Dozens of events blow through New York City every night, each one meriting a miniature campaign to fill the room or, at least, break even. If you ran a club in the late 1980s or early 90s, you probably couldn't afford to buy radio spots or rent out public billboards—but you could spend a few hours with a copy machine, scissors, and a pound of Elmer's glue to make a bunch of cheap, effective, DIY flyers.
No Sleep: NYC Nightlife Flyers 1988–1999 is a new coffee table book curated by Gotham legend DJ Stretch Armstrong and rap historian Evan Auerbach; it presents the best art from the club flyer's golden age sourced directly from the private collections of club owners, artists, and DJs. The flyers themselves have a delectable aesthetic sense, and many of them were made without computers by people with no formal training in graphic design.
When Armstrong was making flyers to promote his Thursday night gig at MK, he juxtaposed the iconic SuperFly logo with "unexpected imagery, like Mao Tse Tung, nuns, James Cagney holding a gun, an atomic bomb explosion, Fidel Castro, and others. They were effective not just because they had an aesthetic appeal, but because they grabbed your attention and made you look twice."
When the internet conquered the world at the turn of the century, circulating thousands of flyers four nights a week seemed inefficient by comparison. Today, almost all of the advertising happens online. Nobody can argue that moving to cyberspace wasn't a natural evolution—flyers are disposable by nature—but Armstrong and Auerbach do believe something important was lost along the way. Flyers aren't extinct, but they aren't a palpable part of life anymore. Radical, oblique, homemade pop-art used to be a crucial part of urban scenery, but now they're permanently cemented on smaller-sized screens.
We caught up with Armstrong and Auerbach and talked about the book, the magic of NYC club culture, and the give and take of the digital revolution. No Sleep is available for online orders here, and is out this week in bookstores everywhere.
As people who lived in New York in the late 80s and 90s, what made the city's club culture magical back then?
Stretch Armstrong: Clubs were so much more important before their influence was eclipsed by the internet and the mainstreaming of underground culture. Musically, most of the music that DJs played was what would be considered "underground," which doesn't mean that hit records or music by popular artists was off-limits. Madonna, for example, always borrowed from whatever was happening in the clubs and gave it a pop twist. Deee-lite's music came out of NYC's house music clubs, but crossed over. Run-DMC made huge records. But the sensibility remained underground, and very New York. With the exception of crossover hits that broke from the club and mix shows to mainstream radio and eventually MTV, the music was made for DJs who had so much more room to experiment and express their point of view, which patrons appreciated.
Since most of the music wasn't being played in the mainstream, if you wanted to get your fix of the latest hip-hop, house, dancehall, or whatever you were into, you had to go to clubs. That's where records were being tested and broken. Now, because dance music has been mainstreamed and hip-hop is pop, DJs have to consider the demands of the crowd more, which has turned many of them into playlist regurgitators. Club goers go out expecting to hear what they want, rather than being open-minded and going out to be exposed to something new. Clubs were also less segregated. In the 80s and even early 90s, so many were true culture clashes, and it was beautiful. Clubs were where people went to experience a sense of freedom—to let go of their daytime personas and be whomever they wanted.
Evan Auerbach: These flyers had a very different feel for me. I grew up upstate New York, and I'm a bit younger than Stretch, so there wasn't any chance of getting to these parties. However, I began collecting flyers I would find because they were memories to me. When I would visit NYC as a teenager, I made sure to always find places that had flyers—places like Fat Beats or Eightball Records, or stores like Transit in Astor Place and Liquid Sky. I'd take as many as I could find, bring them home with me, and study them.
What inspired you to make the book?
Armstrong: The more digital our world becomes, the more important certain tactile things are. I wanted to spark a conversation that wasn't purely nostalgia. Let's talk about what we have gained in the digital revolution but not without considering what we have given up in our quest for convenience: Sharing is so much easier now because of technology, but perhaps our rituals and interactions have less meaning than they did before. The way we used to have to go record shopping for music was less convenient, but the process imbued the experience of collecting music with more meaning. The same can be said about club flyers and how they were used to pass on information in a personal way. Also, these invites were physical reminders of amazing times—artifacts before cameras were ubiquitous and instantaneous sharing was possible.
Auerbach: I've been inspired by my childhood collection of all things rap and hip-hop. I remember reaching out to Stretch and others seeing if I could scan flyers to post on upnorthtrips.com—when Stretch and I linked, he loved the idea of making these more than just a digital collection. I initially saw No Sleep as a collection of rap flyers, but Stretch schooled me to how much more culture there was beyond the rap scene during that era.
The interesting thing about a book like this is that these flyers obviously weren't supposed to be preserved forever. Is it important to document them on a historical level, too?
Armstrong: Back then, if you were on a flyer as a DJ or promoter, you'd achieved some kind of real success. Little did anyone know that that was just the beginning, and many people whose names graced the flyers in this book would go on to be hugely influential and celebrated cultural pillars.
Auerbach: Man, I knew the historical impact from a music fan standpoint, but as the book progressed, I began to see a deeper connection. These flyers really stood at the touchstone of so many points: dance, art, design, fashion—all within the New York City lens.
In the mid 90s, did it ever occur to you that the flyers you'd see on the streets would someday need to be treated like art?
Armstrong: By then, because of developments in printing technology, it was easier to produce more elaborate, computer-generated flyer designs at a greater volume and speed. The flyers became flashier and, in my opinion, less artistic and less idiosyncratic. I stopped saving flyers around then. I never considered whether they should be documented in a book before, but now I think it's important to tell our stories and celebrate people that were critically influential but unsung.
Auerbach: One of the interesting things that happened early on in making the book is that as I was seeking out people to contribute, and it was a shock to hear how many people held these flyers in such high regard. Sure, some people had them stashed away in a Nike box in Mom's crib, or under the bed in their childhood bedroom, but some people really held onto them and were almost unsure about letting them into someone else's hands. It took some coaxing and reassuring for some to even let us digitize them to include in the book. This was phenomenal to me and emphasized even stronger how precious these were to some people.
Are these flyers collector's items?
Armstrong: Some of the Club Kids/Michael Alig ephemera are collectible, as well as the 70s and early 80s hip-hop flyers. I predict collectors will soon set their sights on mid-and-late-80s as well.
When did you guys start to feel nostalgic for these flyers?
Armstrong: It's been a slow process—going through my "stuff" in storage and at home, trying to sort out what's junk and what's worth preserving. Ironically, social media—Instagram in particular—has played a role in sparking a sharing of images of artifacts, which encouraged some of us to dig into our pasts and do some excavating. Working on [the documentaryStretch and Bobbito: Radio That Changed Lives] also focused my attention on the 80s and 90s. I went through my archives for the film and rediscovered how many incredible flyers I had from such a special time in my life. Auerbach: I've always been a nostalgist. Whether it's baseball cards and comics or rap cassettes and magazines. I was fortunate enough to hold on and appreciate all things.
What are some of your favorite flyers included in this book?
Armstrong: I don't want to come off as anti-technology, but some of my favorites are the ones that are really basic—black ink on card stock, primitive and simple, made quickly to get the word out, often by people with no design experience Auerbach: In the beginning, I was instantly attracted to the rap history flyers—the gritty, grainy sometimes shitty quality of the flyers was amazing to me. However, the more I worked on the book, the more I began to appreciate the artistry that went into some flyers. The Mars/Trip flyers are so dope—the colors and the designs were way ahead of their time. Follow Luke Winkie on Twitter.