Boston is not known for its hip hop. The city does not have the rap pedigree of New York or L.A., and local emcees continue to lament the lack of local radio and venues that cater to their music. Still, the 35-year narrative of hip hop in the Hub is interesting. It’s a story that includes trash cans burning on the Common, police threatening rap groups with lawsuits, and a guy named Magnus. We took a look back at some of the events that shaped the arc of Boston hip hop, from Skippy White to Michael Christmas.
1979 Delight on Washington Street
Record store owner Skippy White received the city’s first shipment of the seminal Sugar Hill Gang record Rapper’s Delight. White agreed to take 50 of the records without hearing the song; he made the order based solely on the recommendation of a record company executive who said the record was selling well in New York City.
“I got them on a Tuesday and by Wednesday or Thursday I had sold all of them,” says White. “It just exploded. Everybody I played it for loved it.”
In 1979, White ran his store on 1763 Washington St. in the South End. White is still in the business; his current record store is located at 1971 Columbus Ave.
1983 Sweat it Off
The earliest Boston rap release is believed to be Kevin Fleetwood and the Cadillacs of Sound’s 1983 record “Sweat it Off,” according to UMass Boston professor Pacey Foster, who has chronicled the history of Boston hip hop. Roxbury native Tony Rose, who grew up in the Whittier Street housing projects, produced the track. Rose would go on to head an Arizona-based publishing company that specializes in self-help books for African-Americans.
1985 Lecco’s Lemma
A painter who had dropped out of art school managed to carve out a home for local hip hop on the radio during the mid-1980s. Magnus Johnstone launched the program Lecco’s Lemma at MIT’s radio station – WMBR 88.1. It was dedicated exclusively to local hip-hop. It would run for several years, according to Foster, eventually moving to Boston College’s WZBC 90.3.
“Magnus broke the mold and really brought the scene together,” says Roxbury rapper Ed OG. “That really changed everything. Every Saturday everyone was tuned in. They were going to play my records, they were going to play the kid who lived in Mattapan’s records, they were going to play everyone. There was no politics. They were going to play all the good music, and even some of the bad music got played too. (laughs) He didn’t discriminate.”
Some of the artists featured on Lecco’s Lemma would be included on the 1986 rap compilation Boston Goes Def.
July 1986 Allston Rock City meets Hollis, Queens
It’s something that is often ignored in Boston’s hip hop narrative. The fact remains: the city’s most successful rock band – the guys who started out at 1325 Commonwealth Avenue – recorded a huge hit in 1986 with Run-D.M.C., who were at that time the world’s biggest rap group. You could say the collaboration was years ahead of its time. You could also say it’s responsible for sowing the seeds of things like this.
1988 The Source is launched out of a Harvard dorm
Harvard student David Mays launched The Sources as a single-page newsletter to promote his radio show, which he hosted with another hip hop fanatic, Jonathan Shecter. During his time at Harvard, Mays befriended Roxbury emcee Raymond “Ray Dog” Scott, who would later be known as Benzino. Benzino would ultimately work his way into the management of The Source. His tenure at the magazine is perhaps best remembered for his high-profile feud with Eminem last decade. Last month, Benzino was in the headlines again after being shot during his mother’s funeral procession on Route. 3, allegedly by his nephew.
The Source moved to New York City after Mays graduated Harvard in 1990 and the publication would go on to chronicle, define and shape hip hop for the next two decades. By 2001, newsstand sales were topping 360,000 and profits surpassed $10 million, according to a 2011 piece in The New York Observer.
After Mays and Benzino were eventually forced out of The Source by investors, the duo would launch the publication Hip Hop Weekly.
August 1990 Jazz Thing
Roxbury native Keith Elam is the most critically acclaimed Boston rapper of all time. Elam, known as Guru, comprised one half of Gang Starr, which is considered to be one of the best rap groups ever. Guru incorporated live jazz musicians—a groundbreaking move at the time—as part of his solo Jazzmatazz recordings.
