The hundred or so mostly white kids have come for rock and roll punk and metal, to be specific. Headlining is the Esoteric, favorite of the region's hardcore crowd. Playing third but no stranger to this kind of lineup is Mac Lethal, who, as his few fans here are aware, has just inked a deal with the Midwest's top independent hip-hop record label.
He checks his sole instrument the microphone and banters with the kids who have gathered at the front of the stage.
After his backing music starts pulsing through the PA, he steps up onto a chair and unfurls a torn American flag with the words "Download Your Donation" painted on it.
It's a strange sensation, the shock of seeing the defaced flag. Such props are rare in hip-hop shows. (Also, "Download Your Donation" doesn't immediately make sense it just sounds clever and rebellious.) He launches into "Shotgun," the up-tempo, acoustic-bass-thumping opener on his new album, the track that, if all goes well, will introduce him to the hip-hop world. Soon, he's rapping about his hometown of Overland Park, where all the women have teeth that are glow-in-the-dark/And the streets are patrolled by remote-controlled creepy gorillas.
As his set progresses, Mac Lethal pulls out the tricks he's been showcasing around town over the past few months a break for the theme song of The Family Guy, a pause to teach the audience "the Elaine dance" from Seinfeld but he still manages to make everything seem off-the-cuff. He also works in the line "George Bush doesn't care about Mac Lethal," a reference to Kanye West's post-hurricane Bush dis, to much applause.
But then he slows things down with an a cappella "Vanish." The song begins with a somber incantation 'Cause every time I make a new friend/That's another funeral in the future I will attend a crowd-silencing line if there ever was one.
He glides into an impressionistic monologue addressed to his mother. It starts with the image of a kid trying to fake sick so he won't have to go to school. The trick doesn't work, but the child's longing to escape into his mother's arms is palpable. Suddenly, though, the tables turn and the mother is the one who's sick, the child powerless to save her. In the end, he's numb to the condolences, gutted after six months of torture/My whole family tree was just ripped from the orchard.
For the final number, Mac brings up Stevie Cruz, screamer for the Esoteric, to sing on "Strike Me Dead," a nihilistic fantasy about the Earth being destroyed by a comet.
It's a barrage of death, angst and sarcasm, and the kids in the crowd are bouncing like it's a punk show except for one girl. When Mac Lethal leaves the stage, she is waiting. She embraces him, crying and repeating, "Thank you. Thank you. Thank you."
The girl's father died a week before the show. She tells Lethal that he has articulated her pain, brought things to light that just moments earlier were an incomprehensible tangle of anguish and remorse.
Mac Lethal knows the feeling. Almost a year earlier, his own mother, Janet Ruth Sheldon, died at 57.
Mac Lethal has always been able to make audiences laugh. Since he lost his mother, he's learned to make them cry, too. What's been on his mind lately, however, is how to strike a balance between the two. His future success demands it.
David McCleary Sheldon "Mac" to his friends was born at Saint Joseph Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri, on July 25, 1981.
He's lived all over the metro but currently inhabits and pays a hefty mortgage on the condo where his mother lived in the final years of her life. It's half of a duplex in a tree-lined subdivision of identical dwellings off 103rd Street in Overland Park. As if to reinforce the stereotype of his neighbors as blackophobic retirees, the condo is equipped with a security TV that shows the distinctly un-crime-ridden street outside.
After his mother died, Mac says, his sister bought her car. "I put whatever little money I had toward her mortgage, and it's going to take me a long fucking time to pay for it. But it was just worth it, it was worth it to keep her, because there's so many artifacts about that place that reminded me of her."
He keeps the first floor and upstairs tidy, and he does most of his writing in the living room on a big, new sofa, also purchased from his mother's estate. The basement, however, is a disaster, littered with CDs and debris and equipped with not only the filthiest bathroom in the 'hood but also the only recording studio.
The portal to this room is a partly demolished door that's a few well-placed blows from splintering completely. It's the victim of Mac's frustrated outbursts after a scene that repeats itself too often: He presses "record" on his computer-contained mixing board and rushes into the soundproofed closet to put on headphones and begin spitting into the microphone then he flubs a line. When he has to start over, the door pays.
