Mr. Kaves, along with his brother ADM the last remaining founder of the Lordz, is not 100 percent Italian. But their cigars and fedoras and mustaches sure made the quintet then known as the Lordz of Brooklyn look like wiseguys on the cover of 1995’s All in the Family. At first, this was a rap group who rocked; now, they’re a rock band who rap. In that debut album’s statement of purpose, “Saturday Night Fever,” they bragged about being “connected like Sinatra” and likened themselves to “Lucky Luciano with a tommy gun,” rhyming “Tony Manero” with “Verrazano” as brass-knuckle Guess Who riffs punched holes through glass. Picking up where House of Pain’s shamrock shenanigans and Cypress Hill’s Latin lingo left off, and dunking the blunted greaser-rap in spaghetti sauce and cheap beer, Family was one of the best hip-hop albums of the ’90s, even if nobody noticed. Yet despite all the ethnic hints otherwise, the siblings’ true birth names are Mike and Adam McLeer.
They’re “mutts,” says Kaves, just like his two big floppy dogs Midnight and Sonny, who were lounging all over his modest Bay Ridge family room on a recent Saturday afternoon. The brothers’ dad, a carpet-layer fond of playing the ponies, came from Russian/Irish/English/Scottish stock. But after he left when the boys were eight and nine, they were raised by strong Italian women. Their grandmother, a beautiful photo of whom adorns the cover of the renamed Lordz’ surprisingly entertaining new record The Brooklyn Way, danced in Bay Ridge wearing black as one of the Quatrone Sisters back in the ’40s. Their mom, 18 when was Kaves was born, was known around the neighborhood as “Little 92nd Street,” and supported the boys on public assistance and waitress tips. “She was like a hippie chick,” Kaves says. “Kids would stare at her ass and I’d have to fight them.” When Son of Sam was loose, he waited in his bed with a baseball bat, since his mom matched the victims’ description.
Baseball figures prominently with this band: “Grab the Louisville out the Coupe De Ville,” lead rapper Kaves threatened in Family ‘s “The Bad Racket.” Back when his crew was called the Verrazano Boys, he tells me, preppies and gym rats might’ve found themselves on the action end of the wood; now that Brooklyn Way is out on Warner’s sub-subsidiary Perfect Game, he says it’s like being called back up from the minors. The Lordz have released sporadic tracks while watching label deals collapse over the past decade, but Brooklyn feels like their first shot at the gold in forever: contributions from Rancid’s Tim Armstrong and Avril/Bowling for Soup teen-punk producer Russ-T Cobb; crunchy hard-pop chords that onetime club DJ and longtime Lordz studio specialist ADM seems to have swiped from Rick Springfield and Bob Seger; canny covers of two classic New York shout anthems . . . add it up, and you’ve got one of 2006’s more effortlessly playable pop-rock albums. And if it’s not quite as loaded with mama-mia pizzeria specifics as Family, it still packs plenty of blue-collar pride and local color.
A half-block from Kaves’s house, Fort Hamilton Parkway runs beneath the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge overpass; in Saturday Night Fever, this is where John Travolta’s buddies hassled a gay couple. The end of the R line. Even with roaches crawling all over the little apartment where Kaves grew up, Mom always told him to appreciate their million-dollar view of the bridge. “The real Mom and Pop Brooklyn still exists in this neck of the woods,” he says. But these blocks are changing—newer immigrants are likely to be Indian and Arab, and there aren’t always 40 or 50 kids running around outside like in the old days. So Kaves sometimes feels like a ghost. His CD covers are photo albums full of faded old uncles in Army uniforms and tattered holy cards and rosaries and First Communion snapshots. The new Lordz CD, which comes with a photo album DVD, winds down with an update of Jim Carroll’s good-die-young roll call “People Who Died,” in which a friend gets whacked by a wiseguy in a Cadillac instead of offed by bikers. Then the closer, “Mama’s Boy,” remembers Kaves and Adam’s mom, who died along with their baby sister in 1994.
