Almost 20 years after releasing his first album at the age of 14, Andre Levins Jr. stops and looks at where it all began from the parking lot of the Adams Court projects in Hempstead, N.Y.
Levins points to a small window on the second floor of one of the apartment complexes in Adams Court. This was his old room, and Levins said he used to stick a speaker out the window to blast his music into the parking lot so the older guys could hear his music.
He notices how the neighborhood has changed since he was a kid. The Parkside Garden projects have been renovated into townhouses, and there is a heavy iron fence surrounding Adams Court. Levins points out what used to be known as “the shacks,” a row of houses across the street that used to be brown but are now painted over. He also noted how there was grass and everything looks decent now.
This is the home of Andre Levins Jr., but many know him by his name as a MC, A+. Kedar Entertainment and Universal Records released his first major label rap album in 1996 titled The Latch Key Child. It hit its 20th anniversary last August and was celebrated with a free concert in Levins’ hometown of Hempstead.
The Latch Key Child is a work from the 1990s’ golden era of hip-hop that flies under the radar for many. It is not an album that is widely known such as The Low End Theory or Illmatic, yet it is still one of the best and most underrated albums ever released during this period. With The Latch Key Child, A+ took a snapshot of his home, the hood of Hempstead, Long Island, and spoke on fairly mature issues for someone so young.
He was only thirteen when he burst his spleen
The shot was fatal
He died right there upon the kitchen table BLAOW
It happened all alone in his house
Not a creature was stirrin’, not a roach or a mouse
And I was just with him, playin’ Sega
And buggin’ on the horn with some honeys like a couple of playas
And now he’s gone
I’m speakin’ on my man K-Shawn
Forever on my mind mentally as I kick my song
He used to talk about the box in the closet
Where his pops kept a Glock and all the safety deposits
Now he stressed, fiendin’ just to hold some heat
I guess it came from all the stories that he heard in the street
I can’t explain it, it’s ill how we used to feel
I used to tell him stop playin’ wit that chrome-piece steel
He never listened, and now my man is missin’ in action
I blame it on the fools in the street that’s always blastin’
“Move On” by A+
Levins’ mother, Barbara Mann, is the one who got him to start rapping at a young age. As a child Levins would do covers and memorize the songs of his favorite rappers, so well that he prided himself on being able to precisely replicate their songs. He even mimicked their performances, to the point that his mom would dress him up in a hoodie and ask him to perform “Momma Say Knock You Out,” by LL Cool J in front of her friends. Eventually Levins and his younger brother would start entering talent shows and recording freestyles on tape recorders.
In 1993, Levins began working with Charles and Joe Smith, who produced under the name the Smith Brothers.
“When he was about 10 he showed an incredible love and appreciation for hip hop,” Joe Smith said. “All he wanted to do was record and be in the studio. That was rare for a kid his age.”
This is how, at the age of 12, Levins started to take his dreams of becoming a rapper seriously.
For two and a half years, Levins worked with The Smith Brothers to build himself as a true MC. As a child, A+ wasn’t at the playground or hanging out with friends, but was in the studio recording demos, writing songs and practicing stage presence. He said his schedule for the day was to go to school, come home and immediately start working with the Smith Brothers.
At times A+ felt stressed about being such a young rapper. Many labels were unsure about throwing their cards with a rapper who was barely out of middle school. Many turned down A+ simply because they considered him to be too young, Levins said.
Being a teenage rapper wasn’t something new to the industry. Levins said he was inspired by his few contemporaries like the child rap duo Kriss Kross and the 14-year-old Shyheim backed by the Wu-Tang Clan.
Miles Marshall Lewis, a journalist who wrote for many hip-hop magazines in the 1990s, said he doesn’t believe age plays a huge role in a rapper’s success. He did notice that nowadays, compared to the 1980’s, teenage rappers have become a rare sight.
“Most of the MCs from the 80s were between the age of 16 and 25,” Lewis said. “Now you don’t really see teenage MCs period, but in the era when A+ was around it was less and less common.”
The rejections didn’t discourage A+, and he kept building a name for himself in New York’s hip-hop scene. In 1995 he won a Def Jam competition held at Harlem’s Victory Five theater where the winner would get a record deal with Russell Simmons and Def Jam, but Levins said he never got the prize because, like everywhere else, they considered him to be too young.
This all changed when Kedar Massenburg heard A+’s demo.
“I remember when Kedar said ‘I met this great kid out of Long Island,’” Emmanuel Kojo Bentil, former Vice President of Kedar Entertainment, said. “Kedar talked about his flow and how he was like a young Nas or AZ, we thought of him as a very skilled young MC.”
Kedar Massenburg signed A+ as the first artist to his label, and another little known artist named Erykah Badu shortly after.
The same parking lot where Levins was blasting his music out a window for all of Hempstead to hear was also where some of the most famous rappers would park their cars to visit the young rapper.
“DMX came in the 6-4 Impala, Lime Green with hydraulics. LL Cool J used to come in the 850 BMW,” Levins said. “They pulled up in cars that people knew wasn’t any normal person.”
