Buddy Esquire, who died from a heart attack last week, created hundreds of show flyers and posters for hip hop events in the Bronx. Over 35 years ago, Buddy Esquire was the king of the hip hop flyer. Back in the seventies, in the early days of the art form, he was one of the artists who translated the excitement of a live hip hop performance to the audience by designing the only marketing device that existed, a printed word-of-mouth in the form of the show flyer.
During the late 1970s, hip hop had no presence in print media, nor were there any hip hop records to speak of (hip hop records started appearing in mid-1979, people argue daily about which was the first one), television and radio were not paying attention, even though first generation hip hop performers could draw four figure crowds performing in the Bronx. The culture had been blooming and booming for over six years, based on live performance, on the showmanship of the DJ and the MCs. Hip Hop was about Saturday night, and when Saturday night passed, it was about the next one. This was the ruling paradigm until hip hop transformed from a performance-based culture to a recording-based culture in the early-mid 1980s.
Buddy started writing graffiti in 1972, tagging, collecting the tags of others in black books and steadily advancing his craft as a draftsman. He made his first flyer in the summer of 1977, for a neighborhood block party. The following year Buddy designed his first flyer for a hip hop jam. The two originators of the art form (Buddy started producing flyers shortly after the artist Phase 2) were creating elaborate designs for live hip hop performances several times every week. The flyers became a matter of prestige for the artists and the promoters. Having a flyer designed by Buddy Esquire was a determinant for the course of how a live hip hop event was promoted.
These amazing collaged constructions bring stark black and white shapes together to accentuate the letters, photos and shout-outs, which all together establish artworks of great vibrancy. Cameras were uncommon, not many people owned one, so the photographs of the performers would be recycled into new settings over and over, bringing a repetitive element that further emboldens Buddy's beautiful shapes. The art deco component of Buddy Esquire's designs was initially inspired by the facades of the crumbling movie palaces that still existed all over the Bronx in the 1970s. Later on, Buddy would find books on art deco in his high school library. This design element sat in juxtaposition to the myriad of cultural references in Buddy Esquire's work, like Marvel Comics to Star Wars to Vaughn Bode. These all come together in a visual language that has defined this era and hip hop culture's baby steps in exactly the same manner as how we view the advertisements and sheet music for country blues, jazz and folk from the early 20th century.
I had the privilege of working with Buddy for over ten years, archiving his work for Cornell University, and including it in the book and traveling exhibit "Born In The Bronx." Buddy Esquire truly knew the value and influence of his work, and was a happy man. He never showed bitterness over his level of fame and recognition. He told me that he was proud of his art, and that he felt that its influence would continue on for a long time. Buddy was always gracious with his time and knowledge, and especially kind and patient when younger artists and hip hop fans approached him. Buddy didn't make a living from his art - he worked at UPS for several decades. Sometimes he'd wonder why some people got paid a lot and some didn't.
I have written elsewhere on the dictatorship of the new that runs inner city culture. What is old, what is last week, last month, last century is not only perceived as of little importance, but it has to be, as the escape of the individual from ghetto economy is completely driven by novelty, craftiness, surprise, something no one has done before, and an idea coming from nowhere else but the ingenuity of the creator. Sort of like as if it stemmed from a medieval mastermind who combined the peacock's tail and the red lion, distilling it until something that wasn't before now was. An alchemical process. The gnosis of creativity, where something realized from seriously limited means turns into gold, gold, gold.
And sometimes fame and fortune doesn't come to the people who were there first, but rather to the imitators and the watered-down - the downward flow of the trickle reaching thousands of Instagram pops, or reaching music award show set design. Reaching the muscle-move of Madison Avenue product placement, as the reign of the mass market always parasites on innovation. Two parallel strands of hip hop culture exist today. There's the mass-market swill of, say, Jay Z, where the artist product-places and covers himself with logos and corporate partnerships as if he was a NASCAR vehicle, leasing his exterior and interior to lowest common denominators. There is also a global grassroots movement where young people in every city on earth self-start as a direct result of the work of pioneers like Buddy Esquire. I'd like to concentrate on the latter, not paying mind to mainstream style/idea theft, and instead ponder how Buddy's exquisite flyer designs will reverberate in towns and cities around the globe, where young people will continue the ongoing gnosis of do-it-yourself creativity for centuries.
A link to Buddy Esquire images:
An interview with Buddy Esquire: