PHASE 2 is one of the most influential and well known New York City graffiti artists. Mostly active in the 1970s, Phase 2 is generally credited with originating the “bubble letter” style of graffiti writing, also known as “softies”. He was also influential in the early hip-hop scene.
The Original Videograf Series Issue 1 – 1989
Poetic Injustice: Hip Hop Pioneer Phase 2 by » Adam Mansbach
Chances are, if you meet PHASE 2 he’ll be on the incognito tip, cleaving through a party in a camouflage suit and shades, pretending not to know that he’s a legend, with styles and names trapped beneath the paintjobs of a thousand New York City subway trains. Besides being a pioneer and major innovator in the realm of aerosolics, PHASE is an original b-boy, an MC, and a deejay since the days of park jams: a consummate, all-around hip hopper, in other words, whose involvement predates the term itself. He is also a passionate defender of a culture he has seen suffer myriad misrepresentations, distortions and exploitations in the thirty-five (yes, thirty-five) years since he first got down. PHASE is also a warm, funny cat with whom I’ve been having fascinating conversations for almost a decade now… and he still hits me with new gems every time.
Adam Mansbach: Where in the Bronx did you grow up?
PHASE 2: You know, that’s not a good question to ask an insane brother from another planet, who prefers to be heard and not seen, and doesn’t know how to give an answer without all the details. Well, let’s see… I spent a lot of time in a South Bronx project that bred a good amount of influential hip hop heads, starting with writers and dancers — the latter of whom may not be known by their names, but who were without a doubt some of the initial fuel that started the fires that b-boys would continue to fan today. First generation b-boys, innovators and trendsetters like Timbo Rock, Stak/Scotty Bop, Sweet Duke, and yours truly. And it was the stomping grounds of the first Bronx writers: Lee 163d!, Sly II, El Cid. Train and bus bombers like Kool III, Jester I , Lye II, Bic 149, Oak I, Peach II, King Afro I, Zip I.
We also had our share of DJs and MCs: Love Bug Starski, Funky Man Rob P, D.J. Magic Mike, D.J.s Supreme and Hutch. Not to mention some of the city’s baddest ball players and fly guys. We were all rocking in the early and mid ‘70s, inspired by the fashion statements of local hustlers and b-ballers like Pig and Craig, Paradise, Michael Artist… Older cats like that gave us some of the hip to hop by. And the next significant generation after us included the likes of Diamond D, Lord Finesse and Fat Joe.
A lot of shit came out of our projects from the very beginning. I was actually DJing back then, when most well-known cats were not even in the business yet. I never got a big name in it, but I have the background. My influences, initially — everybody’s — were the radio. Cats like Frankie Crocker, Hank Span, and Gerry B. But I didn’t have a clue that an average guy could do it. We used to do our own little mock radio shows on reel to reel. To throw a party, you’d do your thing on one turntable. It wasn’t until later, when I saw Herc — who I knew first as a writer, not a DJ — with the two turntable set-up that I started to figure things out. Before Herc, the DJs were hidden in booths, and you really couldn’t overstand what was going on.
So how and when did you start writing?
Well, I started writing before the concept of doing pieces was concieved. Whoever wants to claim that they were writing in 1950, so be it, but when it comes to the initial foundations of style, I’m their daddy. Arrows, loops, bubble or softie letters, a whole shabang of shit that no one else was doing prior to it.
I started out with LEE 163d! I’m the type of person, if I see something I like, I’ma do it. But his existence was what influenced me to go out there. Me and LEE grew up together, ran together, knew each other forever — he was doing it, and I felt like that was something I wanted to fuck with ,so we teamed up. We were the cats who really set that shit off in the BX; there weren’t even twenty guys who were doing it, and everybody was paying attention to us, picking up on what we were dong.
My biggest inspiration to get stupid was the people on the Broadway line, the one and three trains. They basically set the example for bombing and the subway movement in itself, before people were really rocking anywhere else. You had cats like Cay 161, Turuk, Rican 619, Tan, CoCo 144, Junior 161, Joe 136, Jec Star, Baby Face 86. They were killing everything, and you just knew it was cats like you — you just made that assumption. Those lines didn’t roll up to the BX, but, you know, you ride the train, you go to school. We went out of our way to see ‘em.
Style was evolving at an incredible pace, right?
