Michael “Kaves” McLeer is a man of culture. His Brooklyn Made tattoo parlor in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn is one of the most respected shops in the United States. And that respect is an extension of his character: he first made his name as a graffiti writer back in the early 1980s, and from there progressed into a world-class emcee who fronted a group called The Lordz of Brooklyn. 20 years ago, The Lordz released their first album, All In The Family. On August 1, The Lordz will be playing a reunion show at the Gramercy Theater in New York City (along with killer Queens emcee Meyhem Lauren and this scribe’s hardcore punk outfit The Wilding Incident).
As someone who has known Kaves for well over half of my life, it is easy to say that he’s a captivating individual. But his resume—built from real life experiences inside the realms of street/youth culture—can do a better job of articulating who his is. Recognize the spraycan size.
Mass Appeal: What are your earliest memories of rap music?
Kaves: In 1979, a next door neighbor—some roller skater chick—got me a copy of “Rapper’s Delight.” It was like 14 minutes long. My brother and I made up a dance routine to it and performed it in front of the whole school. I remember that dance…it was like a cross between the freak and some Vinnie Barbarino shit. I wore a paperboy hat and threw it over to my brother and we would do like a simultaneous split. We killed it. I remember someone stole that record somehow and I was so pissed. When my mother and father got divorced and my mother moved back to her old block, the kids there didn’t take kindly to disco or my Sergio Valente pants. They were more old-school-burnout kids that were into heavy rock, Deep Purple, Hot Tuna, The Doors, and all that throwback shit. The next time I would hear a rap song was in 1980 at the army base carnival. It was Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks.” And it wasn’t until my brother came home with the 12 inch of RUN DMC’s “It’s Like That” with “Sucker MC’s” on the B-Side, that we were hooked in. That changed everything.
What were your first interactions with rap?
The early ‘80s was when I got heavily into graffiti. Because of that, I traveled outside the neighborhood and I hooked up with a lot of friends that had different backgrounds and influences. We started getting into breaking and popping. We were really into listening to Red Alert and Mister Magic, and we started collecting mixtapes and bringing that stuff back into our neighborhood. There weren’t many people, if any, that were listening to hip hop. It was before the trend. Groups like UTFO, Whodini, Grandmaster Flash. My two best friends, Joey Hernandez and Troy Jenkins, would spend a lot of time with me in the hallway of my apartment building practicing our break routines. Joey was the first kid to show us footwork. Around that time, we started getting into the more aggressive hip hop that was coming out of Def Jam. It was a big influence on us—we really felt like we found our rock n roll. Early LL Cool J, RUN DMC, and Beastie Boys. Then followed up by Big Daddy Kane and Rakim. I remember that being such a great time for hip hop. There was a highlight moment for me when I was an extra in Krush Groove and I got to hang out with my childhood idols—RUN DMC, Fat Boys, LL Cool J.
Coming from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, was hip hop popular or was it mainly burnout dudes who like The Who or Rush?
Bay Ridge has that stereotype where people think only of Saturday Night Fever, John Travolta and disco, but like I said, it was really kids who listened to classic rock. There was also the preppy kids who listened to like Bruce Springsteen and shit like that. We were looked at as kids from the wrong side of the tracks because we listened to hip hop. There were only a few like-minded kids who we traded influences with. This was all before hip hop crossed into a wider audience. For a while we would get into mad beef if we were breaking our cardboard and rocking our radio. On the weekends we would breakdance in front of crowds on 86th Street in front of Century 21. We didn’t give a fuck.
Who were the founding members of Lordz of Brooklyn and how did it come together?
