The Oral History of FRONTLINE, Pioneers of the NYC Hardcore x Graffiti Scene
An excerpt from the book ‘Urban Styles: Graffiti in NYHC’
At the junction of New York’s urban styles, one name stands out as the culmination of street culture as graffiti met hardcore: Frontline. Starting in 1981, they were the first New York Hard Core (NYHC) band made up of graffiti writers. Frontline would be little more than a cherished footnote in the annals of hardcore had it not been for the Beastie Boys covering their song “Time for Living” on their 1992 album Check Your Head.
Frontline also featured the multi-talented drummer Mackie HYPE Jayson, who would go on to play on seminal albums by The Cro-Mags and Bad Brains as well as in The Icemen with his old Frontline bandmate NOAH. Writers in bands that took up the graffiti banner from the mid-1980s until today may not be familiar with these guys, due to a lack of available recordings, but they all owe a significant debt to these trailblazers of New York’s graffiti and hardcore connection. In this excerpt from the book Urban Styles, here are original members ME 62, NOAH, RAGE telling the Frontline story.
Can you tell me the graffiti names of all the writers and which instruments they played in Frontline?
Drums: Mackie. He wrote MACKIE, mostly, but also HYPE.
Bass: I wrote HOAN and NOAH
Guitar: Miles Kelly, he wrote RAGE
1st Vocalist: John Gamble, he was RATE 5
2nd Vocalist: Geeby, he wrote ME 62
3rd Vocalist: Kenny Liburd, but he did not write.
When did you guys start writing? Are there any other writers you remember from that time?
ME 62: I started when I was twelve years old so, like, 1973. Some older dudes that lived in my building were writers and that inspired me. Guys like LEE, SLAVE, CLIFF influenced me and when I moved from Spanish Harlem, to the Westbeth Residence in the West Village, that’s where I met NOAH and RAGE.
NOAH: First writers I remember were from the Go Club days: PIGGY, TRIGGER, MEX 70, and T-BOY was the biggest. We knew them, but it was more like we got terrorized by them than being friends. Pre-junior high, we got busted painting on trucks under the West Side Highway. We also tried to write on the Lexington line; I guess because it was farthest from the Westbeth Residence (where we grew up). Junior high and high school was most of the writing days.
RAGE: I started writing in the mid-1970s. I wasn’t much of a writer, but I was into all the old school stuff like WASP 1, JESTER-DY 167, STAY HIGH 149, LEE, MITCH 77, PHASE 2, SLAVE, TEAM.
What were your first graffiti names?
NOAH: My first name was TRAN. Then, in high school, I was HAON. Everybody knew it was me so I just started writing NOAH.
ME 62: I did a GEE BEE piece once, but that’s just my official name. ME 62 was my main tag.
RAGE: RAGE was it.
Any crews you guys got down with at the time?
NOAH: No, not really. We used to write some, but weren’t actually down.
ME 62: I first got down with GO Club and then TR (The Rebels), as well the as TO (The Outlaws). I used to hang out a lot with SHADOW, who passed away. I spent a lot of time writing with him and he took me to some layups in Brooklyn; the Utica Avenue layup. He put me down with a lot of crews like SSB (Stone Soul Brothers) and TFP (The Fantastic Partners). I never put TFP up but the crews I really wrote were TR and SSB.
RAGE: No crews—writing was more of a hobby. Everyone else in Frontline got up more than me.
Any memorable stories of getting chased for writing or beef with rival writers/crews?