Writing was moving so fast; everything evolved in weeks and months. Nobody’s really come to the table with any new shit since then; it’s just gotten more technical. Guys in Cali flipped the script on the colors and the technical aspect, but from ‘69-’70 to the mid-seventies, shit was evolving every week. Super Kool 223 writing his name on a train changed everything — bombing and signatures became obsolete, and people understood that. A lot of people quit because they couldn’t hang; the majority of signature writers faded away. Super Kool started writing that name in early ‘71 — he wrote something else before — and by summer, here comes a dude with a piece. The rapidity of how shit evolved is just unbelievable. You left the city for a month, came back and there were a thousand new motherfuckers.
When you’re seeing the shit for the first time, you’re just thinking ‘damn, these guys are outta their fucking minds. Why am I giving a fuck when they don’t give a fuck?’ It’s like if you’re sitting in the courtroom telling the truth, and the next motherfucker is lying his ass off — you’re like, damn, why am I doing this?
Was it a few major innovators and a lot of biting, or were a lot of people coming with fly concepts?
Only a few cats really had major ideas — clouds, stretching letters, points, softies, puzzle shit. Me and RIFF 170 were really the two people who had the most ideas. Then LEE, in the early eighties. But a cat might see one little thing fly thing in somebody’s style, take it, and run with it. You might write ASER, and you see a guy who writes PRAE, and you like his A and E. and then you gotta figure out how to make your other letters match his A and E.
There were a number of things going on at one time. Like, guys were doing signatures with outlines, but the outlines weren’t touching the signatureS. That led to pieces. Cats were ornamenting signatures, adding an arrow with a loop on the end of their last letter; it’s natural for your hand to move like that. If you look at a signature arrow and loop done with a marker, the ends of the arrow are gonna be square, cuz the marker has no edge. With a piece, the ends of the arrow are sharp. Now it’s something different, because you’re not trying to imitate the signature anymore. That was me, anyway. A lot of the big quote-unquote pieces were just big signatures, whereas I was doing something totally unrelated. Like, CLIFF 159’s signature was an outline, so it was normal for him to do pieces like that — but the piece wasn’t removed from the signature. Or say you had two letters that were far apart, so they didn’t flow together. So you said ‘what if I drop this letter behind this one?’ Boom. It becomes art — I hate to use the word, cuz I think art is bullshit, but it becomes thought out, considered. If you only had artistic cats writing, though, you never would have had a movement. That might have been better, in some ways.
So style was evolving, and so were materials.
At first it was little store-bought markers, and then cats wanted to go bigger. I remember cats using Absorbing Junior — it was a roller ball, like a deodorant, but with a sponge. There weren’t a lot of homemade markers at first, because you had Uniwides, Miniwides — you could go in Pearl Paint and get a marker two inches wide. Cats would vic ‘em. That was cool — until you decided you needed to go three inches wide. I never really fucked with shoe polish, cuz it wasn’t permanent.
There’s a guy named RA 184 who was the first to bring out the paint — you could go faster, bigger, so forth. The Brooklyn style was something everyone did; a lot of cats who weren’t even in gangs had that fly gang handstyle, and that was a spray paint thing. People have been using paint for ages, to throw their shit up on the streets. But according to people from Broadway, RA was the first to use paint on the trains.
Was the writer’s bench at 149th and Grand Concourse as important as people say?
It’s funny, I actually started that shit. I would come off the train and just sit there watching — and somebody would come, ask me what I was doing. “I’m watching pieces.” And cats would start hanging with me. Everything was coming out of the Bronx, so major shit was always coming through there. And then cats from the Broadway lines and Brooklyn, started writing on the Bronx lines — the 2s,4s,and 5s. The 1s and 3s were major in the ‘80s, with SKEME and those guys, but the major leagues in the ‘70s were the Bronx-Manhattan trains. All the styles came from the Bronx – piecing, fatcaps, softies. All the tools of the trade are coming out of there, so where the fuck else you gonna go?
Why was that particular spot the best place to watch trains?
Nobody could see you, except from the other platform. There was a wall blocking you, when you came down the stairs, that you had to go around. So it was a perfect place, until cats started writing their names and shit.
And by this time, Brooklyn cats were making an impact?
When Brooklyn cats started bombing, they were just killing shit — they didn’t have so much style, but they were killing shit. MAD had nice letters, with these balls on the bottoms. PUGH and ROGER were nice. But you weren’t really tripping over cats being super fly back then — only a few were. It was more about killing shit. STRUT was another one. FLINT did a piece that was ridiculous, influenced a lot of shit. Even influenced RIFF.
Cats from BK would come up, hang at your house, know your moms. Everybody knew each other’s families. You’d go out to parties together. The fiber of their lives was just like ours. The crew I started was cats from all over. Everybody wasn’t black, either. I had four or five white cats. BILLY 167? Come on, one of the nicest ever. We also white writers like NIC 707, AJAX, JON 150, and ALE 1.
