In a matter of speaking, Blake Lethem is the man behind DOOM’s mask. Not that he is DOOM, but that he worked with the villain to design his first and second disguises.
Lethem (also know as KEO and Scotch 79) is a Brooklyn-born graffiti writer, designer, MC, and raconteur whose stories go much deeper than his time spent with the villain. We met up with him in a park in New York City to discuss the origin of his friendship with DOOM and how he got started making artwork.
What music did you grow up on?
When I was really young I listened to whatever was on AM on my transistor radio, because that’s all it got. There was a lot of Top 40 and Motown. When I was about nine I got into KISS. I think I liked them more for the visual. They were like superheroes and I was a comic-book guy. But I couldn’t really get into the music too tough. And then an older guy on my block introduced me to Parliament Funkadelic, and they had the same appeal; costumes, characters, incredible album-cover artwork. They would take on personas. They all had different aliases and voices they would use. And the music was a little more…professional than what KISS was doing. So I got very deep into funk. This all pre-dates hip-hop. I’m talking ’77. Cats would play in PS38 schoolyard across the street from my house. So even when I was too young to go out—in the summertime you’re hanging out the window, it’s hot, you got no AC—I’m watching DJs set up and I can hear speakers boomin’. They would play a lot of funk and disco records in the park, sometimes even have little call-and-response MC stuff going on. But once [Grandmaster] Flash picked up on the radio, it was on from there and it evolved into hip-hop.
So you and hip-hop grew up in tandem?
I was originally a graffiti writer, which pre-dates hip-hop music by ten years.
How did you get into graffiti?
I was always an artist. My father was an artist. I grew up with a house full of art books, art supplies. I guess being an artist wasn’t necessarily cool, like being the best fighter or the best basketball player or the best at talking to girls. That got you props; being an artist was kinda nerdy. But then I discovered graffiti. These were dudes who were expressing themselves artistically, but they were also looked at as being down, as being some kind of outlaws, something to look up to. So I gravitated towards that. In the early days in my neighborhood a lot of the writing was gang-related: the Tomahawks and Jolly Stompers and FMDs were in my neighborhood. It wasn’t the friendly sport it is now where anybody can be a street artist; you had to have a little heart. So it enabled me to fit in with a crowd of cats who I felt were…popular, you know? Every kid wants to belong to something. And art is kind of a lonely, masturbatory activity. But in graffiti we formed crews, and it was like an interactive thing where you would come in at lunchtime and compare sketches and build markers together. It was a team sport.
What year are we talking about?
I was getting heavily into it in the Bicentennial: ’76. That’s when the FABULOUS 5 and all these cats were pulling out these Bicentennial whole-cars. Everything was red, white, and blue, and it was crazy. I didn’t consider myself a writer until like ’76. By ’79 I was hitting trains. That’s when you’re official. Back then if you weren’t on the subway line, you were just like a neighborhood toy. And by ’79 hip-hop was full-blown. There were records out and everything, so I was already trying to rhyme.
When did you first meet DOOM?
It’s a weird story because we had all these connections going way back. In 1980 I went to [The High School of] Music and Art with Slick Rick and Dana Dane, the whole Kangol crew. The Fresh 3 MCs were in my class, and [MC] Serch was there. I was already writing graffiti with a kid from Flatbush named SAKE, Mark Pearson. He went on to produce 3rd Bass, and then Nas, OC, KMD…. You know Fox Searchlight? That’s him. Now he’s a big-time money-man at Fox. He’s like, California chilling.
I was down with the IBM and TC5 crews, which share a lot of members with Rock Steady Crew. POKE, DOZE, and EPIC, all those dudes were from Rock Steady Park. Kurious [Jorge] and Kadi Rock came up under those dudes. That’s where Kurious got on. And Kurious was produced by Pete Nice.
Originally, SAKE was playing basketball with Pete at Columbia University, and he had this idea that if he could put a little White-boy group together, the labels would rush to sign us. And that was probably accurate, ’cause the Beastie Boys’ License to Ill had just dropped, and it was the biggest selling, triple-platinum whatever. So SAKE called me and he said, “Come up to meet his man Pete who rhymes,” and he was trying to guide us towards doing something together. I wound up introducing Pete to Serch at the Latin Quarters.
Me and Pete did write a couple of songs together, but my heart wasn’t in it. So I’m like, “You guys go ahead and use the concepts.” I brought my beatbox into it, Shameek Myzer from Gowanus. I brought my DJ at the time, Clark Kent. I guess he wound up passing it off to his little cousin, Richie Rich, and that’s how 3rd Bass got formed. I was actually locked up when their first single dropped. I didn’t know they had gone on to make it happen. I’m sitting in the day room in Rikers Island in C76 and they got one TV, and dudes would fight over whether we were gonna watch Video Music Box or whatever channel the Spanish shit was on. And it would be a war sometimes. Anyway, we were watching videos and “Brooklyn Queens” comes on. That was a song me and Pete had written together, and he had his own lyrics, but he used some of my verse, and then Serch added on his own. I’m sittin’ there telling people, “Yo, that’s my boys.” And they’re like, “Yeah right. Get the fuck outta here! Tell ’em to come bail you out.”