He recorded his latest album, next year's 11:11, here in this manner, with the help of friends and beatmakers Jeremy "Nezbeat" Nesbitt and Ben "Been" Wilkins, along with guitarist Ryan Wurtz and out-of-towners Laserbeak and Joey Beats, all of whom have composed music on the album under Mac's direction. The result sounds anything but lo-fi.
It represents the first time that Mac was paid to record, but it's also the document of a musical career that began when he was just another rambunctious adolescent growing up in suburban Kansas.
"I grew up as a product of pop culture," he says. "But when hip-hop came on and I saw the kind of rebellious, angry attitude, I related to it in many ways."
Don't get him wrong, though. "I wasn't sitting there needing an outlet, like some kind of troubled Kansas City kid growing up in the projects, because that's not me. I wasn't it. But I still loved the angst, like Public Enemy coming out and just, you know, the video clips of the president and burning trash cans and wanting to rebel."
For Mac, hip-hop channeled anger and disaffection more potently and effectively than any other form of music. Rappers in the early days were smart and didn't mince words. Only in recent years has the genre become a platform for that paradox of the rich thug, who raps about selling drugs and waves his diamond jewelry in the air as women rub against the hood of his borrowed Bentley.
In the '90s, MCs such as Chuck D of Public Enemy, Eazy-E and KRS-One dressed in black and sounded pissed. Even though hip-hop was an African-American, urban movement, Mac was captivated by these artists' ability to blend hard-life stories and over-the-top personas. His first idols were the Wu-Tang Clan, a mysterious pack of hardcore rappers who, in their rhymes, overlaid onto the streets of New York City a fantasy world based on Japanese kung fu films.
"I wasn't staring out a project window worrying that bullets were going to fly and hit me that was never the case," he says. What intrigued him about the Wu-Tang Clan, he says, was that they were like comic-book characters out of the slums of New York who knew martial arts and sold drugs and got laid all the time. "That was it," he says. "I was sold."
Mac might not have been watching gun battles outside his window, but he did endure the emotional war of his parents' divorce. Both used him as a weapon.
"It wasn't like, 'OK, you have him then, I'll have him then,'" he says of their custody battle. "It was kinda like, 'No, I'm gonna take him from you just to piss you off.'" This went on until he was old enough to live on his own.
"It was, maybe, they both felt that I had different best interests," he says, his voice empty of bitterness. "I think kids gravitate toward their mothers, especially young kids.... I guess I always felt more comfortable with her she never pushed me to change." Instead, he says, she let him express himself however he wanted to, and she encouraged him to develop his art.
Mac says that his father, with whom he's now reconciled, felt it would be better for him to pursue college and a career than to try to become a rapper.
But school never worked out for him. In fact, Mac could write a guidebook to the area's academies for at-risk youth. He attended Kemper Military School, Broadmoor Technical Center, Maur Hill Prep School in Atchison (from which he was kicked out for selling drugs, something he says he did ineptly), and Horizons (the Shawnee Mission district's alternative-education high school), which he dropped out of in his senior year to take a job selling satellite dishes.
"It was never that I was at risk," he explains. "I just didn't keep my opinions to myself."
Often, that resulted in blows. Mac's left eye seems to blink on a slightly delayed circuit, the result of getting clocked in the face by a stone-wielding rival during his last year of school. Every knuckle on his right fist has been broken. He also has a felony on his record for a fight that went down at a party when, he says, some skinheads showed up. He didn't go to jail over that, but a couple of his friends did and they didn't come out for a long time.
"The kids that I went to high school with were the kids that were at risk of selling drugs," he recalls. "They were fucking hopeless. They had a desperation that they felt, and I think they were just the product of not being informed that there was a way out of it, and they turned to drugs and crime and stuff, and that pissed me off. No one was communicating to them that there was hope, that there was a way out of this."
Instead, he says, they were just listening to television. "When I was a kid, I didn't have to turn to the radio and television and corporate America to find happiness, but I did. And that kind of pissed me off once I realized that I was being spoon-fed a bunch of shit."