Now signed to a label, Levins was living the life of a rapper. “The Latch Key Child” was writing and recording with established names like Prodigy of Mobb Deep, AZ, Buckwild and Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest. His single, “All I See,” peaked at 66 on the Billboard Hot 100 and stayed on the charts for 14 weeks. Limo rides to New York City for TV appearances on shows like Soul Train. Even gracing the cover of Word Up magazine and being one of the many rappers on the iconic XXL“Greatest Day in Hip Hop” cover. His mother said her son would be in rap cyphers with Redman, parties with Smif-N-Wessun and once even brought a dog given to him by DMX back home, all before he was the age of 20.
“At that age I still didn’t really take it in as I take it in now,” Levins said. “At that time I was into the music and I didn’t really know how significant those moments were.”
Levins released another album in 1999, Hempstead High, and had the opportunity to bring A+ to the world. His single, “Enjoy Yourself,” hit the top five on the UK singles chart and went platinum in Japan. He toured the UK for Hempstead High and was selected to go to Cuba for the 1999 Music Bridges program where Cuban and American artists worked together for one week to record an album in Cuba.
“He was hanging out on Burt Bacharach’s yacht with Woody Harrelson,” Bentil said. “He was so in his element and they weren’t talking down to him or pandering him. He was having a legit conversation with these guys.”
However, the life that the music industry pictured for Levins was very different from the one he came from.
“Kedar tried but didn’t know what to do with him,” Barbara Mann said. “He had so much to say he couldn’t talk about little-kid stuff. Even though he was young at the time we came from a place where people were shooting bullets.”
Mann said that Levins stayed away from trouble since he was so focused on music and was usually inside recording. “The neighborhood knew that Andre was passionate about his rhymes and didn’t push him towards street life,” she said. However, Levins’ younger brother was deeply involved in the streets and Levins was able to see that lifestyle through his brother’s eyes.
Even if he wasn’t directly involved with the streets, the dangers were impossible to avoid. Levins could be talking to his friend and all of a sudden have to bolt into his house to dodge stray bullets. Even when inside bullets easily went through the windows. According to his mother, Levins lost his first friend when he was around 12-years-old.
That is what made the The Latch Key Child album so raw, Levins said. When Kedar stepped into the picture he added the big rap features and the radio songs like “All I See,” but most of the album contained tracks like “Move On,” a song about losing friends at a young age to street violence that Andre said was based off real stories from his home.
The album unfortunately failed to perform as Kedar wanted it to. Bentil said there are numerous reasons why: radio dictated the music market back in the 90s and although people respected Levins, he didn’t get the same respect on radio. Social media did not exist and, although Levins made a wave in Asia and Europe, his music did not perform as well in the United States.
“A lot of markets just dismissed him as a teeny bopper and said they wanted something more hard. Maybe his first single ‘All I See’ was teeny bopper, but nothing else,” Bentil said.
On his second album, Hempstead High, Levins appreciated the opportunity to work with artists like Erykah Badu and to be able to reach fans outside the United States, but he said that at the time he didn’t realize that the label was trying to change his sound. Levins said that Kedar was trying to push him into a more poppy direction and follow fads, not build on the raw sound that he established with The Latch Key Child.
These differences would eventually lead to Levins getting dropped from the label and he quickly went over to Ruff Ryders, a label that featured harder rappers like DMX and Lox, and was more in tune with what A+ was originally all about. At the time Ruff Ryders had a lot of artists on their roster and bigger artists like DMX were their main focus and smaller artists like Levins were pushed back, Levins said. Eventually his deal with Ruff Ryders fell through.
There was also trouble at home; as Levins was making a name in the music industry his younger brother was making a name for himself in the streets. Levins said that he was the quiet one while his younger brother was lively and motivated him throughout his life, and even though they went in two separate directions they still had the bond that all brothers had.
One day, shortly after Levins came home from a tour, his younger brother got into a incident that incarcerated him for 13.5 years.
“For a while I lost the passion, when he went away, and I knew he was going to go away for so long, it really took a toll on me,” Levins said.
As the sun slowly dipped beneath the blue Hempstead water tower in Campbell Park, the lights of the mobile stage went on; a crowd was waiting for Levins, the main act, to perform. Everyone was there, including his younger brother, who is doing well and is still motivating Levins today.
The concert was held on the last Saturday in August and coincided with the 20th anniversary of The Latch Key Child. Free school supplies were given out to kids, a new generation of rappers from Hempstead took the stage and it seemed as if the whole neighborhood came out to celebrate one of Hempstead’s finest. The Grammy-winning R&B singer Money Harm stopped by and performed his hit song “Maria Maria.” Even Mr. Cheeks from the Lost Boyz came to support Levins.
After a couple mixtapes here and there over the years, Levins said he is almost ready to release his third album after 17 years.
He said he continued to record over the years but was primarily motivated by the amount of love he got on the internet. One of the only places you can find The Latch Key Child is on Youtube and the comments section is filled with praise, with one or two comments saying that it was impossible for a 14-year-old kid to write these songs.
It is clear that A+ is not a forgotten name, especially on Strong Island. Two concertgoers, who refused to be interviewed, shouted that they came all the way from Wyandanch to see A+. They stood front and center with their arms around each other’s shoulders.
As Levins took the stage to perform songs that he wrote as a kid two decades ago, there were still people in the crowd that remembered every single word.
Check out our short documentary about A+ produced by Lei Takanashi, Michelle Toussaint and Demi Guo.