Graffiti by DEZ and Skeme

DEZ, SKEME & The Birth of DJ Kay Slay

DEZ, SKEME & The Birth of DJ Kay Slay

Published Wed, May 11, 2022 at 12:30 AM EDT

It was 1979. Bronx River, The Renaissance, and the T-Connection were just a few of the places to be if you wanted to party. But that summer, I caught a bad, bad bug. Some called it "Graffiti," but we just called it "Writing."

Writers like us were the arch nemeses of NYC's Mass Transit System — especially the subway system. Like so many other of New York's "encourageables," graffiti completely took over my life like a body snatcher, and turned me into someone most people no longer recognized.

My newfound love estranged me from my family and friends that I'd known for most of my life. It was also the main culprit of my high school truancy.

In 1967, my mother moved us from the Bronx to Harlem into a newly built "co-operative" called Esplanade Gardens. "EG" stretched from 145th St. and Lenox Ave, to 148th and 7th Ave. — the last uptown stop on the No. 3 train line and location of the 3 train yard.

As a kid, I played on the service tracks only 100 steps from my building — completely unaware of what was housed inside and just around the bend. I would soon discover that this yard had a long history as a namesake yard for graffiti legend CLIFF159's 3 Yard Boys (3YB) Crew. This crew touted an impressive roster including such greast as STAN153, JESTER, GEAR1, SO5, ROGER, CHINO174, CORNELL139, and JACE2 (the founder).

When you entered the yard and saw the surviving "tags" they left behind, it was like you could feel their spirits emanating from the concrete and steel. The yard's close proximity to my house made it a natural choice for my home base yard because of the familiarity I had with the ins and outs.

Dez and Skeme graffiti pieces

Credits to: Martha Cooper

After writing exclusively on the insides of trains on other lines for about a year (with markers), I was ready to advance to the more intricate masterpieces that adorned the outsides. One early Sunday morning I went to the yard to bomb the trains and explore, and I was surprised to run into a bunch of writers like BLAZER, PUSH2, SEAL, and PORE1 who introduced himself as not only a member of 3YB, but also the president of Bad Graffiti Artists (BGA) crew. They asked me what I wrote, and after I told them "SKEME." They said "Yeah, we seen that around"...but can you piece?"

Although I had never pieced before, I still said, "Yes," because that's what you do."

Graffiti is a game of bravado played by type-A narcissists who never admit to being second best.

But my chest thumping quickly backfired. PORE1 called my bluff, and told me to meet them there next week with some paint to do a piece with BLAZER.

Challenge accepted.

I spent the next week racking (stealing) paint from the Woolworths near 141st and Lenox. After four trips, I had about 30 cans of Red Devil and Epoxy brand spray paint in various colors.

When Sunday arrived, I went to the yard with two shopping bags of paint. The crew was already there... but with one addition. There was a new kid that I didn't meet the last time. This stranger didn't speak, he just looked at me and kept on painting.

PORE1 told me his name was DEZ.

Dez train graffiti Dez train graffiti
"Hes nasty..."


It was my first time painting with spray paint. They all stood watching me, and I think they were amazed that I wasn't lying when I said I could piece.

BLAZER and I pulled off a two-man car with both of our names. I rocked three characters: two B-Boys with Ski-goggles, one holding a ray gun, and the other with an Afro, rocking some Playboy shoes, and Charlie Brown in the middle.

DEZ was a little less impressed and a little standoff-ish. But he came over a couple of times and checked my progress. He gave me a look as if to say, "Okay, I see you." And just like that, I was down with BGA.

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It wasn't long before DEZ and I both realized that we were the main dudes with style and skill. This revelation — coupled with PORE1 slowly transitioning from writing to scrambling and getting money on the block — resulted in DEZ and I gravitating towards each other.

We spoke a couple of times on the phone — just feeling each other out — with each trying to make sure the other was trustworthy, dependable, loyal, and dedicated. It's strange to say now, and maybe somewhat shallow...but it was like Dez and I had known each other for years. We became close virtually overnight.

"Man, we were deep like roaches, and just as quick."