Which crew was this? Because you had the Fabulous Five, and then the Vandals…
This was the INDs — the Independents, the Indestructibles. The whole idea was to get all the baddest cats down, DYSON 98. RIFF 170, BOT 707, PELO, KING 2, PNUT 2, CHECKER 170. STICK 1, KINDO, KILL 3/IN, who started all that throw up shit. CLIFF 159, JESTER 1. HYDRA 1, DYNAMITE 161, APOLLO 5, ZEST. One time I saw a train that said FRESH IND, I was like ‘damn, I don’t even know, is he down with us?’
How hard was it to get into the yards and layups back then?
You just walked in that shit. Super Kool used to kill the layups. We had the 4 layups, the 2 layups, the yard on 231st Street, and if you wanted to take your ass all the way out to Brooklyn, you had New Lots. None of that shit was very difficult; you could just walk in. I wasn’t convinced that the city was really trying to stop it. In the ‘80s they were, but even then, the way they did it was so ass-backward. I never felt like ‘damn, there’s nowhere to paint.’
When the buff came along, cats started going nuts even more, cuz before that a piece would run for a year or more. And the one day, you started to see chunks of paint just falling off the trains. I don’t know if cats are really aware of this, but paint was made differently back in the day. It was crazy thick. And the buff chemicals were so ill that sometimes they’d take off what was under the pieces too,. The paint would just curl up and fall off. But cats just kept doing it — the main statement was “I’m gonna keep doing it, and you’re not gonna stop me.”
What was the situation like with the transit cops back in the ‘70s?
There was one main guy that I remember: Officer Steven Schwartz. He’d come in the yards looking for specific guys — ‘I want this guy, he’s everywhere.’ One night he ran up on five or six guys, looking for me.
We used to hang out at the 225th Street station, eating at Carvells. One of the cats worked there, and he’d give us ice cream, and there were layups there, so cats were doing their thing. This particular night, somebody called the cops. I told cats to split up, and everybody broke out, and here comes Schwartz. I just stood there eating my ice cream — or pretending to. I’d actually just finished it.
Acting like you were just a civilian.
Right. I wrote a poem to him, so he would know I wasn’t one of the ones he caught; I gave it to another cop to give to him. “If you only knew/the real Phase 2/the super sleuth/ who’s still on the loose/ you caught Cool T/ but you didn’t catch me/I got away while eating/ my vanilla ice cream.” Right as he was coming, I’d just told this cat Kool Kevin, ‘Yo B, don’t come near me, don’t blow my spot.’
I talked to Schwartz afterward, and he said ‘man, I swear, if anybody woulda came at me, I woulda shot somebody.’ This shit was in the papers, that they caught these guys.
That’s pretty crazy. Do you have any yard stories than can top that?
Usually in the yard, you’d have people looking out so nothing could happen. But one time, we got raided and everybody ran, and all this shit got left lying around. So I went and picked it up — when you’re addicted to that shit, you’re not gonna give up — and went by myself to 183rd Street. I start writing, and when I turn around there’s a train coming right at me. 183rd is at the bottom of the hill, so you can’t see the trains coming until they’re right on top of you. Obviously, I didn’t get killed. I didn’t even think, ‘I might get killed.’ The only thing I noticed was the cop right in front of the car — we made eye contact. I jumped up on the platform and the train went right by.
I don’t even like to talk about it; you flirt with death, but you don’t like to think about it. Another time, I had my hand right on the third rail — it wasn’t electrified. I looked down like, ‘oh shit.’ We used to jump from the top of one train to another, because it takes too long to climb down. You didn’t think about falling and busting you ass and hitting the third rail. And if you were at the far end of the yard, and you got raided, you had to jump across every train to get out. That happened one time, and I was like ‘Naw, I ain’t doing this shit.’ But I was the second one out.
As piecing evolved on the trains and then got co-opted by the art scene and the galleries, where did you fit in?
I was one of the first people dealing with the galleries, UGA [United Graffiti Artists, Hugo Martinez’s gallery] approached me. I always thought people needed to see this shit; I was a kid and I was like ‘this is cool,” but I was never fooling myself like ‘oh, now I’m in the big time.’ 99% of the people marketing the shit are crumbsnatchers who don’t really understand how fly this is — the science of it, the math of it. And the shit doesn’t sell, anyway.
