- Words and Photos by Joanna Pan
Get up Saturday, DJ Sunday: A Weekend with JERMS
In the 1970s, Universal Zulu Nation founder Afrika Bambaataa employed a single phrase — “the four pillars of hip-hop” — to unite a handful of expressive arts being showcased at Bronx block parties: MCing (rapping), b-boying (breakdancing), DJing, and painting graffiti. Since this initial codification some forty years past, the hip-hop movement has spilled into the remaining New York City boroughs, across the country, and through the world.
To master but a single of the four hip-hop pillars is a phenomenon unto itself, requiring uncommon talent, discipline, and creative acumen. DJ JS-1 has achieved virtuosity in -- not one -- but two hip-hop skill sets, repping the inimitable Rock Steady Crew as both a DJ and graffiti artist.
Inhabiting dual roles as DJ and graffiti writer requires a knack for darting between the two from one day to the next: literally. Last Saturday found DJ JS-1 in Brooklyn getting up his graffiti name — JERMS — alongside mural collaborators TOPAZ (pazroc) , SWIFTssk (_swift_ssk_), RISE (rise_ftr), and a host of other graffiti writer luminaries.
By the same time the following day, JS-1 had swapped his spray-paint and particle mask for an audio mixer and headphones. The legendary hiphop collective, Rock Steady Crew (RSC), was celebrating its 40th anniversary on Central Park’s Summer Stage, and JS-1 was one of a few scrupulously selected DJs for the event. As Grandmaster Caz and Mike C rapped central stage, DJ JS-1 framed their lyrics with compelling, resonant beats and momentum. Later, as younger RSC b-boys and b-girls windmilled, popped, and locked with anatomy-defying prowess, JS-1 multitasked beat-generating and conferring with RSC President Richard "Crazy Legs” Colon from behind the mix stand.
DJ JS-1’s affiliation with Rock Steady Crew initially mystified me. I’d recalled RSC members — among them Crazy Legs and Ken Swift — from films like “Flashdance” and “Beat Street,” and had erred in thinking of them solely as breakdancers.
“Rock Steady Crew, although originally known for dancing, has evolved over the years to include DJs, MCs, writers, etc,” explains DJ JS-1, referred to hereafter by his graffiti name, JERMS. "Many were always mastering multiple elements, like a Mr. Wiggles who can dance and paint.”
Sold Magazine had the honor of photographing JERMS last Saturday, the graffiti-leg of his weekend. Additionally, he granted us a candid, deep-diving interview spanning the personal, the professional, and beyond:
Joanna Pan: You’re with FTR and Rock Steady Crew ... Any additional?
Jerms: When I first started writing in the late 80s we had a few neighborhood crews. Over the years I have been "put down" with several different crews or people asking me to write their crew. I always stayed away from that when possible. I've seen people who hook up rival crews, it doesn't even make sense. I respect a lot of crews but I only put the crews I actually do stuff with and who are my actual friends too. So that would be FTR and Rock Steady Crew.
JP: What does FTR stand for? How long have you been w/FTR, and what’s the story behind your either joining them or forming the crew?
J: FTR is for "Fuck The Rest", "For the Rush", "For the Rep", "Fear the Reaper", and so on... The names sound so pleasant, hahaha. Keep in mind, we were high school age kids blasting hardcore hip hop and heavy metal in the violent early 90's. I joined FTR in mid 1991. I met Slash FTR through mutual friends in high school, we exchanged blackbooks and eventually started doing pieces together for a few years. I was from a different part of Queens than the FTR crew. So I was going there and hanging at their parties with them while painting with Slash on weekends. A bunch of different writers would come to Forest Park in Queens for our parties and FTR spread. It has really grown over the years. We've had some top notch bombers down with us, great piecers, etc. We covered a lot of ground and the crew is still extremely active from bombing to pieces, murals, galleries, etc.
JP: Talk about the significance of your membership in Rock Steady Crew.
J: The RSCrew represents a culture that I live and have been blessed to excel in different aspects of it. I am honored to be part of a group of people who are friends and also work together to keep traditional hip hop culture alive while by pushing boundaries around the globe. This weekend is the RSC 40th anniversary in Central Park. Longevity and integrity.
JP: How did your affiliation with Rock Steady Crew begin?
J: Growing up I was always into hip hop culture. I tried to dance early on, and then started writing, all the while listening to the music and different DJs. Eventually in the end of the 80s I started DJing myself. I followed the hip hop scene in NY very closely. Started meeting people through T La Rock, and from attending different events like The New Music Seminar. When they started doing the Rock Steady Crew anniversaries in the park, myself and my friends would attend. Over the years you get to know everyone in the scene, and they got to recognize me for my DJ skills. We both clearly stand for the same things. So when they were putting Rahzel down, they also put me in as an official member of Rock Steady Crew.