DOOM was living on Long Island, but I was out of New York for a long time. Like I said, I went through some trials and tribulations in the late ’80s. I got caught up in the legal system and came back in ’96. Bobbito [García], who had been roommates with Pete Nice and SAKE and these dudes at Columbia University, had a radiostation thing going. Bobbito also had a little record store over here called Footworks. They sold sneakers and shit like that in the Lower East Side. He introduced me to DOOM, and as soon as we got to talking we realized that the people who put him on in the game were the dudes that I kinda put on in the game! [Chuckles]
So me and DOOM had these connections, but we didn’t meet till ’96 when we started working on the artwork for Operation: Doomsday. I was doing a lot of album-cover artwork at that time, a lot of shit for Loud Records and various others. Bob had never done artwork. If you’re familiar with Fondle ’Em Records, all their releases were a white sleeve. So he wanted to make DOOM’s album something special. We decided this would be the first Fondle ’Em release to have artwork, and we did a CD with a full fold-out jacket. Me and DOOM became really, really close really quickly because he would come to New York to work on projects.
He was living down in Atlanta at this time?
And you had a similar aesthetic?
Yeah. He was a graffiti writer, he was an artist, a comic-book head. It was as though we had known each other a lot longer than we did. And most of the artwork you see are his concepts. Unlike most musicians, where I have free reign with the artwork because they’re not focused on that, DOOM had a very strong sense of what he wanted his identity to look like, down to the mask.
He came to you with the Dr. Doom concept in mind?
Yeah. If you know the Marvel story, Dr. von Doom was a scientist who was blacklisted out of science and ridiculed for his radical ideas. So he breaks out and forms this new identity, makes a mask, and comes back to get his revenge. So this fit DOOM’s relationship with the music industry. He had done the KMD thing, they got blacklisted, his brother died. KMD got caught up in some bullshit that had nothing to do with them, because the “Cop Killer” song by Body Count was on a rock album. Even though Ice-T spearheaded the “Cop Killer” project, it was not a hip-hop group. But the FBI protested it, everybody protested it, and somehow that got focused on rap. So Elektra and all these majors were scared to death to put out anything controversial.
Especially with cover art like KMD’s second album.
The Black Bastards cover art—which was drawn by DOOM himself—was a little controversial for their taste. At that time they were very nervous.
Was DOOM rocking anything over his face when you started working with him?
Yeah. When he would perform and do interviews, he’d throw on a bandana or a stocking. Whatever he had to do, his idea was to conceal his identity. I think he loved Ghostface’s whole thing when he first came out. Like 36 Chambers, he had a stocking mask on. It allows you to focus on the lyrics. ’Cause at that time there were a lot of pretty-boy rappers who were modeling with their shirts off. It was more about an image. There was no substance to the music. DOOM is my man, but he’s not the prettiest dude. He’s nobody’s underwear model. So he said, “Let’s not even worry about the aesthetic. I’m not here to pose; it’s about the music.” So for his first shows we went out and got—you know the cheap Halloween masks you wore when you were a kid, with the rubber band around the back? We got one of those and I spray-painted it silver aluminum Rust-Oleum and cut out the shape, and square eyes, and made a prototype. You can see in his first video.
Yeah, he wears it in “?” and “Dead Bent.”
That was a Darth Maul mask. It was red and black. Just a cheap fucking $1.99 plastic mask. I spray-painted it silver and took black marker and did a little shading and detail, added some rivets, so on camera or on stage it reads as metal.
I’d heard that the first mask was of Kane from the WWF.
Nah, it was Darth Maul.
And where was DOOM performing in New York at this time?
Small venues at first. But it picked up quickly and it wasn’t long before he did a big show at BB King’s. Then we went out and found the whole helmet from the movie Gladiator. It was like a big fucking spiky helmet with a faceplate that lifted. I removed the faceplate and took it to my boy who does sculpture in metal. He had all these cutting torches and lasers and crazy tools. I sketched out exactly what needed to be carved away, we shaped it a little, and then I took the webbing from a yellow construction-worker helmet. Inside, they have a webbing that keeps the helmet off your head. I fastened it to the faceplate so that he could wear it and it would actually swivel up. The thing weighs like eight pounds. It’s fucking solid steel with chrome over the top of it, so it could serve as a weapon too. It has these two sharp walrus tusks. [Laughs]
One thing I really appreciate about DOOM is how well he pulls off the Supervillain persona. People get pissed off!
Yeah. Miles Davis used to piss people off too, you know. He didn’t give a fuck about his audience. He would play with his back turned to the audience all night if he was in that mood, and then walk off. Folks would encourage him to go shake some hands, sign some autographs or whatever. That wasn’t his thing. He was about, “I’m a master motherfucking musician. You paid to hear the music. I’m not a monkey on a string to dance for you.”
And by keeping his face concealed, DOOM’s able to have a life. I’ve been in the club when he’s sitting at the bar before his show and nobody’s paying him any attention. He can drink and be a normal dude, run backstage, put the mask on, and all of a sudden everybody’s cheering and chanting his lyrics.
Photos by Eric Masters