NOAH: I was always relatively lucky. There’s a lot of guns now, so people shoot people. But, back then, they used bare hands to beat you. They were way tougher than anything that followed after. Most of the later crews did not scare us. Before junior high school, I got busted with my brother and, I think, Matt Barry, my neighbor. We got caught under the West Side Highway with spray paint and writing on trucks. The cops grabbed us by the hair and collar and threw away our paint and said; ‘don’t ever come back.’ We shit our pants! I got popped at 14th St. on the 8th Avenue line for jumping the turnstile. I remember I got on the uptown platform,
I got popped at 14th St. on the 8th Avenue line for jumping the turnstile. I remember I got on the uptown platform, thought I was all cool, and I saw this guy walking towards me on the platform. I turned around because I knew he was an undercover and, just at that moment, his partner was coming behind me. I was busted. They gave me a summons after taking me into a room in the station and questioning me. After that I asked Mackie, who could afford the fare, why did he still jump the turnstile? He thought, and paused, then he said: ‘Because he liked it.’ Loved that! Another time, we were on the #1 train, and we had just finished bombing when a cop walks on the next stop. The car reeked of ink, and the cop started to touch the wall with his finger. If he touched ours we would have been busted!
How did you meet the people who would become Frontline? Did you know them previously from the graffiti scene?
ME 62: I knew RAGE and NOAH since 1970, when I moved to the Westbeth Residence. They are a little younger than me, so I think they really didn’t start writing until 1975 or so. RAGE would have been five or six years old in 1970, I think. Same thing with NOAH. I think I met Mackie from skateboarding and hanging out at the Central Park bandshell in, like, 1976.
RAGE: Mackie and I went to high school together. Before that, we met skateboarding. This is all around 1976. The rest of us lived in Westbeth, except Kenny, who Mackie brought into the band.
NOAH: Yes, Mackie we knew from graffiti and skateboarding; music and art, around 1977. RAGE was the one who convinced Mack into playing with us. He was really good, even back then! RAGE and I grew up in Westbeth, same with John Gamble and Gee (Frontline vocalists). John Gamble lived in the apartment next to mine. I was closer in age to Miles, so we hung out a lot more than I did with John or Gee. We met Kenny (3rd Frontline singer) through Mackie in 1982.
Did you ever do any Frontline or pieces or put the name up?
NOAH: No, not that I am aware of. I personally did not have talent like those guys! Mackie, RAGE and Marco actually are very talented artists!
ME 62: I know RAGE used to write it sometimes, but we probably should have done a Frontline piece back then, but no one was really thinking like that. I will say, as far as graffiti, Mackie was on another level. He bombed way more than the rest of us. I bombed only a little bit and RAGE or NOAH probably less than me. I don’t think they ever went to the yards, just hit moving trains. Mackie was the man!
RAGE: I probably put up some Frontline tags, I don’t remember.
ME 62: When I first started writing and we lived in the West Village; there were a lot of truck yards for companies like Avis and Hertz. They used to house their trucks underneath the West Side Highway, a few blocks from our house. Every day we used to just go out and bomb the trucks. When we got older and started high school, we had to take the train, so we started hitting trains. I had to take the subway to Hell’s Kitchen, so all my first tags were motion bombing. I didn’t go to the layups or yards for a long time. I was just writing on moving trains and bombing trucks, plus stuff like doorways. Just vandalism. I was never a ‘piece’ kind of guy. I only did, like, one piece in 1981 with Mackie on the #1 tunnel.
Were you coming more from a hip hop or rock background when you got into hardcore?
ME 62: We all started hanging out with the Bad Brains because there was a guy that lived in Westbeth, named Dave Hahn, who passed away. He was a really good friend of ours and brought us to the Lower East Side and he was like; ‘yo, there’s these cats you gotta know.’ He was talking about the Bad Brains, and we got connected to them; started hanging out a lot on the Lower East Side. Every night we’d be on St. Marks; Avenues A to C… we spent years down there.
NOAH: We were rock guys. My dad was a jazz musician, but I grew up listening and trying to play rock like Hendrix; also British rock like Cream, The Who, later Zeppelin. In 1979, Marco, from the Icemen said, ‘you gotta’ see these guys the Bad Brains,’ and the rest is history. It changed my life and I started listening to harder rock! I loved the Bad Brains, Motorhead and the Damned and many more. Later, we did add more of a funk element into Frontline, and we had a guy named Daniel Carter play sax with us at A7 a few times.
RAGE: Rock and punk. Bands like the Damned, Bad Brains, Motorhead, Pistols. Mackie got us into Jimmy Castor, James Brown, Lenny White, and other stuff.
