Born in Lower Manhattan, the SAMO tag became renowned, infamous, & reviled in the late 70’s / early 80’s, all due to the dual hands of Jean-Michel Basquiat & Al Diaz, bonded as Nuyoricans despite their differing color traits. While Basquiat would go on to reap the majority of recognition & fame for their work, Al Diaz remained content in his own life's passions, work, and the remote shadows of the spotlight. Still within the Five Boroughs reach, surviving, lasting & outlasting all naysayers and doubting thomases to this day, his voice & memory remain perfectly intact. Herein we explore a day of remembrance with him in the Jacob Riis Houses, the Housing Projects where he grew up.
"I lived here. 90 Ave D. This is the second building I lived in over here. When I was like 5 years old, my friend Fredo, he was like 13 or so, he came downstairs one day, just going outside to play, stepped out & BAM! --- caught a fucking bullet --- shot in his throat --- He had this hole in his throat, he lived, he survived, but he had this hole, as long as I could remember... He was my friend but he was older than me… 90 ave D… It was a fuckin warzone…The stuff that nightmares are made of…Things just started going downhill so quickly, we had people lighting the elevator on fire, pissing in there, human waste man…My friend Fredo got shot right there… It was fucking horrible man, nobody wanted to live down there, it was just the worst… I heard stories about the guys, the gang we used to hang out together, everybody became junkies, ripping each other off, and it was bad, bad, bad… Luckily my parents took me to Brooklyn when I was 14 or 15, and I moved back but never to the projects… That shit was over for me. It was its own little world over there. It's funny to me, people anywhere who grow up in the projects, they got a certain camaraderie like its this thing, this weird vibe like "we're from Ave D," and it means nothing, it means you're a poor schmuck who happens to be given the dregs, the bottom of the barrel…It's amazing to see people flocking to this area or any area that was once a slum, because a lot of them have no idea of the stories those fucking walls have housed…"
"Boys brotherhood Republic... Shit. Back then it was run like the government. There was a mayor, they had elections, it was a boy's club, they had games there, sports, basketball and everything… but if you did bad shit there you had to go to court... Mock trials and shit…My friend joey was the judge...It was a little bizarre when you think about it, making kids face a jury of their peers at that age…"
DAYCARE / VIRGINIA DAY PRE-K
"That shit left a lasting impression on me... Right over here by the doors... Crafting my own knot... I learned how to tie my shoe otherwise I couldn't go out and play... It was called the igloo over here…I was in kindergarten right here at Virginia Day Nursery…I guess that's who this lady is, right? Anyway, we used to get a play period where we went outside you know, and I had a pair of Buster Browns or something and they were laceups, and I guess they came undone & I may have asked the caretaker teacher whatever to tie my shoe once or twice before, and I guess she got fed up with that & said that unless I did it myself I couldn't go out and play… And I remember putting my foot up on something right here, and trying to make a knot, & I came up with this crazy knot that didn't make any sense, cause I was scrambling to get with my friends…
Remember that shit about the knife and fork? There was a dining room there, and we had like lunch or something every day, & it always smelled really good to me, and the table settings were always really neatly done, and to this day, every time I see a table setting anywhere, it reminds me of that place, cause it was so formal and civilized and I can almost smell that food even now at my home when my girlfriend's setting the table for dinner… That synesthesia happens to me all the time… It happens with the seasons changing too… The smell of spring, ya know? It may not actually be there, but you sense this stuff around you…You remember it & your senses get crossed…"
"This place, it wasn’t anything like this. It was built up then, a big deal for everyone who lived here… Even Lady Bird Johnson, you know, the First Lady, she was here, for the Inauguration or Christening of this place… We call it “the Amp...” At least we called it that then, those of us who’re from here… And it was different man. It had a whole terrace-like tressel structure built up & elevated above it like so it made it look bigger… I don’t just mean like when you’re a kid and you come back and everything looks bigger… I mean they did that shit and now it’s gone, so think how it seems to me now? Like a shell of the place itself, the real place it was…This other shit was never here...James Brown was here… He played here when I was 12 years old and it was incredible. I’ll never forget it."
"My next door neighbor Jose Chegui, that's Puerto Rican slang for Jose Luis, he somehow befriended some maintenance people or something and we ended up getting a set of keys to all the boiler rooms…They were master keys, so they worked everywhere, and we turned them all, every boiler room in the whole projects into a series of clubhouses, just kid stuff, you know how we are… Anyway somehow we got caught one time, somebody complained and the cops showed up, and we ended up getting chased, and I'll never forget it that this cop told me he was gonna shoot me in the head… We were about 10 or 11 man, pretty young… And we had to go to the 9th precinct cause that was the Housing Authority precinct… They gave us a big brother type of talk and a slap on the wrist…All for going in the boiler rooms... I mean, we didn't have to break in, we had keys!.. Anyway that was my first time with the cops... I had associates in all these buildings..."
