Interview by Troy L. Smith / Introduction by Sureshot La Rock
It’s no secret the birth of hip-hop was sparked by a desire for New York’s inner-city youth to lift their voices above the noise of their environment and be heard by the rest of society. It started with the DJs — Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, Breakout, Bambaataa, Flowers, Pete DJ Jones and Hollywood. Then MCs entered the game, forming crews like the legendary Cold Crush Brothers, Furious 5, Funky 4, Fantastic Romantic 5, Crash Crew, Magnificent 7 and Treacherous 3. And while much is known and continues to be uncovered about hip-hop’s musical pioneers, little has been written about its visual kingpins. No, not graffiti artists — their story is being, and continues to be, documented effectively by the graff community. What we’re talking about here are the creative minds behind hip-hop’s first currency: The flyer artists. Flyers are among the most elusive of all of hip-hop’s old school artifacts, and their importance cannot be overstated. They were the visual manifestation of the block’s word-of-mouth. On any given day in the early ’80s, you might have heard, “Yo, you hear Cold Crush is going to rock Harlem World tonight?” But it was the colorful handbills passed out around the neighborhood that would get the word out. Artists, venues, dates, times, locations, directions, damage — it was easy enough to list all of the information on 3-by-5 postcards. To have a really fly party, though, a flyer had to have flavor . . . style. It had to scream out “DON’T MISS THIS JAM!” That much is obvious. Dig a little deeper into the evolution of their style and production techniques and you’ll find a tale as engrossing as those told by hip-hop’s first DJs and MCs. Who were the artists? What were they trying to convey? How did they define their look? Why are they so hard to find? The questions go on . . . and on . . . and on . . . and . . . One of the answers to the first of these questions is the subject of this interview — Buddy Esquire, aka “King of the Flyers.” Buddy’s uncanny ability to marry form with function took flyer artistry to unprecedented heights. Take one look at his work and it’s fairly easy to see why he was one of the most sought-after and, ultimately, prolific artists back in the day. But it’s more than just clean lines and a dynamic flair that define his contribution to hip-hop. In Buddy’s masterpieces you’ll find the soul of hip-hop. You’ll see a young man’s desire to lift his voice above the crowd. And here are his words for all to be heard . . .
Where were you born and raised?
The Bronx, New York. I grew up in Monroe Projects. We moved in the projects when they were first built in 1961. I went to P.S. 100 on Taylor and Lafayette, then I.S. 131 on Bolton and Story. For a year I went to Clinton High School. I later went to Stevenson and I graduated.
When did you first hear hip-hop?
Around 1976. It was DJ Mario, who I heard first, and then Bambaataa. I went to a lot of outside jams and later on I got caught into the sounds of Breakout.
Did you ever DJ or MC?
DJing a little bit, but MCing nah. I never had the gift of gab, so to speak.
Were you trying to work out on the turntables through guys like Tony Tone?
Nah, I met Tony Tone through graffiti. He liked my style and thought I would be able to do flyers.
When did you start doing graffiti?
Late 1972. I tagged different names, but by the time I got to the train I was on my third or fourth name. I ended up with the abbreviation of Esquire [ESQ]. SHADE 2 was one of the early pioneers of writing that I met and I learned style from; he is not with us today.
What was your reason for writing on the trains and walls? Some people say it’s a message to the establishment and others say to be seen.
I fall under the order of I wanted to be seen. A friend of mine got me into it. From there I started going out tagging with him on trains and at the yards. I started in 1972, then after I got arrested my mother put me under punishment, which basically took the desire out of me for a while. I didn’t actually get arrested — I got a note sent to my house and I got put under punishment for half a summer, which wasn’t fun. The only time I went out was to the store, and I would take my marker with me and go tagging. See, as far as writing graffiti, you can have it really bad, to where it becomes like a disease.
Let’s talk about that disease, that urge.