Mac says he could've been a punk rocker, but he happened to like hip-hop's beats, rhymes and mystique. After all, rap was basically the punk movement of the '90s, providing the same artistic forum for fighting the dominant political and commercial establishments and for identifying with adulthood.
"There was a kid named Chris I grew up with," Mac says, "and he started to rap, but he would rap other people's words, like Lord Finesse, and he would put his name in instead of Lord Finesse's, and I would pay him. I would be like, 'Dude, I'll give you five fuckin' dollars that I made mowing lawns if you would just rap for me.' And he would rap other people's lyrics."
Soon, Mac started to do the same. When he got better at making his own rhymes, he took the name Mac Lethal knowing full well the irony of a small white kid adopting such a tough-sounding, mack-daddy moniker. It was a nod to DJ Lethal from the mostly white Irish-American hip-hop group House of Pain, with whom Mac angry and Irish himself identified.
It definitely wasn't a well-chosen name for a white rhymer seeking to break into Kansas City's underground hip-hop scene, which was ruled by black and Latino MCs. But before long, it was too late to change his handle. Mac started getting noticed.
Mac Lethal's journey to national status parallels the rise of Kansas City's underground hip-hop scene. It began with scrappy, battling freestylers claiming their territory at raves and in the few-and-far-between venues that would book rap shows. Gradually, it formed into a community of independent recording artists.
It was a different crowd from the jersey-wearing, gang-signing MTV mimickers whose albums are stocked at 7th Heaven on Troost. It's not Fat Tone, and it's not Tech N9ne. The beats aren't as hard, and the rhymes aren't about life in the 'hood. It began as a movement led by eclectic DJs and college-educated rappers, and it was made viable by business-savvy independent labels such as Rhymesayers, Anticon and Stones Throw.
Sean Hunt, who MCs as Approach, was one of the first in the scene to recognize Mac's skills and, eventually, befriend him.
Part owner of local label Datura Records, Hunt lives in Lawrence and works shifts at three of the town's most active music venues the Jackpot Saloon, the Replay Lounge and The Granada. In 2002, he released the funky, live-sounding Ultra-Proteus on his fledgling Datura imprint. Over the years, he has become Lawrence's mike-rocking hero for his charismatic and uplifting performances.
Approach remembers that Mac Lethal stepped onto his turf with something to prove.
The two MCs one older and black, Mac younger and white, both from Overland Park met in 1997 at The Granada.
"At the time, there weren't a lot of white MCs around, especially in Kansas City," Approach says. "They had existed, but they hadn't really been out in the public.... The white participants were DJs and producers they hadn't really stepped to the forefront of MCing.
"We were little brothers of the Public Enemy movement, the educated hip-hop the NWAs and DJ Shadow and Blackalicious and Hieroglyphics and Pharcyde," Hunt says.
But it wasn't easy getting crowds out to hear rappers spouting social commentary, no matter how dope the beats were. So Approach and his comrades laid aside their messages and took up the fireworks of battle MCing, an intellectually challenging and crowd-pleasing practice that pitted rappers against each other in freestyle clashes of wits, insults and rhymes.
Mac Lethal proved to be a natural.
"Mac came through as a pure, off-the-top battler who could destroy anybody off the top of his head," Hunt remembers. "I was always attracted to those MCs. I was more a groove guy, a melody man, a vibe guy. He was raw, like a razor blade that could throw itself."
Even though they exchanged disses and left each other in shame before growing crowds, Approach and Mac Lethal became friends. As their scene grew, Hunt helped Mac rein in his aggressive, offensive style so that audiences would find him more appealing.
"He's from that underground battle mentality," Hunt says. "I was there to say, 'Man, a lot of people, especially around here, aren't as up-to-date on the art form. You have to give it to them in small chunks.'"
In 2001, Lethal landed a spot at Cincinnati's Scribble Jam, a national meetup of break dancers, graffiti artists, DJs and MCs, all sparring against one another for trophies and recognition. Scribble Jam was, and remains, the unofficial Olympics of the independent hip-hop scene.
