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How the Parental Advisory Logo Became a Stamp of Hip-Hop Authenticity

[THE MAIN EVENT ]


The controversial label was designed by Deborah Norcross 35 years ago.


The symbol for explicit lyrical content has storied roots that date back 35 years. We tracked down its designer.


Have you ever wondered about the origins of that black-and-white Parental Advisory symbol seen on the artwork of explicit music releases? It dates back to the late 1980s, when culture clashed with conservative views—a battle that made its way all the way to the highest court in the land, and resulted in an iconic bit of graphic design.


That bygone era found Prince and big-hair bands pushing the bounds of sexual expression while rap music’s social critique and street culture were becoming mainstream. In response, Tipper Gore, wife of a future vice president, created the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), a group of lawmakers, parents, and clergy seeking to curb and censor what they deemed offensive music. They saw it as the root of societal ills—rising crime, child suicide, sexual abuse—leading to blockbuster congressional hearings with musicians John Denver, Frank Zappa, and Dee Snider (of Twisted Sister) defending creative freedom and artists’ freedom of speech.


In 1987, the PMRC’s moral panic and lobbying won out, resulting in the creation of the now-iconic “Parental Advisory - Explicit Lyrics” label, a compromise between the music industry and concerned parents. While white bands were on the front line in Congress, Black rappers bore the brunt of the sociopolitics enforcement. 2 Live Crew’s 1989 release As Nasty As They Wanna Be is the first and only album in U.S. history to be deemed so “obscene” that its sale was outlawed. This led to a landmark Supreme Court case, in which the justices sided with Uncle Luke’s Miami group, setting a precedent that still protects artists’ First Amendment rights. 


The Parental Advisory logo remains a symbol of this cultural battle, a reminder of the fight for artistic expression and against censorship. UpRising chopped it up with Deborah Norcross, who designed the Parental Advisory logo three years into her graphic designer job at Warner Bros. Records (now Warner Records). She recalled what that moment was like and how it felt to have a hand in a cultural moment that still resonates. 


UpRising: How did you wind up designing the Parental Advisory logo?


Deborah Norcross: My job at Warner Bros. was larger than any job I ever had; I did advertising, merchandising, art direction. My boss came to me and said Tipper Gore requires that we make a sticker to include on [music] artwork. Each of the [record] labels were required to submit designs. In about a day and a half, I had three, each no bigger than a barcode. I put them on various CD packages [for] show, packed them up, and sent them off. She came back and said “They like this one best out of the three.” I said, “Well, what about the others?” She said nobody else submitted anything. I'm embarrassed about the other two, but I’ve gotten over that.



Norcross's three submissions seen for the first time.

 

Were you aware of the political climate at the time, and did that weigh on how you designed the logo?


I was sort of aware. Tipper Gore seemed like a Nervous Nelly to all of us. It was sort of “power to the parents,” but it really didn't mean anything to us. We knew it wouldn't work. It was a cool thing to have your record packaging be somewhat offensive—it was a badge of honor if you were that kind of band. Obviously, not everybody wanted that. But the people who did, rap artists, you know, it was a badge of honor. Getting that PA logo on there was an absolute seal of approval. The big stores, KMart, Walmart—if you didn’t comply with [PMRC’s] demands for packaging, they wouldn't carry it. If [a band] wanted to be a wiseass and shock people with packaging, we had to warn them that their record wouldn't be carried in the most profitable venues. 


Talk to us about the actual design.


The design was based on what is graphically the strongest read I could get out of the smallest space. It had to be black and white, naturally, because it had to go on everything. It served as a focal point and almost complimentary to the bar code.  


Do you remember the first album that your logo graced?


I think it was [Ice-T’s] Body Count. When Body Count came out, they were trying to merchandise it and they came up with a zip-up body bag with a keychain.  How do you feel about the Parental Advisory logo now? Are you proud of it? When I tell people that I designed the Parental Advisory logo, my expectation is for people to just fall over because nobody understands that somebody actually designed this thing. They think these things just sort of appear. I've never put it in my book. I've never shown people when I’m looking for work. It's not a selling point for me at all professionally. It's just fun for coworkers and friends to tell them I did that. It blows everybody's mind.


—Brandon Cox


  

 

The UpRising newsletter is a mixtape for your mind filled with information that's intellectual and irreverent—no skips. Whether it's film, music, art, food or the culture full stop, UpRising will serve as the starting point to your deep dives.



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