Local favorite Sthaddeus “Polo Silk” Terrell has been a fixture of the New Orleans rap scene as its #1 party/event photographer—as well as a fan—since the ‘80s. I’d been meaning to track him down for an interview for a while, only to find out AG had been scooped already by Atlanta’s Cashew Co.! But here we delve deeper and learn about his godbrother Lil’ Ham’s 1991 hit single “Fuck a Ho!” as well as his loose associations with early bounce artists like DJ Jimi and Everlasting Hitman, and their forays into various talent shows (“gong shows”) put on by legendary R&B singer/promoter Bobby Marchan.
Polo also helped get up-and-coming gangsta-bounce acts UNLV and PMW’s music into the hands of all the club DJs, on behalf of the (then fledgling) Cash Money label. He initially fell into taking Polaroids at the Marrero teen venue, Club Adidas (run by future Big Freedia manager Melvin Foley), around 1987. They moved the club to Canal and Claiborne and competed with other downtown party spots like Warren “Get It Girl” Mayes’ Club 88. Club Adidas fizzled out, but Polo got right back into the photo game in late 1990 following an epiphany all-about-making-money after speaking to fellow “picture man” Button Man.
Button Man had hot spots like Flirts, Whispers, and Rumors on lock, but Polo saw an opportunity in the smaller clubs and barrooms, namely Big Man’s at Louisiana and Claiborne. But anywhere “Everybody dressed up, getting dressed to kill” was fair game. His cousin Otis Spears was recruited to airbrush and hand-paint backdrops, going by the latest trends and colors like Raiders jackets (“NWA was hot at that time”), 8-Ball jackets, and of course Polo; plus catchphrases from (mostly local) rap songs. Please enjoy this conversation conducted over beers, under the shade tree by 2nd and Dryades.
What do you think got you into photography initially, because that’s not something everybody does. A lot of people don’t feel comfortable walking around with a camera taking pictures of people.
I think what kinda pulled me into it was looking at the Jet magazines, Ebony magazines, just looking at the pictures kinda pulled me into it, and just drawing me into photographing… Everybody hustled out here. So, I sold drugs and stuff like that, too. When Button Man said he made $6,000 one night taking pictures at the Zulu ball, I was like “Whoa.” [Thinking back to Club Adidas] “I need to get back into that.”
Up to that point, you were working with all Polaroid? You still use the same camera?
Yeah, Polaroid. I left Chelsea at home. I shoulda brought her. A lot of the photographers I’ve talked to in life, some of my mentors— Eric Waters and Girard Mouton— some of New Orleans’ greatest photographers, they shoot film. You can’t duplicate it.
But Polaroid is cool. I love the instant quality of it. It’s an instant print. And it’s great you were able to come together with your cousin who painted the backdrops. It’s a way to document his work and your work at the same time.
It was a blessing to me, ‘cause in one way, I would never have got to where I have gotten to without him. But I was able to see the insight, ‘cause most of the photographers in this city that had stuff in this area, most of their backdrops was done up, like champagne glasses, cars, and stuff like that.
Sort of boring, generic stuff.
Yeah. Kinda. I was just trying to think of a way how to take it to another level. And what I incorporated… I started seeing everybody wearing Polo. Everybody wearing the Raiders stuff.
You personalized it.
Yeah. I kinda put my foot into it. Trying to make it stand out ‘cause I’m a quiet person. I let my backdrops talk for me. If I got the 8-Ball backdrops and Raiders backdrops and Polo backdrops, and everybody dressed in that, of course they’re gonna want to go take a picture by it. Nobody was really putting backdrops to the [local rap] artists or the songs and stuff. But when Lil’ Elt and DJ Tee came out with the song “Get the Gat,” [‘92-93] that was my first backdrop incorporating a song… I had the Polo man with the Polo hoodie on… He had the gat in his hand. Then I went with stuff like Juvenile, “I Got That Fire.” Josephine Johnny had “Catch the Wall,” so I had [Otis] make a brick wall backdrop and put all the different sayings Josephine Johnny was doing. Just putting it all together, trying to make something that people’d want to take a picture by.