I never was really that interested in trying to sell it — I decided pretty quickly that it was nonsense. Who’s gonna relate to it the way I do? To me, this is one of the most incredible forms of expression that ever happened. Motherfuckers is buying the shit to be chic, to be cute, to put it in their kids’ room, like ‘it’s cool to have some ghetto shit in my house.’ These gallery people are business people, and they’re trying to sit around and critique your shit and tell you whether it’s good or not. Fuck that; you’re no more intelligent in this realm that I am.
It strikes me that writing is often presented as hip hop’s most well-integrated art form — to the point where race and class are seldom even discussed.
I’m glad you brought that up. I want to stress that back in the early days, depending on their situation and even their ethnicity, cats were doing this for different reasons. Some dude from Happyville isn’t going to overstand the energy, purpose and drive that somebody from the projects puts into this, in comparison to why he’s doing it. I mean, it was fun, but at the same time, in the beginning, the bulk of writers — who were mostly Latino and Africano — were in a whole different world, a world where even if you were telling the truth, nobody gave a fuck. I don’t mean your mother, or your uncle, but the cops, the system.
We had a reason to be in fear, because we understood that we were living in a society where the truth didn’t matter, a society divided by race. If you grew up in the suburbs, going to the best schools, you’re not gonna be exposed to that. Even a black kid. Maybe some day he goes someplace and someone calls him a nigger, and then he’s like ‘oh, shit.’ It’s deceptive to play this shit like it doesn’t exist — writing has to do with who did it, why they did it, where they were coming from. Kids in other countries have no idea of the attitude we had when we were painting. By and large, the motherfuckers doing it were Latin and black, living a whole nother life from white kids.
In addition to being one of the granddaddies of writing, you’re one of the original b-boys. What do heads need to know about the history and evolution of the form?
For one thing, the emphasis on breaking is really distorted. At the major jams, at a Herc party or a Flash party, breaking was basically passe after 1977. After that, it more or less went back to basic dances. Post-1977 was sort of the suave era in the major spots; it was all about the Hustle, the Freak, the Patty Duke, and whatever freestyle you kicked in between. And that’s when cats like Rock Steady picked up breaking. The kids who were too young to get into the jams revived the style and brought it back.
Just like aerosol culture was there before anyone even concieved of a thing called hip hop, the party scene that existed before hip hop basically got flipped into hip hop. The party scene was going on in places like Rat Hole, The Shaft, House Of Soul, Puzzle and Plaza Tunnel. DJs like John Brown would shout-out over a James Brown song: “It’s turnout time at the P.T., turnout time at the P.T.” That scene definitely set the stage for what became the b-boy. Plaza Tunnel was where this one cat name Walter introduced “The Drop,” a move b-boys are still doing to this day. Those were the forums that existed.
Uprock — which I call battle rocking — was some shit that my dance crew invented, and it spread. Now you got cats from Brooklyn claiming they invented it, but the truth is that it was just a few of us, and we kept it to ourselves for a long time. The way we did it, it was synchronized between the two dancers. You held your hand like you had a knife; it was some West Side Story shit. The drops got copied, especially — nobody was doing squat drops back then. I remember the day we realized it had spread — everything always spreads, but you hardly ever get a chance to actually witness it, and this was one of those moments. My boy came to me with tears in his eyes, like “Yo, you gotta see this, this shit is crazy…” We walked into this a gym where a party was being held, and saw a whole room full of people doing our shit.
The role of a pre-existing gang culture in the formation of hip hop is something that’s been emphasized a lot by some people, especially where dance and writing are concerned.
If you ask enough party people who were out there from day one, I guarantee you that 99% of them will tell you that the emergence of hip hop had nothing to do with gangs. Nothing whatsoever. If you were in a gang, unless you were about crashing parties you didn’t flash colors or induldge in anything at a jam but jamming. You know, bad boys have lives too. They are not just doing their dirt 24-7. They were at the jams like everybody else, relaxing. I wrote and danced with cats who were in gangs, but they didn’t want to talk about it, and I didn’t want to hear about it, unless maybe something real ill had just happened and they wanted to tell the story.
But a lot of assholes want to write books and make movies and ask questions pertaining to gangs. And so a lot of people get irresponsible, and feel this need to accomodate them by hyping up the role of gangs. Everyone loves hype and drama, so Negroes get stupid, like their masters, and misconstrue reality at the drop of a dime. For the sake of reality sounding more real, they cheat the world of the truth. And the truth is that outside of Bronx River, gangs were totally peripheral to the culture.
Tell me about recording “Beach Boy” and “The Roxy,” the two singles you released in 1982.
