Virgil Abloh’s History in Music

·11 min read
Image via Getty/Victor Boyko
Image via Getty/Victor Boyko

The world has lost a creative genius. On Sunday, November 28, Virgil Abloh passed away at the age of 41 in his hometown of Chicago. According to a statement released on his Instagram account, Abloh had been privately battling a rare form of cancer for more than two years. Abloh is survived by his wife Shannon Ablooh, two children, and his family and friends.

In addition to being a husband, father, brother, and friend to many, Abloh was professionally known as a designer who disrupted the landscape of the fashion world. Though many are familiar with his Off-White and Louis Vuitton designs, he also had a long history in music. Throughout his career, Abloh made a conscious effort to bridge the gap between fashion and music, while pursuing careers as a designer, entrepreneur, artist, and DJ.

As a teen, he pursued a path as a DJ, and even after he pivoted to fashion, he kept DJing at parties and events, and heavily incorporated music in his shows. Some of the biggest stars in music, including Kanye West, Rihanna, and ASAP Rocky, showed up in the front row at his shows. And he’s previewed unreleased rap music, launched soundtrack series, designed album artwork, directed music videos, and more.

In loving memory of Virgil Abloh, take a look at what he was able to accomplish in music below.

1990s: Virgil Abloh begins DJing at house parties and small events

Abloh began DJing in the late ’90s when he was in high school. He cites A-Trak, Roc Raida, Invisibl Skratch Piklz, and more as early sources of inspiration when he was starting out. While Abloh has since discovered other passions and creative outlets, he says that DJing has always offered him his only peace of mind.” In an interview with The Guardian in 2016, he explained, “When the phone is off, I play my favorite songs really loud for myself, and I’m not talking to anyone. I’m not managing anything. It’s just like a time when I can listen to music… I’ll be DJing after I’m done designing or doing anything else.”

2010s: Oversees art direction for many high-profile albums

Virgil met Kanye West in the early 2000s, and collaborated on projects like 808s & Heartbreak, but it wasn’t until 2010 that he would assume an official position as the creative director of Kanye’s DONDA creative house. Over the years—both as part of his work with DONDA and outside personal projects—he oversaw art direction for many high-profile albums, including Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye West and JAY-Z’s Watch the Throne, G.O.O.D. Music’s Cruel Summer, Kanye West’s Yeezus, Kid Cudi’s WZRD, Big Sean’s Finally Famous, ASAP Rocky’s Long.Live.ASAP, Pusha-T’s My Name Is My Name, Lil Wayne’s I Am Not a Human Being II, Theophilus London’s Vibes, Pusha-T’s Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude, Big Sean’s Dark Sky Paradise, Lil Uzi Vert’s Luv Is Rage 2, and many more. He also served as creative director for live events, like Kanye West’s Yeezus Tour.

2011: Earns Grammy nomination for ‘Watch the Throne’ artwork

DONDA was the creative house that produced the artwork for Kanye and JAY-Z’s Watch the Throne, and as the creative director of the company, Abloh took the lead. The artwork featured religious iconography by Riccardo Tisci, who was the creative director of Givenchy at the time. The artwork earned Abloh his first Grammy nomination for Best Recording Package, although he did not win. The award went to Caroline Robert, who was the art director for Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs deluxe edition.

September 2013: Co-directs ASAP Rocky’s “Fashion Killa” music video

In late 2013, ASAP Rocky dropped the music video for “Fashion Killa.” The video, which was co-produced by Rocky and Abloh, featured a special appearance by Rihanna as the female lead and a cameo from ASAP Ferg. The video represented one of Abloh first major music video directing opportunities.

2015: Plays then-unreleased Kanye West single “Fade” in London

In 2015, Virgil leveraged his music connections to take his DJing to the next level. Fans got a preview of Kanye’s then-unreleased single “Fade” during his Yeezy Season 2 fashion show in September 2015, but Virgil treated fans to the full version of the song during a DJ set in London two months later.