In this city—and the same thing around the country—first thing we do on the weekend is we go get dressed up. We go get shoes, Bally’s or Jordans. I’d go find out what tennis shoes are hot, the shoes everybody gonna buy. And I’d incorporate my backdrops to the colors. I had a USA background when the Olympic Jordans came out. That was in ‘96. That’s when Jordans really started popping off. I knew everybody was gonna be wearing them colors for a couple months, so I made a backdrop to that. Boom!
You still keep up with all that?
Yeah. [laughs ] And I still have all those backdrops. What I used to do—I could flip ‘em. Usually I’d put the champagne stuff up there first. So I’d let a person take a picture on that first. “You know what? You got your red, white, and blue tennis shoes. Your red, white, and blue shirt and all that. Hold up! Let me show ya this!” So I’d flip it, double my money.
Did any local labels or local artists commission you to do stuff, after seeing backdrops like “Get the Gat”?
Me and UNLV was tight. How I really got started with Cash Money, I ran into Baby one night by Newton’s and they were promoting PMW. “Gimme them posters,” I say, “I’m going to this club across the river, then by Big Man’s, bruh. I can put the posters up there. And give me some of the product, I can get the DJ to play it.” So from then on, every time they dropped something new, Baby’d make sure he’d get it to me… [Before that] I ran with DJ Jimi. And Everlasting Hitman. I [released] his live stuff on cassette.
I knew there was a live, bootleg tape floating around before his first real tape.
Yeah. And I did [the tape cover for] my brother, Lil’ Ham. We had him out. He got his one song: “Fuck a Ho!” And that’s mostly what people was saying: “Fuck that ho!” “FUCKA HO” [laughs ] And he took off!
The Lil’ Ham tape was around the same time, right?
Yeah. Right. Everlasting Hitman. He came in around Big Man’s and stuff. We was all tight. He did his little thing at Big Man’s. We [Strugglin-N-Strivin Records ] started doing him. One night we were recording in Big Man’s, live. That’s when the gong shows was going on. We started bringing him to the gong shows—
Was that something Bobby Marchan was promoting?
Yeah! Bobby Marchan was doing the gong shows. And that used to be our little come-up money. Hitman would be making money from winning the gong shows, plus he’d tip me and Ham. We’d pick him up. Spend a little of the money, go back and hustle, but uh… We’d get there. We’d be damn near broke. But we know we’d be going to the gong show and getting paid. We’d go into Flirts [and] it got to a point where Bobby said, “Y’all can’t keep comin’ in the gong show. Y’all can’t be in the gong show. Because he keep winning too much!” “What?! Why, man? We good dudes!” But we knew enough people where we could get drinks, ‘cause really we was poor. Didn’t have nothing. What happened with Hitman, he was supposed to sign on my label. That’s when I had Stugglin-N-Strivin Records.
That was all you?
That was me. With Lil’ Ham. But what happened, we was out of town with Jimi and Lil’ Ham doing some shows. Hitman went by Big Man’s, somebody pulled up (I forgot the name of this guy); he had a limousine service. He pulled up by Big Man’s in a big ol’ fuckin’ limo, trying to holler at Hitman who didn’t know no better. He thinkin’ the man got it going on and all that stuff. He ended up signing with him.
Yeah. Mr. Tee Records [another local, short-lived, independent rap label]. That’s who winded up putting Hitman’s stuff out. But I put his underground stuff out. I mean we used to go, “Oh, we can’t get in the gong show? Cool. We got a cassette. We sell ‘em for ten a piece.” We’d have about 70 fucking tapes. A couple times Hitman had done got in trouble and went to jail, and had shows that night. I’m the one that had to go bond him out. That was my boy, and I didn’t want him to miss out on no money. I knew he was gonna pay me back. So I’d go bond him out. I still got one of the bond papers that I bonded him out with. Floyd Blount. That was his name.
Was there anything else on Strugglin-N-Strivin?