“Beach Boy” was a collaboration with Barry Michael Cooper, the guy who wrote New Jack City. He did the music, somebody else sang, and I did the rhyme. I’d been a Mic Chanter since, like ‘77, and I always sang, so it was pretty natural to get in the studio and cut a song. It was the first record put out by Tuff City. Some happy-go-lucky shit, basically. The rhyme was fly though; the style was like that Arrested Development kid — not to say he got it from me, but that was how I got down. I met Aaron Fuchs [owner of Tuff City], and he was working on the joint with Barry, and he was like ‘maybe you could put a rhyme on there.’ It was one of the first songs to mix an R&B singer with a rap — not just an R&B background or a hook, but a real collaboration. This was before ‘I Feel for You” or any of that.
“The Roxy” was a collaboration between me and Material. The recording session wasn’t such a great experience, though, because the song was never really finished. A certain school-taught bourgois musician cat who thought himself to be above us bum-rushed the demo and pressed it up. Everyone seemed to like the song but me, because I know it wasn’t done properly. The vocals weren’t in sync, and so forth.
The coolest thing that came out of “The Roxy” was the New York City Rap Tour, with the Rock Steady Crew, the Dark and Lovely Double Dutch Girls, Grandmixer DXT, Afrika Bambaataa, Fab Five Freddy, the Infinity Rappers, Futura, Dondi, Rammellzee, Take 1, Frosty Freeze, Ken Swift, Crazy Legs, Little Norman. We went to France and London. That influenced people in a major way, because it was the first time that all the so-called elements of hip hop were seen under one umbrella.
David Hershkovitz was there too, acting like a fucking devil, writing about ‘the ghetto comes to Europe’ and shit — how we got to France and instead of trying French cuisine, we went to McDonalds. Then he chose to write about the one time there was a fight; the whole tour was beautiful and successful, and out of a hundred shows, he chose to write about the one negative thing that happened. Twisting reality just to fuck people.
Speaking of which, I know you’ve got a lot of issues with how hip hop’s early years have been portrayed.
The first thing people have got to understand about hip hop is that it just happened; it was a spontaneous manifestation of our need to always assert ourselves in what you can call alien territory, with alien elements. In that sense, it’s part of a long-standing cultural tradition.
And there’s been a lot of deliberate misrepresentation of what happened, and who did what. Funk what movie, video, book or gallery you were in. Cats act like those things are credentials that validate whatever they might have to say. But hip hop was in existence before all of that, and if you were not, and are not, living this every day, supporting it in some way, making it or loving it, then you are just an ornament, regardless of your name.
When it comes to writers, there’s a myth-conception that you’re hip hop just because you write. No. Crabs are propagating that because certain historians or filmmakers call them up — instead of calling the real cats, because their egos won’t let them call people who won’t be manipulated. So now you have writers claiming Hip Hop Pioneer status and affiliation via the “it’s one of the four elements” argument. But they were doing it in Safetyville, ten years after the fact. Writing came to the Village and they jumped on it, and on every opportunity in their path. People I never saw at a party Uptown are claiming that they were there since day one, and speaking on the culture.
Most of these people who create this stuff are either outsiders and opportunists, or have become that. I think their so-called contributions are extremely overated. Do you realize how long original heads were doing this before the Coopers and Ahearns stepped into it and started playing like hip hop’s saviors? We dropped records that went interglobal. We stepped off overseas and did tours with all the so-called elements before any of these people were heard from.
I’ll give them credit where it’s due, but I don’t see hip hop as being in debt to any of these folks. If we weren’t doing it on a continual basis up to the point where they came in, there wouldn’t have been a forum for them to exploit. This is no dis to anyone outside of our province, but if you lived in the five boroughs of New York City and needed a book or a movie to realize that this was happening, then you you must have been a Poindexter-ass cat to begin with. In our hoods, hip hop was all in your face, and either you loved it or left it alone. You didn’t need these pilgrims to jump-start your induction into it.
My problem with all the hoopla surrounding Wild Style, Style Wars and so on is that the celebration is misplaced. Why big up the discovers instead of the creators? Whatever these documentarians do gets hyped to the hilt, regardless of whether the right peoplewere consulted, reardless of what asumptions and misrepresentations are concocted to suit an audience. And next thing you know, it’s part of the hip hop canon, and nobody will criticize it.
Maybe this all sounds corny, but if aspiring heads are constantly misled, and deprived of the reality, they will not be able to continue this culture on a repectable level, much less take it to the highest degrees that it can reach. This is one reason why hip hop is regressing: the people in it don’t give a flying funk about it.