Where do you start Jas Bell’s journey?
Do you start in his childhood St. Louis home, where he built houses for his action figures out of cardboard boxes? Or do you start when he got kicked out of Hazelwood East as a teenager? How about when he improbably ended up on tour with Pharrell as a roadie? Or when he went on tour with Drake? Or when he made his own merchandise, and then Smino started wearing it and Bell ended up hitching a ride on his tour?
You could start at any of those places, and each would represent its own wild stage on Bell’s rollercoaster of a life. But taken together, they all have contributed to where the 31-year-old finds himself today — as the art director for one of the world’s biggest recording artists, SZA.
Bell, who goes by the artist name Leanardo Chop, thinks about his journey a lot — where he came from, how he ended up here, all of the couches he slept on and rap songs that never blew up along the way. He wants his life story to shine through in his artwork. “Man, I try to be a storyteller,” he tells the RFT during a FaceTime. It’s why he wanted to do the interview in the first place, despite being busy with the December 9 release of SZA’s second studio album, SOS, and the start of her tour. He wanted to show people, people in St. Louis, how he went from being kicked out of school to working for SZA and creating his own fashion brand, Hazelwood, named after his hometown.
“Just listen to your journey,” Bell says from his apartment in Los Angeles, with pictures of framed backstage passes hanging behind him. “One of my favorite quotes is that, ‘The thing that you think is the thing may not be it — but it'll lead you to what is the thing.’ You know what I'm saying? So, that's initially what happened.”
It seems reasonable to start the story of Bell’s journey where it all began: in St. Louis, at Barnes Jewish Hospital, he adds proudly, the place where his parents both worked in medical records. As a kid, he was always making art. He filled a 100-page sketchbook with drawings of sneakers. His brother, Jordan, remembers him making action-figure houses out of Best Buy boxes. He designed all of his own outfits — printing out pictures and ironing them onto T-shirts that he purchased at Walmart.
From a young age, Bell wanted to be a rapper. He came from a musical family, where they listened to everything from David Bowie to gospel to Led Zeppelin. He grew up idolizing Nelly, wearing his jersey backward with a bandaid on his face, and he dreamed of reaching those same heights and representing St. Louis like him.
But then Bell took a considerable hit as a teenager: He was expelled from Hazelwood East. The moment was demoralizing, Bell admits. His parents were furious. He was “defeated,” Bell says, the “bane of the family.”
About a week after he was expelled, Bell told his parents, on a whim, that he was moving to New York City. He bummed from couch to couch without a job, living with people he knew from Myspace, working a little on music and trying to get an internship at Pharrell’s Star Trak label. His mom called every day worrying.
But around this time, Jordan, who is now a rapper himself, saw a change in his older brother. “[Getting kicked out of school] was a turning point,” he says. “Literally after that, I think he just locked in.”
About six months later, Bell moved to Atlanta, where he finished high school. There, he had an experience that would alter his life: He met Pharrell through a friend. Bell and Pharrell just chatted on that day. But Bell decided that wasn’t enough. So he just kept showing up and showing up and showing up at Pharrell concerts, booking $60 flights and sleeping in airports. For the next four shows, Bell and his friend were just there, standing at the bus entrance, waiting for Pharrell.
“We idolized him so much at the time, we just were following him everywhere,” Bell says.
Pharrell noticed Bell and his friend at every show. He jokingly called them “cloud hoppers.” But they didn’t need to be cloud hoppers anymore, he said. Pharrell invited them to work as roadies on the famous 2008 Glow in the Dark Tour with Rihanna, Kanye West and Nas. Bell calls it “support.” For the next few months, they stayed on the tour bus, helping out with minor things like unpacking merch, stage clean-up and even, occasionally, the house engineering.
“He embraced us,” Bell says. “He lets us rock him. It just got to a point to where he let us … shadow him. He just kind of let us be around.”
For most people, hanging out with Pharrell for a few years would serve as the story of a lifetime. But for Bell, it was just the start.
Really, Bell says he was learning, watching Pharrell, seeing his ability to weave the music and fashion world together. At this point, Bell was attending the Art Institute of Atlanta, where he studied audio engineering and graphic design. He was still pursuing a music career and he found snippets of success, even garnering features in XXL and Vibe magazines, but he never fully broke into the mainstream.
After graduating from college, he moved in with a family member in Los Angeles, sleeping on the couch, with no job and no idea what he would do next. “A leap of faith,” Bell calls it. So he went back to what he knew: He just started showing up at Drake concerts. Incredibly, he ended up getting a job on the rigger crew for Drake's tours, setting up and taking down the stage. Even then he was still curating his own wardrobes and creating merch for his music.
“He just always was on the flyest shit,” his friend, a rapper who goes by JSN Wlf, says. “He was always fashion-forward.”
Wlf met Bell over Myspace as teenagers, and they later formed a music group together and stayed friends for over a decade. Wlf credits Bell’s “tenacity” in being able to integrate himself with such successful artists.