A video from the early rounds that year shows a painfully boyish Mac paired against a towering, hefty black rapper named Cashmere, who looks like he could crush the little Kansan in a bear hug.
Showing no signs of intimidation, Mac takes the microphone and tears into Cashmere, rattling off caustic put-downs. His Fuck that, I'm like a Ninja Turtle/If you win the prize money, you should get a girdle elicits a collective ooooh from the packed nightclub's enthusiastic crowd.
Then, dismantling Cashmere's physically aggressive stance, Mac rhymes, He was getting close, tryin' to push me/He backed up [points to his mouth], smelled his girlfriend's pussy. With that line, Cashmere's bid for the title goes down like the Hindenburg.
Mac lost in the final round of Scribble Jam to a nerdier, faster-thinking kid named Adeem, but Mac's second-place status made him a shoo-in for the even bigger 2002 Scribble Jam, at which he fought his way to first place.
For some time, he'd been trying to endear himself to a group called Atmosphere, the flagship act on Rhymesayers. After proving himself at Scribble Jam and pestering Atmosphere's leader, Mac earned himself an opening slot on some of the group's tour dates.
Mac began touring constantly, sometimes with fellow locals Approach and SoundsGood's Joe Good, and sometimes by himself on a Greyhound bus with a suitcase full of merch and round-trip fare to New York City or Chicago. He recorded his first LP, Men Are From Mars, Pornstars Are From Earth, and released it on the ill-fated HipHopInfinity.com label.
On the road over the years, he managed to peddle 4,000 copies of his next record, The Love Potion Collection. He also got the attention of a Spin writer, who listed Lethal among the magazine's who's who of "the emo-rap revolution." (The short-lived critical catchphrase was meant to describe indie artists who rhymed about everyday struggles, such as Buck 65, Aesop Rock and Lethal's sometime tourmate Sage Francis.)
Despite Mac's success, however, the organizers of Scribble Jam 2004 (this time held in a vast outdoor arena) wouldn't let him on the stage except as a battler. That year, others in Mac's class Eyedea, Sage Francis, Brother Ali were allowed to perform solo sets to captive crowds. Mac was pitted against newcomers full of piss and fire to try for an award he no longer cared about. He took the stage drunk, but still ripped his way through the rookies to a second-place finish.
More important than placing at the biggest Scribble Jam ever, though, was that he finally had obtained an audience with Rhymesayers president and CEO Brent "Siddiq" Sayers, who had been watching Mac grow. Siddiq was ready to listen to Mac.
A potentially career-making demo needed recording, fast. But Mac was returning home to an ailing mother.
Earlier that year, on a late-winter tour, Mac had received a call from his sister. Their mother, who had developed rheumatoid arthritis in her forties, had been admitted to the hospital because, in a rare medical development, the arthritis had spread to her lungs.
In five months she would be dead.
As it became clear that his mother didn't have long to live, Mac watched her turn to material comforts for solace, buying a new car and ordering merchandise from TV shopping programs in an attempt to live it up in her final days.
"I understand it now it was a drug," Mac says. "She wanted to go out with a bang, have fun 'Fuck it, I'll buy that blanket off QVC. I'll buy that sweater.' I think it may have helped, the ten minutes she was happy when she'd get a box and wonder what was in it and pull out a new set of pajamas and put them on."
Mac didn't always have such a philosophical perspective on his mom's death. At the time, he developed alopecia areata, a stress-related condition that caused him to lose his hair in patches.
When he needed money, he booked shows around town, appearing onstage with his head shaved, broken inside.
He would still perform his lighthearted tracks bangers such as "All Night Long" and the hilarious anti-war song "Pass the Ammo" but it was clear how much he was hurting.
Mac began sticking it to the man upstairs. In the middle of sets, he'd ask people in the audience to raise their hands if they were "children of Jesus" then he'd rap, 'Cause Jesus, he probably puffs a lot of chronic/And in this situation would get a double vodka tonic/He's watchin' Kill Bill 2 and an Almond Joy/Bugged out feelin' like he's Julian Donkey Boy/Readin' fan mail, listenin' to Devin the Dude/Talkin' to big L, sittin' up in heaven confused.
