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    All Leon Smith has ever wanted is to play rock ’n’ roll. He’s known that since he was 10, when the 14-inch television in his mom’s Park Hill apartment was flipped to the 2000 MTV Video Music Awards. The Red Hot Chili Peppers played “Californication,” and Smith watched the band’s bassist, Flea, jump around in his bright red pants like he was on fire. It lit a spark in Smith. But his family didn’t talk about dreams. Smith says his grandma was too busy working long hours as a nurse; that his mom was young, running around like a kid herself; and that his dad was behind bars.

    Smith lived with his grandma on 43rd and Bank streets — where he’d zip around on his BMX bike with the Tony Hawk autograph protected under plastic wrap, until the bike was stolen — then at the Beecher Terrace public-housing complex with his mom. He roamed the projects with his big brother — who taught him how to cook eggs, iron clothes — and grew into a man. “I learned how to carry a gun, roll dice,” Smith says. His ears lost rock and tuned to rap. His skin darkened with tattoos above muscles that hardened over his bones.

    Then came the moment he found his brother slumped dead on the side of Grandma’s house. “That was a wake-up call for me,” says Smith, now 30. “I thought, ‘If I stay in Louisville, I’ll end up like my brother.’ So I grabbed a backpack and went up to Lexington.” Around 2010, Smith rolled into Oneness, Lexington’s street-fashion boutique and creative hub, trying to push his clothing line, Friend of Failure. That’s where Smith got tight with store regulars Jewan “Pinky” Clay, Aaron “Ace” Holmes and Kym Williams.

    Clay was outgoing, like a “musical jock,” Smith says. As a kid, Clay got an electric guitar for Christmas. By 16, he was watching videos of Jimi Hendrix’s hands to learn technique and earning money by playing in a church. Holmes was detail-oriented when producing music, which he learned by sneaking into music studios and making beats with a buddy at Kentucky State University in Frankfort. Smith didn’t know what to make of Williams, the quiet homeschooled kid with surprises up his Johnny Cupcakes-brand sleeves: one minute double-timing the drums like Slipknot (one of Williams’ favorite bands) and the next DJ-ing Daft Punk-inspired dance tracks. (Likewise, Williams didn’t know what to think of Smith, with his fingernails painted and one of his long dreads bright pink.)

    Following afternoons spent wheeling at the skate park, the crew would collaborate on hip-hop, R&B, soul and electronic music in the apartment above Oneness. Smith was going by Designer Flow at the time. “It’s embarrassing,” he says. “I was making records thinking, ‘They’re going to go crazy in the club! They’re gonna love this in the summertime!’” (In a YouTube video, Snoop Dogg — that’s right, Snoop Dogg — raps to a beat Williams produced, though the crew didn’t actually get to meet Snoop in person.) “I wasn’t an artist I was meant to be,” Smith says about that time. “I felt numb when I was rapping. I never liked anything I was saying. I was making stuff for other people.” That’s not the case with his current band, PAKG (pronounced “package” or “pack edge”), which released its first EP, The Kids Are Watching, in September. “Now,” he says, “I’m freeing my soul.”


    PAKG members (clockwise from top) Kym Williams, Jewan “Pinky” Clay, Leon Smith and Aaron “Ace” Holmes riff
    on the cover of Queen's 1964 album Queen II.

    During a PAKG show at Kaiju or Odeon or Poorcastle, when Smith belts, “Got so many questions / no one knows the answers / lost in this direction / just got to let it happen,” he sounds like a train roaring down the tracks, his untrained singing style more emotionally driven than technical. Clay’s fingers blaze over his black-and-pink Fender, and faces in the audience scrunch like they’re looking into bright light. Holmes is a backbone on the bass, which his dad taught him to play during those hot Alabama summers when he’d go stay with him, the long car rides between there and Kentucky accompanied by Dad’s suitcase full of funk cassettes: Larry Graham from Sly and the Family Stone and “Boogie Oogie Oogie.” Williams, who graduated from the Lexington School for Recording Arts, rails on the drums. In Clay’s basement in the South End, the crew practices weekly, live-streaming their flows and flubs on Instagram or Facebook. “It’s a transparency thing. We want kids and anyone to know: You can start here and end up there,” says Smith, who admits he is still clumsy on electric guitar. “It’s about noticing growth.” At practice, Smith’s four-year-old son, Liam, locks in on each instrument, emulating all the sounds he’s sponging.

    PAKG stands for “Producing a Kind Generation” and is also an acronym of each member’s name: Pinky, Ace, Kym and Grey, which is what Smith goes by now. “It’s in between everything,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be black or white. I didn’t want a slave name, so I just took the most acceptable unknown area.” Smith — who currently lives out of his car and passes time practicing his guitar at parks, anywhere he can be close with nature — moved back to Louisville to be near his son. Clay, a full-time musician (motto: #haveyoupracticed) came here for the music scene; he runs in the same circles as now-famous R&B star Bryson Tiller and rapper Jack Harlow. Williams lives a few doors down from Clay and is a teacher at A.M.P.E.D., a youth music program. Holmes moved here in need of a fresh start after his longtime girlfriend died of cancer; he still thinks of her when the band plays “Melt,” a slower, somber track about going the distance for love.

    At the band’s WFPK Live Lunch show in August, the self-described “funkadelic rock soul grunge gods” kick off the set by saying they play songs about “love, hate, internal conflict, changing the world and holding each other accountable.” All of the chairs in the room are filled, with more people standing along the walls, the 50 or so in the crowd caught in inevitable movement. The sound guy is in a deep bounce as he slides dials and turns knobs. One man almost rocks off his stool. Liam watches with intensity and holds up a phone to crookedly record his dad. Clay is in a Bob Marley shirt, running laps on his strings, which he describes as his constant in this changing, competitive world. (“And, hell,” he says, “sometimes I have to change them.”) Holmes is tuned into Williams, whose bun full of dreads stays intact despite his head banging.

    Smith is lost in “Arizona Sunrise,” the group’s first released single and the last song of the performance. He’s back in the moment of driving across the country solo in a rental car a few years back, the sedan’s trunk awaiting fat stacks of Golden State marijuana for him to bring home and sell. “I didn’t have a lot of outlets as a felon,” says Smith, who now works nights as a security guard. “I wanted to be a full-time artist, and this is a sacrifice I was making.” The radio would blast Jethro Tull, Radiohead, Smashing Pumpkins, Frank Ocean, the Pixies, Stevie Wonder, Kings of Leon. “Arizona has these beautiful orange mountains; the sky goes purplish-pink. When I’d get there, I knew I was on the last leg of my trip,” he says later, the lyrics of the song reflecting this memory. Smith would constantly think of his son on those long drives, getting back home safe to him. Now growing into the man he wants to be, he remembers the man that he was.

    At WFPK, he stops playing during the song’s instrumental break and motions Liam onstage. There, father and son lock eyes, touch noggins. Smith loses the lyrics, but an honesty and electricity fills the room.

    This originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Photos by Mickie Winters, mickiewinters.com

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