In the Lightsleepers store on South King Street on a recent Saturday afternoon, the front door swung open about every 20 minutes.
In addition to customers, a number of artists, musicians and friends of Lightsleepers founder Kavet the Catalyst also were dropping by.
Some of the bustle could be attributed to the fact that Kavet was gearing up for an in-store event that night – a tribute to hip-hop artist MF Doom that featured artwork and live music – but it’s also a pretty typical afternoon at Lightsleepers.
That type of atmosphere is, in many ways, embedded into how Kavet sees the structure of Lightsleepers: It’s more of a community than a clothing shop; and it’s more a collective of artists and musicians rather than just him.
But all of that grew gradually. It began as a college radio show, morphing eventually into what it’s become today: a multifaceted business that’s a clothing brand, a record label, and an artists collective all at once.
To that end, Kavet has a somewhat counter-intuitive business credo: “It has never been about me making money, even though that is the goal for a business,” he says with a laugh, “it’s always more about relationships.”
It all began in 1997, when a friend of Kavet’s became the general manager at University of Hawaii radio station KTUH. He asked if Kavet, who was just starting at UH, would be interested in hosting a hiphop show.
Kavet nearly said no. “I didn’t want to play radio stuff, like mainstream top 40 stuff,” he explains.
But when his friend assured him that he could play whatever he wanted, Kavet was sold.
“The main thing that I took away from that was that I could play my music that I made and my friends’ music – all of the stuff that we make in our bedrooms, we could play on the radio,” says Kavet, who had been creating his own beats and rapping since he was 16.
The show – which he dubbed “Lightsleepers” as a nod to a song he liked, and because his first time slot on the radio was from 3 to 6 a.m. – became known as the place to hear underground hip-hop acts that didn’t get much mainstream attention. During its five-year run, the show managed to attract a solid following, including in ternational fans.
“Kav was holding it down for the independent artists,” says New, who was a fan of the show before becoming friends with Kavet. “He actually played stuff that a lot of us liked to hear, and a lot of local artists, too.
“They didn’t really have anything like that at the time,” New adds. “Kavet was the outlet – Kavet was just like, hey, I am going to play what I want to listen to.”
But when Kavet graduated, he was no longer eligible to host the show.
“I fought it at first … My identity was so deep into the radio show; everybody knew me from the radio show,” he recalls.
“But then I realized these kind of things in life are good for transitions,” he continues. “Sometimes you don’t plan it, but it’s better that way.”
If he hadn’t been forced to leave the show, he says he could have stayed there forever. Instead, it prompted him to calculate his next moves. “I was looking to see where I could evolve what I did with the radio into a different level, a different path.”
The question of what was next largely seemed to answer itself.
While Lightsleepers was on air, Kavet had dabbled in related ventures – throwing events and making shirts to promote the show. Afterward, he ramped up both of those endeavors. He began hosting events that featured some of the artists whose music he had played on the radio, along with live art and art exhibits, while also producing and releasing tracks by local musicians.
“It was like making the radio real life,” he says.
At the same time, he started to expand his repertoire of Lightsleepers T-shirts with new designs. Over time, people wanted more and more shirts, so the t shirt press was working overtime so he was able to keep meeting the demand.
“One shirt basically led to two or three and, you know, sooner or later we had a full-blown clothing company,” he says.
These days, the shop is filled with a collection of shirts, stickers, hats and more. The designs, like the core of Light-sleepers as a whole, are firmly rooted in hip-hop culture – usually, though, through clever nods rather than blatant imagery.
“It might be a lyric, it might be a thought, it might be a feeling that when I heard a song, this is what came out of it,” he explains.
The brand always has been a passion project for Kavet. He quit his job in January to focus all of his energy on the business, but until then, he had always had other jobs – in medical supplies, retail, and most recently as a program coordinator working with at-risk youths – and would work on Lightsleepers afterhours. He built up the brand much in the same way that he had the radio following: organically and largely through word of mouth.
Over the years, numerous artists and musicians have contributed to the brand – including many that have gone on to work for large design companies or become successful artists in their own right. The wall is lined with work from local artists, and the whole shop is filled with products that were created by local designers – including many well-known ones like Angry Woebots and Spel Oner – all of whom, in Kavet’s eyes, are Lightsleepers.
The structure of Lightsleepers, though, is something that Kavet is decidedly casual about. There seems to be, in fact, very little formality about it. He describes it simply as a “loose-knit community.”
“There is no role call,” he explains, “but whoever is down knows they are down, there is no question.
“Some people will ask me, how do I get in, how do I become Lightsleepers? And I am just like, if you connect with what we are doing and you want to somehow contribute and if I can help you get where you want to go, and you can help me with what I want to do, then we are Lightsleepers.”
Reflecting on the success of his brand, Kavet emits an almost bemused surprise that this all has happened.
“No one ever thought – I never thought – that Light-sleepers would open a shop,” he says.
But in spite of his modest expectations, the shop recently celebrated its first anniversary. In fact, the day it opened, Nov. 5, has been named “Lightsleepers Day” by Gov. David Ige – Kavet has an official proclamation and everything.
“I have my own day,” he says with a laugh. “That’s funny, right?”
Jokes aside, though, he goes on to admit that opening the store was huge for him – not so much because of what it meant for him personally, but more so because he sees it as an achievement of everyone who has been involved with Lightsleepers, past and present.
“It is a culmination of all the work not only I put in, but everybody who has supported me … They all had a part in this.
“It is like me progressing and everybody that has helped me progressing with me.”
Lightsleepers is open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday-Saturday. For more information, visit lightsleepers.net.
THE ROAST WITH THE MOST
For Black Friday, Lightsleepers is releasing its own line of coffee: It will have 24 bags of a custom Lightsleepers blend, along with coffee mugs. Kavet describes the blend as “medium, kinda creamy, kinda mocha-y.” Black Friday in the shop also will feature sales on clothing items including T-shirts and hats. A new line of designer pillows will be available in December.