It's a bright spring day outside, but Blake Lethem sits inside Don Carlo's, nursing his cafe con leche and pollo guisado. The Dominican restaurant rests in the shadows of the Frederick Douglass Houses, one of the few relatively non-gentrified slices of Money-Makin' Manhattan left-just blocks from the halfway house where he's been living. He's clean and sober now, which is where the halfway house comes in, and his sharp features peer out from under his driver's cap as he recounts the events of two nights before, when he attended a memorial service for breakdancing legend (and original Rock Steady Crew member) Wayne "Frosty Freeze" Frost. "The hardest part," Blake says, "was when these dudes-who I hung out with real tough back in, like, '85-drank and poured out their liquor for Frosty, and I was like, 'I'm good.' I didn't mean any disrespect, but I had to explain that I don't drink anymore. Afterwards, they all wanted to go to the next spot and I was like, 'I'm on a curfew!'"
Admittedly, hip-hop heads in the iTunes Age don't normally extend b-boys their rightful props, but trust that the O.G.s know about this cat. As KEO, he's an all-city graf writer who brightened (or dimmed, depending on one's taste in subway art) the commutes of millions of straphangers. Early Brooklyn rappers know him as Lord Scotch, a mainstay of ciphers outside schools and inside parks, while people up on the current literary scene know Blake as the younger brother of best-selling novelist Jonathan Lethem. (In fact, Blake is the role model for the narrator of Jonathan's award-winning 2003 novel Fortress of Solitude-"Parts of the book are pretty much verbatim from him," Jonathan confirms.) Others may know Blake's artwork, which adorns album covers by the likes of MF Doom.
But while he's a solid entry in the Who's Who of hip-hop pioneers, a face-to-face conversation with him doesn't just happen. In this particular case, it comes after more than a year of emails and conversations with the people who knew him back in the day: his brother Jonathan, MC Serch, Dana Dane, Bobbito Garcia, Pete Nice, MCA and a host of others who all reveled in sharing tales of the baddest white boy they ever knew...but could barely get on the phone. Blake Lethem, KEO, Lord Scotch-this is your life.
Growing up in 1970s Brooklyn, Blake came in on hip-hop's ground floor. Check that: He looked down on it from 15 feet up. "I was watching jams at the P.S. 38 schoolyard from out my bedroom window when I was 6," recalls Blake, who, despite plenty of hard living, looks younger than his 40 years. "I never believed that one day there was no 'hip-hop' and then the next day, suddenly it appears out of nowhere. That notion, of hip-hop being born in the Bronx, is so chiseled in stone now, you can't undo that-but I remember it evolving out of a lot of things that were going on. When the writing crew the Ex Vandals brought DJ equipment out to the park and played disco, funk, Caribbean shit, whatever, wasn't that hip-hop?"
Indoctrinated by the sounds from the playground, and freed from any domestic responsibilities after his mother died, Blake was running the streets from age 13 on. "I pretty much ran wild," he says. "I was writing on trains, I was tripping on mescaline and acid and stealing 40s and spray paint every day. Boosting clothes. I went to jams, I went to places where even my friends were like, 'You need to get the fuck out of here. This is no place for a little white boy.' It was like that."
Blake attended (however loosely the term can be applied) Music and Arts High for a couple of years, with the likes of Serch, Dane and Slick Rick, though he spent more time drinking and tagging than going to class. He got down first with T.P.C. (The People's Choice) graffiti crew, and later with the famed XMEN. "He was the cool white boy," remembers Serch. "Rapping, always looking fresh in Wallabees or whatever. New clothes. He was that dude. He used to clown me, to be honest, but I respected the shit out of Blake."
Artist and former Source magazine graf columnist Dave "Chino BYI" Villorente met Blake when they were pre-teens. "I'm Puerto Rican and Filipino from Fort Greene," he says, "and at that time even I was a minority there. So you can imagine how much Blake stood out trooping through. But he did it and people accepted him. Blake was always ahead of the curve, and he was always the best dressed. If something was fashionable in June, he'd been rocking it since January. So seasoned. He knew all the big graffiti guys before I'd heard of them. The thing I always told people about Blake-and I've told him this, too-is that he planted seeds for people all around him to go on and make a career out of what he was into."