That’s it! When the gong show was going on, I brought Pimp Daddy, Everlasting Hitman, Bustdown, and K-Black… That’s the original person who did the song “Eat the Cat” [‘92]. Me and her was on the phone going back and forth, putting that together, writing it together. And then her doing the gong show. When I went to the gong shows, I brought like nine artists. None of them ever got gonged. Every night they came and took first place. What happened with K-Black, she hooked up with a couple friends of mine. They bullshitted her to come with them…
Back to the clubs you were working at early on…
Big Man’s was like from 10:30 at night to 5:30 in the morning. We used to call that the Lakefront ‘cause, in that era, everybody used to go on the Lakefront on Sundays. But Saturday nights, all up Louisiana Avenue was packed [with cars]… and all that neutral ground on Claiborne used to be packed til the sun come up in the morning. Rap was just starting to come in and really be acknowledged. They wouldn’t even let you start playing rap til midnight, with a whole mob of people standing outside the club, waiting on 12 o’clock to come into the club!
Was it like that at most of the clubs back then?
Yeah! Except like Rumors. But we wouldn’t go to Rumors ‘cause you Uptown. You gonna stay Uptown. ‘Cause Uptown, we had Newton’s [7th & Dryades], 49’ers [S. Saratoga near MLK], Streamline and Ghost Town [both in Hollygrove]… Up here, you can go out even if you ain’t got no ride. You’ve got enough clubs close enough so that you can walk… ‘cause like when Big Man’s, Newton’s, 49’ers and Detour’s [MLK & S. Rampart] was rollin’—and you stayed all the way over in that St. Thomas and you was a female—you could walk to the club. You knew you could get you a ride home! I know women that walked all the way from the St. Thomas to the 17th, to Streamline. And Mystikal used to come up in there and just tear that mother up. And 49’ers: UNLV, Hitman and all them used to do that. Big Man’s: Jimi, Hitman, bop bop bop. Ghost Town was DJ Irv and Jimi, with the Ghost Town Pussy-Poppers…
Maaaaan, it was an era that’s gone now. Once a rap act got invigorated into the club—if you had a hot song, the bar owners would pay you to come perform ‘cause they knew you gonna bring people up in there. And the way New Orleans rolled—because it rolled from 10:00 to 5:00 in the morning—you could hit three clubs that night. Making $300 at this club for 45 minutes of work. So if you hit three or four clubs a night, you done made you 900, a thousand dollars… And a lot of these clubs, they had the dice games going in there. You know? They had one cop. He worked all them clubs. And he was all into this stuff, so you know if he’s working the club, you don’t have to worry about the other police.
I remember the dice games would start at 11 o’clock at night and go to 11, 12 o’clock the next day. I know some people that got houses and stuff like that on gambling. They didn’t have a day job. I’ve seen people make $20,000. The most I done made in a dice game was like $3,000. That’s a pretty good job for two hours! You never know how blessed you are until you’ve done lost everything you had. My uncle Sambo always told me: “Go to school and get your education. ‘Cause you don’t want to wind up like me.” And my uncle Sambo, he worked at Avondale shipyard and his hands was rough as a motherfucker. I got my education. I went to LSU for three years.
Were you doing photos up in Baton Rouge?
No. I wish I was, though. When I was up there, I was just trying to be the Polo King. [laughs ] I’m 36 hours from a degree and I’m 50 years old. My mama’s still telling me “Go back to school and get your degree.” What is it for? I got a degree out here. A PhD! If you can walk in any projects in this city, and people don’t knock your fuckin’ head off ‘cause you from Uptown, you did good! And I always treated people like they was my family. I don’t care if you got a lotta money, if you ain’t got a dollar—I treat people like I want to be treated. And that’s how I think I winded up surviving. Me, I wind up getting a pass ‘cause I’m a photographer. ‘Cause everybody came Uptown to party. And people saw my backdrops.
I was blessed that I got to meet DJ Jubilee, DJ Pee-Wee, DJ K-Real. And what I used to do on Saturdays was call them, “What you got going on, man? ‘Cause I ain’t doing nothing.” I gotta make some money. A kiddie party, a block party, or something. I would just pull up there and pull out my backdrops. And, really… the dope dealers had figured it out: “If we pay for the DJ to come play out here, the police can’t come up on us and pack us up” ‘cause they got so many people out there, they can’t interfere with them selling drugs. The block party shit really took effect ‘cause the dope dealers’ll pay for somebody to come DJ ‘cause they gonna bring a whole crowd and then they can get their hustle on. And when they got their hustle on, I got mine on too! [laughs ]
We can’t forget to talk about BG and Soulja Slim.
