Tomorrow evening our "Under the Influence of ego trip Pt. 2" film series continues at the Maysles Cinema in Harlem with the 1986 Newark, NJ graffiti/hip-hop documentary Writing On the Wall.
Writing On the Wall (shown with Rap City)
Thursday, March 31, 2011 @ 7:30pm
Maysles Cinema / 343 Lenox Avenue/Malcolm X Blvd.
(b/t 127th & 128th Streets) NYC, 10027
2 or 3 train to 125th St.
Suggested donation: $10
Buy advance tix here.
Directed by Sandra King, originally aired on New Jersey public television, and rarely seen in full since, Writing On the Wall chronicles the adventures of Brick City graf writer Micah HAKIM Kelly's VOS (Vandals On the Street) crew. But perhaps the film's most intriguing point of historical significance is its footage of a young Blake Lethem, a/k/a KEO X-MEN, a/k/a Lord Scotch, a/k/a Scotch 79 – graf writer, visual artist, emcee – during his tenure with VOS. In advance of tomorrow night’s screening (at which KEO, HAKIM, and Sandra King will be present) we recently caught up with the legendary Brooklynite to discuss his days in the Bricks, his role in the formation of 3rd Bass, his brother Jonathan's acclaimed novel The Fortress of Solitude, politricks, and whether or not he is, in fact, the Original White Rapper.
How had you wound up homeless?
KEO: It was kind of a choice. I mean, I had a girl here and a girl there I would stay with. But most of the time I would hang out. I would run the streets for three, four days, then I’d go to one of my girlfriend’s houses, and shower and sleep and go out and do it again. I was on it like that. I had burnt my bridges as far as my father was concerned. So I wasn’t really welcome at home. I was just doing my thing.
Where did you stay in Newark?
KEO: They had a giant abandoned projects out there called Scudder Homes. Unlike the projects in New York which were very tall, these were tall and they were long like the Great Wall of China, you know what I’m sayin’? And this particular projects, Scudder Homes, was notorious. Hakim’s cousin, who wrote CUZ, he’s featured in the film, he’s the light-skinned dude. He had an apartment in there and I stayed with him. It was the kind of place where dudes would just take apartments. Drug dealers were kicking out walls and making huge apartments out of three, four different apartments, adjoining [them]. And basically if you could hold it down it was yours. It was straight wild, wild west at that time.
How long were you out there?
KEO: I guess the better part of a year. And then we moved. We branched out into airbrushing in downtown Brooklyn on Fulton St. where there was obviously a lot more money. That’s when I came back here and I was plying my trade. But Newark was real, real interesting. Growing up in Brooklyn you think you’re a badass because Brooklyn is notorious the world over for stick up kids and whatever. But we ain’t have shit on Newark, bro. I was like, this place is fuckin’ insane. I mean buckwild. Where we were you couldn’t even call the cops if you wanted to. They wouldn’t come. You didn’t see police. It was outlaw rules.
What is your impression when you see yourself in the film now?
KEO: I mean, I’m embarrassed. Anytime you see yourself on film it’s like, whoa, that’s me? But particularly that was a time in my life when I was weighing about 60 pounds soaking wet. Like diddy-bopping around, it’s kind of hilarious.
How long had you been writing before that in Brooklyn?
KEO: I got interested in graffiti as a very, very young child. And I started tagging on my school and the schoolyard and the neighborhood. But at that time you weren’t a real writer until you hit the trains. So I went in ’79 to Fort Hamilton lay up and that’s when I consider my official start. Even though long before that – by the bicentennial in ’76 – I was trying to king the neighborhood, and walk into different areas of Brooklyn and taking tags.
At that point were you into emceeing, was it all hand in hand?
KEO: Oh yeah.
Did you have aspirations to record?
KEO: I never had aspirations to record. That’s the difference. I made many opportunities to record, I had people begging me to record and I never wanted to. That wasn’t what emceeing was about to me. I just used to battle dudes in the streets and rhyme. I never saw it as something that belonged on record. It was kind of a live interactive form to me.
