Ali (graffiti artist)
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ALI was the graffiti name of artist and musician Marc André Edmonds, also known as J. Walter Negro, “The Playin’ Brown Rapper.” As ALI, he is best known as the founder of 'Soul Artists' and originator of the cult of Zoo York. As "alter-ego" J. Walter Negro (a cynical take-off on the arch-commercialist J. Walter Thompson advertising agency), he is remembered as the lead singer/songwriter of the proto-hip-hop-rap group 'J. Walter Negro and the Loose Jointz', who had some success with their 1981 release "Shoot the Pump".
Born in Manhattan in 1956 to an African American father and Cherokee mother, ALI attended public school on the Upper West Side with future noted graffiti artists SAMO (Jean-Michel Basquiat), Futura 2000 (Lenny McGurr), and COCA 82 (Pablo Calogero). He began street-tagging in 1970, and with his younger brother Michael, founded the early crew The Underground (UND). He went on to found The Soul Artists (SA) several years later, and became a respected subway artist well before the advent of “wildstyle” graffiti art. ALI influenced and inspired fellow SA and UND member BILROCK-161 who started The Rolling Thunder Writers in 1976. (RTW went on to become one of the most famed and prolific of all of the New York City Subway graffiti clubs. RTW membership included some of the best-known artists such as REVOLT, ZEPHYR, MIN-ONE, QUIK, CRUNCH, RICH2, PADE, REGAL 192, BOE, SACH, KEL 139,EL 3, IZ THE WIZ, and HAZE.)
ALI's works often contained a humorous political message, a trend which led to his establishing and publishing the comic-oriented “Zoo York Magazine” in the early 1980s (The premier issue, was first published in May 1979).
Late one night in the early 1970s, while ALI and Futura 2000 were “bombing” IRT traincars in the lay-up tunnel between the 137th and 145th Street stations under Broadway, a number of spray-paint cans, lined up along what was mistaken to be a “dead” third rail, suddenly exploded, enveloping ALI in flames. Futura got him out and to a local hospital, where he was laid up with severe burns for months. The fire left scars on his neck and jaw-line, but ALI’s wrists and hands took the worst damage. Doctors advised that his hands would have to be amputated, but his Native American mother told them that he was an artist, and he would live or die with his hands attached. So shocking were his burns that a number of early writers were said to have "laid up their cans" after visiting him in the hospital; but ALI recovered completely, though he carried scars from that night for the rest of his life.
A cynical social observer with a quick wit, ALI coined the term "Zoo York" to describe the absurdity displayed in the attitudes of New Yorkers during what he called the "Sick Seventies." It was the name he gave to a subway tunnel being built underneath the Central Park Zoo at the time, which became a haunt of early "old school" graffiti writers in the early 1970s. The tunnel's naming occurred one autumn night in 1975. Several members of The Underground, ALI, FINE, and CRUNCH, had just attended a showing of a new musical-comedy review called National Lampoon Lemmings at the Village Gate downtown. The show (which starred future comic notables John Belushi, Chevy Chase and Christopher Guest) lampooned the Woodstock Festival, which had taken place upstate two years earlier, calling it "Woodchuck" and equating the entire hippie generation with lemmings bent on self-destruction. The crew of teenagers made similar comparisons between themselves and the residents of the nearby city zoo. Marvelling at the perversities of contemporary urban psychology, ALI proclaimed New York City itself "not New, but a Zoo!"
"Shoot the Pump"
A decade later, in 1981, “hip-hop” was just emerging as a new style of street music, and "rapping" was a phenomenon not yet recognized outside major U.S. cities. ALI formed a band named “J. Walter Negro and the Loose Jointz”. Their first single, "Shoot the Pump," was released first under John Hammond's "Zoo York" imprint, and was later produced overseas on Island Records. A wild conglomeration of rap, hip-hop, Latin funk, and disco rock, the song features ALI as “Negro,” vocalizing about opening up a fire hydrant with a monkey wrench, directing the water blast with a hollowed-out spray-paint can, and soaking passers-by "shooting the pump" at them. Cops arrive, see him reaching for something and "shoot the punk" – then close the hydrant and flee the scene of their crime. But crafty Negro lives, thanks to a bullet-proof vest, and he heads off to “shoot the pump” again.... They opened for Talking Heads, Blondie, and Kid Creole at The Peppermint Lounge and The Mudd Club. (The Loose Jointz had an occasional celebrity guest in Jean-Michel Basquiat; Pablo Calogero, co-writer of "Shoot the Pump,” would go on to record music for the soundtrack of Basquiat's film, New York Beat Movie Downtown 81.)