Joyner Lucas performing in Buffalo, N.Y., on Sept. 10, 2019
Photo: Trevor Finney
Boston's Hip-Hop Evolution: How Beantown Is Diversifying Its Sound—And Planning For The Future
Boston's relationship to hip-hop has been tumultuous since the genre permeated the cultural zeitgeist in the 1970s. On one hand, Beantown's issue with rap is indicative of America's cyclical dealings with Black art in general: it is often despised, disregarded and then toothlessly replicated to satiate white audiences. On the other hand, the innate resilience of hip-hop—when left to the devices of authentic storytellers—always finds a way to flourish.
And in a city like Boston where racism is as omnipresent and casual as diehard Red Sox fans, emcees and lovers of hip-hop that are aiming to change the narrative are diligent and unrelenting in their work. Boston's contributions to hip-hop are categorically undeniable. From the groundbreaking brilliance of Gang Starr to the iconic founding of The Source by David Mays as a Harvard undergrad back in 1988, rap's trajectory simply wouldn't be the same without these Boston moments.
As culture journalist Greg Valentino Ball explains, any erasure of this history is detrimental to the genre.
"The genesis of the Native Tongues—one of the most prolific crews ever in hip-hop—happened when De La Soul and the Jungle Brothers met at Northeastern. Artists on the Definitive Jux label recorded here. Ché Pope, who helped to oversee the making of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and go on to head GOOD Music for Kanye West, grew up in Roxbury," he says. "Boston has an incredible rock history—we absolutely do. But the idea that we can't fully embrace our hip-hop connection is one of the reasons why people feel the need to leave the city in order to be successful."
Rapper BIA, a Medford native formerly signed to Pharrell's i am OTHER music label, seconds Ball's statement, saying, "Boston has a strong underground hip-hop presence but the city has never dedicated enough resources to growing black or hip-hop culture."
BIA's recent viral co-sign from Rihanna for her hit single with Russ, "Best on Earth," proves the point that local artists often need to achieve consummate visibility in order to be deemed exceptional.
"There's a cap every mainstream artist from Boston reaches that forces them to go out and get it and bring it back home." The cap that BIA is referencing isn't a glass ceiling created to specifically challenge hip-hop artists; there are systemic barriers in place used to prevent the proliferation of rap.
Earlier this year, WBUR completed a two-part investigative series "Is Boston Hostile To Hip-Hop?" in which rappers, promoters and booking agents were interviewed about discriminatory practices that keep this particular type of music out of live venues, which include pay-to-play models, increased security and hip-hop bans. It also examined the stereotype that rap crowds are more prone to violent behavior.
Brandon Matthews is the founder of ShowOff Marketing, a company that specializes in urban music promotion based in Boston. He believes that the city is coming around to embracing rap—but that it has taken way too long to get here.
"Venues don't do enough homework to understand the differences between various artists and audiences. It didn't matter if it was Flo Rida or Young Jeezy... They viewed the entire genre as a bunch of troublemakers," Matthews says. "The cost of insurance for hip-hop shows is higher than other genres of music because they feel like it's a higher risk. But why are you singling out rap when you still have so many problems with other genres of music?"
There have been instances of violence at hip-hop shows in Boston, with one of the most infamous being when five people were stabbed at a 2000 Ruff Ryder/Cash Money tour stop at TD Garden (formerly known as the FleetCenter). However, the fact that rap is just starting to overcome this stigma is disconcerting—especially since Boston hip-hop artists are showing more promise than ever before.
Pioneers like Ed O.G., Slaine, Akrobatik and The Almighty RSO have paved the way for rappers to be as brazen and unapologetic as they want to be. Their vision of Boston hip-hop, which emphasized a combination of hard truths with imaginative lyricism, can be heard in the discographies of artists today. For instance, take the staggering passion of a Token freestyle, raucous energy of a Cousin Stizz show, insane charisma of Michael Christmas, fervid phenomena of D Tha Flyest, or the mellifluous bars that $ean Wire executes. A look at these artists' success shows that the world is becoming receptive to the genius of Boston hip-hop, which is seemingly expanding at a rate faster than the city itself.
GRAMMY-nominated rapper Joyner Lucas attests to Boston's phlegmatic treatment of its talent. "It wasn't like I had the hometown support and branched out from there. I had to branch out other places and make a name. I was popping in L.A. before I was popping in Boston."
Lucas, whose video for his single "I'm Not Racist" became an instant smash and garnered him critical acclaim, has collaborated with the likes of Eminem, Timbaland and Logic. His individualism is a potent reminder that New England artists aren't a monolith. "I completely jump out the window and create records from the heart. But I'm not just telling my story—I'm telling other people's stories as well. But we can't just focus on one area. I'm not even from Boston—I'm from Worcester. It really is bigger than just Boston."