Any other writers you remember in the NYHC scene at that time?
ME 62: There were definitely guys like TEAM, who played in Urban Blight. He was drummer/singer in that band. I also remember the guys from the Beastie Boys, like AD Rock, wrote SLOP. Dave from the Young & The Useless, who passed away, wrote SHADI. When we were writing in the early 1980s; graffiti was frowned upon. People were like, ‘You write graffiti? Are you some kind of idiot?’ Nobody really wrote, so when you told people that you went to train layups, they’d be like, ‘What?’ Now it’s like this big thing, but back then no one gave a shit. I don’t think that there were other groups like us (back then) that wrote graffiti. I never thought it was unique until I found out about this book project. Graffiti-wise I did the Antidote logo in 1981, the one with the drip. It was for their Thou Shall Not Kill EP with the green logo.
NOAH: Not really. By 1981–82 I also was writing less and playing music more. I also started working at Nola Recording, a recording studio. I worked a lot of hours there!
When did you start going down to A7 or the CBGB’s matinees?
RAGE: Noah and I saw the Bad Brains at CBGB’s in 1979, then again at A7 around 1981.171 Avenue A was real important, too. Jerry W. ran the place. Saw a lot of Bad Brains shows there. Tier 3 as well; Bad Brains vs The Mad.
NOAH: CBGB’s first time for me was not matinees, it was in 1979. At A7 I think we started playing there in 1981, RAGE has a recording! Frontline disbanded around the time the CBGB’s matinees started. The second version of The Icemen did CBGB’s matinees starting at, like, 1987.
How many shows did Frontline play? Any memorable ones?
ME 62: I was in all the heyday shows. There was a weekend at CBGB’s where we played Friday through Sunday with the Bad Brains. We played A7, Gildersleeves, and CBGB’s for the big Patrick Mack (from The Stimulators) memorial concert. The Bad Brains headlined and we went on right before them because they looked out for us, not because we were popular. All together I played ten shows with Frontline and then John Gamble or Kenny sang for a couple of shows each.
NOAH: About two dozen: A7, CBGB’S, Gildersleeves, Irving Plaza, 2+2, Piast club, Tompkins Square Park bandshell.
RAGE: Opening for The Bad Brains during the Christmas weekend at CBGB’s in 1982. They always looked out for us; Doctor Know and Darryl. Also, opening for the Circle Jerks at Irving Plaza: they hooked us up with that.
How many songs did you guys have altogether?
ME 62: We had a bunch, musically; written by everyone but me. We had, like, seven or eight songs and we also did covers of Motorhead’s “Over The Top” as well as “Just Begun” by the Jimmy Castor Bunch, which was crazy to hear in the hardcore scene. We picked up the tempo of “Just Begun.” It’s such a New York vibe, that song.
Were there any plans to put something out back then? Is the 1982 demo the only recording you guys ever made?
NOAH: We recorded at our studio in Westbeth between 1980-83, and again from 1998-2000. We also recorded at Nola in 1982 at the studio I worked at. We never did release anything.
RAGE: We had a studio in Westbeth where we rehearsed and recorded, in the early 1980s and again around 1998-2000. We never did release anything.
Some of the band members lived at or grew up at the Westbeth Residence in the West Village. Can you tell me a little more about the place?
NOAH: Westbeth is an artist housing residence our family moved to in 1970, when I was five. Miles, Gamble and Geeby all grew up there, but Miles was the same age as me. We did everything in Westbeth: sports of all kinds, skateboarded, graffiti, tossing stuff off the roof, jamming and rehearsing in my apartment… Then, later, they gave us a studio in the basement to shut us up. (SD50) Studio 50, or the Dungeon, was what I called it. Did many recordings down there, then later recorded many bands. Also John Gamble (1st Frontline singer) did hip-hop down there. It was totally destroyed in hurricane Sandy!
