Who can really explain hip-hop's contrived interest in the art world lately? On Magna Carter Holy Grail, Jay Z included the track “Picasso Baby." On “Drunk in Love,” his duet with wife Beyoncé, Jay rapped, “Foreplay in the foyer, fucked up my Warhol.” Influential New York City artist Basquiat's influence is all over Jay's album-length collaboration with Kanye West, Watch the Throne — he's name-dropped specifically on "That's My Bitch." No matter what you may think of these songs individually, most can see how weird it sounds for a culture historically embodied by hardship to suddenly extol million-dollar paintings.

In comes Naturel, a graphic designer who mixes hip-hop and art in a seamless and organic way. His work is based heavily in hip-hop culture — he even named a piece “Tupacsquiat” — because hip-hop informed his personal identity from a very early age.

Born to an aircraft mechanic in Guam, Lawrence Atoigue a.k.a. Naturel can remember loving music and art as a child. After his father’s work was completed in Guam, Naturel’s family moved to Prince George’s County, Maryland, a place Naturel says afforded few opportunities for kids on the come-up. He persevered and landed a spot at Brooklyn's Pratt Institute, where he learned what it takes to become a graphic designer.

A long way from home, Naturel's first solo exhibition, “To Die For,” opens tonight (July 10) at its temporary home in Dame Dash’s gallery, appropriately named Poppington. The show will be open to the public for one month. Some pieces are on sale at AllBurgundy.com.

We chopped it up with Naturel on the eve of his opening to talk about making his way, working with LeBron, and what advice he'd give to kids who hope to one day make a living as artists.

You started rapping at 10 years old and you started getting into art when you were 14. How did you choose to bring both of those passions together?

I think I started getting introduced to the culture early on when I was 10. Before that I had a rich musical background — my father was in a band. My living room was his studio, and there was tons of instruments around, and I used to go over there to play with his records, and fuck them up. I would see the record covers and I would see the art and all of the illustrative parts of the art. You know, the Earth Wind and Fire, the Ohio Players, and the Santana stuff. To me, the music and the art was the same thing because it came in the same package, and I didn't know the difference between them. It kind of carried on when I first started getting into hip-hop: First it was the Fat Boys and NWA, and after that, when I first started to really get into it, my first record was Doggystyle by Snoop. When I came across that record it was everything for me — the art, the sound, the music, and the style. For me, I knew I wanted to do that moving forward, I wanted to do the music part and I wanted to do the art part. I wanted to do everything.

You ground your teeth working at places like G-unit, Akademics, Ecko, and Rocawear. I know it’s not as glamorous as it sounds and it’s a lot of hard work. How did working at those places really help shape you as a professional artist?

Yeah, it’s not at all glamorous. In high school I wanted to do the art cover thing so I found out what the profession was called [graphic designer], so I went to one of the top schools to do it. From there I learned illustration, sculpture, and painting. It kind of really turned me out to just being an all around artist. It was early on [in college] and everyone started getting internships when two of my homies, one who was working for Ecko and the other for Triple Five Soul clothing, kind of groomed me with the illustration stuff at the dorms. One of my homies Raf hooked me up with an internship at Triple Five Soul clothing, so I started working that and I learned the clothing game. I met some of my mentors through it, some of who I still look up to today. My homegirl Lanie [Alabanza-Barcena] from Hellz Bellz, I was her intern, one day we were out to lunch and she was like, “Yo, you don’t have to go to school anymore.” I said, “What are you talking about?” and she said, “Just drop out.” I was like, “Alright, cool.”

So I did and for a whole week I didn’t have a job, but at the end of that week they finally hired me as an assistant. I worked my way all the way up — it was a necessity thing, I had to pay rent. The clothing thing was just another vessel to carry out the graphic stuff at that time. I was just trying to learn everything. It wasn’t about the end game at all, it was about, Can I get type down? Can I get illustrations? Can I learn these programs? Can I learn how to construct clothes? So from there I worked my way up to Creative Director and then moved on to Rocawear as a junior and worked my way up to senior. During that time I would freelance for everyone I would meet at the parties at nighttime. So I worked for Akademics, G-unit, and a couple of others. Anything to get a quick $2,000 or $3,000. All along I was still doing music stuff, or trying to.

