Andre LeRoy-Davis: The Last Word from the Source

“I can draw anything, but I’m a Hip-Hop artist; I document Hip-Hop,” says Andre LeRoy-Davis. While that name might escape you, Andre, or “A.L. Dre” his pen name has been giving readers something to chew on or chuckle to when they’ve closed The Source for the last 16 years. Davis’ illustrations have become part of Hip-Hop history. With the current issue of The Source potentially carrying Davis’ last contribution to the magazine, the artist steps forward to speak about his role, and the nearly 15,000 dollars he claims he’s owed.

Whether or not he’s caricatured his last rapper, Andre LeRoy-Davis continues to run his design company, which has done work for Redman, Darc Mind, and even Ja Rule’s Blood in My Eye. Get to know the man who’s managed to keep Hip-Hop funny, through the perms, ice grills, and butterfly tattoos. What was your relationship with Hip-Hop, and even with art and writing, before you started at The Source in 1990?

Andre LeRoy-Davis: Before 1990, I was deep into Hip-Hop, probably since ’79 – the first time I heard King Tim III and then the first time I heard “Good Times” being scratched at a Brooklyn block party. I was drawing since I was seven [years old], and I was writing since about that time too. I went to the High School of Art & Design which brought out throngs of Hip-Hop heads, anywhere from MC Tee of Mantronix - who I sat next to in biology class, Pharoahe Monch, Mobb Deep, that type of flavor. That gave me my foundation in arts. Then I went to The School of Visual Arts; Play [of Kid N’ Play] was in there the same time as me. I was rhyming back then. I was rhyming under A.L. Dre [A Loud Devastating Rap Enlightens] – that’s where that name came from. When I started doing work for The Source, I was still rhyming at that point. I was offered a contract in ’92, but the label wanted me to do some kind of Hammer stuff. What label?

Andre LeRoy-Davis: I’m not even gonna say. I don’t even remember. [Laughs] I was, as I am now, more political. I stepped away from that. Then, in ’92, ’93, YZ, he had a management company called 720 Sound. He had a crop of folks on there: [Agallah], and Sir Scratch and K-Cut [of Main Source]. I was thinking about signing with him at that point. Then, around ’94, the desire to be in the front left while I was working for The Source. Did you step to them initially as a writer or illustrator?

Andre LeRoy-Davis: I had got out of school in late ’87, and dove into the freelance world, artistically. I had done illustrations for Emerge Magazine and Playgirl; I had done a lot. I was always looking to draw people that looked like me, and that wasn’t happening. I was walking through the street, came across a Source magazine, looked at the editorial page – found out they were at 594 Broadway, strolled over there. I showed [co-founder] Jon Shecter my portfolio; I think it was a Wednesday. He was like, “Hey, I got an idea. Why don’t you do an illustration to sum up the cover story – about the FBI tapping N.W.A., do you think you can have a drawing for me by Saturday?” So we kicked around the idea, I came with an illustration - that was it. The next month, they called me again. Whatever was on the cover, I’d sum up in an illustration – that was the agreement with me and Jon. It’s misguided that I knew and was friends with Dave Mays and all this other stuff; I had no idea who any of these folks were. In 16 years, I probably only said like 100 words to Dave Mays.

I had been writing [as a hobby] for years. After several years there, [I said to] the music editor Reggie Dennis, “Hey, I wanna write.” He said, “Give me a mock review of KRS-One’s [Return of the Boom Bap] album. He liked what I wrote, and gave me an assignment. That was ’94. All props to Reggie Dennis. We’ve heard stories of B-Real and Ice-T being unhappy about reviews in The Source. Were artists ever unhappy with your drawings in “The Last Word”?

Andre LeRoy-Davis: Put it this way: in the early days, when I was 25 and really didn’t give a damn what people thought…the thing was, I was never out to offend anybody. That’s real easy to do; you can hit somebody below the belt. That was never my goal. My aim was always to pat a Brotha on the back when he needed a pat, [and] pull him down to earth when he needed it [too]. In the early days, I definitely had a lot of angry people because it was a new thing; nobody really made fun of Hip-Hop people.

