Art Director Jas Bell, AKA Leonardo Chop, Talks Working With SZA, Launching Hazelwood and More
Interview by Michael D. Monroe.
His journey to visionary storyteller in music began on the periphery of hip-hop greats. Jas Bell, also known as Leonardo Chop, began his story in music and fashion as a roadie for N.E.R.D. in the Glow in the Dark Tour. The 2008 tour contained a line-up of music’s greatest, from Pharell Williams to Nas and Rihanna. This experience exposed him to how great artists create.
The St. Louis native originally set his sights on becoming a musician, but eventually learned that making music wasn’t going to fulfill himself creatively. The 31-year-old storyteller stayed in close proximity to music and went to school for audio engineering after being a roadie for N.E.R.D. Fast forward nine years and the creative storyteller now works with one of the most defining artists of a generation: SZA. Jas Bell is the artist’s design lead and artistic director, as well as the founder of the streetwear brand Hazelwood.
He met SZA during her 2017 CTRL Tour. He designed a highly successful hoodie drop for rapper Smino who opened for one of SZA’s shows. After that concert, he was introduced to the “Good Days” artist and recalls how they instantly connected on a creative level. That connection led him to his first project with SZA, “Sustainability Gang.” It was a line of Ctrl-inspired sweatshirts where 100% of the proceeds went to efforts to protect the ocean. Since his and SZA’s creative connection five years ago, he has gone on to create merch for both of her albums, Ctrl and SOS, design and create the cover for “Good Days,” I Hate U” and SOS, while simultaneously working on his streetwear brand. When creating a merch drop or working on an album cover, the creative storyteller always makes sure he is creating for the artist, never him.
“I try to make sure the initial inspiration always stems from the artist or whoever I’m working with. I always build the foundation on who they are or what particular piece of art we’re working with,” Jas Bell said.
Working with one of the most culturally exquisite artists in the music industry, the designer and storyteller has learned many things from SZA. He says the music and fashion industries can be a place one easily gets, “caught in the traffic of everything,” but SZA has taught him to let things flow.
“There’s always this calmness that she gives. I don’t even know if she knows it.”
Staying calm about things is not what fans of SZA and Jas Bell did as they anticipated the drop of her sophomore album, SOS. The St. Louis native is in the full swing of this era and is in the final stages of creating the merch line for SOS. He said one of the greatest things he’s seen and worked on in this era is how SZA’s fans connect with her. Fans saw the St. Louis Blues hockey jersey on the album cover and exclaimed to the artist and Jas Bell that they needed to see this jersey in the merch drop. He’s happy to see that connection with her fans because they were initially not going to include the jersey in the soon-to-be-released merch.
The organic nature SZA has with her fans is something he has drawn inspiration from and what he puts into all of his work. The sustainable pieces he creates at Hazelwood are a representation of his journey to where he is now. What his clothes represent is what got him working with SZA. He hopes people understand through his work with SOS and Hazelwood that people need to trust the journey they are on and follow their intuition.
“I think if we lean into that and learn to embrace our differences, Earth could be an even more magical place,” Jas Bell said.
Check out the full interview with Jas Bell below.
You’re the founder of your own streetwear brand called Hazelwood. Tell me the story behind this brand. The story behind Hazelwood is one of following and trusting your journey. Oftentimes, we question our paths, but sometimes if we stay the course and follow our intuition, we’ll end up exactly where we’re supposed to be. Hazelwood is the work uniform for your journey. As people, we may all be different, but the one thing we have in common is we all have a journey we’re on. No matter what it may be, we’re on it. These pieces hopefully speak to your heart and fuel you along your journey.
You’ve described yourself as a Storyteller in the past. Where do you draw your inspiration from when creating for clients? I try to make sure the initial inspiration always stems from the artist or whoever I’m working with. I never look at it like I’m creating “for” them, but we’re creating together. No matter if they’re super engaged or hands off and let me do my thing. I always build the foundation on who they are or what particular piece of art we’re working with. So it’s always great to start with that, and then I add my vision along with it. I always want to be a vessel to and for whomever I’m working with.
Can you share a story with our readers about your experience working on SOS? In the early stages of working on SOS when we started the merch brainstorming, the jersey wasn’t initially in the line-up. That jersey was just supposed to be a thing for the cover. The fans lowkey kind of screamed at us that the jersey better be in the merch lineup (laughs). I think it’s so fire that her fans are so intrinsically connected to her that they’re involved in the creative process. It’s super organic. I love it.
Why should sustainability be on everybody’s minds? Sustainability should be on everyone’s mind because it’s that important. If we care anything about our home, our earth, and our planet it should be at the forefront. There’s not a day that goes by that earth doesn’t take care of us, so why aren’t we taking care of her? It’s something that’s imperative, and urgent. We’ve done enough damage, and some can blame that on a lack of knowledge. But we have all the info and data now. We have to do better.
What’s the best thing you’ve learned while working with SZA? There are so many, but I think one of the biggest ones for me is just to let things flow. Sometimes I get caught in the traffic of everything and get up in arms. (laughs). She handles everything with so much… Grace and patience. She’s always clutch in the 4th quarter man. There’s always this calmness that she gives. I don’t even know if she knows it. (laughs)
What brand would you love to see Hazelwood collaborate with? Of course, some of the brands and people I grew up idolizing would be ill. But everything will happen as it’s supposed to.
Without revealing the magic, what does a merch release look like from start to finish? It’s different every time. Sometimes ideas and strokes of inspiration just drop out of the sky from heaven and into our lap. Other times it’s a more thought-out type of thing. Which can be hard with so many things going on. Sometimes it’s a concise release with only a few core pieces, other times it may be something more expansive. So, each time I’ve created merch it’s been a different experience each time, I love that though.
Is there something you’re working on that we should know about? Well, we’re wrapping up stuff for the SOS Tour right now. New Hazelwood releases and restocks are on the horizon, so I’m in the office hyper-focusing on that.
The definition of Contrast is ‘to be strikingly different.’ What makes Jas Bell strikingly different? I think each of us are just that as a human race. Strikingly different. I think if we lean into that and learn to embrace our differences earth could be an even more magical place.
Favorite 3 songs of SOS? Damn, it changes depending on mood. As the album flows I find a new 3 songs I fall in love with all over again. Right now it’s Snooze, Smoking On My Ex Pack, and Love Language.
Favorite designer out right now? Has been and always will be Nigo.
Favorite merch line to work on? Def a tie between SOS Merch, and Good Days.