People often refer to you as the original white dude in NYC hip-hop. Is that claim true or false?
KEO: Yeah, that’s bullshit. Every neighborhood had one cool white dude hanging out. His name was usually “Mighty Whitey.” They say I’m the first white emcee. I don’t know that to be a fact. But I never saw anyone else at the time trying to do it. When I first got to [High School of] Music and Art in 1980 dudes were telling me about a DJ named White Flash. Like, “Yo, you should hook up with White Flash!” And I was like, “Why? Oh, because we’re both white? Nah, I’m good.”
Serch went to my high school. He wasn’t MC Serch yet, he was just Mike. And he credits me with influencing his career. I was the guy that inspired him. So periodically – whether it’s about the Beastie Boys or Eminem – whenever one of these magazines will get the idea to do a history of white rap or some shit and they’ll interview Serch and he’ll mention my name. So it’s in the history books. Somebody’s gotta be first, I guess.
True or false: you were the person that first brought Serch to the Latin Quarter?
KEO: I was at the Latin Quarters every week. I don’t think I brought Serch. I know I brought Pete Nice. I introduced the two of them there. That’s something that’s been disputed because Dante Ross likes to say he put them together. But the way that went down is my old graffiti partner SAKE from Flatbush went to Columbia University to play basketball. And he hooked up with Pete. And he called me and was like, “Yo, you should meet my boy he rhymes like you.” And I was like, oh boy, this is corny. But what I didn’t realize is that SAKE, Mark Pearson, was a very business minded dude. And at that time Licensed to Ill had just dropped and the Beastie Boys were the biggest selling act out. So he understood that labels would want to sign another white rap group. I had no interest in recording – let alone being part of a Beastie Boys knock off. So I kind of introduced Pete to Serch and was like, yo, let’s put you dudes together.
So were you originally supposed to be a part of that group?
KEO: Yeah, they were trying to put together a group. It wasn’t called 3rd Bass at that time. We were the Servin’ Generals. And we had a couple of different names we threw around. 3 the Hard Way was one of them. I had brought in my boy Mizer who was the beatbox, Shameek the Beat Mizer. That was MIZER X-MEN my graffiti partner from TNR. I thought that the idea of a white group was cornball. And I wanted to make a multi-racial group. I said, well that hasn’t been done yet, really, on some rainbow coalition type shit if you’re gonna have a gimmick. The Beasties already got that white boy shit locked down. So let’s do this. I brought in my DJ Clark Kent at the time who I knew from Dana Dane from high school. And I tried to make a multi-racial group. And I wanted Shameek on the beatbox to be as up front a member as the emcees. We went and made some demos. We were fuckin’ with Hurby Azor at the time, Hurby Luv Bug. And we were also fuckin’ with Pete’s boy Lumumba, rest in peace, Professor X. He was trying to manage Pete or produce him or something. And we recorded a few little bullshit songs.
But I was never serious about it. I was off into getting high, I was going to parties, I was robbin’ and stealin’, making money. I was more interested in having fun and getting some pussy. I didn’t care about being a professional musician. Wasn’t my thing. So after I had introduced him to Serch I guess what happened was Clark Kent wound up giving the project to his little cousin Richie Rich and then it kind of took off from there. And as far as I know I introduced [Pete and Serch]. I walked them into [Def Jam’s original office on] Elizabeth Street. I knew Dante on some graffiti shit. He used to write SYSTEM and he hung out downtown in Washington Square. I knew the cat. And he was the messenger, the coffee boy. He was an intern there. And I took them in and introduced them, and was like, yo, hook these kids up.
And from there – whatever. I wasn’t really around. I remember I was in Rikers’ Island. I was in the day room watching Video Music Box, and that “Brooklyn-Queens” song came on – the video. And I’m tellin’ people, I’m like, “Those are my boys. I helped write that song.” And dudes are like, “Yeah, right, whatever. Tell ’em to come bail you out.”