It wasn't long before our friendship was tested. One night we were painting in the yard with about 20 to 30 other writers. There were dudes from crews like BGA, the BALL BUSTER, and DEZ's newly formed TFA crew (The Fantastic Artists Crew) — a play on BUTCH2 and KASE2's TFP (The Fantastic Partners) crew.

We had been painting for about an hour when I saw a transit cop tip-toeing about 10 feet from me. I yelled out "RAID!" as loud as I could, then slipped past the cop like Jim Brown on 4th and goal.

It was pure chaos. Most of the guys there weren't as familiar with the yard, so they were running around aimlessly. But DEZ and I knew the layout like the backs of our hands. We both ended up back at the hole that we'd cut in the fence within seconds of each other. The wall was high, but I ran straight ahead and kicked off the wall. I caught the ledge on the first try and pulled myself up and through the hole. Dez came up right after me, but that one second gave a cop the chance to grab his leg. As I went back and grabbed DEZ by the arms and pulled him up and out, they started hitting his feet and legs with their nightsticks.

"That night, we transcended being friends, and became brothers. For the next year, we were inseparable. If you saw one, you saw the other."

DEZ was meticulous. In the yard, he prided himself on rocking his regular gear. It was common for him to be in the grime and muck with a fresh pair of knit pants — or LEE jeans with the crease sewn in — a mockneck, and his signature terrycloth Bermuda Kangol with a crease ironed in.

His approach to piecing was the same; clean, neat, and technical. He was the undisputed straight letter king, no one had a steadier hand.

We grew closer, and let each other more into the other's life. In the hood, you know you and your man are tight when you go to each other's house and meet their parents. In DEZ's case, he lived with his grandparents at 429 East 103 Street in Spanish Harlem's East River Houses. They were nice and welcoming. I know they wondered what we were doing, and why we both had all the ink stained clothes. But they never pressed us, and were probably just glad we weren't caught up in worse things like selling drugs or robbing people.

DEZ/KayGee graffiti on a train

Credits to: Martha Cooper

I learned that DEZ was a Hip-Hop triple threat; he could paint, DJ, and could dance. I'm probably one of the few writers — or people in general — who've ever seen him dance. But it was his DJ skills that would make him world famous.

His DJ name was DJ Kay Gee — now most famously known as DJ Kay Slay. He most likely adopted this moniker for something a little more "mature," as well as wanting to avoid any similarities with Almighty KG of The Cold Crush Brothers.

He balanced his DJ gigs with his graff exploits — giving 100 percent to both endeavors. We rode the rails with class, laying down cars that excited the toys and the police. We were unstoppable and relentless, but like most sunny days, some rain must eventually fall.

One evening, DEZ called and said that he wanted to do a car for his cousin, Kevin Simmons, who was killed earlier that day. New York is always New York, the real Gotham city, complete with the mayhem and the dark underbelly. You move through it and accept it, but it hits home when someone you love is the victim.

Dez and SKEME's Crime in the City train piece Dez and SKEME's Crime in the City train piece

He came to my house and we laid out what we were going to do. He wanted to do a car that said "CRIME IN THE CITY." I responded by adding, "All you see is..."

We got lucky and found a set of consecutively numbered train cars — which we call a "married couple" — because they are never separated. We decided to do our names attached to the other car. After we laid out the space for the names, there was a gap at the end, so I rocked a cartoon character of a policeman with a nightstick observing our names and lamenting over how he just missed us.

After finishing, we stepped back to admire our work. We really felt like we had a message, and we knew that the whole city would read it on Monday morning when it rolled into every station between Harlem and Flatbush. Eventually those cars were immortalized in the 1983 cult classic and ground breaking Hip-Hop doc, Style Wars, by Henry Chalfant and Tony Silver. We were already kings by then, but after that, we became teachers.

There are so many more things that I can say about DEZ and our times together. He will always be my brother, and I miss him dearly.

In closing, I'd like to say thank you to Chris "FREEDOM" Pape, who was originally supposed to pen this editorial, but stepped aside and allowed me to do it. Thank you to Rock The Bells for giving me this space to remember and salute our brother.

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