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Straight outta Roxbury

With a prominent online presence, rapper Moufy is betting he can bridge the gap between the underground and the mainstream

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By Martin Caballero
Globe Correspondent / August 19, 2011

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It’s late on a recent Friday afternoon when Jeffrey Fortunato, who performs as Moufy (pronounced Mao-Fee), arrives at the Christian Science Center in Back Bay. The sun is quickly fading behind the buildings and security staff are patrolling, meaning he and his two-person photography crew have to work quickly to record some footage for “Boston Lights,’’ the first video from his mixtape of the same name. Moving over to the reflecting pool, the cameraman points at Moufy as he switches on to perform.

“I do it for my city!’’ he raps with the brash confidence of a 19-year-old, staring into the camera from behind sunglasses, wearing a crisp Red Sox hat and fresh white T-shirt while his entourage stands behind him.

The concept for the song - a chest-thumping city anthem that references everything from Blue Hill Avenue to Aaron Boone’s infamous home run against the Red Sox in the 2003 playoffs - is nothing that countless other Boston rappers haven’t explored before. What hasn’t been seen in years is this level of Internet-based, youth-driven hometown buzz for an unsigned local rapper, even if many of his fans don’t live anywhere near the Roxbury neighborhood Moufy calls home.

“People will rock with whoever they relate to the most,’’ says Moufy, relaxing on a bench after shooting has wrapped. “The reason that we have a lot of the inner-city kids from the ’hood but also suburban fans is because we can bridge the gap. I know everything about the streets. I never sold coke, but I could tell you the prices. And I’ve been going to these schools, so I know what those kids listen to.’’

Moufy, who will celebrate the release of “Boston Lights’’ at a sold-out show at the Middle East Downstairs on Monday, has reason to be confident. Since “Boston Lights,’’ which was sponsored by influential local blog Barstool Sports, was released for free online nearly two weeks ago, it has already amassed more than 11,000 downloads. And Moufy’s bio claims his 17,000-plus Facebook fans are the most of any Boston rapper.

His rapid ascent culminated at the Boston Urban Music Festival earlier this month, where he was one of a handful of Boston artists picked to open for Mac Miller in front of several thousand people at City Hall Plaza, many of whom came in from the suburbs. Miller nurtured his young fan base via free music releases and relentless online promotion, a strategy Moufy hopes to replicate.

“There aren’t too many artists, aside from some of the superstars, that are bridging the gap between the urban and suburban markets,’’ says Cam Woodsum, Moufy’s high school friend who now serves as his manager. “Because we targeted such a broad audience, it was tough to get off the ground, but now that we have momentum it’s moving fast because so many different types of people are supporting what we’re doing.’’

Aside from targeting social-media outlets, over the summer Woodsum and his team did “school raids,’’ in which they traveled to high schools in Quincy, Wakefield, Woburn, and other towns to do face-to-face promo with students. Their encounters were recorded and posted to YouTube. At the City Hall show, kids in the audience could be seen wearing T-shirts emblazoned with “Star Gang,’’ the name of Moufy’s informal group of supporters, similar to Wiz Khalifa’s “Taylor Gang.’’

Moufy’s roots in Boston lie in Roxbury’s Orchard Park neighborhood, where his mother raised him and his two siblings by herself in trying conditions. For a mischievous kid like Jeffrey, who earned his nickname for his tendency to mouth off to the older kids, the street life held a dangerous fascination during his adolescence.

“When I saw some of the older guys with huge chains, I thought that street stuff was cool. To us, these people were the gods of the neighborhood,’’ Moufy says. “But when you reach 13 or 14. . . the levels change now. Kids aren’t fighting anymore; they are carrying guns and stuff, and that’s jail time. I just started thinking. I knew kids my age who I grew up with that were catching gun charges, armed robbery charges, and stuff like that. The time isn’t adding up for the reward. It so happened that I was able to see that in time, because everybody sees that eventually, but not always in time.’’