I like to think that I am cured from it. During that time it was an anxious feeling. But at that time when the police busted me, my mother and father didn’t take all my markers because they didn’t know where they were all at. Back in the days the police would come to your house and look for your spray cans and markers and take them. When I got busted, that particular day I wasn’t writing but I was hanging with some writers. Let’s just say I was guilty by association, at least that is what the cops told me when they busted me. The police then took me to the station and wrote me up and then they sent a letter to my house. I didn’t know when it was coming to the house, but when my mother got it, moms and pops broke on me — they weren’t very pleased with the situation. They couldn’t find the stash of markers, so they hid my comic books. But as far as the obsession, it’s like an itch, a drive to want to do it, to want to get better, to want to work hard at it. When that time came, I graduated to the trains and I used to hit the Baychester layup. It was a crazy rush tagging inside and outside of the trains. By the early ’80s I was finished. I felt like there was no need for me to write because I was making flyers. People will see my name with that.
Many people say that graffiti is a part of hip-hop. I have to say I don’t see the connection. Do you see any relation between the two?
Oh boy, that’s going to be a difficult one. I can say it like this — there can be a relation and then it’s not! It all depends on who was doing the writing. If you talk to a white writer, he wasn’t into hip-hop. A Spanish writer, maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t. Now with the brothers . . . that’s a hard question. The only connection I see is rap and graffiti are both from the ghetto! A lot of the original writers from back in the days came from the ghetto, so maybe that is a way they can identify it as such. But since every writer is not from the ghetto, not every writer is going to associate themselves with that.
You have done over 300 flyers?
That would be about right. The first flyer I did was for a block party in the summer of 1977. It came out all right. The second one I ever made in my whole life, which was in November of 1978, came about because Tony Tone told me that the crew he was with, which was BREAKOUT, needed somebody to make their flyer. When I look at it now, I feel it’s a piece of crap. But I did it for BREAKOUT because they were having a jam at 131. What got it all started was in 1977 I started painting stuff on people’s clothes. Like names on jeans.
You were doing this before the flyers?
Yes. Around the middle ’70s my style was getting kind of decent, so I thought I would be able to draw letters. I went to the library and I took out a book on fine painting, where they talked about letters, proportions and layouts. Now I am talking about how a sign goes, not a flyer! I took a look at the book and I tried drawing some of the letters that were in the book and I said to myself hey I can do this stuff. What made me go to the library was when people would put paint on jeans and stuff it was either graffiti or some kind of sloppy-looking handwriting. I was figuring let me do it this way and that will make my stuff noticeable. And my way was doing it with the letters straight out — you know, nice, straight, even letters. People seen what I was doing and started wanting me to paint for them. After a while Tone mentioned the thing about the flyers and I told him I would give it a try. The first one I did they liked. After that I made flyers for them for two years straight.
How long did it take you to make a flyer?
For some of them I would say about six hours because it took work. Some a little less time because of less information. You can’t really give a flyer a couple of days because as soon as you get the information it’s a time limit involved for when you have to get that flyer done. I wouldn’t take more than two days to finish a flyer and that’s really pushing it.
Was anyone else making flyers in hip-hop?
PHASE 2 was making flyers for [Grandmaster] Flash.
Was PHASE 2 making flyers before you?
Yes! We were about a month apart and he may have been first. I was very impressed by it [PHASE 2’s work]. I like his work more than I like my own. It was very hard, but I tried to do stuff that was equal to his. Sometimes I touched it, sometimes I didn’t. The good thing about it is we were friends. Sometimes we would meet up at the Ecstasy Garage, sit around and talk about flyers — what he liked about my work and what I liked about his.
When did your brother Eddie Ed start making flyers?
He started making flyers after me. I used to make flyers for Bambaataa, but he used to want a lot of stuff on his flyers and after a while I got tired of making them. I figured hey I could get my brother to do this.
Were there different styles that you used? Like, would you tell one buyer, “All right, I am going to give you the block style,” and another person, “I will give you the Chinese style or the graffiti style”?
I would never make a flyer using the graffiti style — that’s one of the things I tried to get away from when I started making flyers. I felt I already did that, and graffiti is only presentable in so many ways and for so many purposes. It took some time, but I eventually created my own style. Back then I didn’t have any name for it, but today I would call it Neo Deco, and you know, the word Neo means new!