“Jazz Thing” featured on Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues soundtrack in 1990. Gang Starr was on the cusp of its success. Critically acclaimed albums followed throughout the next decade.
1991 ‘Dream come true’
Ed OG was still a teenager when he recorded the track “I Got to Have It.” The track would eventually reach No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Rap Singles chart. The video, with its scenes of inner city Boston, was in rotation on MTV. Ed, who grew up on Humboldt Avenue in Roxbury, describes the experience as “every kid’s dream come true.”
“ I read a magazine interview with Run-D.M.C and Run said ‘I Got to Have It’ is his favorite song right now,” he says. “I was like ‘Run said that?’ Just the fact that he said that, that was great. It was real big.”
Ed OG is now considered to be an elder statesman of Boston hip hop; he’s currently making his 11th album.
July 1991 From Dot hoodlum to a bunch of funk
Before he was Dirk Diggler and Sgt. Dignam, Mark Wahlberg was just another dude from Dorchester with abs and a rap sheet. But becoming Marky Mark opened doors for Wahlberg that would eventually lead to an Oscar nomination. Good Vibrations was the lead single of Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch’s debut album.
“One of the most successful rappers in Boston history is Mark Wahlberg,” says local hip hop producer A-Train. “People will laugh and all this stuff, but this guy just won the generation award on MTV the other night. And what started his career was being a rapper. Even if it was only that one song that anyone remembers. By being a rapper it got him noticed to be an actor. A lot of people don’t touch him because he doesn’t want to be reminded of that. But let’s be honest: if he wasn’t a rapper; would he have gotten that Calvin Klein ad?”
June 1992 Arrests at City Hall
“There were fights upon fights at every show,” says Ed OG. “The 80s was good we had The Channel. We had a bunch of venues where there were no fights. But the 90s, with the gangs, it became a real problem.”
In 1992, a free concert at City Hall that included hip hop acts on the bill may have exemplified that problem in the eyes of the city’s nightclub owners and promoters. Numbers of those arrested and injured at the event vary depending on the account. Pacey Foster, in his writings, has 15 people injured and 24 arrests after the crowd surged forward, knocking over police barricades and prompting the show to be cancelled three acts in. In the ensuing ruckus, according to The New York Times, trashcans were burned on the Common, stores were looted and police reported “gangs of youths running through the streets,” and knocking people over.
The 20,000 strong crowd was multiracial and the bill was eclectic, according to Foster. Despite those facts, the concert melee cemented negative hip hop stereotypes. For club owners and promoters, it was evidence that rap shows were to be viewed as a massive liability. Shows within Boston’s city limits became rare.
Ed OG, for instance, had his huge hit in 1991, but he had to wait for two years before he could perform in his hometown.
“There was nowhere to do a show,” he says. “There was no place in Boston for me to perform when I had my hit record.”
1992 One in the Chamba controversy
Local rap group The Almighty RSO released the song “One in the Chamba,” which contains lyrics that portray police brutality, specifically Boston cops shooting youths without repercussions. The Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association took exception. That organization threatened to sue the group’s label – Tommy Boy Records—over the track. The label soon thereafter dropped RSO. According to a chronicle of the city’s hip hop scene written by Foster, the label claimed it cut the group loose because of lackluster sales, while RSO members have said the label caved to mounting pressure from police.
1997 Rebel Alliance
A compilation album called Rebel Alliance featured a second generation of up-and-coming Boston emcees and deejays who would go on to achieve commercial and critical success including Mr. Lif and 7L and Esoteric.
Boston rapper Esoteric saysthe record was the launching pad for his career.
“We wanted to assemble a compilation that featured acts from our region that weren’t getting the recognition they deserved,” he says. “This served as a springboard for us to release our own 12” vinyl and get the exposure we needed to tour overseas which followed soon after, in 1997. After this record dropped, people from other areas started to realize something was brewing again in the Boston underground. It opened a lot of doors for us.”
September 2002 I Phantom
Mr. Lif, makes his full length album debut with the concept record I Phantom to critical acclaim.