"You see that school? It’s called Nest now or something? Two cops beat the shit out of me right over there... I was in the back shooting coke… They took me to Beth Israel… Let me go eventually… I remember when they released me one of ‘em said to me, "Drugs? That ain't the move kid. That ain't the move." I'll never forget that line."
RIOT ON AVE D
"Three card monty out in front of the pizzeria... I was in the pizzeria right here that's pretty much directly across from 90 ave d where I lived… between 7th & 8th on the west side facing the projects… I was in there, & I forget what it was I was buying, and I was only in there for 7-10 minutes at most… And this guy had set up a cardboard setup for three card monty, and all of a sudden a patrol car pulled up & they were trying to get this guy into the car… They had some exchange of words, I don't remember that clearly, but I remember the guy's girlfriend or partner or lookout or something, she was trying to pull him out of the squadcar & the cops were trying to get him in, and within seconds, everybody is throwing shit at the police, and withIn 5 minutes it was a full scale riot…They had shit coming off the buildings, out the windows, the cops had to call three precincts of backup, it was probably around 1969 or something… It was crazy, out of control… It got so that thousands of people were in the streets and the cops were pretty much helpless…One of the guys I knew, there were two of them actually, names were Papo & Pichingo, they were brothers from one of the gangs on the block, and they looked almost like twins they were so close in age & similar looking, one of them, the younger one I think, who actually ended up getting killed later, he snatched a service revolver from one of the cops --- you got to remember this is wall to wall people on Ave D, and they passed it down like hand over hand like one guy to another to another, until you couldn't tell who had it, & the cop never got his gun back… They snatched it right out of his holster & he never saw it again…Must have been embarrassing to say the least… And right over across the corner there, That pharmacy there, I saw that shit burn... There were people running outside in the snow in their underwear..."
"I ear-witnessed a murder when i was 5 years old... I went out into the hallway, just seeing if my friends could come out and play...and there were two kids ... two black kids, you know, there weren’t a lot of black kids down here at that time… Mostly Ricans, until the 80s there weren’t even any Dominicans down here… Anyway I’m knocking on the door… Listening, you know, with my ear… Right Outside the door, a little kid, & i hear three shots... It was the mother and father of this family, arguing about something, most likely some other woman as far as I can recall… And then out of fucking nowhere… BOOM BOOM BOOM!... And then…There were detectives... You know, interviewin me, askin me questions… Ha… My mother was all --- "He's only a little boy, he don't know nothing!..."
7TH / 8TH STREET
"The surrounding blocks were all nicer... There were homes on either side for old Jews, Poles... Nuns...There was a Yeshiva right here, across from St. Brigid's…This block next over is also right where I got strung out on heroin…I lost that apartment because of dope… It was right next to the laundromat which was a big dope spot…It was my first apartment where I felt the sting of the drug."
"When they tore that shit down, I watched the wrecking ball come in, and I just started crying…I went there 1st through 8th grade.. I had communion there, I was confirmed, baptized there, all that Catholic shit…And I mean, I'm not religious at all, but years later I just happened to walk past, I was working across the street and came out for a few minutes to go to another job or whatever the fuck, and I saw all these people that had gathered around the church, some were protesting, some were just staring, looking dumbfounded, and I heard the demolition crew inside, and they were laughing, breaking stained glass windows, like they were having fun doing it, like it was a party for them, & that shit was so sad, just out of control, I just started bawling… I'll never forget it… I was 43, 44 at the time, crying like a baby… "
VALUE FOR LIFE
"Before we had any value for life, back then they had these heavy wire milk crates, and we threw one off the overpass right there. Total barbarians. All we saw was sparks. We could have killed the guy. No joke… I told you the one about the bus driver. Jesus christ. Right here on the FDR, I was all by myself that time… I took a piece of pure ice and threw it right smack in the fucking middle of the windshield… Took his whole windshield out… I was lucky --- We were lucky any of those times nobody died with what we did… He stopped the bus, got out, and I just ran, hid in one of these buildings up here… Funny when you’re a kid you think you ran so far… Look at it: It’s like 30 fucking yards or something, nothing…"
"It was my cousin Gil, he lived in Washington Heights… I was exposed to it up there, through him & the boys he rolled with… I was Bomb ONE, that was my tag, & then there was Snake THREE, MANMAKER and MR DEATH… We were the first four in all the projects in the LES… around 71 or 72 or so… We sought each other out cause there weren't any others really…About a year after we started you started seeing more names and I guess it [graffiti] was getting bigger & bigger, but for around a good year our names were the only ones that were visible, which was cool for us…We were the Elite."
GREENWOOD CEMETERY, BROOKLYN
"I got a great new idea for Jean's grave this year….For the last three years I've been doing this thing where I put up stuff on his grave every year… This year's gonna be the 25th anniversary of his death… You know how I take the WET PAINT signs from the subway? Well I got some service change signs and flowers… Anyway this year I'm gonna put "I AM NOT THE NEW JAY-Z…Jean was special man, I know how it feels to me. "