He was forging an anti-MC persona, becoming a rapper who hated the self-congratulatory shtick of classic hip-hop. He'd jokingly tell everyone in the audience to shove someone nearby and issue threats to anyone who told people to "make some noise."
He also was becoming an MC whom people came to listen to rather than merely bob their heads to.
"I've always felt the need to have every single person's eyes on me," he says. "They don't have to like what I say, but the crowd has to be mine for as long as I'm onstage. And I've made it a point to go out there, open, sustain and close. No one, I think, is really passionate in hip-hop about opening, sustaining and closing and having the crowd by the throat the whole time. And I wasn't polished at all until just about a year ago."
His mother's death is all over the early versions of Mac's album, 11:11.
"Vanish" is the spoken-word piece that made the young woman at the Bottleneck cry. Even more intense, "Take Me in My Sleep" is basically a rant denying the existence of heaven.
Mac also recorded a song based on a broken engagement. In real life, he says, his ex-fiancée (alias "Teagan") lied and told him that he'd gotten her pregnant and that she'd lost the baby. In "Teagan," bullet casings plink to the pavement alongside disembodied guitar and bleak choral vocals as Mac spits at his lost love, I'm a lovesick idiot, infected, itching to breathe/And you're a genius with your clit on your sleeve. In "Tummy," Mac recounts a relationship broken apart on November 11 (hence the album title) by a miscarriage. Over melancholy acoustic guitar lines, he shouts, So from the knuckles that I broke on the concrete walls/To the tears in the hospital bathroom stalls/From the vast amount of blood that you lost in seven days/To the daughter I could listen to talk but never raise. Elsewhere, "Tangle" is a dark celebration of sex and fame in a world where McDonald's are opening in church lobbies.
Pent-up emotional angst exploded all over the recording. But when he sent it to Rhymesayers, Siddiq wanted Mac to keep honing it. The record was unbalanced, a little too heavy on the suffering. Too much pain doesn't make for a well-rounded MC.
"If anybody was to label Rhymesayers as something, it would probably be emotional and heavy music that's kind of our bread and butter. It's always been our thing," Siddiq tells the Pitch from his office in Minneapolis. Still, Siddiq has helped Mac bring out all sides of his personality, putting equal emphasis on the hurt and the humor.
"When he sent me back to the lab," Mac says, "it was more or less to create a better balance. I've definitely added some songs to dilute it, I guess, to not make it so fucking hard to swallow."
The label would have put him in a professional studio, but Mac wanted the entire album to maintain the sound of the original demo. So Rhymesayers paid him $5,000 (straight to the mortgage) and told him to keep working and think about how he wanted to present himself to the world.
That was over the summer, after the label had decided not to introduce any new artists in the latter half of the year. With plenty of time, and with Nezbeat and Been at his disposal, Lethal opened the abused door and went back to writing and recording.
Now a new version of 11:11 is getting a listen in Minneapolis, where Rhymesayers will hear two new, upbeat songs. The apocalyptic "Strike Me Dead" has been pushed to a bonus track.
The first new song, "Luis Guzman" (though he's not mentioned in its lyrics, the song is a tribute to the heavy-browed Latino character actor who never gets near the leading role), is driven by bouncing bass and sampled orchestral flourishes; it stands up for Kansas women and trashes the media for misrepresenting blacks.
There's also "Walkin' on Nails." Over an audacious sample of the guitar riff from the classic-rock staple "Funk #49" by the James Gang, Mac opens it up saying "Let's go happy with this one." Despite the divergence from the album's overall grit, Mac employs his usual lyrical prowess in listing some of his favorite things: readin' magazines backwards/Wrinkle-free trousers/Takin' Percocet and masturbatin' in the shower.
The songs may not make the final cut, but if they aren't good enough, he could do more. He's finally in a groove, one he couldn't have found until now, a year after losing his mom, his girl and his hair.