Often, the artists making a sizeable impact on Boston's scene hail from all over Massachusetts. Reks, Statik Selektah and Termanology are all Lawrence natives; Millyz is from Cambridge and C Wells proudly calls Lynn his home.
In addition to having a geographical range that works to display the vastness of talent, there is also a conspicuous rise in the number of female emcees changing the narrative in Boston. As BIA continues to make major headway nationally, other women are also making their mark. Acts like Vintage Lee, Brandie Blaze, Oompa, Malia The Model, Red Shaydez, Lord Ju and CakeSwagg offer a refreshing plethora of style both lyrically and visually.
Dutch ReBelle, who has been a staple in local rap for nearly the last decade, is elated at the progression. "It's changed in a positive way because there are more of us getting press and coverage on a regular basis. When you have all of these different types of flavors, it makes it easier for people to accept you trying new things."
As ReBelle points out, experimentation is the crux of hip-hop. It's inherently defiant, with different components working together to push the genre forward. One of the most important components is that of the DJ—and Boston brings a vibrant mix of personalities to the tables.
There are ones who are largely affiliated with Boston artists: DJ Papadon for BIA, DJ E Dubble for Joyner Lucas, DJ DCaso for Token, DJ Alcide for Oompa. But there are also those working to curate the culture of the city through various events, appearances and showcases. From SuperSmashBroz to DJ Real P, DJ WhySham to 7L, Guru Sanaal to Bearly Yvng, the city recognizes the importance of these many types of unfettered expression.
DJ Chubby Chub, a Boston mainstay and 50 Cent's official tour DJ, shares that his role in hip-hop is a critical one. "The DJ is everything in rap music when it comes to the artists, the music being played, the acknowledgment of the right songs. Boston has shown me a tremendous amount of love that I didn't expect because I was different."
He also attributes Boston's emerging cohesion as a result of artists focusing on their craft instead of comparison. "Now that DJs are seeing the better quality records from the local artists, they have to support it and give it that love. That's where we have to have unity. Artists are paying attention to the music they're making and finally seeing the bigger picture."
The city is starting to look at the bigger picture as well. From The Boston Foundation awarding urban artists grants to put on live performances to the creation of Boston Art & Music Soul (BAMS) Festival centralizing black ingenuity, a city that once disregarded such a crucial and necessary art form now understands its tremendous currency and value. The Boston Music Awards, established in 1987, also aims to highlight this immensity. This year's event boasts 39 categories with 10 nominees in each category, which is a historic return to form for the ceremony (the 1988 ceremony had 42 categories but only five nominees in each).
Paul Armstrong, CEO of Redefined (the company behind the Boston Music Awards), attests to the importance of championing inclusion. "If we're not reflecting the diversity of the city, we're not doing our job properly," he says. "As more eyes begin to look at the Boston hip-hop scene, they're going to see a legitimate pool of exceptional talent."
Despite insinuations of categorical inaccuracies and controversial nominees (and subsequent winners), he remains adamant that the entity will always put candor first. "We criticize our own processes every year in an attempt to be even more transparent, celebrate more people and have systems in place that ultimately result in an awards show that has integrity. People will always criticize and, honestly, that's OK. It shows that the BMAs are something people care about and want to be included in."
Hip-hop has also infiltrated historical—and primarily white—institutions throughout the city. Performing at The Middle East, a live music venue in Cambridge spearheaded by Leedz Edutainment, has been considered a rite of passage for local rappers for over a decade. But as the genre continues to deepen and cement its reach, artists that have had difficulty booking any other performance spaces now have Boston museums soliciting their art. The Institute of Contemporary Art has featured an array of events by local hip-hop acts while the Museum of Fine Arts has honed in on the same praxis with their Late Nites series.
Boston hip-hop group STL GLD held a listening party their third album, The New Normal, at the MFA earlier this year. Frontman Moe Pope appreciated the gesture but realizes that ultimately there is more work that needs to be done. "I love that these museums and galleries are opening their doors now, but you can't put a Band-aid on something and expect to get all of these pats on the back. There needs to be more hires of people from the Boston hip-hop community in positions of power that deserve to be there."
STL GLD unveiling The New Normal at the Museum of Fine Arts, Jan. 10, 2019
Photo: Phearee Sak courtesy of FollowingBoston
Pope's final thoughts are not just reflective of his own personal experiences, but of the city's interactions with black culture overall. "These institutions are capitalizing off the fact that we don't have to run our blackness through a filter anymore. But make sure you're putting the dollars into our pockets and we're not just lining yours with our flyness."