What were you locked up for?
KEO: Petty larceny or some dumb shit? I don’t know. At that time I was in more than I was out.
When did you meet M.F. Doom?
KEO: Oh, years later. I spent most of the early ’90s locked up. I came back to New York in maybe ’95. I met Bobbito because I was living in the East Village and he had a little store over there called Footwork. So I got to talking with him, we knew people in common, whatever. And I started doing artwork for the first Fondle ’Em releases to have any artwork. Because they had been doing strictly white label singles prior to me. I was doing graphics at that time. I had been doing shit with Loud Records. I had already done a bunch of album covers. So Bob wanted something kind of unique for the Operation: Doomsday thing. And me and Doom wound up building at length and hanging out. And he would stay at my crib when he would come to New York. We just clicked on some emceeing shit and on some artwork shit. Because Doom is really, really a nasty visual artist himself, a lot of people don’t know that. But he’s a graffiti writer from way back. So he had all the concepts already. He just didn’t have the Adobe Creator and Photoshop skills to put it together. So I was more of an art director. He really had a vision for what he wanted his shit to look like. And he would bring me these pen and ink drawings and I would scan them in, colorize and flip ’em.
How much of that type of work did you continue to do at that point vs. your own art?
KEO: Like the present I’m still grinding, you know. Still doing graphics. Still doing Nike Sportswear, Zoo York, these kind of things. Music industry – they’re kinda broke right now. I don’t really fuck with the music anymore unless it’s one of my boys and I’m just doing it as a favor. Been doing some clothing shit. And doing a lot of writing.
Well, speaking of writing - how much did your life story inform your brother Jonathan’s novel, The Fortress of Solitude?
KEO: Yeah, everybody says Fortress, but there’s a lot of my stories in a lot of his books. And sometimes it would be us sitting down with a tape recorder going. He’s an amazing writer, but while he was reading comic books, and later science fiction, and then later college, I was out living life – having adventures. And a lot of those were not maybe the best choices that I made, so if my experience is of value that he can turn it into something – beautiful. I’ll share whatever it is with him. But that Fortress of Solitude book - while there’s a lot of me in there, there’s a lot of him. Because even before me he was running around with graffiti writers and cats in the neighborhood. He’s almost four years older than me, so a lot of that is his experience. And a lot of it is his best friend Carl’s experience, who was also a graffiti writer. So it’s a mash up and then a lot of it’s fictionalized.
And then of course he added that little homo scene, I don’t know if you ever read it…
I’m still about half way through it.
KEO: Yeah, well that was put there to keep me from telling people, “See, that’s my life story!” He knew that would make me go, “Uhhhhh no, that wasn’t me. I don’t remember that particular incident.” [laughs] There’s a couple of dudes out there who I know personally who could say the same thing – that [the book] is about them. And it’s really not about anyone at the end of the day. It’s a work of fiction.
In 2003 you found yourself in the midst of a political controversy after being commissioned to paint a graffiti backdrop at a Howard Dean campaign rally in Bryant Park and subsequently arrested. What did you take from that experience?
KEO: That politics is a pile o’ dicks.
What did it say to you about how people’s perceptions haven’t changed with regards to street art and graffiti?