“Bro just knew himself,” he says. “...It's very important to be confident in yourself and your own decision making. I think he was confident in that, and if there was a time when he made a mistake, he was OK with failing because he's failing forward.”
After spending almost five years with Drake, Bell decided to make one last stab at music stardom by releasing his final album, Home Games, in 2017 — “an ode,” Bell says, “to my city.”
The album never blew up, and Bell’s music dreams languished. But thanks to a lot of hustle and a little luck, the thing he thought was the thing led him to what really was.
To advertise Home Games, Bell made T-shirts featuring two Cardinals players, Garry Templeton and Tony Scott. When then up-and-coming St. Louis artist Smino held a concert in Atlanta, Bell gave him one of the shirts he’d designed.
Over the next few months, Smino was “wearing the tee everywhere,” Bell remembers.
Smino reached out and asked for another T-shirt. And before Bell knew it, he was making merch for the rapper — T-shirts, hoodies, all sorts of memorabilia, including Smino’s popular satin-lined hoodies. They formed a friendship, and when Smino opened on SZA’s CTRL tour in 2017, Bell came along for the ride.
That’s how he met SZA. Immediately, they connected.
“She's the sister I never had,” Bell says.
They weren’t just compatible. They were brought together by their St. Louis roots, where SZA was also born.
“Her roots to St. Louis are very sentimental,” Bell says. “Her grandmother's from St. Louis. A lot of her early days that she spent were in St. Louis. So her memories to St. Louis are super duper impactful to her and who she is now. And it is the same thing with me.”
Connecting with SZA kicked off a nearly five-year long stage in Bell’s life — the most recent stop on his journey. He now serves as the superstar singer’s art director, a role that sees him designing her merch, album and song covers, tour graphics and anything related to visual art. His designs are wide-ranging, from hats to Blues-themed hockey jerseys to spray-painted T-shirts to tie-dye shirts and bandanas that read “Cry About It.”
Their close relationship is integral to Bell’s role as an art director. Bell doesn’t call it a job; he calls it a friendship. Still, it is Bell’s job. But he doesn’t just make marketable merch. He’s a “translator,” as his brother Jordan says. His job is to project SZA, her art and feelings onto a T-shirt or album cover.
“When you see these merch pieces and you see the simplicity of it, or you see the complication of it, or you see every little thing in the merch — [it is] exactly what she's feeling,” Jordan says. “From the color schemes to sizing to positioning to everything. When people wear this, they’re literally wearing her emotions.”
Jordan says his older brother is always studying, watching documentaries and learning from fashion artists, like Virgil Abloh and Nigo, and even popular brands like Coca-Cola or McDonald’s. But Bell doesn’t have a set creative process. Some of his projects go through hundreds of revisions and last months. Others come more naturally.
There’s no better example of the latter than how he created the art for SZA’s breakup song, “I Hate U.” The song blew up quickly and the team had to scramble to develop art.
While sitting in his car, eating a sandwich and listening to a voicemail, it clicked. He wanted to make the cover an image of a voicemail saying “I hate you.” He told SZA, who countered with a suggestion: Let’s do an image of a text message.
“I had to immediately stop eating, drive back to the crib, get on a laptop,” Bell says. “I did the text message. And then it was magic after that.”
The image became the iconic cover art for one of SZA’s most popular songs, a track that would eventually garner nearly 16 million views on YouTube.
Although some ideas come together in the snap of a moment, Bell’s work features precise attention to detail — even on something as small as a blood stain on a shirt for SZA, says Wlf. If anyone else made it, Wlf would have assumed they pulled a JPEG image of a bloodstain. But when Bell made it, he noticed the blood stain had different splotches of color
“At some point, somebody's going to go back, and they're going to check the nuance in the detail or whatever,” Wlf says. “And you're going to be able to fall a little bit more in love with whatever he was doing, because he left something for you there in that process."
Many of those details, some hidden, some explicit, reflect Bell, his journey and his hometown. The name of his brand, Hazelwood, is a nod to where he grew up. The cardinal on SZA’s SOS T-shirts represents St. Louis. A “Still Learning” Hazelwood T-shirt represents how he has approached his own life. Even the camo workman jackets for Hazelwood have meaning — on the outside they might just seem like regular old jackets, but the inside lining actually represents the Missouri steelworkers who built the Arch.
“I think that they're uniforms for your journey,” Bell says. “They're not just specific to this small city, small town in St. Louis. I think it speaks to all of us at the very core.”
Bell no longer lives in St. Louis. He splits his time between Los Angeles and Atlanta, but his hometown still plays a prominent role in him. He quietly sponsored a Little League team in St. Louis at one point, Wlf remembers, and he’s always aware of emerging St. Louis artists, even from afar.
But wherever Bell may find himself, he wants to share his journey with whoever will listen. “I’m trying to be a vessel,” Bell repeats. Because without this journey, Bell wouldn’t have this art to share.
This post has been updated to correct the phrase "cloud hoppers."
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