Phase 2 was a hard man to find. It’s why Jerome Harris, a graphic designer and design director at Housing Works in New York, reached out to me––a culture writer, designer, and unabashed fan of Phase 2––and others, like film director Charlie Ahern (Wild Style) and artist/photographer David Schmidlapp, a longtime friend of the illusive hip-hop subculture icon.
In the fall of 2018, Jerome curated a show for MICA (Maryland Institute College of Art) that explored the work of African-American graphic designers. The 1980s hip-hop party flyers of Phase 2 were featured in the show and he was asked to submit a piece on the artist for an upcoming issue of IGA Eye On Design, a gorgeous design-centric print mag.
Of course, an interview with Phase 2 would have been the most practical thing for Jerome to submit. But, as stated, Phase 2 was a hard man to find.
Prompted by a blog post that I’d written back in 2012 on Phase 2’s iconic hip-hop handbills, Jerome sent me an email to ask if I’d like to be interviewed in order to share my thoughts on Phase 2’s flyers and his largely unsung contributions to the world of art and design.
I up jumped the boogie at the chance.
The meaty and lengthy list of questions I received a few weeks later allowed this Phase 2 fan-boy to cover a lot of ground on my longtime idol. But as fate would have it, 99.5% of what I said in the e-mail interview would wind up on the virtual cutting room floor once Jerome was finally contacted by the man who’d previously proven to be so hard to find.
The 4th edition of IGA Eye On Design Magazine, featuring an in-depth interview with Phase 2, went on sale in March 2019. The final page would feature large quotes on his outsized influence from David Schimdlapp, graphic designers Ramon Tejeda, Hassan Rahim, Julian Alexander, and myself.
Nine months later, on December 13, 2019, I read in the news that my art hero, Phase 2 (born Michael Lawrence Marrow), died the day before from the quiet battle he’d had with Lou Gehrig’s Disease. He was 64.
The news left me mentally drained. So much so that I couldn’t write about his death. What could I say? And for more than a month, my blog was silent on his passing. But then it dawned on me––finally––that everything I’d want to say about him was already covered in my unpublished interview questions. So I publish them here now in fond memory of Phase 2.
(Special thanks to Jerome Harris.)
Do you know of Phase 2? If so how?
Unfortunately, I’ve never had the chance to meet Phase. But if we’re talking six degrees of separation here, then I have a quick story to tell.
Last year, my good buddy DJ Darrell D called me from New York. He’s originally from Milwaukee and I’m originally from Chicago, but we met and became friends while both living in the Phoenix-metro.
Anyway, every year, Darrell D makes a pilgrimage to NY to take in the annual hip-hop park jams at Crotona Park and elsewhere. So he calls me pretty late one of those nights and asks, “Hey, do you know who Phase 2 is?”
My mouth drops.
Now, D knows for certain that I know who Phase is and is tryna to be funny. He then goes on to tell me that he’s actually sitting at a table with Phase 2 and their mutual friend John, who introduced them, at a burger joint on the Lower East Side of money makin’ Manhattan. Phase had stepped away briefly, so Darrell took a moment to call and give me the 411, and to gloat.
Okay, maybe not gloat, but I was incredibly envious regardless. I’ve been idolizing Phase 2 for over three decades, and my buddy just happens to fall into a situation where he’s breaking bread––well, burgers, and chopping it up with the man, the myth, the early master of urban hieroglyphs.
I’m still butt-ass hurt about that.
Can you talk about his influence as a “style writer,” as I read that Phase was not fond of the label “graffiti” because of its negative connotations?
I don’t think it’s the negative connotations graffiti carries that frustrates Phase 2 and old school legends like himself. Clearly, carrying out acts of vandalism wasn’t an issue.
It’s the fact that graffiti, as a term, was never originally used by Phase 2 and his peers. They simply called what they did “writing” (on walls, trains, etc.), thus making those who did what they did “writers.”