Towards the later ‘80s I finally got caught and arrested for writing. I had to slow down my activity on the trains. I always felt I had a story to tell and graffiti was my outlet. Now that it was kinda under wraps, I needed something new to tell my story. I was always on a mission to be that “Brooklyn boy makes good,” to become famous and make my mother proud. I turned to hip hop. Because it was mine. Because instead of using a spraycan I could use a microphone. My brother Adam started DJ’ing and we were throwing basement parties at our friend’s house. From there it got bigger, to where we were promoting this local club called Ernie Barry’s and really creating a scene. Bringing heavyweight hip hop groups to this part of Brooklyn was unheard of. I would do graffiti backdrops behind the bands hoping it would bring me some attention. Eventually I got the chance to get Public Enemy to play. They took a liking to me and I would travel to Hempstead, Long Island to hang out with Hank Shockley, Chuck D, and Professor Grif. They were interested in me because when they asked me if I rapped, I blurted out “Yeah I’m the best in my neighborhood”. Then I had to run home to put together a demo! Troy and I put together my first demos. Troy was the only emcee I knew personally that was super talented. He was just as good as Big Daddy Kane in my eyes. If it wasn’t for him in my earlier days I wouldn’t know my ass from my elbow. So, I had my crew, The Verrazano Boys, but I felt like I needed a better name to represent us. I grew up with a bit of a gang culture influence through my father, who was in an original greaser gang in Flatbush called Pigtown. He would always say to me that they were the original Lords of Flatbush. He played me that movie when I was a kid. That name and that logo was something I was always drawn to.
I was very proud of Brooklyn because it was one of the few things we really had. I knew I had to represent for the borough. I enlisted my brother as a DJ and so was born The Lordz of Brooklyn. I made my pilgrimages to Long Island and eventually got Professor Grif to produce our first demos. I would play them around the neighborhood. Saturday nights we hung out on the avenue, drinking beers, rolling a hundred deep, causing trouble. I met Scotty Edge. He was also emceeing and I brought him out to do a song with us. Scott brought something to the table where it felt more like a group. For the next year or two we were just honing our skills and paying our dues. We started to focus on creating a more clear cut, professional demo and we channeled our first love, graffiti. I produced a track called ‘Bomb The System’. With the help of Henry Chalfant and Carl Weston, we made a music video for it.
Carl had an underground video series called Video Graf and we debuted that song at the end of Video Graf 6 and it caught on like wildfire. We did a few other songs as well. It wasn’t until Adam stepped out from behind the DJ turntables and grabbed a mic that something really clicked.
Because of your skin color, there were a lot of comparisons to House of Pain early on. But you guys kinda crewed up. When and how did your relationship start with them?
When we were making our rounds handing out our demos, we had a friend at Tommy Boy Records named Kevin Maxwell. He was an A&R there. Kevin was helping us out. We had a lot of underground recognition but now we were trying to sign at a major record label. He told me about a white rap group called The House of Pain that just got signed with them. This was a big deal because at the time it was very hard for a white rap group to do that. Vanilla Ice closed all the doors for that. There was a big pro-black movement in hip hop that alienated the white emcee. Vanilla Ice put the nail in that coffin. The Beastie Boys and 3rd Bass were taken seriously but along came that guy and the over-commercialized “pop rap”. Labels weren’t looking for white emcees. House of Pain kicked down that stereotype. Here was a white rap group that called their own shots and had an undeniable hit record that everyone loved. Kevin thought I could put together some graffiti logos for them. That’s how I met Dannyboy, who was born in Brooklyn and moved to California as a child. We hit it off like long-lost brothers. The next thing you know, we were in the studio recording a song called ‘Baseball Bats & Beers’ and House of Pain jumped on it. In hindsight, we should have released that song right then… They then offered to take me on the road with them doing backup singing. This was in 1991, ‘92. We built a strong alliance with them and we all became family.
The Lordz of Brooklyn scored a major record deal back when major record deals really mattered. What was that experience like?
Major record deals were impossible to get. It was like dreaming of being an NBA player. It was heavy competition and records cost a lot of money to make back then so they weren’t given out easily. Our first record deal was a dream come true. I’d worked many years and dreamt really hard about that day. I thought it was going to be a chance to move my mother out of that little apartment and get the house with the white picket fence. The movie shit. But it didn’t quite turn out that way. Our first major record deal was with Polygram. That record never saw the light of day. We signed a production deal with Lethal from House of Pain to produce it. Early in production we had a falling out with him and we got dropped from the label. So you can imagine our world was turned upside down. Soon after that my brother and I lost our mother and sister in a tragic accident.
