getting more hands-on with helping him design and started doing some freelance work of my own. I had gotten pretty good and had a few clients who I did miscellaneous work for here and there, but my motive with all this was still to use these connections to get my beats to people.
Eventually, I got connected with Phil Shaw who somehow managed to convince me to fully transition into graphic design. Again, I was still hung up on pursuing my dreams as a music producer, but eventually, I caved and decided to give graphic design a real try. Phil was impressed with the quality of my previous work, so he threw me a client that he was on tour with, Jonah Marais, who immediately had me design the artwork for his single “War Paint”. Jonah had a pretty big fan base, but I didn’t really think much of it until that song and my artwork became the #1 trending topic on Twitter worldwide. Then I figured maybe Phil was on to something, and this might be my calling after all.
This is where I started to take this design stuff seriously. I continued building and growing my portfolio through twitter, where I was eventually able to get in contact and work with some relatively bigger clients such as Jose Guapo and Danny Wolf. Once I started to develop a little buzz, everything sort of started falling into place. Young Thug tweeted the cover I designed for Guapo, and so I capitalized. Since a lot of big artists followed Thug and presumably saw his post with my artwork, it boosted my credibility and made it easier to contact and work with people by simply saying “I did Jose Guapo’s Osama Bin Guapo 2 cover, let’s work”.
At this time, I had known Cole Bennett for a while, and had worked with him on some smaller stuff, LL merch, flyers, logos, etc., but once he started working with Dex and managing Warhol.ss, he had me do the cover for their first collab track, “On My Waist”, and that’s when things really started to take off. They all really fucked with my design for that cover, and so Cole put me on with some more of the artists that he had been working with, and he still does so today; Cole’s a great guy who really helped me out a lot, and we work very well together. That song somewhat blew up and got a ton of positive feedback about the artwork, so that was another big resume builder for me. Just like with the Guapo cover, I kept progressing by showing bigger artists the work I had done for their friends/colleagues until the point where they began reaching out to me on a regular basis. Since then, I’ve had the opportunities to work with Riff Raff, Lil Yachty, Famous Dex, Lil Pump, TM88, Warhol.ss, Mick Jenkins, Lucki, Thouxanbanfauni, and a lot more of amazing artists.
As of recently, it seems like you’ve been hit up for a lot more work. What was the piece that really helped you make a name for yourself?
I’d say there are three covers that really helped me start popping off:
The first was the “On My Waist” cover I previously mentioned, and the next being “Hit Me Up” by Riff Raff and Lisa Cimorelli. This was the second cover Cole put me onto, and then Riff Raff became my biggest client at the time. Prior to this, my main clients were just an assortment of random people and some of the lower-key people I mentioned earlier. But once Riff Raff and Lisa dropped the cover for “Hit Me Up” people saw that I was really making moves and was here to stay.
After that, Riff Raff and his manager DJ Afterthought became regular clients of mine and granted me some opportunities to work with other artists as well. When they were in Chicago we linked up and they took me out to his guest performance at one of the Lyrical Lemonade shows, and then out to a few clubs where he had guest appearances/performances. Hands down one of the wildest nights of my life hahaha.
The second cover was “Guacamole” with Nessly and Lil Yachty. I had been gradually progressing, working with bigger and bigger artists, but since people have seen this one, my support has been growing like crazy. I’ve had my work on every major blog over the years, but Complex was the first to actually credit me on their site for designing that cover, putting “Artwork by DJ Diabetes” right at the top. So, a huge shout out to them and Cameron Capers for making that happen! Then XXL tweeted the cover saying, “That cover is 🔥🔥”, and then everyone went crazy @-ing them saying I designed it. Even though XXL didn’t credit me, it was dope seeing them tweet that and I’m sure they saw everyone mentioning me, and won’t make that mistake again haha.
You’ve been making a tremendous amount of work for people within the SoundCloud industry. What has been your favorite body of work?
In terms of commissioned work, definitely the Guacamole cover. One, because of the actual design, and two, because of the crazy amount of buzz and support it gave me.
The Lil Peep tribute piece I just did is my favorite design I’ve ever done though. Peep is one of my favorite artists and really helped me get through some tough times, so it only felt right to do something to honor him. I can’t believe he’s gone, RIP.
In terms of your design process for these albums covers, is your artwork solely based on the interpretation of the song?
Most of the time, not at all. Most artists don’t actually send me the songs/albums beforehand, often because they aren’t finished yet, so I don’t get to hear them until they’re officially released. Because of this, I tend to base my designs off of the song title and the general aesthetics of the artists, nothing too wildly abstract.
I see you make a lot of Alternative Artwork pieces, has that ever helped you create a relationship with an artist and possibly led to future work?
100%. The alternative covers I’ve done definitely helped me get more clients because alternates, in general, tend to get a lot more exposure since everybody’s already familiar with the projects, and often the official covers are bad/boring. As expected, the exposure then brings in more clients, so even though I’m not directly making money off of an alternate cover, it’s a time investment that ends up paying off very well in the end.
I kind of hate doing them though, because I feel it makes me look like too much of a fan where artists wouldn’t be as inclined to take me as seriously. The funny/sad part about this is that I’ve only actually done two alternative covers, 17 by XXX, and Trippie Redd’s A Love Letter To You 2; the rest just have some unfortunate backstory where my covers ended up not getting used super last minute lol.
Lastly, how’s everything going with Accendi?
Things have been going great! I’ve taken a little bit of a step back to focus on my own design work, but things are still a daily grind and there’s a lot of new projects that we’re excited to unveil. We’ve been focusing on perfecting our craft, making unique cut and sew garments, along with some experimental pieces made from upcycled materials, so be on the lookout!