In the South Bronx in the 1970s, hip-hop culture was just beginning to form at large musical gatherings called jams. In abandoned buildings packed with people, a group of DJs developed techniques like sampling, breakbeats, scratching, cutting, and backspinning. But news of a jam didn’t spread by word of mouth alone: Low-fi, photocopied flyers made from Letraset, markers, cut-up photographs, and glue were distributed by hand, traveling fast along the uptown streets. Geometric shapes and action lines merged with collages of artists performing, conveying the energy of whatever night—perhaps emceed by The Sugarhill Gang, Doug E. Fresh, or DJ Kool Herc—was being promoted.
A large portion of these flyers were the work of PHASE 2, a young artist from the Bronx who was becoming known as one of the best aerosol writers in the city, and who could often be found DJing, dancing, or rapping at the local nights. Recognizing a lack of promotional material surrounding jams, PHASE 2 asked hip-hop pioneer Grandmaster Flash if he could design a flyer for an upcoming event. The rest is history. His flyers went well beyond pure promotional material, drawing influence from Art Deco, Jack Kirby comic books, Romare Bearden paintings, and manga. While April Greiman was initiating the “New Wave” on the West Coast, PHASE 2 was having similar impulses on the east, pushing legibility, breaking the grid (as if a grid mattered to him to begin with), and working predominantly with sans serif type. In the mid ’80s, PHASE 2 began art directing and co-editing (alongside founder David Schmidlapp) the notorious street writing and subway art publication IGTimes. Its international distribution brought New York–style writing to city streets worldwide. Today, PHASE 2 works as a fine artist, creating skateboard decks and prints, and most recently working with vinyl.
PHASE 2’s layouts helped to define the aesthetics of the hip-hop movement. Yet while hip-hop evolved from a small music scene of Black youth in the Bronx to the worldwide phenomenon it is today, his influential designs never quite made it into the annals of design history. There’s no mention of him in Meggs’ History of Graphic Design by Philip Meggs or Graphic Style by Steven Heller, the history books that tend to make it into design school curricula. And it’s not like PHASE 2’s work is difficult to come by, either.
As a party flyer designer in the early 2000s, I stumbled upon PHASE 2’s designs on small hip-hop blogs, and his compositions became deeply influential on my work. In 2014, while researching these flyers in graduate school, I came across Cornell University’s hip-hop archive, which houses hundreds of early party flyers. After curating a show on the history of African-American design practitioners for Maryland Institute College of Art, which featured many of PHASE 2’s flyers, I began a series of email exchanges with contemporary designers for whom PHASE 2 has been a major influence. Eventually, I connected with the man himself. What follows is our conversation, which I hope can express the level of value that I find in PHASE 2’s words of wisdom, his dedication to his beliefs, and the genius of his graphic design.
What inspired you to begin creating artwork growing up in the Bronx?
Long story short, I grew up on music—older sister’s music, mom’s music, the radio. That’s my first love. I wanted to be a radio DJ. So I think it was only natural that I played music even before we called it hip-hop. I basically did it all: danced, created dances, emceed, threw jams, and eventually promoted.
I appreciate that you recognize the flyer designs we did as “graphic art” and not just some hip-hop stuff done by train dudes. I was drawing when the train culture didn’t even exist. Technically, I’ve been making art for a lifetime. I’ve always looked at the flyers as ads. That was my initial reason to do them.
Did you have any other art training outside of aerosol writing?
No. Actually if not for piecing, painting really isn’t my forte. I like to draw and draft. With a ballpoint pen, by the way.
What characterizes hip-hop to you?
It’s a gumbo. That’s what always made it different from what came before. It’s an extension of our past culture… taken to another level. It’s life, it’s evolution. It’s life and flavor.
Whom would you credit as the first artist to create a flyer for hip-hop culture?
Well, the whole “first” thing is always tricky. The first hip-hop flyers that I consistently saw were for Kool Herc’s earlier ’70s jams, even before the term was insinuated. And, as I remember, they were by a brother named Kareem, and then it’s like he disappeared.
I will put it this way: When I went to Grandmaster Flash’s manager to suggest making flyers to advertise their jams, there really wasn’t anything like that happening, and that’s why I suggested it. What you did have were big Merengue posters by Salsa Kenny and Izzy Sanabria, but we weren’t really promoting jams on any real level like that. I thought that it made sense to, so I started doing flyers for Flash, and then the wave came behind it.
Who else did you make graphic design work for?