2004 Leedz begins its run at The Middle East
The Middle East in Cambridge is the premier venue for hip hop in the Boston area. Leedz Edutainment, established in 2004, is the promoter behind those shows at the Central Square establishment. Ned Wellbery is the man behind Leedz.
“The local rappers that have gained some sort of success have been able to appeal to that Middle Eastcrowd,” says Slaine, an emcee and actor who grew up in Southie, Dorchester and Roslindale. “The rappers that have emerged have appealed to that college audience because that’s where the live performance venue is. It makes sense.”
Just as there was in the Ed OG’s early 90s heyday, there is a lack of venues within Boston’s city limits that cater to hip hop, says Slaine. That makes The Middle East and Wellbery important and powerfulparts of the scene here.
2005 The Perceptionists
Boston-based trio The Perceptionists – comprised of Mr. Lif, Akrobatik and DJ Fakts One—release the politically charged Black Dialogue to warm reviews. The record includes asides about the hypocrisy of the Iraq War, observations about black identity in the 21st commentary on the evils of materialism. The record is the only independent rap album to land on Rolling Stone’s Top 50 albums of 2005.
2010 Boston’s favorite frat boy emerges
Sammy Adams raps about bros broing out in the most brotastic way possible. Yes, there is Jager and tequila and Stoli and women in various stages of undress that he can apparently sleep with and more tequila. Teen Vogue named him one of “five artists to watch” in 2012, which did not do much for his street cred, but being the hardest emcee in the game was never going to be in the cards for a kid from Wayland who played soccer in college. Make no mistake: Adams is popular. His 2010 debut album reached No. 1 on the iTunes hip hop chart in the first week of its release. In 2011, he played Lollapalooza and he kicked off 2012 with an appearance on Conan.
August 2013 WERS axes 88.9@night
WERS, the commercial-free radio station that broadcasts from Emerson College, had promoted and fostered the local hip hop scene since the 1980s. Last year, however, the station axed 88.9@night, a show beloved by the local hip hop community. The station now has an “adult album alternative” format, which doesn’t leave much room for guys like Smoke Bulga.
“There is no radio support here, especially now that 88.9 is gone; 88.9 was a big, major institution for hip hop in Boston,” says Slaine. “That was a blow, definitely.”
During the mid to late 90s, Esoteric says the station’s deejays, “playing our stuff, making us feel important. Then we’d come up to the station and rap on the radio. It was a really cool time for Boston hip hop.”
December 2013 Closure of The Western Front
The Western Front, a nightclub in Cambridge’s Riverside neighborhood, announced its closure late last year. For years, it served asa training ground for local rappers. Esoteric saysa host of local emcees including Akrobatik, Mr. Lif, RipShop and CheckMark from the Skitzofreniks performed there in years gone by.
“That is where a lot of the emcees generally cut their teeth. There were a lot of great shows there with a lot of incredibly talented emcees spitting their hearts out,” he says. “It was just a small stage, low-ceiling, dirty hole in the wall, but it had wait we needed: two turntables, a mic, and speakers.”
2014 Is this the future?
Michael Christmas is making a name for himself with witty, quirky rhymes. Dude apparently likes bad food: his songs feature hot pocket and McMuffin references. The 19-year-old’s mixtape Is This Art?, which dropped in February, has drawn national plaudits. Complex magazine applauded his performance at last month’s SXSW festival, while USA Today recently hailed his “offbeat and subversive wit.”
He says the pinnacle of his young career was sharing the stage with his mother and father at his first headlining show at The Middle East this past February.
“It was beautiful,” he says.
Dutch ReBelle is another Boston emcee who could be poised for greater success. She’s already released two mixtapes, been feted in the local press and national hip hop publications and performed alongside Wu-Tang Clan and Cam’ron.
“To me, she has so much charisma,” says Slaine. “She has a lot of potential. She’s likable. She’s accessible. With the right songs and moves, she could be someone who is mainstream. Not that that is something that everyone aspires to.”