Are you still doing music stuff today?

Not as recently. Before, when I was working for the clothing brands, I needed that other outlet to put my ideas to work. Now it feels like I’m rapping with these [points to artwork]. That’s how it kind of all comes together with the music stuff. It’s like I’m part DJ, part producer, part rapper, all the way artist. I reference a lot of rappers, but I feel like this is my take on it.

I know a lot of kids at Pratt come from affluent families and have been studying art their entire lives. So, how was it for you at Pratt coming from a humble background and a hip-hop culture when so many of the other kids there were so different than you?

It was awesome. I’m from Prince George’s County, Maryland right next to Landover. In that county there’s no real outlets for kids, either you play ball or you stay there. Nobody is really getting out of that situation. I was into art and went to the art school in the county, but I was so used to not really having a lot of outlets, just school. When I came up to college, me and these other kids weren’t speaking the same language. The learning curve was crazy and the culture shock was crazy. I didn’t focus on that though, I focused on the amount of opportunities I had.

So you weren't intimidated by it?

Nah, I loved it. I was in four or five different clubs and even ran a couple of them. I had two campus jobs, I had a retail job on Broadway, and school was just a big opportunity to me. I did a lot just because I could do it. Back home our school system just pushed people through, and that’s not really fruitful for anybody. Nobody wants to learn and nobody is there to learn anything. There was a few of us that got together after school [in college] and would go for the same grants and scholarships, and a few of those people became some of my closest friends, even today. We were all from the same types of backgrounds and we worked hard.

Snoop was one of your favorite rappers. Who were other rappers that influenced you growing up?

Snoop was big. Bone Thugs, Mos Def, Cash Money, I always loved The Roc, Wu-Tang, but basically everybody. I had a phase for everything.

So who’s at the top of your list right now?

Top of the list right now is Dom Kennedy.

I can see that, you have a real laid back vibe going on and Dom fits that perfectly.

Yeah, Dom, Kendrick and Schoolboy Q. Like, a lot of people from L.A.

You’ve worked with big time celebrities such as Rihanna and LeBron James. You’re also here at Dame Dash’s gallery. On the celebrity level who do you truly respect and want to work with that you haven’t already?

Well, first I want to work with Dame more [he laughs as Dame Dash walks by], but I would say Kanye and his camp. Like Virgil and Don C. They follow my work so it’s crazy when they like something of mine. I like how tight they keep things and how they line certain things up. I’ve made acquaintances with Nicky Diamonds, and I like folks like that. For bigger celebrities I don't have anyone else in mind.

You basically created a timeline with all of LeBron’s sneakers up to the time with your signature vector art. LeBron liked it so much he shouted it out on Instagram and I’ve seen it hundreds of times from different places already. The last time I checked on Instagram that photo had 131,000 Likes on LeBron’s profile. How did you feel when LeBron put that up on Instagram knowing that he doesn’t give out too many cosigns?

Woah. I mean, for two or three years I was doing freelance for clothing companies and start-up brands, and that was paying the bills. I did it to the point where I couldn’t do that anymore — I couldn’t launch somebody else’s ideas anymore. I was burnt out. I really rode that out until I couldn't do it anymore and I made the decision to put in the time to make my own ideas work. You know, put in the 30 minutes between emails or before I go to sleep at night to do my own work. I started to do it and I started to take notice of other illustrators putting up their own work to be sold. So I was like, “Woah, I can do that.” I had my site Allburgundy.com and put it up for sale and six months went by and nobody bought shit. I dropped all of my clients and for six months I was eating Ramen noodles and shit like that, but I knew I was doing what I wanted. I wanted my ideas to come to fruition.