2016 (ongoing): Releases fashion show soundtrack mixes

Virgil always made a point to incorporate music in his fashion shows. In addition to playing new singles from major artists, Abloh also created soundtracks for his shows that he released on SoundCloud under the name, Paris, IL. The soundtracks ranged from techno to rap and often feature hip-hop artists. Abloh also made a point of filling the seats at his shows with artists like the Migos, Travis Scott, Rihanna, ASAP Rocky, Kanye West, Pop Smoke, and many more.

PARIS, IL · OFF-WHITE FW20 MENS RUNWAY SHOW SOUNDTRACK

May 2017: Opens for Travis Scott on New York leg of Birds Eye View Tour

Virgil’s “return” to music picked up momentum second half of the 2010s. In 2017, he was tapped to open as a DJ for Travis Scott during his stops in New York City on the Birds Eye View Tour. During his set at New York City’s Terminal 5, Abloh played a medley of hip-hop and rock music from XXXTentacion to ASAP Rocky to Lil Uzi Vert to Aerosmith. Abloh also sold exclusive Off-White merchandise at the venue.

September 2017: Directs Lil Uzi Vert’s “XO Tour Life” music video

Abloh worked very closely with Lil Uzi Vert on his Love Is Rage 2 album, designing the cover art and directing a music video for “XO Tour Life.” He noted that his work with Uzi was part of a “conscious effort to get back to music projects.” The album cover features an image of Uzi in the middle of two strips of industrial-style duct tape in the shape of an “X,” with words like “tape” and Abloh “Off-White” written in his signature quotation marks. “That Off-White™ tape is an additive to the content and it’s emblematic of just how we think,” Abloh told The FADER at the time. Much like working on the cover, Abloh said directing Uzi’s music video came together organically. “It’s my return to directing videos again,” he said of the project. “That’s dropping very soon. These covers are a prequel to in-depth creative back-and-forth using all of our different assets. He believes in me and I believe in him and it’s us doing this crash of things that are in our own head.”

June 2018: Kid Cudi, Playboi Carti, and Dev Hynes walk in Virgil’s Louis Vuitton debut; BadBadNotGood plays Kanye cover during show

In 2018, Virgil was appointed as the artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s Menswear. For his first LV show in Paris, Abloh invited a slew of rappers to walk the runway as well as attend the show. Kid Cudi, Playboi Carti, Steve Lacy, and Dev Hynes were among the models who walks the runway at the Palais Royal. Attendees also included ASAP Rocky, Rihanna, and Kanye West. A photo of Abloh and West tearfully hugging went viral shortly after the show concluded. During the show, Virgil also had BadBadNotGood play a cover of Kanye West’s “Ghost Town.”

July 2018: Releases first EP, ‘ORVNGE,’ with Boys Noize

After DJing and assisting other artists on their projects, Virgil dropped his first EP in collaboration with German producer Boys Noize. The project, titled ORVNGE, is a three-track project that experiments with alternative and techno sounds. Boys Noize told Complex that the EP was created during a “live jam” in his Berlin studio. “One day we were just sitting in the studio, sharing ideas and playing each other tracks,” he said. “I have a lot of drum machines and synthesizers, and a modular system, and I was just showing him some stuff. He was playing around with the drum machine, and he started making a drum pattern with it. We both were already headbanging to it. We basically had a live jam. It sounds a little cheesy, but we really liked playing around with all the machines at the same time. We had this rhythm going.

September 2018: Virgil collaborates with London artist Octavian on ‘Spaceman’ mixtape

London artist Octavian tapped Virgil to create the cover art for his forthcoming album, Spaceman. The artwork, which was created in collaboration with Armin Druzanovic and Michael Phan, features two crossed swords before a starry night sky.

November 2018: Plays DJ sets at Camp Flog Gnaw and Astroworld Fest

Tyler, the Creator tapped Virgil to perform a DJ set during the seventh annual Camp Flog Gnaw Festival at the end of 2018. During Abloh’s set, he played a medley of top hits from rap to alternative. The same month, he played another DJ set at Travis Scott’s Astroworld Festival in Houston.