Blake did use his abilities to get in some studio shows as well, including a 1982 show at the Fun Gallery with Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Dondi and Futura. "I was a nobody in a group show of big names," Blake says. "But the people that did the true graffiti, which belonged on an IRT train, didn't do too well. It's not meant for canvas, and it's not really fine art, you know what I'm saying? With fine art there's no rules. With graffiti, there are very definite rules-you can only bend a letter so far before it's not that letter. Dudes who didn't have a sound letter form were considered toys. They were wack. And the worst graffiti writers became the most popular fine artists, whose works today commands millions. Other guys didn't make it at all in that regard but are looked at highly. It's the same thing as a lot of MCs whose stuff didn't translate to making records 'cause they didn't set out to do that."
Needless to say, Blake knows from which he speaks on the MC tip as well. As a class clown, he used the rhymes and snaps that were going around at that time, the "M.M. Chukka from the coconut grove/he was a mean motherfucker, you could tell by his clothes"–type stuff. It wasn't rap yet, though. "I didn't hear real MC rhymes over a beat until maybe '77, around the [NYC] blackout," he says. "That's when jams would have someone with a mic and an echo chamber saying simple stuff: 'The sounds you are about to hear-hear-hear/may be devastating-stating-stating to your ear-ear-ear...' That's when I tried to write my own first little rhymes."
There's no doubt that Blake-who would finally show up on a record (Dub-L's Day of the Mega Beast) in '04-was more into graffiti and getting high in the mid-'80s than flipping his talent into mainstream exposure. "I had no interest in making records. I just wanted to be a dope battle MC," he says. "SAKE was kind of trying to push me to get down with his boy Pete [Nice] from Columbia U., but I really thought the whole idea of a 'white rap group' was corny, plus the Beasties had already done it. That year Licensed to Ill was the biggest record on the planet. But I was happy for Pete and Serch when they finally did it. I remember hearing them for the first time on Video Music Box in the day room in Rikers Island, doing 'Brooklyn Queens,' and telling everybody, 'Yo! That's my boys! I know them!' And dudes were like, 'Yeah, right-that's why you can't make bail.'"
Blake (left) with Shameek the Beat Myzer (center) and Pete Nice (right) in Brooklyn, 1986
Bobbito Garcia didn't know Blake at the time, but he heard his own version of Blake's teen years. "The truth is, it was more than the drugs; Blake was a criminal," he says. "Read the interviews he gave me for my book [Where'd You Get Those? New York City's Sneaker Culture: 1960–1987]. He was taking 'Germans'-that's what he called adidas and Puma-off kids. People don't realize this now because hip-hop has become so accessible, but back in those days there was a lifestyle attached to hip-hop that was very dangerous. When you were going to park jams or the Latin Quarter, you had to be ready to be tested. And as a white guy in those settings, he had to be even more ready. In a different time period, Blake's music and art skills, and his style sense, would have manifested themselves in something extremely positive. I think it's a case of Blake being not just before his time, but way before his time. But you can't change your age."
Serch agrees: "If Blake and Pete had signed in '86, they'd have been a big success. Good looking, good talent. It would have happened. He had all the contacts, even if he'd stuck with it solo. Special K and Teddy Ted, Mr. Magic, Red Alert-he knew every DJ in the city. They woulda played his stuff. But he just didn't want to do what it took," he says. "I do remember a time after Pete and I had had some success and we signed a deal for KMD with Elektra. We were able to sign people to deals, and around that time I ran into Blake and told him we could put him on. I wasn't just trying to help him-I thought I could make some money off the deal, too. But he acted like he was over hip-hop, like it was passe. He was talking about being an artist, being in his own world. That was the last time we talked about it."
While Blake survived the wild lifestyle-including numerous short bids on Rikers Island-with his body and mind more or less intact, addictions to alcohol and crack cocaine flared up again in 2005. Chino, who was teaming with Blake on several freelance projects at that time, says, "It was clear that he was up to old tricks, like it was 1980-something. When you're 17, it's one thing. In 2005, it's not a good look."
"I definitely needed to change some things in my life," says Blake, who was fighting not only addiction but lingering graffiti charges. "My brother saved my ass." Some mutual friends of the Lethem brothers let Jonathan know that they'd seen Blake and he was in bad shape. "He drove around the city looking for me at night," Blake says, "and he got me into rehab."
After stints at two upstate NY facilities, Blake is in the "transition" phase of his treatment; once he gets a job and saves some money, his rehabilitation and legal responsibilities will be complete. As of this printing, he's living on his own in Jamaica, Queens. He expects a steady job to come in laser removal (of hair, veins, tattoos-anything that needs to be removed, really), a field in which he has recently been trained. Not that he will ever say good-bye to his life-long passions: "I'll just be the hip-hop laser-removal guy," he says. "You know, have graffiti in my shop or someone scratching in the background. That's who I am; I can't take that out of me."