JP: Did you grow up in NYC? What borough(s)?
J: Yes, I grew up in Queens, NYC. I spent much of my childhood in College Point, Queens and in Corona, Queens at my grandparents house.
JP: Do other family members have involvement in the visual arts, do graffiti, or who DJ/MC?
J: No, they do not. Everyone has "normal" jobs and hobbies. Hahaha. I would suspect most of them thought and still think I'm crazy. I know my parents thought I lost my mind when I was scratching Public Enemy records 'til the sun came up or sneaking around with paint all over my hands. I've been to more than 60 countries and hundreds of cities all around the globe from scratching records and painting letters, so everyone respects it, even if it's different.
JP: Did you study art in high school or in a visual arts program in college? Self-taught?
J: Nothing above high school art class. Everything is mainly self-taught. I was drawing since i was a toddler with my father. I always liked letters. I can draw most stuff, but I love letters. I studied letters for a long time. I learned from watching others, but mainly from sketching thousands and thousands of times, just doing letters. I still do it constantly. I don't use sketches when I paint because I sketch so much in my free time.
JP: How old were you when you took an interest in art or lettering?
What were some of the first things you drew or wrote?
J: I forget the year, but some time in the early to mid 80s I watched a mural get done for Vinny's Pizza on 57th by my grandparent's house. That sparked my interest along with a few guys who had done a some graff in my neighborhood. Watching movies like Style Wars really gave me the painting fever. In 1986 or '87, we were still little kids, we went and wrote in the school yard. From then on, I was kinda hooked and kept practicing. I wrote Raz, Nel, and eventually settled in with Jerms. I liked wild styles so I wanted a five letter tag to do more letters. I've been Jerms for almost three decades now...
JP: When did you became aware of hip-hop? Was graffiti the first thing that attracted you to hip-hop? Or was it theDJing/MCing?
J: I forget exactly how old I was when I became aware of hip-hop, but I think I was in 3rd grade. I remember recording AJ Scratch by Kurtis Blow off of a radio mix show. I remember watching GrandMixer DST scratching on the American Music Awards with Herbie Hancock. He looked so damn cool. That always stood out. And then of course, Jam Master Jay from Run DMC. I always wanted to be JMJ. It was definitely their music that dragged me in, and introduced me to the art of DJing. I was always drawing, but became more serious with graff, after i was already into the music.
JP: Would you say you’re primarily a graffiti artist who also DJs, or primarily a DJ who also does graffiti? Or do both get equal time and equal interest in your life?
J: I am definitely more of a DJ although the last few years I have been doing graff non stop. For those who only know me from my graff or only saw the last half decade of my graffiti assault doing 500 pieces or so, they can't imagine that I did much more with my DJing career. For a decade and a half I toured with Rahzel doing 1,000 shows in dozens of countries and hundreds of cities. Huge festivals, large clubs, small clubs, community centers, and everything in between. I have produced and put out several of my own albums with a plethora of legendary and new hip hop artists. I've DJ'd on stage with the best and they are my peers. I've managed to scratch records on several different TV shows over the years. Been on major TV in several countries as well. I was eventually tired of touring and wanted to stay home when my son was born, so I have been going crazy doing graff. I love both graff and DJing. Soon I will accept some more tours and put out some new music, but right now I'm simply enjoying my second childhood spraying these walls!
JP: Was your family supportive of your art and of your DJing?
J: My family was cautiously supportive. At first they thought it was nice dream. Eventually after some successes that they could understand and relate to, they started to approve more and more. When they saw me on MTV a bunch of times, or i opened a tour for an act they knew, it became more real to them. They were always supportive of me even when they didn't understand. My family and friends. That is partially why I can do this. Strong support system through life. I'm lucky. I try to pay it forward to others who aren't assholes.
JP: Was spray painting your craft right out of the gate? Or did you start out with other forms of art, like painting on canvas or calligraphy or ink illustrations?
J: I used to draw a lot with pens. I would sketch anything. By mid way through grade school, i was trying to do letters a lot. Not really into canvases or much else although time to time I will do some. My favorite thing besides spray paint is definitely doing black and white detailed drawings and graff sketches. All black and white.
JP: How did you master can control and learn basic techniques?