What’s more, Phase stated in an interview that I’d read somewhere that when he and his peers started gaining notoriety––or infamy––across New York, they’d never even heard of “graffiti,” a word with Italian roots, until journalists in New York began using it to describe what it was these kids were doing.
graffiti |ɡrəˈfēdē | noun: writing or drawings scribbled, scratched, or sprayed illicitly on a wall or other surface in a public place.
Nevertheless, I do think that graffiti writing and graffiti art are the logical terms to use, regardless of how Phase 2 and the other old school masters may feel about it.
Getting back the first part of the question, Phase’s most lauded early innovation in writing was the use of what he called “softies,” i.e. bubble letters, as opposed to the traditional handwritten script of name writing. This is one of the early advancements that would provoke writing on trains and walls to evolve into something vastly more creative.
He’s also credited with being the earliest writer to make use of decorative drips, clouds and arrows––all of which became standards in the iconography of graffiti and remain so to this day.
Can you remember the first time seeing his graphic design work? What was your initial response?
The first time I saw Phase’s graphic design work was in the summer of 1984. Michael Holman, an early figure in hip-hop and also a cultural historian, published the trade paperback, Breaking and the New York City Breakers.
For people living outside New York like myself back then, his book was an indispensable treasure trove of information and images that detailed the early days of break dancing and hip-hop culture.
Mixed in among the black and white photos spread throughout the book were two party flyers produced by Phase 2. It was the second of those two flyers, a half-page-sized masterpiece that featured one of Phase 2’s now signature collages, that made my then 15-year-old head explode.
Like any good flyer, it covered the basics of who, what, when and where. But it also went above and beyond, namedropping various ghetto superstars on the guest list.
We’re talking rap groups like Coldcrush 4 and Soulsonic Force, the b-boy dance crews Rock Steady and the New York City Breakers, graffiti writers Jean Michel Basquiat (whom Phase did not view as a legit writer), Fab 5 Freddy, and Futura 2000, the beatbox master Doug E. Fresh, DJ Red Alert, DJ Grandmaster DST, and countless others. For someone like myself, who could only dream of meeting all these people, that guest list was ri-donkulous.
And then there was that aforementioned collage nestled at the center of the flyer. It featured 26 or so youthful faces juxtaposed against one another and combined with images of graffiti burners, b-boys captured in mid-dance moves, the rusted side of a subway car, and also basketball great Julius Irving.
On every level, the piece was information overload, bursting with visuals and text that were all skillfully employed to induce whoever was looking at it to feel as though if they weren’t at that party they were going to miss out––or had already missed out on something major.
In spite of how I rave about it now, this barely scratches the surface of how deep an impression on me the design of that particular flyer made when I first saw it all those years ago. But suffice it to say that the impact was like the size of a tiny crater on the moon.
Phase’s flyers are typographically expressive in ways that I had never seen before. I suspect that this is a result of his time as a writer. What do you think about his use of type?
My inner typography geek appreciates that so much of the design work that Phase 2 did on flyers in the late 1970s, and throughout the 1980s, made heavy use of the now obsolete Letraset rub-on letters. And I think that, for students of vintage design, particularly designers of color, his flyers offer a fantastic time capsule which offers glimpses at how things were done in the years before Steve Jobs and Apple put font catalogs at our fingertips.
Letraset text rub-ons were not easy to use, but Phase did gorgeous work with them. He also brilliantly mixed type styles, including the periodic mixing in of text created on a typewriter. There was also a lot of movement in this text, which helped to make the overall design even more interesting.
Do you know the extent of his activity with The Zulu Nation? How much did he contribute to the world through this organization, and was there any more graphic design work made while he was a member?
Unfortunately, I really can’t say much with confidence about Phase 2’s involvement with Zulu Nation. Part of what makes this difficult is the fact that he didn’t do flyers exclusively for Mighty Zulu Nation. His flyers reveal that he was a freelance designer in that sense.
Through the lens of a designer/or artist, is the contribution of Phase 2’s methods and aesthetics important to the world of design? Why or why not?
The handbill design work of Phase 2, and also his peers, are probably much more important to those of us who’ve an interest in the aesthetics of counterculture in America than in the traditional, mainstream and Western-centered world of graphic design.