When Slim, BG, UNLV and them came through a club I was doing, they would stay up there—no matter how long it was—they would take pictures with they fans. Him and Slim had that voice—
—And they got that stardom, but they never played bigheaded. A lot of artists, when they get that stardom, they forget their friends. But Slim! BG! They gonna hang out on the floor with the people that’s in the club and holler at ‘em and kick it with ‘em.
What can you tell me about the New Orleans rap scene before you got into taking photos, before ‘87?
Slick Leo [WAIL FM ] and others started out doing these dances. St. Mary’s, Xavier Prep… Melvin Foley brought Salt-N-Pepa, Ice Mike, Bustdown, Tim Smooth and Gregory D to John Ehret High School and different places like the Rivergate, the Sheraton, the Hyatt… and it got too big for that. And then they start taking it to the Superdome. If I was taking pictures then, I’d be paid. Retired right now, probably. Ghost Town started bringing in Run-DMC, Too Short, Public Enemy… to the Municipal Auditorium. If you wasn’t in there, you missed out. [Mannie Fresh’s first MC/DJ crew] New York Incorporated– they’d do dances at the Rivergate, the place they used to do The World of Wheels at. That’s when everybody used to wear the plastic baseball hats!
That’s a pretty good time stamp.
They were around for a good three, four, strong years. I mean, everything they did was packed. And you got people that came from all over with no kinda bullcrap.
What record stores would you go to?
We always did go to Pal [Henry “Palomino” Alexander who had Manicure Records with Bobby Marchan] to buy records ‘cause he had stuff. Peaches, and Brown Sugar right there on Louisiana, Groove City (by Paris), Odyssey. Man, Odyssey was the stuff. The crazy thing about it: you had Big Daddy Kane and all them out, but the locals used to outsell the major artists that was [nationwide]. Like UNLV, Cheeky Blakk, Mystikal, Partners N Crime, and all that. Whenever they dropped an album, everybody passing by in a car, you’d hear ‘em playing it. I remember one night we was downtown by Crystal’s. Warren Mayes was the first person down here with them suicide doors on his Camaro. Warren and his little crew—they used to all be in Dickies suits and Chuck Taylors! They’d pull all their cars under that one little spot under that bridge. Some kinda way they synched it where they’d all play their tapes at the same time. And all their cars sitting under there with boo- koo sound in there, playing whatever song they promoting. All that would be boomin’ under that bridge, man.
How they pulled that off and how they synched that, I don’t know… Warren Mayes was doing shows at the Municipal Auditorium, the Treme Center, the Riverboat Hallelujah, or wherever he could do a show. [His song] “Get It Girl” was still hot. Then Take Fo’ Records came around. Cash Money came around. They said “We can do shows ourself.” Either at the Treme Center, or the Riverboat, they started doing their own shows, every holiday. For a while, I didn’t really get to enjoy no holidays. My holiday was over at one, two o’clock ‘cause I had to get ready for the concert, and then after that I still had a club to do.
But, man, like four, five o’clock—if Cash Money did it at the Riverboat or Treme, you had a line round the building. And around that era, too, you could still bring your kids to the shows. I’ve got pictures of people when they took pictures with their kids at the concerts and stuff. Now, you can’t bring your kids—seven, eight, nine year-olds—to no rap show. Unless it’s Jay-Z or something. They’ll sell you a ticket; they’ll let you bring your kid, but… pppssshh [laughs ]… I’m at every event in this city going on. And I’ve been blessed. ‘Cause, with my camera… you know, ‘cause you from Uptown, you don’t want to go downtown. Or go across the river. But by me having a camera, I can go into any project in this city—when they had ‘em—and set up and take pictures with no problems. “Oh, That’s the picture man! He’s cool.” If they don’t know who I am and they Black and from this city, they must be living under a rock!