J: We were all terrible at first. Everyone had to start somewhere. For me, when we first started we would steal spray paint and then go to the blocks with mainly factories and write there. Anywhere we could find a spot with no one around. Abandoned buildings and rooftops of the factories were good for practice. Eventually you would find freight train tracks and do stuff on the freight trestle or freight trains. There was also several "pits" or hidden spots where graff writers could go and do pieces or practice while being unnoticed in the day time. I had one near me in flushing. I used to paint there constantly and that's where I got better at first. I taught myself but would watch others. I have good hand-eye coordination. My DJ fingers are well-trained, lol. I kick ass at video games, too. Anyways, Then we branched out and started doing a lot of freight tunnels and "pits" / hall of fames in other neighborhoods. Today is very different. The cans are made for writing. The caps as well. People are giving away wall space. We had to steal paint, didn't have caps, didn't have legal spots, etc. We didn't have tutorials on how to do letters and how to do 3D and all those wonderful things on youtube that allow writers to learn quickly. I enjoyed it back then, but I am also having fun today...
JP: Were you JERMS early on in your getting-up, or did you burn through a lot of names?
J: Only a few names. I liked wildstyles and wanted a five letter tag name. I liked Skeme, Ghost and Saint of course. So I came up with Germs. I switched the G to a J to make it more original plus I liked doing J's. So I have been JERMS for a little under three decades now. The JS-1 came from when I would bomb highways. I didn't do the full JERMS, I did the JS. the 1 just means I was the first to write JERMS. So when people knew me as JS-1, I kept that for when my DJ career picked up.
JP: What is the origin story behind the name JERMS?
J: There is no meaning to the name. I don't have a disease, lol, i'm not a germaphobe,
and most of all, my name is not Jeremy! It's funny how many times people tag their friend "Jeremy" to my pics because their nickname is "Jerms.." What is actually cool it came from me enjoying doing wildstyles, wanting five letters in my tag so I can twist some letters. That's what it is about.
JP: Who — if anyone — was a graffiti mentor to you when you were coming up?
J: I honestly didn't really have an actual mentor who showed me much of anything. I just watched and studied others. The more you do, the better you get.
JP: Were there particular writers/artists out there you admired for their artistic talent, influence on the graph community, or how prolific they were?
J: I was always a fan of Seen, Bio, Tkid, Part, Serve, Ces, Ghost, Vulcan, Poem, Skeme, and now also Mr Basix, Sloke, Meres, Edmun, Does, etc... There was more, but they always come to mind. For different reasons and over different eras. But all these artists definitely influence and inspire me.
JP: Your style is wholly distinctive: wildstyle, but not quite as angular and not incorporating as many straight or beveled edges as some other wildstyle artists. The letters bend more, and the ends taper off into — not points ... more like snakes' tails. Is this the way you’ve done lettering for a long time, or is the way your graffiti looks now more of a recent evolution?
J: This has not always been my style. Over the past five years I have experimented with the flow of my letters. It's just little angles here and there, little things, but perfecting how it sits and flows on the wall, to me. In the process, I tried to abandoned arrows, simply because it's just very common. I also tried to do a lot of more flowing letters with long rounded strokes, and twisting them rather than straight edges and perpendicular lines. I have a method to my madness. I don't like huge 3D's for my type of letters. Slightly smaller 3D's allow me to leave lil bits of space between the letter to show the depth when they duck in and out behind each other. I also feel for some reason the flowing ends that have a snake-like appearance, match my name JERMS. I don't know why, lol, I just feel like it fits. The main thing to me, is it's my style. Definitely influenced by others and borrowed from others over the years, but when you see a JERMS piece, you know I did it. Some people's pieces look very similar to other writer's styles. So we'll see where I go with it. Just having fun painting and experimenting with my style.
JP: I saw your work at the Graffiti Hall of Fame in Harlem a few months ago. I understand the Graffiti Hall of Fame used to be illegal, and that you snuck in there in 1992 to get up. Do you enjoy painting there now because it’s legal and you can take your time? Or did you enjoy it more back then, when there was more risk?
J: It's a mix of both. I can't lie, it is wonderful being able to paint comfortably everywhere now. The police stop by to critique our work and say Hi, people aren't trying to rob everyone and fight constantly. It's much nicer now and more relaxing. You can do something and take your time which yields better results maybe. BUT, the thrill and the reward knowing the risk was like drugs. It is addicting and a great adrenaline rush. There is nothing better for a writer than risking their freedom and safety, getting their name up, having it look good, and then getting to see it on a train, from a train, on a wall, on the highway, wherever... I love all the new pieces I did legally at the hall of fame and they are WAY better than the one I did in '92, but when I see the pic of the one from '92, it does more for me because I know what we went through to get it done.
JP: You do a lot of walls alongside PAZROC / TOPAZ and POET: how did the three of you meet and start collaborating?