We didn’t want to be defeated. We came back with a vengeance and got another record deal with Ventrue/ American Recordings, with Rick Rubin and Amanda Demme. That was how we released All In The Family. We enlisted two more members to the group- Paulie and Dino. Paulie was an all-around talented neighborhood kid that was like a little brother to me. I met Dino through graffiti. He was a super raw talented artist and collaborated with me on a lot of Lordz of Brooklyn imagery.
We toured the world and got to make a name for ourselves, but unfortunately the music business was a hard learning experience and we—as in the guys in the group—parted ways. My brother and I had to reinvent the band once again. Since the deal with Ventrue, we’ve done deals with Island, Universal, Warner Brothers, and BAPE. We were fortunate.
What were some of the highlights—as far as being recording artist—way back then?
The sense of community in the neighborhood was overwhelming. Back in the day, the neighborhood was a bunch of crews that fought and had a lot of beef amongst each other. They all kind of came together when we signed our first record deal and rallied around the band. We would have the Limelight and all sorts of New York venues filled with Bay Ridge kids wall to wall.
Not to mention, we were able to travel around the world and see places we only dreamt of as kids. We got to tour with huge groups like Cypress Hill, House of Pain, Korn, Sugar Ray, Snoop Dogg, Sublime… And we got mad free shit!
Graf has always been a big part of what the LOB vibe was all about. Give us a bit of a background on your history as a writer.
Shit. Graffiti was how this all started. It was a rebirth and a reckoning of who I always was as a child. In the ‘80s, growing up in New York City and writing graffiti was dangerous and magical. And it built me. It taught me everything I knew- about believing in something, about self-promotion, about being a ruthless hard worker, about loyalty, about producing something greater than yourself. I was lucky to grow up in that era. Looking back at young kids producing artwork of that scale, telling stories, was a raw, gritty folk art of the finest caliber. I got my start on the RR train and my goal was to be an all-around great graffiti artist. I was super-serious about mastering all of it. I was first published in 1985 in Henry Chalfant’sSpraycan Art, and I spent countless hours in tunnels and yards mastering the craft. So when it was time to bring out the Lordz of Brooklyn, we approached the music as graffiti artists. We wanted to leave our mark.
Other groups followed your footsteps—as far as making the graf thing a major part of the vibe. How did you feel about that back then?
Back then, we were very aggressive and of course we voiced our opinion in many circles…Because back in the day in hip hop—in graffiti, in breakdancing—if you were a biter you were called on it. When we came out with the graf imagery, with songs like “Bomb The System” and “Tails From The Rails,” I felt we were the first group to put it down like that. For the graffiti writers, for that movement. Outside of the legendary Rammellzee, there weren’t any graffiti artists rapping about graffiti and representing the lifestyle the way we did. So we were making a name for ourselves in the underground and marketing ourselves with graffiti on t-shirts, and packaging our demos in spray cans, and model train cars with our tape cassette inside them. We opened New York’s first original graffiti store owned by graffiti writers for graffiti writers, and I always felt we didn’t get enough credit for that.
Other groups beat us to the punch commercially. It took away some of the credit from our original work. The sad part about it was I felt that we were getting stereotyped and alienated because of the neighborhood we came from instead of being judged on the work we put in. So at that point I flipped it and said ‘Fuck it’, and I dove further into my neighborhood and where I was from, and the ‘if you don’t like my baseball bat and Cadillac then fuck you’ mentality. Our blood, sweat and tears were spilt on this concrete. We put that aggression into the music. And it was like, ‘So bite that’.
What should people expect on Aug. 1st?
This is the first time that all the original members of the group are playing in eighteen years…so it is a true reunion. We’re going to be performing a bunch of tracks from the first record. I was digging around in the attic and I came across all the original stuff from AITF—our first demos, original artwork, everything. I popped in the tape cassette and was overwhelmed by how raw and hard it was. When you do a record, you have to please certain people and things get polished a bit. Not to say AITF wasn’t raw, but if you think that’s raw, the demos are super aggressive. It made me remember how hungry and excited we were to make music. It’s on some real boom-bap shit. We will be re-releasing the AITF record, all the demos, and never-heard tracks later on this year. The night of the show, be prepared to be taken back to 1995 when hip hop was alive and reigned supreme in the county of the Kings.