If, however, there’s a desire shown by segments of the greater graphic design world to curate something that’s inclusive of aesthetic movements that occurred beyond the notice, but also right under the nose of our nation’s Eastern media capital, then the contributions of Phase 2 and his peers deserve a place in something like that.
Phase 2 was a DJ, B-Boy, pioneering writer, and MC at one point in his life. Hip-Hop is the most listened to genre of music, in addition to being a global movement. As an individual who participated in all elements of Hip-Hop, and created these documents (party fliers), what impact can the knowledge of Phase’s presence in Hip-Hop culture have on design? Is promoting his work and presence in Hip-Hop of any significance? Why?
Celebrating and acknowledging the people who’ve had a place in the development and the spread of hip-hop culture will always be a worthwhile endeavor, I think. Unfortunately, though, until one of Phase 2’s flyers is enlarged 20 to 50 times its original size, framed under glass and then hung on a wall of a place like the National Museum of African American History and Culture, it will be difficult for most to understand the importance of his contributions to hip-hop culture.
Sometimes we need a serious shift in perspective to help us to see things in ways that will help us to understand their true value. Something like what I just described is what I’d personally love to see. I think it’s a real cultural blind spot that’s just waiting to be filled.
Given Hip-Hop’s reach, its value in graphic design has been overlooked. Do you have any suggestions about how to promote and elevate Phase’s contributions? Through education? Through artistic practice? Through writing? Any other methods?
For design instructors, I think interesting parallels can be drawn between Phase 2’s work employing collage and the early collage works of Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Kurt Schwitters. As a young student of design, the approach of these three men meant a lot to me when I first learned in the mid-1990s about their artistic experiments with collage.
But Phase 2 was my earlier gateway into collage being used as a graphic design element. And so I think there’s a connection that can easily be made by an astute instructor to show how Phase 2, very likely without the influence of the aforementioned artists, also managed to tap into the complex, multi-level form of communication that collage affords. And how, with the application of type, something utilitarian becomes visceral and, thus, more intellectually and emotionally engaging.
Writing about him, of course, is also good. But, in many ways, outside hip-hop, I think Phase 2 and his peers may remain “lost masters” of urban graphic design in America. And maybe that’s okay. The man himself is somewhat reclusive. But he knows what he’s done for the culture and hasn’t elected to go on lecture tours to make sure everyone else knows it. Although, I wish he would! I need that TED Talk!
We can’t find Phase. What do you think he would say to someone who’s obsessed with his work (like me)?
I think he’d say: “Kneel and kiss the ring, son.”
No, I’d love to be able to speculate, but I can’t. I think, though, that he’d really appreciate the fact that there are people who have tremendous appreciation and admiration for his work and his creative approaches to art and design. And that, for people like us, his work has been a major source of inspiration.
His name came from the name of an event, which for me on a conceptual level is slightly mind-blowing. How do you feel about the name “Phase 2”? A party flier that he created is the thing that kind of solidified his writer-name. What is your response to this?
Well, by definition, a phase is described as a distinct period or stage in a process of change or forming part of something’s development. So I think it’s pretty profound that the guy who provoked aesthetic evolutions in both graffiti writing and hip-hop party flyer design decided to call himself “Phase 2.”
Is there anything else you’d like to add about Phase 2, his work, his potential influence, or maybe something not related at all?
I want to say thank you for giving me this chance to go on about one of my design heroes. Phase 2 and others who were making hip-hop party flyers in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s were among the very first to make hip-hop culture marketable to a young demographic that was hungry for it.
But Phase 2, I think, more than the other prominent flyer rockers of the day like Buddy Esquire, Eddy Ed, Sisco Kid, Maur, and Danny Tonge, has the unique position of being a bridge between developments in both graffiti writing and handbill design. And that deserves to be remembered, because these were crucial contributions to the rise and spread of hip-hop culture.
I think it was the late rapper Guru of Gang Starr who coined the phrase “Respect the Architect.” Without question, Phase 2 is one of hip-hop’s major architects, and his contributions deserve every bit of this culture’s respect.