Words: Jake Lemkowitz
Images courtesy of Joe Buck

De La Soul will release the new album And the Anonymous Nobody on August 26, the first full-length from the Long Island trio in 12 years. In anticipation of this new music, we are publishing articles and artifacts from Frank151‘s Chapter 37, the print edition that was curated by the group. The goal is to introduce new listeners to De La Soul as well as offer new insights for longtime fans of these hip-hop legends.

Joe Buck was at the bus station in Jamaica, Queens when Run-D.M.C. came out with a boombox, performed “It’s Like That” for ten people, and left. It was ’83, the right place right time for hip-hop. Graffiti was blowing up all over the city, and Buck loved it, but he wasn’t going out to bomb train yards because he didn’t want to get paint on his gear. Nothing too fancy then: shell toes, Wallabees, sheepskins. He graduated from high school and his dad said it was time to trade all that in for a suit and tie. “I don’t want to wear suits,” Buck said, “I want to do something else.”

He enrolled in the NY Institute of Technology in Islip, Long Island—land of small airports. Again, right place right time. Buck started making hand-drawn flyers for shows on campus. Trugoy of De La Soul had gone to the same school and would still come up with Maseo to hit the college parties now and then, that’s when he noticed Bucks handiwork around campus. One day, Trugoy met Buck outside a party and offered him the opportunity to design the album artwork for what would become De La Soul is Dead. Buck had never done any commercial artwork before and the group gave him almost total creative reign. Their only request: no daisies.

Buck sketched a broken flowerpot, and the concept for one of hip-hop’s most iconic album covers was born. “People just looked at them one way, like hippies,” says Buck. “That’s not really who they were. So it was definitely a total change of direction, in a sense, of what they were going to be about. A balancing.”

The end of the DA.I.S.Y. Age marked the start of Joe Buck’s professional art career. He set up a studio in an empty dorm room where he used an upside-down bed as an easel. His wife was the floor’s RA. The work kept coming in steadily, but even after he had saved up enough money to buy a GTI, he didn’t take his design work so seriously.

All that changed around ’93 and ’94, when he flew out to Japan on tour with De La. The trip was an eye opening experience. “I hadn’t felt that type of impact where I flew 14 hours to somewhere, and people knew me,” Buck explains. “As soon as they heard my name they were like, ‘You did the De La Soul Is Dead and the ‘Saturdays’ cover!’  It was a totally different feeling when people had this interest in my art who didn’t know me and didn’t know what I did, but knew that cover and wanted to know more. It totally changed my view of what I was doing and how I could do it. It was unbelievable.”

Somebody at a club gave him a can of Japanese spray paint as a souvenir. He put it in his pocket. The next day he realized that the can had leaked a huge green stain across the side of his leather jacket. His old fear of graffiti messing up his gear had come true, 6,700 miles from Queens.

Buck struck gold more than once by doing things his own way. Back in ’98, during the pioneer days of the internet, he taught himself Flash and designed an elaborate website called Made From Scratch because he thought it would be fun. Before long, Marc Ecko was calling him on the phone saying it was the most unbelievable thing he’d ever seen, asking Buck to come work for him.

Over decades into his career, Buck is still doing his own solo artwork. “I always had to keep my personal stuff,” he says. “I can cut loose and do something that I really like and balance that with having to do client work. It keeps you from going nuts.”