The earliest time of somebody bein’ mad was DJ Quik. I [portrayed] him at a hair salon with James Brown. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but the initial feedback was DJ Quik told me to never come to California. Like a week later, he was on Yo! MTV Raps with Doctor Dre´ and T-Money, and they were wavin’ the Source issue at him – just makin’ fun of his hair or whatever. So in the middle of the show, Dre´ folds the cover back, and I guess Quik knew it was comin’. Quik was like, “Oh no.” Dre´ takes “The Last Word” and waves it at the front of the screen. One of DJ Quik’s boys said [to the camera], “That just means he made it big.” I’ve had people like Professor X [of the X-Clan] call up. Back then [I’d tell the editors] to give them my number. Those type of things. Were the egos of rappers bigger in the early ‘90s than they are now?

Andre LeRoy-Davis: I think the egos were big in the early ‘90s ‘cause they could be bigger. They had reason to be bigger. They were actually creating something. The egos now are big ‘cause they had one hit album. My whole thing is, when some of the younger people that I’ve drawn…when I’ve heard they were mad or whatever, I’m like, “You can’t be mad at me when folks like KRS and Rakim got it too.” Especially when a lot of folks thought I had something personal against Eminem. My thing is, “Hey, I’ve made fun of so-called legends.” When I made fun of Eminem the first time, it was his first album. He was on the cover of The Source. It was no racism or whatever – little did I know what would happen with him and Benzino. Perfect segway. During the “G-Unot” era of The Source and the defamation against Eminem, was your job ever compromised with some of those cover stories?

Andre LeRoy-Davis: Not in the least bit. As time went on, an editor would be there, call me, tell me who’s on the cover, I’d come up with my idea, bring it in, I get the OK [and that was that]. In the 16 years I was at The Source, 15 of those were with [Ray] Benzino and [Dave] Mays, Benzino called the editor or called me indirectly two times to do things, where he wanted me to outright go after somebody. I had absolutely no problem saying no. One of the reasons I think I could get away with that was I was never up [in the office] day-to-day; I just did my job, and that was it. I faced backlash, but I never did any drawing that I was not proud of or that I was forced to do. As the journalist A.L. Dre, did you feel that pressure?

Andre LeRoy-Davis: Nope. If they gave me something to review, I wrote it. Now if changes happened when the editor took over, I had nothin’ to do with that. Sixteen years in Hip-Hop journalism is astounding. How did it feel when, being the most senior person at The Source, you weren’t getting respected financially?

Andre LeRoy-Davis: My intention, probably, was to work on [“The Last Word”] until I had my 200th drawing – which probably would’ve been September. Then, I was gonna debate if I was gonna leave or not. I was actually enjoying it. I think I’ve done some of my best work over the last year and a half. There was a minute there – ’98, ’99, where I was ready to just quit, ‘cause I wasn’t liking the whole flavor of it. Do you think that’s because there’s so much we can make fun of in rap and Hip-Hop right now?

Andre LeRoy-Davis: When I had my low, there was no new person to draw. If an artist has personality, then you can usually come up with a new drawing, new flavor. Like Nas, I’ve drawn him four or five times. Each one I’ve enjoyed ‘cause Nas – a lot of people thought I hate Nas; he’s one of my favorite artists – but I have no problem with going at somebody I like. He was very contradictory for a minute. Lately, you have a little bit more personalities. Over the last two years – Ludacris, Game, 50, for the personalities. There’s endless jokes, and you can make political commentary within the jokes. As far as your leaving, was it a one-day process, or something that progressed over time?