Did you get paid in advance or at the end of the show like many MCs and DJs?
Sometimes I would be lucky enough to get the money when I gave them the flyers; other times some people would say “I have to pay you after the party.” I used to hate that, sitting around after the party — that wait until everything is over. A lot of times the party wouldn’t end till 3, 4 o’clock in the morning.
How do you do the whole process as far as making the master, making the copies, etc?
OK, Oldschool Flyer 101! First I would select the letters. Back in the days they had these letters that came on plastic sheets called Prestype. I would proportion the letters and I would draw them on the paper. This method became too time-consuming, so what I did was try another way putting the letters down and then concentrating on drawing the background around the letters. I did one like that in ’79 but as time went by that was the way I saw to do it.
I would choose the style of letter that I want, pick the appropriate size for the appropriate names on the appropriate spots on the flyer. I would do all this on one separate piece of paper. Then on another piece of paper would be the background. I would cut the letters out and I would take a ruler and measure them. Then I would glue them on the piece of paper where I would want them. Once everything was glued down on the paper, I would draw the background around the letters, always trying to do a different background every time — and that takes imagination, you know!
What would you use for inspiration — magazines, books, cartoons?
The crazy thing is I am more inspired by what I see now than what I seen back then. Back then I wasn’t really looking at anything other than PHASE’s flyers. I used his style basically, but I tried to make it my style and I feel like I succeeded.
I am a big comic book fan from back in the days, but the wild thing is if comic books had inspired me more, I think I would have been making better flyers. I say that because Jack Kirby was really doing some imaginative things with his Fantastic Four characters. I wasn’t into looking into comics to see what elements I could take and put into a flyer, which was a mistake because he was really doing some intricate work, especially the machinery he used along with his characters. If I would have used his style, I think I would have been doing some much higher-graded work.
What’s the next step once you’ve made the flyer? You take the master downtown or somewhere to get it copied?
I would give it to the promoter that wanted the flyer and he would take it to a printer and have it printed up. I used to [get them printed myself] but I stopped because I got tired of that. When I did do it I used to take the master to this place in Baychester in the Bronx over on Tiemann or Tillotson Avenue. Those days a mimeograph machine was used. After that we started using a process called photo offset. That’s when the pictures started coming out really clear.
Did the promoter give you the money to get those flyers done, or did you have to come out your own pocket and get all the flyers done, deliver them to him and wait until the end of the night of the show for your money?
No, if he wanted those flyers he had to pay.
How many copies of the flyers would you have printed?
It depends, but it’s always more than a thousand.
What was the going rate for making a flyer in the early days?
$40 to $45 in the early days. Then after that it started to die down. I was only getting but so much money.
What’s the most flyers you would make in a week?
Three a week.
The high point of making flyers for you would be, say, ’80, ’81 and ’82?
Yeah, around that time my background style was really getting good, and I am trying asymmetrical designs. I was having mixed feelings about it but now if I ever do anything else it is going to be symmetrical.
This was around the end of 1982 that I was getting into that. To be honest I was trying to see what I could do with a different type of design, because — I know I shouldn’t say this, but I felt I mastered symmetry and it was time for something different. And by the time that experiment started it was over.
How are you treated today about your flyers from the fans and media?
I’d say I get X amount of respect — not as much as I’d like, but I get enough.
Do you and PHASE 2 still get together and talk about flyers and hip-hop?
We mostly talk about writers. Occasionally I will go where they are painting a wall if I hear something about an event.
In the year 2010, do you still make flyers?
If they want to offer me some decent cash I will do it. Off and on I have made flyers over the years but presently I am not interested. If it comes it comes, if not I don’t go looking for it.
Do you still draw in your blackbook?
Yeah, I got it with me right now.
Buddy Esquire passed away in 2014.
Flyer Images above are courtesy of Joe Conzo.
*This interview originally appeared on the website oldschoolhiphop.com, posted on October 5, 2010.