Stevie Lebron was like a god to black and Puerto Rican kids in Park Slope, a formerly working-class area of Brooklyn, now per-haps the extreme case of gentrification. He didn’t much matter to the white kids beginning to pour into the neighborhood during the late 1970’s, though he would matter to them by the time 1980 rolled in.
Stevie’s super-humanity extended about two blocks, really—the stretch on Berkeley Place between 5th and 7th Avenues. There must have been dozens of Stevie Lebrons scattered throughout downtown Brooklyn at the time, particularly after the blackout of July, 1977, when so many young men “inherited” halfway decent audio equipment, courtesy of rampant looting on Fulton Street, a local bazaar for the borough’s boom boxes and other electronics.
None of that mattered to us. What mattered were Stevie’s abili-ties. He boasted so many things that overawed us whenever he showed up on our half of the Berkeley Place stretch, from 6th to 7th Avenue.
Stevie was around 16-17; we were all 12-13. Stevie was terribly handsome. He could walk up to the oil-painted plate in the PS 251 schoolyard and hit any ball—sometimes a softball, sometimes a hard ball, sometimes a rubber facsimile of one or the other—well over the fence, the yard, and the five-story buildings that bor-dered 5th Avenue, one of downtown Brooklyn’s most dangerous, drug-infested stretches. He lived in one of those buildings.
Stevie could dance, too. He was damn good at it. In those days, you needed to know how to fight, to defend yourself from the in-evitable slaps and blows that were coming. You also did well to have some dancing skill, or at least be able to hold your own, to guard against the insults of 12-13 year old girls who dealt more damage with their jeers than any self-appointed bully could with his fists.
Stevie could do both. Nobody fucked with him.
But Stevie Lebron could do something else, something that made him truly godlike to kids of color and to me—an outlier of a white boy raised by a single father and his many male lovers of black and Puerto Rican descent: Stevie was a mixed tape master. To those of us on that two-block stretch through Berkeley Place, he was THE mixed tape master. We worshipped him!
The mixing process was not too sophisticated in the late-‘70s. Ste-vie Lebron had to do more to generate the cassette tapes he sold to us for $20 than many or most would willingly do today. From his “cozy” 9’/11’ bedroom, he would ready his Panasonic boom box, fire up his two Technics turntables, and touch the needles down to a stash of disco albums he arranged upright in a plastic mesh milk crate sitting alongside his single bed. I don’t recall too much variation in his playlist, but that’s not to say he didn’t use lots of different tracks. There was the Brothers Johnson and there was “Le Freak” by Chic, a song that made us fancy ourselves French, as it did untold dancers at places like Studio 54 and the Garage in Manhattan.
Of course, there was the song that started hip hop in the humble opinion of this white boy—even though many will tell you it was really the stuff made of staccato and generous downbeats cum “breaks” that would spur DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa and the Grand Wizard in the Bronx: in Brooklyn, though, it was “Love is the Message,” by MFSB (Mother Father Sister Brother). And it was the smoothest, most musical thing around.
Stevie Lebron would play a hole in “Love is the Message,” while shrewdly varying between the Record and Pause buttons on his boom box. In the late-1970’s, there was no money for connecting cables through which to feed audio from his turntables directly into the boom box. So Stevie did everything manually, artfully re-ducing any ambient sounds on his tapes. The quality of his mixed tape masterpieces was awesome to us. We couldn’t get enough of this new thing he was doing.
And there was more than the silky combinations he made on his turntables and then fed into that boom box. Stevie Lebron was also a rapper. For those of us living in a rapidly changing neighborhood south of Sugar Hill, his vocals were riveting!
It’s hard to remember the lyrics Stevie invented and overlaid on his stash of LPs. The words were about Stevie, that much I do re-member. As Park Slope transformed, however, Stevie began to customize his raps to give props to his mixed tape purchasers. Those customizations grew in proportion to the arrival of more fair-skinned kids into the neighborhood. As the transition picked up in 1979-‘80, Stevie stepped up to the call for more mixed tapes made by the sons and daughters of privilege. The wealthier kids wanted that new sound, too; like those of us who lined up before them, they wanted to bask in the legitimacy conferred by Stevie when he handed you a mixed tape and walked away with his $20 fee.
As he rapped over “Love is the Message,” Stevie’s rhymes now included the names of the newer, whiter kids moving into the neighborhood. Once anonymous raps—focused on letting the good times roll in a neighborhood where bad times did, too—were now transformed into custom tributes to a new Park Slope demographic. That demographic was a demographic that could pay. It was a lawyer and doctor demographic, a F.I.R.E. (Finance, Insurance and Real Estate) demographic. It was a demographic that routinely kept Stevie Lebron in brand new sneakers, Nikes, Adidas, when 1979 turned into 1980.
It worked for Stevie Lebron. Stevie learned how to monetize change on Berkeley Place. The same could not be said for his par-ents as 1980 began. Just a few months shy of my own departure from Park Slope in the fall of 1980, we heard a rumor that Stevie and his family were kicked out of their apartment when their landlord was offered a handsome figure for the building where their family had lived in for generations.
Tony Maniscalco is a native of Brooklyn and teaches govern-ment and politics around New York.