April 2019: Previews new song from Drake and Swae at Coachella

During the final weekend of Coachella 2019, Virgil surprised fans by previewing a snippet of a Drake and Swae Lee collaboration. The song would later be released as “Won’t Be Late.”

July 2019: Begins DJ residency at XS Nightclub

While Abloh’s fashion empire continued to take over the industry, he still carved out time for DJing. In an interview with WWD, Abloh announced his DJ residency at XS Nightclub in Las Vegas. He became one of the many artists from the hip-hop community to be tapped for Vegas residencies in 2019 behind Drake, Cardi B, and G-Eazy. “Pushing the boundaries of where art, fashion and music collide has been a driving force behind our success, where every experience we present to guests first passes a litmus test for originality,” Wynn Nightlife managing partner Alex Cordova told WWD. “We are honored to be working with such a visionary who appreciates the impact of artistry, and applies it to everything he does.”

July 2019: Previews new ASAP Rocky song “Frankenstein” at Germany’s Melt Festival

Abloh’s DJ sets usually highlight his eclectic music tastes, but he also takes the time to share unreleased music from his rap friends and collaborators. Just months after previewing Drake and Swae Lee’s collaboration, Abloh struck again, teasing a collaboration from ASAP Rocky and Swedish House Mafia during the Melt Festival in Germany. The single, titled “Frankenstein,” was previewed by both Virgil and Swedish House Mafia, in support of Rocky, who was being detained in Sweden due to a physical altercation.

February 2020: Westside Gunn and Roc Marciano’s “Perfect Plex” concludes Off-White Paris fashion show

Abloh concluded his Fall 2020 Off-White show in Paris with Roc Marciano and Westside Gunn’s “Perfect Plex.” After the show, Griseselda’s Westside Gunn gushed on Instagram: “Virgil invited me to Paris and had me a part of the Off-White FW show. Shit is crazy because this is one of the most influential people of my life and inspired me to even start Griselda by Fashion Rebels. I’m forever grateful!! Sat front row with Migos, Pop Smoke, Tyga, J Balvin while my song played is a dope feeling especially because he surprised me. I didn’t even know he was gonna play my shit. I had to celebrate by smoking the biggest blunt in front of the Louvre while paparazzi took a million pics.”

March 2020: Launches International Rap Video Production Studio, drops video for “Shake the Room” by Pop Smoke and Quavo

In March 2020, Abloh launched the Off-White International Rap Video Production Studio. For the brand’s inaugural project, Virgil directed the music video for Pop Smoke and Quavo’s collaboration, “Shake the Room,” which was released on March 28. Abloh, Pop Smoke, and Quavo were previously spotted at the Off-White show in Paris, which is when the music video was recorded. “[Pop Smoke’s] impact will live on thru the art he left us,” he wrote in a caption on Instagram. “In this case it was the night after the Louis show while we had the cameras rolling inside and outside a typical French restaurant in my neighborhood.”

2020: Launches ‘Watercolor’ Jazz Hours Live DJ sets on YouTube

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, Abloh teamed up with visual artist George Condo to launch “Watercolor,” Jazz Hours, an ongoing series of DJ sets on YouTube. In an announcement on Instagram, Abloh explained that “every session of songs is inspired by an original painting [Condo] text me.” The series featured weekly guests, artist performances, and viewer interactions on the Televised Radio Network YouTube channel.

May 2021: Launches “Imaginary Radio” show

In the spring, Abloh launched his monthly internet radio show, “Imaginary Radio,” on London’s Worldwide FM. The two hour show featured several DJ sets and interviews with musicians and other creatives. Early guests on the show included Omar-S and Alex Sowinski of BadBadNotGood. Abloh also shared his own DJ mixes on the show which he described as a mix of “jazzy ambient and meditative” sounds.