KEO: Well, it was some young, hip female working for Howard Dean’s New York campaign, who got the bright idea that they were gonna have a ska band performing in fuckin’ Bryant Park, and wouldn’t it be cool to have some graffiti painted background? And she actually reached out to Bobbito, and Bobbito reached out to me. And I needed the money, you know, [laughs] and I was very thankful to Bob for plugging me in. But I was leery from the jump. I was like, wait a minute – this motherfucker wants graffiti in his backdrop and he’s running for… President of the United States of America?!? Are you sure about this? And I kept telling the contact [person] at the campaign headquarters – "Uh, you really know what it is that you’re asking?" “Yeah, we want some traditional New York graffiti stuff.” I researched the dude’s platform and what he was campaigning on and I said, you know what, it’s not like I’m doing artwork for the Nazi party or fuckin’ Coca Cola or somebody…
So I took the gig, I did it, I had a good time, and got paid. But then [the Republicans] were trying to [use] me to make Howard Dean look bad. They didn’t care about me. I was not on the Vandal Squad’s most wanted list prior to doing that job. I hadn’t been bombing subways in years. They didn’t know who the fuck I was. And this dickhead by the name of James Oddo who was the Republican minority leader or something out of Staten Island at that time – he held a press conference and said, “Oh, look Howard Dean wants graffiti back in New York. Maybe he doesn’t remember the bad old days. Maybe he’s from white bread Vermont but we remember,” and so on and so forth. And then Bloomberg chimed in on it. I didn’t know anything about it, and my girlfriend at the time got a phone call from the newspapers trying to reach me.
I didn’t give a comment to the Post or the News, but I spoke to the dude from the Times. And he said, "What’s your response, they’re calling you a vandal?" I said, "Well, if you know your history the Vandals were a tribe who used to run through other people’s countries and rape, plunder and pillage." I said, "I don’t do that. Maybe that’s what the Republicans are doing. I don’t know. All I try to do is beautify my surroundings. Maybe I fall short sometimes but I’m trying." Then the fuckin’ left wing bloggers got ahold of that quote and all of a sudden I was a hero over here. And it’s like, it’s all bullshit.
So I was working on a film at the time called Bomb the System with my man Bonz Malone. We were doing the tour of the film festival circuit. And I believe I was in Witchita, Kansas at the Tall Grass Film Festival or some godawful place. And I didn’t know that Bloomberg and James Oddo had put pressure on the Vandal Squad at that time. They wanted me arrested. So [when I got back to New York] I got out of a cab with my luggage fresh off a plane. And there’s an unmarked car posted up in front of my house. I see them but I figure they’re not there for me. I haven’t sold drugs in many years. And as soon as I open my gate, “Blake Lethem?” Oh boy, here we go. Clack-clack. And I wound up charged with a felony.
I got Ron Kuby [as my attorney], and I was ready to fight the thing to the end. Everyone involved to the fuckin’ DA knew that it was bullshit. But they were ready to go all the way with it. The ADA told my attorney, he said, "It’s coming from upstairs. They’re not gonna bargain on this one, they’re not gonna drop the charges. I don’t know who your boy pissed off but that’s the word." And my lawyer told me straight up, he was like, "Look, the people that sit on juries in Manhattan, they’re not working folks – they get out of jury duty. This is the nosy old lady who owns the brownstone who hates graffiti, who looks out of her window all day and calls the police. That’s who’s gonna be on your jury." So I took the plea.
So what did you have to do?
KEO: Well, I had already served time, so I wound up taking a plea that wound up giving me five years felony probation, which considering my priors was pretty light in the ass. They just wanted their conviction. [laughs] And they held a press conference immediately. I wasn’t even fingerprinted when James Oddo was holding a press conference saying, "Howard Dean’s artist, a wanted felon, apprehended." But that’s America, bro.
Every writer I know that they’ve put through the ringer - it’s not because they’re bombing. It’s because they wrote a book, they made a film, they somehow capitalized on it. They began to get public notice. They start to do gallery shows. They start doing a museum lecture series. Then you’re most wanted. Not for graffiti. But for spreading the idea of graffiti. [laughs] You know what I'm sayin'? Because the kids who are out in the street doing work, but stay off public record, don’t do interviews, they don’t get fucked with. They go for the easy target: Oh, he’s having an art show. Let’s go round them up at the gallery. Then dudes will call me every time. "Yo, get me Ron Kuby." Cause [they know] I been through it. You got one phone call, call KEO. [laughs]
Writing On the Wall (along with Rap City) is screening Thursday, March 31, @ 7:30pm @ the Maysles Cinema, 343 Lenox Ave (b/t 127th & 128th St.), NYC 10027.