DJ JS-1 is a hip-hop triple threat. Whether flexing his production skills behind the boards, executing vicious cuts on the turntables or posting up and painting walls, the Queens-raised artist has been a part of the city’s hip-hop scene since the ’90s. Now he’s dropped his latest album, It Is What It Isn’t, which features the rugged banger “Interference.” Handily, you can stream the track below and marvel at the natty B-Real vocal grab on the hook.
While you check out JS-1’s music, read on to hear a potted history of his roots in the New York City graffiti scene.
What came first for you — graffiti or hip-hop music?
Definitely painting. I started that at a very young age — I was probably in fifth grade — and I’ve always loved art and loved to draw, and growing up in New York City in the ’80s the hip-hop culture was all around us. I tried to be a B-boy and dance and that just didn’t work out for me, but I was always doing artwork with my dad, so the graffiti thing came natural to me.
Can you remember the first piece you were really proud of?
Ha, well, there were a lot of them that I wasn’t proud of at first. It takes awhile to perfect your style and get respect from the other writers. So I’d say around 1990 is when I started doing stuff that I was happy with and that I’d notice other writers would look at and say it was good. I’d done something in Flushing, Queens, and there was a space under the highway that we used to crawl into under this small opening and legendary writers from all over the place would do stuff. I used to go there to practice a lot and I finally did one wall around 1990 that came out really good and that’s when people started to notice, like, “Oh, this guy can do something really good.”
What’s the most dangerous place you’ve painted?
There’s been a lot of dangerous places to paint. In the early ’90s we used to do a lot of stuff on highways. Sometimes we’d be on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and there’s really no place to stand between where the cars go by and the wall. We’d be out there really late at night, like at two or three o’clock in the morning, and cars would come flying around the turn going 70, 80 miles per hour and you’d really have to watch yourself. Then also the Interboro Parkway connecting Queens to Brooklyn is another place we’d do stuff — it was really narrow and very curvy, so that was really dangerous.
Then there’s also the train lines. Recently we’d done some stuff where the trains come flying by and if you’re in the way…One of our friends, DG, rest in peace, he was on the train tracks and actually got electrocuted not too long ago. It’s pretty dangerous when you’re involved in anything that uses the highways and the train tracks.
As far as neighborhoods go, obviously some neighborhoods are better than others, and with some, you really have to be careful of other writers and other people where it might be a dangerous neighborhood in general and you happen to be out late at night.
Does the element of danger distract you from painting?
You kinda zone out and we just do what we do. I’m pretty much focused on what I’m trying to do. Of course you have to watch out and be conscious of what’s going on, especially with any of the train situations, but for the most part I just kinda zone out and do what I do as quick as I can do it. A lot of the legal walls are fun just because I can sit there all day long, get the table and chairs out and relax and not really worry about anything.
What recent piece are you most proud of?
In the past two years myself and my partner, Topaz, did the Hall of Fame in Harlem twice. That place has a lot of history and a lot of the best writers used to do stuff there. Once a year we redo the Hall of Fame. The past two years we’ve done a large wall and everybody seemed to really like what we did. One year we did a dragon and I did a really giant piece across the back. This year was very special to me ’cause we did a Harlem Nights scene, from the movie, so we put Richard Pryor on the wall, we drew the Cotton Club, we had a shadow of Duke Ellington playing the horn, we did like a 1920s car and the old streetlamps. That was something special ’cause not only did it come out great but we got to see people who just live in the neighborhood and maybe don’t like graffiti still come out and appreciate it.
Are you aware of any other hip-hop artists who still paint?
There’s definitely some. I know Meyhem Lauren is a graffiti writer, like a real writer — some claim they do but they don’t really do it, but I know Meyhem does. Also one of my DJ friends from Germany, DJ Dister, he’s a real graff writer as well. Then back in the day I believe Masta Ace was a graffiti writer who had a really good rep.
Why do you think hip-hop music and graffiti kinda split away from each other?
They kinda follow paths. It’s interesting to see. The hip-hop scene and the graffiti scene kinda evolved together and came out around the same time in the ’70s and they kinda followed similar paths. As they both got popular of course the commercial aspect comes into play and people try to take advantage of it and use it just for money. The thing right now that’s interesting is how we’re always combating against all the commercial music where it’s just guns and drugs and girls and we’re not really into that kinda stuff; as far as the graffiti goes, there’s a street-art movement where a lot of artists are going in the street and doing stuff on walls and we always felt that the real graffiti artists were doing street art. A lot of these people are stenciling images that they took off the computer, but we were always about freehand and actually drawing.
It’s an interesting contrast of us trying to keep the hip-hop alive with the scratching and not doing these stripper songs that you hear all day on the radio, and the graffiti world where it’s the same thing where we’re trying to keep the letters alive and the wild style and trying to keep the graffiti alive when everyone else is stenciling, like, a Marilyn Monroe or an owl. They’re leaving out the lettering, which is always what graffiti is about.