ME 62: My mother was a writer, and, like everyone’s parents at Westbeth, were in the arts. You had to be a sculptor, writer, painter… anything in the arts to get in there. There was a really big skating scene because we were some of the first kids in NYC to build ramps. We had at least three infamous ramps that kids from all over the city would come down for. This is all in like 1975–1978. We knew all about the Dogtown skaters, but in the mid-1970s nobody cared about that shit.
RAGE: It used to be Bell labs, I think the Manhattan project might have been partially developed there.
Do you know how the Beastie Boys ended up covering “Time for Living”?
NOAH: Back in the early days we played shows with those guys, they were hardcore. This is before the Young & the Useless and the Beastie Boys combined. Later they always said they wanted to do one of our songs but we thought they were just saying that. We gave Adam Yauch one of our rehearsal tapes around ’82 or ’83. He contacted us several years later with the idea of recording one of the songs from that tape.
ME 62: They contacted NOAH and RAGE about it. Mackie might have part of the publishing rights and they worked out getting songwriting credits, if I’m not mistaken.
RAGE: Adam Yauch had a rehearsal tape of ours that I had given him around 1983. A few years later he reached out to me about covering one of the songs off of that tape.
Question for NOAH: I know your dad was legendary jazz icon Gil Evans. Did he ever listen to Frontline’s music? What were his thoughts?
NOAH: Cool question! Yes. He was puzzled and, at the same time, he let us do our horrible shit because I guess he knew we would get better. Anyway, I was very lucky he let us do that or there would be no Frontline or the Icemen or the Beastie Boys cover of ‘Time for Living.’ At one time, when I was blasting Motorhead, he asked me: ‘What do you like about this?’. I paused because he got me. I did not know. I thought, and realized it was just the energy and power it gives you. It was about how it makes you feel.
ME 62, Why did you leave the band?
ME 62: I wanted to do more stuff like Jimmy Castor Bunch’s “Just Begun.” I wasn’t as comfortable with the hardcore stuff. I’m more of a funk kind of guy and grew up on soul music. I wanted to head in that direction. It would have been too much for them to follow because NOAH and RAGE were more rock dudes. There wasn’t any kind of butting of heads. They had their own thing and I didn’t want to mess it up, so I bowed out.
Did you go on to other music-related endeavors?
NOAH: Mostly recording and producing bands; working on an album of my dad’s, that’s why this took this long. It’s going to be called Gil Evans’ Hidden Treasures. First single is out now: “The Meaning of the Blues.” Full album should be out in the fall!
RAGE: I still play music regularly, just working on stuff at home.
ME 62: I started producing hip hop with John Gamble and Dante Ross. We had a production group called SD50s (Stimulated Dummies) and we produced Brand Nubian, 3rd Bass, Kurious. This was all from 1990 to 1994. We did a lot of what people call the ‘Golden Era of Hip Hop.’ Our production studio was in the same studio that Frontline practiced, the 50 studio in the basement of Westbeth. It was a hardcore and hip-hop room: live room for bands and production studio for hip hop. A lot of groups like Leaders Of The New School, KMD, and Kurious George came through; we did all their first records. I then did a radio show on East Village Radio called Forty Deuce. I played mostly funk and soul but would drop the Bad Brains on from time to time. I did that for ten years and then took a break.
What do you think of graffiti these days?
ME 62: I’m disillusioned with it because I guess they don’t have much of a canvas to go with it. They bomb on buildings, on bridges. They don’t know where to write. There’s no trains to write on anymore and that was a big outlet for writers back the 1970s. I think style went out the window because when I was writing I didn’t really look at throw-ups. But that’s just me. Throw-ups were side things with no style in mind. It was just about speed and bombing your name as much as possible, like IN, which was cool because he was the man. I only looked at burners and full cars, that’s what caught my eye. There’s none of that now except once a while you’ll see a mural.
I live in Chinatown now and that is the most bombed-out neighborhood in the city. I’ve noticed that no one has respect for one another because they just go over each other. There’s no respect and it seems like they don’t really care about style. It’s all just bombing to them. I know a bunch of writers still, but I don’t really look for graffiti. I’m tired of looking at wack graffiti.
Do you still write?
NOAH: Not much writing. I should do more!