Instead, Moufy focused on his education, eventually applying for and winning an academic scholarship to Buckingham Browne & Nichols, a well-heeled Cambridge private school whose yearly tuition costs rival many of Boston’s top universities. The culture shock was immediate; from his public-housing apartment in Orchard Park, Moufy would travel across the river to take classes with predominantly white students from upper-middle-class suburbs.

“Psychologically, it definitely takes some getting used to,’’ he remembers. “You are from a different background, and in this environment, you are the outlier. So you have to fit into a culture that you know nothing about, which has its own subtle rules you learn through experience. When I was going there, I remember sometimes I was just sad, because going there sort of exposed my own living situation. Compared to those kids, the way I was living sucked because it was a lot tougher.’’

“I was literally playing both sides of the fence,’’ he continues. “I would go home to a public-housing situation in Roxbury. It’s crazy over there and you gotta watch out when you go outside. And then I would go to one of the richest schools in the region with kids from Newton, Wellesley, and places with money. And that’s sort of how we got on; kids from the inner city listen to our music and so do kids from the suburbs. Everybody can relate to me because I’m familiar with different lifestyles.’’

Moufy gradually settled into BB&N’s social scene, yet he admits to struggling with the structured school environment, and a disruptive streak eventually led to expulsion during his junior year. As a lifelong hip-hop fan with a talent for freestyling, he turned to writing raps to fill the void left after his departure from BB&N, finishing up his classes at Tilton School in New Hampshire.

His first offering, “City Dreamin’,’’ released in February, laid the foundation for his style: witty, punch-line-filled lyrics and malleable flows delivered by a cocksure rookie eager to impress. Distributed as a free release online, the album generated enough response to confirm Moufy’s potential commercial appeal to younger audiences.

But it also revealed his talents as a songwriter with a sharp eye for detail and nuance, as evidenced by “Miss Newton,’’ a song about a teenage girl from Newton who struggles with self-image issues and eventually commits suicide. The subsequent video, which has been viewed more than 84,000 times since its release in early July, was met with disapproval from some who perceived it as a negative portrayal of the town, which only confirmed Moufy’s rising influence.

“If people say, ‘Yo, that’s a kid from Roxbury,’ you don’t think he’s going to make a song about a white blond girl with social issues, that relates to that culture, right?’’ Moufy says. “But he did. That’s the virtue of my life . . . the fact that I have the vision to put together a story that could come close to being able to resonate with a person like that.’’

“Boston Lights,’’ which is available as a free download on Moufy’s Facebook page (www.facebook.com/moufy617), continues his development as an artist with broad appeal, from club-ready tracks like “Profile Pic’’ to the lyrically driven cut “Sunglasses,’’ where he addresses the lingering effect of his father’s absence. That versatility has also won him the respect of Boston hip-hop veterans.

“You gotta start where you’re at, so it’s great that he’s building up a following with his peers,’’ says rapper and fellow Roxbury native Edo G., who crafted one of the city’s defining hip-hop tracks, “I Got to Have It,’’ as a 23-year-old in 1993. “You gotta lock down your hometown, then it kind of spreads like wildfire. I think Boston is still waiting for that next cat to do it. There’s been a lot of claims from a lot of people to be the next cat, but nobody’s really made that mark.’’

Yet while he develops as an artist, Moufy is still growing as a person. At 19, he still has things to think about outside of music. He’s set to attend Merrimack College this fall, where he plans to study business management and continue to broaden his life experiences, which, inevitably, will find their way into his music.

“I can talk about the streets in one line,’’ he says, “and the next line I’ll talk about Sarah Palin’s budget plan. There are people who have gone through it, but can you articulate it? If I could just articulate this feeling, even 70 percent, people are going to resonate to it and people are going to be impressed. But I’m going to be myself first. To this day I still have so much to talk about.’’

Martín Caballero can be reached at caballeroglobe@gmail.com.