Besides the flyers, I was promoting the culture, making logos for Mike & Dave Records of Cash Crew fame. Starting in 1981, I designed logos for the Crash Crew and did a slew of logos for Europe Ones NYC Rap Tour Poster in 1982, and created the original Tuff City Records logo in that same year. I also did the Fast Money LP for Mike & Dave.
Later on, there was the Boogie Boys Romeo Knight LP. Using different approaches, I did work with Rawkus Records and Definitive Jux, Company Flow, KRS-One, DJ Spinna, El-P, and did a bunch of posters overseas for Soulee B’s flavor of the year jams in Bologna. There’s definitely a love and addiction to creating them.
Was there a community of flyer designers at the time? Was there any competition or collaboration?
It’s kind of a yes and no. Some of us did know one another and actually chilled at times. I knew Buddy Esquire, Anthony Riley, and Sisco Kid. There’s those who I considered the major league and some that just dabbled in it. A good handful of them were super dope tag-team partners. I did a couple of collabs but mostly did my own flyers in an array of styles. I’d never say it made me “better,” but I feel that versatility really separated me from the overall pack. We’d compliment one another when a flyer was just killing it.
Your collages and layouts are so dope. Can you give me an idea of your process from start to finish?
I love photography, so I’m pretty particular about the pictures I use. I gather them up and basically ad-lib from my mind’s eye, I guess. I imagine that particular influences crept in from all types of things that I saw growing up. Maybe from Kirby to Romare Bearden. Art Deco and slick LP art.
Where did the photography come from? And how did you print multiples of the flyers?
At that time a lot of the collage pictures and the artists’ pics were from my own archives or given to me by the artists or whoever was throwing the jams. Other pics, maybe from magazines. To print the flyers I’d accompany Mike (of Mike & Dave Records) and take the flyer masters way uptown in the Bronx to a very professional print pro named Larry. He was really tedious with the masters. They printed for big companies like Hasbro. It was great: He apparently really respected the work. He put his expertise into it and even asked one day, “Who the heck does this stuff?”
Can you share a memory of putting together a flyer? Who was it for, and how did the jam turn out? How did people respond?
Hmm, that’s a tough one. I can just say that it was always an adventure. There was a lot of anticipation as to how certain jams would turn out. But I can recall giving out the December 31, 1981 Borough Boogie-Thon flyer, and just from looking at it, someone said something like: “What is this? Yo, I’m going to it!” That was type crazy. But it spoke to the whole purpose of doing them.
Also a different style flyer, The Audubon Ballroom Flash vs. Cash Crew, was pretty slick. I’m not going to proclaim that the flyer brought the crowd in, but as far as attendance, that was one of the craziest hip-hop parties I’ve ever been to. The Audubon was jam-packed from the stage almost to the entrance, and Flash didn’t even show. But no one seemed to care.
Can you talk about how you applied the typography?
At one time I didn’t have access to the better press type. So I just had to do it with what I had. Stick-on letters are a trip. Letraset, Chartpak markers, and other rub-off letters were easy to maneuver efficiently.
What inspired the composition of the type?
I was looking forward to trying to create something fresh. On a technical note, it kind of always depends on the amount of info. How many acts, and of course there was a title. Odd or even numbers of acts would determine placement. I like things to look balanced, so I started to make flyers where I would repeat the info on each side. Jumping letters and doubling words were just a matter of feeling.
What tools did you use?
Outside of a ruler, anything that I could make a shape with when needed. I honestly couldn’t say that there was a basic process, besides just figuring out how much space I would need for info or pictures, on top of my mood. I was always amped. I’d say by ’81, I’d perfected a particular style and technique. At this point, I was doing tons of flyers and they were just on another level compared to the earlier ones.
What were your influences and inspirations when you created these flyers?
Partly a love for music and being involved in parties, and wanting to make them known in a bigger way. That’s even how getting pictures from the artists came in. “Let’s do it like the pros,” so to speak. Even though they were pretty crude at first, I had free rein to create in my own way. Phrases, intros, and such. Like “The Founders of Funk.” Mike and I would come up with titles like “Rockathon” and “Funkathon.” It was strictly about drawing the crowd, not just the design.
Are these flyers the only way that hip-hop events were promoted? Were there large posters at all?
Posters, definitely. Mike usually would be the one to have them made up. But I’d say once it started, it was pretty imperative to have flyers. Big or small. They were in demand. To the degree of someone knocking at your door at 11:30 at night. Seriously.
People would knock on your door at 11:30pm for a flyer?
Well, usually they would call unexpectedly, probably in desperation. The hypsters would like to make everything seem like we live under the gun; it would sound better for to me to say they’d come to my door with a pistol in their waistband, but it wasn’t that critical. I knew everyone, so…
So what would happen?