J: In the early 90s I painted with Slash, Vena, Eco and Pema aka WWone a lot. In the early 2000's I met Topaz through a friend, BL-one. Topaz was helping me with graphics for my albums, flyers, and website. We were not painting at that time. I was touring constantly. When my son was born in 2010 and I wanted to not tour as much, I started painting more. Once I started going out to paint a lot, Topaz was coming along to paint instead of just helping me with graphics for my music. We were already friends and like similar things so the painting came easy. Although he can do letters, he enjoys doing characters and I love doing letters, so it works out well. Poet was someone I had known from way back. He has been around for a long time. We never painted together but we would see each other's pieces and had a lot of mutual friends. So when I started painting again, I met up with Poet and we started doing a lot of spots together. As of now, I usually paint with Topaz, Poet, Meres, Merk, Amuze, Swift, Lae, Idea, Rise, and sometimes, Resa, Enuf, Waste, Ming, etc.. there is a bunch of us who just enjoy painting. I'm down to paint with anyone who loves the art and is cool. We share our walls and spots with others.
JP: Is your work all in the tristate area? Where else have you gotten up or had shows?
J: Most of my pieces are scattered through the five boroughs in NYC. I do have some stuff in NJ, Connecticut, North Carolina, and Florida. I have painted in Canada, Australia, Italy, The Netherlands, France, Romania, and Switzerland. As far as DJing, I have been damn near everywhere on all continents except Antarctica. I've been to all 50 states except North Dakota and Montana to DJ. Seriously. I've cut up records on snow covered mountains in Whistler, Canada, to spinning on a beach in Phuket, Thailand, to doing tours with Snoop Dog and The Beastie Boys in Perth, Australia. I was on stage at the very first Coachella in 1999, and have opened for legends like Parliament Funkadelic and Wu Tang. I could write a book just on my DJ travels and adventures. Not many DJs got to spin the Montreux Jazz Festival and also DJ for KRS-one. From West Senegal to Chile to Tasmania, I have abused some turntables!!!
Time was, people only came upon graffiti by stumbling onto it on their way to someplace else, or by knowing a small corpus of people who got-up or knew people who got-up. Now, the Internet has it so people outside those communities can easily find, photograph, and talk publicly about tags, throws, burners, full scale productions. Is that a good thing? That graffiti is more accessible so more can enjoy it? Or do you think effortless access disrupts the hierarchy and the timeline of the way in which people gain access?
It is definitely a catch 22. The same with the DJ culture as graff culture. The internet and all the access allows anyone to see things they would not have normally got a chance to see. It does open up doors for SOME artists and it allows like-minded people around the world to connect. However, there is a lot of bad things. First, you have the over saturation of "artists" and DJs. WAY too many people claim to be doing it, and because of tutorials, or being able to watch real artists or DJs online, and because of the ease of technological advances, they has flooded the market. There is multiple "group art shows" a week here with hundreds of artists claiming they did this or that. Same with DJs... really? Second, when you have tons of people competing for space, views, likes, etc.. it turns into what we have today. That is, people doing whatever they feel generates views and likes over doing what is always right or good or in the best interest of the culture. That means doing cheesy popular stuff and silly things for attention. So you have a lot of "artists" getting gigs and attention who are very new and did not pay any dues or put in any real work to get here. They are just out there safely painting iconic cartoon characters and stuff like that. There was less of this before social media because only writers cared and writers don't care about stenciling otters and butterflies, they care about letters and style. We do street art, that other stuff is just art, in the street. We can't ignore it.. It is our NY/Philly, American born art form. All the other stuff in galleries and on walls is wonderful, but that came from other parts of the world. Graffiti letters came from where we live, and we need to keep that art form in the forefront, especially on the streets of NY. Always letters over stenciled images. So I do use social media of course, and there is good things about it, but it has definitely enabled people with no shame to cut in line and gain notoriety by doing corny stuff that the average person walking the streets doesn't realize is not that good. There is also the issue with photographers posting some spots we don't want everyone to see and know where it is. I do enjoy the IG race to see who posts pieces first. I am happy that millions of social media get to enjoy graff they would not have seen, however most of those people are only enjoying a handful of people where the bulk of the best artists still don't get the views they deserve. Can't fight technology. I drive I do not take a horse. Therefore you must learn to navigate in the new era where it's all about likes and views.
JP: What do you have coming up or currently up that you’d like people to know about?
J: Right now I'm still in the midst of my rampage, doing tons of walls. So you can try to catch me out on the street somewhere rocking a wall. I am currently working on the art for my next gallery show, and I am starting to put together a new album. So in 2018 I will have a solo gallery show and start dropping new music and mixes again. For now, I just want everyone to appreciate the art of doing pieces and letters, and go check out what I have been doing. Check out all my friends too, lots of great pieces being done.
JP: How may people keep up with you online?
J: My graff is mostly posted on @djjs1, Instagram. You can just google "DJ JS-1" and a lot of my songs, videos, and links will all pop up from itunes, to YouTube, Pandora, Spotify, on down. I have several albums you can check out. For people interested in getting great DJ mixes for free, go start downloading them all from www.DJJS1.BlogSpot.com