That was the year before All in the Family came out. Kaves had just returned from the road when he got a phone call telling him they’d been killed by a speeding hit-and-run driver in a white truck. The NYPD investigated, Kaves held press conferences, and the incident made the papers, but the case was never solved. Rudy Giuliani even wound up renaming the intersection of 92nd Street and Fort Hamilton Parkway “Donna and Michele Blanchard Plaza”; a copy of the sign is on Kaves’s living-room wall, across from graffiti pieces he’s made. “Everything you work for in your life, everything you are, changes at that moment,” he says, his voice cracking. We’re sitting at his dining-room table. Kaves, born in 1969, is sipping water since panic attacks convinced him to dry out nine years ago; now he calls stogies “my only vice.” He’s wearing a black-and-white football jersey along with his tan fedora (“Run-D.M.C. called them Godfather hats,” he says). He’s grilled up some broccoli rabe sausages, and his wife has laid out a generous spread of snacks. Her name, just like his mom’s, is Donna; a graphic designer who also runs the band’s website, she grew up in a strict middle-class Sicilian family, which is finally starting to accept him. The couple has two boys, ages seven and three, who Kaves showers in affection (little Quinn does an excellent penguin walk); ADM, who comes over later, is a year younger than Kaves and has four kids of his own. By afternoon’s end, the backyard deck is full. Beyond the deck, there’s a small shack that once housed a diaper business, and now is where the Lordz do their recording, surrounded by Kiss memorabilia, Run-D.M.C. dolls, graffiti-painted ghetto blasters, a giant Krylon spray can, and a Lords of Flatbush poster —Kaves’s dad insists his old Flatbush gang, Pigtown, inspired Sly Stallone and Henry Winkler’s movie gang.
The Kiss obsession goes back to childhood, when the McLeer brothers dressed up as that band whenever they could. In their new remake of Ace Frehley’s glam-disco bleacher-beat smash “New York Groove,” Kaves demands that Kiss be put in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He hopes it’ll get played at Mets games. But if Kiss were superheroes, it was graffiti that made him feel like a superhero. In Bay Ridge in the late ’70s, the rocker kids started tagging first, and before long Kaves was making a name for himself by climbing down his fire escape to bomb the BMT line. “As long as we weren’t out robbing cars it was OK with our mom,” he says; car theft, climbing the Verrazano while stoned, and drag racing his ’67 Nova—just like his dad had raced the ’55 Chevy that Kaves was conceived in—didn’t come till later. A graf arrest eventually led Kaves and ADM to concentrate more on breakdancing—they made it into the Roxy and a Chaka Khan video—and, ultimately, rapping.
Race wasn’t an issue, at least till they returned to Bay Ridge, where older teenagers told them not to tag since they weren’t in Harlem, and where they watched black kids get chased back to Fort Hamilton Army Base. The late ’80s were a time of white violence on young blacks in Howard Beach and Bensonhurst, and nearby Bay Ridge “is looked at as a racist neighborhood,” Kaves acknowledges.
So imagine this scene: In 1988, Kaves is helping book a club at 95th and Fourth called Ernie Barry’s, and he recommends this new group he’d heard called Public Enemy. He liked them because “Rebel Without a Pause” felt like Led Zeppelin—he wanted hip-hop that was “drink fight and fuck” music, and “this was a rumble.” So he gets Professor Griff’s number, makes arrangements, and drives a van to Long Island to pick them up, wearing his three-finger ring and Verrazano Boys leather jacket. After a long wait for a drug-delayed Flavor Flav, he brings them back to a club full of impatient rowdies, all white. But the show went on, S1W goons and all.
It was the Public Enemy camp who urged Kaves and Adam to come up with a concept, and gave them an opportunity to record demos. Sampling Italian NYC tough guys Dion and the Belmonts, they initially presented themselves as graf-obsessed transit bandits before deciding to play up the Italian stuff and rap about bada-bing bada-boom. When Family finally came out, one prescient track was “American Made,” an almost countrified choogle about real men drinking Bud and driving domestic and getting drafted and never crossing picket lines; three years later, Kid Rock, who hadn’t previously been known for patriotic hick-hopping in a Run-D.M.C. Godfather hat, took a curiously similar sound and shtick to the multiplatinum bank. But the Lordz of Brooklyn, signed to the short-lived Venture imprint of Rick Rubin’s American Recordings, saw their debut fall through the cracks. Since then, say the notes to 2003’s self-released odds-and-sods disc Graffiti Roc, “The rollercoaster ride through the music industry has been a dizzy one full of empty promises.” And now they’re just the Lordz.
The shortened name, Kaves says, was Perfect Game label coach Howie Abrams’s idea; it puts their hard-luck past and unrealized early hype behind them, and brands the group as more rock than rap—a rock band with a rhythm section from upstate and a hefty Bay Ridge guitarist known as Tommy Salami and two McLeers on the microphone, a rock band that brings its own p.a. to the Warped Tour. Basically, Kaves says, “It gives our music a fighting chance.” Back in the Brooklyn groove, they might still be contenders.
The Lordz play B.B. King’s Blues Club with Rancid Saturday night.