Ring, ring… “It’s Tiny… I really, really, really, really, really, need a flyer, P.” So what am I going to do? Ha! Know what I mean?
Can you tell me more about the way you designed IGTimes? What were your artistic goals?
Artistically I was trying to create something slick. Mind you, using photos in layers isn’t like using pics from zines. Because of their thickness. So that was different. On the content end, the science that Dave [Schmidlapp, founder] dropped was what drew me to the paper. After the dismissal of the less concerned heads, we were on some next kebob. All the way around the board. Basically we were dropping kamikaze news and mind states that were meant for whoever was hip to reality. No holds barred and not for the marshmallow-in-denial types. It was the source before the source. Kicking state of the state of the state. Even before I popped in: music, art, politics, life. Peace to Bronx Style Bob, wherever you are.
In hip-hop, like with a lot of art movements, there are people who originated an aesthetic, but then it gets added to by a community of artists. Are you concerned with being credited when your style is used by others?
As far as “imitating” the style, for me, it’s more of a big deal when people assume that the style is someone else’s. If someone emulates the whole style overall, it’s cool to a certain degree. But not when they know the influence and pretend not to know who it came from. Or they hire someone to do that style as opposed to getting it from the source, and then it goes unrecognized. And heads do know.
The artwork for Dave Chappelle’s Block Party and The Get Down Netflix series were clearly inspired by your work. Are you the originator of this style? What particular elements make this style yours?
I call it “Funky Nous Deco,” no doubt. It was my approach to eventually combine those elements—the stars, symmetry, circles, squares—in a particular fashion, even with things like silhouettes. That’s become somewhat of a staple and hip-hop trademark. I saw the Block Party poster in the street and thought that it was something of mine. It’s a style that is recognized as and definitely spells hip-hop. I’d say that the proof is right there. Then and even to this day, if you see a chronology of flyers in this type of style, you’d find that it’s pretty evident that I implemented it. Nike had someone run with it more or less, as well as Adidas. And surely VH1 Hip Hop Honors.
I spent years as a party flyer designer in NYC between 2006 and 2012. This is around the time that I first discovered your work on hip-hop blogs online, and it taught me how to work with photography in a new way, and arrange text in more compelling compositions. I feel like your work should be studied.
I knew that people were without a doubt using the style that l used in hip-hop flyers to promote certain affairs and brands that appeal to youth and the hip-hop population, so to speak. So evidently they had to “study” it. But l would never have thought that it had an influence and effect to the degrees and levels that you speak on. It’s pretty crazy to know this.
How would you feel about your methods and aesthetics being taught in an academic setting?
I don’t know. When you use the word “studied,” it becomes questionable to me. Mainly because from what I’ve seen, people who don’t have a clue tend to stretch their imagination and theoretics far beyond what the actual factual reality is. Such is the case in almost everything written in hip-hop’s so-called “history.” I remember this collage that I did that was reproduced in a book. It was broken down, with the hows and whys explained, supposedly by me. I’d never said anything in respect to its construction.
With hip-hop, it’s some Tarzan-of-the-Jungle type nonsense, with a tinge of the butcher Christopher Columbus tossed in. We already know what came after that. The way I see it, it’s like time is repeating itself in a different way. As opposed to the hip-hop masses being wiped out, the integrity of its reality and past is being raped and massacred.
What wisdom can you bestow upon a young designer, like me, and anyone else reading this?
From an “artist’s standpoint,” I think just to be naturally original and flow with what you feel in the moment.
But for a “rule” of sorts? Have the mind to know and be recognized as dope! Know what you’re best at. Commercially, there’s too much cloning as opposed to being influenced and taking those influences to another level.
Is there anything else that you’d like to share?
Yes. When it comes to your wanting to know the history: You have to research way beyond the research, because for whatever array of factors throughout the ages, too much of what’s been presented, written, and supposedly documented as our origins from aerosol to hip-hop is far from our reality. It’s a mish-mosh of sorts. And it’s not that difficult to see if you look further.
Also, recognize that your passion and love can’t compensate for having the necessary knowledge. And when you don’t have the true knowledge, what you advocate for and relay in respect to the culture could actually be more of a detriment to its legacy and integrity. There are really no “experts” here. There’s only fact and fiction. Sad, but true. The question is: Who is keeping it real?
This article is excerpted from the fourth issue of Eye on Design magazine. Pick up a copy of Eye on Design #04, the “Worth” issue, for more stories that question the way we value design—measured in money, power, influence, and feelings.