I got a call from Max Vogel, an illustrator I truly look up to, and he told me he really liked what I was doing and that he had a project come across his desk for Nike, which he needed some help with. I just said, “Yeah, sure,” mostly because I really needed a gig at the time. We sat down and he told me he had the LeBron project he was working on and that my aesthetic fit perfectly with the shoe. So he showed me the shoe and asked me for 13 illustrations and some portraits. I freelanced at their office for a week and I kind of just did it to be in the space with some of the bigger illustration artists that I looked up to and to work in side by side with them. The minute it hit Nike they were getting so many good reviews that they kept me in mind and wanted to use me for other things. Eventually they made it a physical campaign in Miami and asked for me to fly down to meet LeBron. Everyone does work for LeBron and he doesn’t ever really post it, so for me to be the new cat and for him to know me, it felt, wow, I guess he just really appreciated it.

That’s really cool. I noticed you work with a lot of brands and are obviously getting paid a decent amount for your great work. How do you convey your creativity and ideas to brands and balance out the work they want you to do? I’m sure it must be difficult to tell a brand, “No, this way is better than what you guys want,” especially when they’re paying you $10,000 to work for them.

It’s always a battle. Companies see something moving and they want to attach themselves to it. That’s great, it happens all over the place, but sometimes if you have a creative vision and you have to put it out there for them to see it. At times I’ll put out what they want to see against what I want to see so I’ll put two things on the table for them. Sometimes, I might just pull the okie-doke and show them what I want. It’s definitely tough when you have other people’s agendas. At the end of the day it’s commercial art.

I noticed the other day you posted a piece on Instagram called “Tupacsqiuat” and briefly described it. I’m not the biggest fan of Basquiat’s work or his trendiness in today’s culture, but it genuinely felt like you really tried to tell a story with the piece. Could you explain a little more about it?

The crazy part is that I wasn’t a big Basquiat fan either. I didn’t follow him, I didn’t like his stuff, I didn’t like any of that. That project was on the heels of the Biggie and Picasso project and everyone had the idea of a follow-up, but with Tupac this time. I just said a joke amongst my team like, “Yo, why don’t we just do Tupacsquiat,” and they all thought it was dope. It kind of got out of hand with them, and I had to tell them I wasn’t serious. They talked me into it and I went and did my due diligence and research. I was already well-versed on Tupac so I really only had to check out Basquiat. As I was researching, I found big respect for him just because his work is so instinctual. In art school they teach you to think. It’s great to learn how to think like that, and I critically think with my own work but Basquiat was sheer output. The way ideas just poured out of him, there was just no reservation. This is what I want to do.

What's the most emotional a piece has made you? Has any work you’ve done made you cry?

I don’t think any of my work has driven me to tears, but there's a piece in this show that I worked on for a week. For me that’s an eternity. I had to balance out a lot of other work and doing this big piece. There was real high emotion. I kind of got lost in the whole process of doing it.

Is that the piece you want all of your homies to see at the "To Die For" Exhibition?

Yes, definitely, that’s the one. It kind of shows everything for me. There’s a little bit of lust, yearning, desire, rebellion, chilling, and there’s titties. There’s something for everybody in there.

The Poppington Art Gallery seems like the perfect place to hold your first solo show in NYC. How's it been working with them?

They’ve been so dope. This is my first real gallery show, and I wouldn't know how a show would run. They put me there and they’re letting me figure out the show and figure out the space. There’s galleries all around here, but you're not going to walk in and see Biggie pieces or rap references. We speak the same language. It’s a seamless type of thing for me to pop into here.

Cool, man. Last question: You're basically just a cool dude who isn’t scared to make money off of his artwork. A lot of people believe that art should be free. So, what do you have to say to kids studying art in college who are told, “You’re not going to make it. You’re not going to make any money.”

No shots at any professors, but they’re not the ones that are making careers off of art. You have to be on a mission to go out and do it. I work like I deserve it and I’ve put work in for everybody else’s ideas but mine. Now that I have the podium and people are interested in my ideas, there’s no going back. You shouldn’t be scared to sell anything because you buy everything. Some careers get stunted because people are so “artsy.” That’s cool but there’s so much money out here to get and everyone can get what they want. You just have to put out what you want and you can get it back.