Andre LeRoy-Davis: During the latter-day parts of the Benzino/Mays days, they had owed me some money. But I was always a team player, and I knew they were going through some difficulties. At that point, I was under contract. When I started, I was getting 50 dollars a drawing; at the end, it was 3,000 dollars a drawing. I told [Mays/Benzino] that I’d honor my contract through the end of ’05. They were supposed to hit me with some money, but then s**t went down. They left, I was owed 10,000 [dollars]. Not good. So I figured that was gonna be it for me; I was gonna walk away.

The Black Enterprise folks took over in late January [2006]. I got a call from the folks who were up there. [Source executives] Jeremy Miller and Jeff Scott asked me if I’d stay on, and they’d get me caught up, money-wise, and also would I mind making fun of Benzino and Mays? I’m like, “Are they gonna be on the cover.” [They responded] “No, they’re not.” If you want me to throw something at them, I’m not just gonna throw any kind of crazy s**t at them. I thought of the Donald Trump boardroom [from The Apprentice] saying, “You’re fired.” That works; it’s a joke.

Probably a month or two into things, they started catching me up on the 10,000 [dollars] they owed me. I’m working for a Black company now; that’s a good thing. I started to also start writing for them again too. Though they caught up, I noticed I wasn’t getting paid on the writing pieces. With the art, they were on-point, ‘cause I told them, “If you don’t get me a check, you’re not getting a new drawing.” I was doing that every month.

In July, the bankruptcy happened. I know folks weren’t getting paid at all - especially writers. The last drawing I had done for the 200th issue was the Ice Cube drawing. I didn’t get a check for that, or the writing things. That was like 5,000 [dollars owed] real quick. Things started getting slow real quick. Time went on, and I was behind some more money. I started beefing more. I still met my deadlines; I’ve never missed a deadline all these years. They gave me a check. It was an appeasing check.

The final straw was in December; I just finished the last drawing I did. Now that it’s out, I hate it ‘cause they didn’t even use the words I told them to use. They already owed me like 10,000 dollars. I got a call on a Thursday, as I’m working on the drawing, that they wanted me to stay on in 2007, but take a cut in pay. [Laughs] [I said] “Wait a minute, you owe me 10,000 [dollars], I’m working on a drawing that’s due Saturday, and you want me to take a cut? Nah, we’ll talk about it when I bring the drawing in.” I thought there’d be some discussion.

I spoke on the phone to [Editor-in-Chief] Fahiym [Ratcliffe], “What’s the deal? I’ll help y’all out, I’ll do it for 500 [dollars] less – even 1,000 [dollars] less.” He said, “They wanted you to do it for 1,000 [dollars]. Either you do it, or you don’t. Take it or leave it.” Somebody says to me, “take it or leave it” when I’ve been there that long, I had never missed a deadline, you owe me money, I just finished a drawing; they obviously had no respect for what I do… I was like, “Can’t do it. F**k you” kinda flavor. That was it. They made me an offer I could refuse, now they’re trying not to pay me the $13,656 in total that they owe me. No calls from Jeremy Miller or Jeff Scott. If tomorrow, XXL called and offered you 4,000 dollars a drawing to bring “The Last Word” there, would you?

Andre LeRoy-Davis: Reggie Dennis, one of the founders of XXL, gave me my first writing shot. If they would have asked me to leave [during the 1994 Source walk-out], I would have left with them. My relationship with Elliott [Wilson, Editor-In-Chief of XXL] was not good and it was not bad. When he left, The Source he had hard feelings – so when he took over at XXL he wasn’t really hiring anybody from The Source, and I had just written an “Eye Candy” and another piece in two issues prior to him taking over.

I’d talk to them, but I’m just gonna tell the truth about stuff. I would love to resurrect “The Last Word”, but it’s still gotta remain fresh, poignant, and funny. Without favoritism, sometimes I think that XXL might take themselves to seriously for what I do, but who knows>> If the people who are running The Source now, leave, and somebody like a Jay-Z - like the rumors said - buys it, I’d quickly call them up, begging to bring “The Last Word” back to life.