City Scenes: How Boston's DIY Hip-Hop Community Is Fending For Itself
It's 1986, and there's a voice on the radio talking about a place called "Fresh Avenue." "There's a place yes a place to be / Where party people chill in harmony / No prejudice no crime or guns / Just the hip-hop and a lot of fun / I'm talking about the place Fresh Avenue / And I'm MC Keithy E from the Gang Starr Crew."
You've heard drums before, but not quite like this. It's the texture, the grit, the rawness — it draws you in. You're like, "Bet, I'm there," and, taking your hand off of the dial, you carefully listen for any new information about the place where you can experience this music live.
A few miles away, on the other side of the transmission, Keith Elam raps, and in doing so, contributes to the growing popularity of Magnus Johnstone's radio show, Lecco's Lemma. At this point, nobody knows Elam will link with DJ Premier, change his name to MC Guru, and become a worldwide hip-hop legend. For now, he's MC Keithy E, a rapper from Boston, and one of the dozens of rappers in the city who perform in the basement of the Walker Memorial Building on MIT's campus for radio exposure.
In the '80s, college radio shows like Lecco's Lemma played a huge role in supporting the development of Boston hip-hop. With few physical venues where hip-hop artists could perform, these stations served as stand-ins where artists could share their music, and where listeners could get information about the next show. "Some of the major radio stations, and back in the days even Black radio stations, didn't really support things like rap," says Dart Adams, a journalist, writer and historian based in Roxbury, Mass. "But college radio stations, which were operated by young people, had completely different new ideas."
Other spaces critical to Boston's hip-hop scene were record stores and places that sold musical equipment. Getting to "the venue" meant hanging out at local staples like Skippy White's Records, or electronics stores like Radioshack. "You go into a record (store)... you'd see a flyer somewhere, or somebody would say, 'Joe so-and-so's coming to town,' or 'someone's been added to the bill,'" Adams continues. "These places were crucial in getting you to the venue. If you were to talk to anybody in the scene, they would tell you about all these different spaces because they were as important as the one that was holding the event."
After the dot-com bubble burst in 2001, many of these brick and mortar locations started going out of business, forcing the community to adapt. "During this stretch, people start going on the internet more," Adams says. "So the physical spaces we lost end up becoming online ones." Message boards and blogs evolved into the types of social networks and music platforms characterizing life online today.
By 2013, sites like Soundcloud gave artists a new way to respond to Boston's lack of support for local hip-hop. The internet became a space for artists to gain a global audience during an era when many venues were reluctant to take chances on fledgling acts. For example, Rilla Force, a producer and DJ from Roxbury, Mass., was able to tour in Japan, despite having a hard time getting booked locally. "We got to our Airbnb (in Japan), and then we went out for our first gig and then, walking home, somebody recognized me that wasn't at the show," he says. "Like 'oh, you're Rilla, you made like headbang and stuff,' and I was like 'oh, what?'" he went on, laughing." For Rilla, it's these types of experiences that frame his idea of a local artist; it's about network instead of physical location. The internet allowed him to invest time into building a global fan base instead of a local one, ultimately making it easier for him to book shows in Boston.
It's an approach many other artists in the city have taken. Boston-based rapper Red Shaydez started her career virtually around 2010. "I was an online radio host playing other people's music as well as my own online," she says. "Most of my fans that I gained were online. I didn't get local fans (in Boston) up until like two and a half, three years ago."
Building an online audience isn't the only way to respond to the lack of performance space. With more and more hip-hop artists having a difficult time booking traditional venues — and this was before the pandemic — it became necessary for them to find stages in alternate spaces, like sneaker stores, basements, porches, parking lots and even yoga studios. "People would end up at (sneaker stores) like Laced, or Bodega," Adams says. It's no coincidence that Laced was the backdrop for this 2011 Kendrick Lamar interview, or the venue hosting a Black Cobain performance when he was in Boston that same year. By 2017, stores like Mass Apparel were also putting on regular hip-hop listening parties, concerts and producer showcases.
Performing in these spaces creates a vibe that's not necessarily better than traditional venues, but more intimate for sure. "There's a lot of venues in Boston that I absolutely love because you could do a lot of insane, innovative things," Brandie Blaze, a hip-hop artist from Boston, says. "But those DIY spaces, you can't recreate that vibe [in a club]. You can get close, but you really can't. That freedom that we're not bound to anything, we can do whatever we want and have an amazing time."
It's a similar freedom that motivates Rah Zen, a producer, beatmaker, and co-founder of Nightworks Beat Show. Zen's Nightworks transforms Boston storefronts, lofts, and breweries into places where beatmakers, projection artists, painters, and other creatives can share their work. "What we really like to work with is all blank white wall spaces, because it just offers itself to whatever you want to make it with lighting and artwork, hanging and projection," he tells me. Lightfoot, a producer and beatmaker who has performed at Nightworks, says this approach exemplifies a growing population who want more control over the spaces they perform in. "So not to say that traditional venues aren't still existing in Boston, and aren't a heavy presence in the music scene," he says. "But, I've been finding that there's almost this new focus on the event coordination side of things, and people wanting to curate and have more control over what they're curating. Creating an event is, in its own right, an art form. So to be able to go to see art and then also be surrounded by art, I think that's super important."
Having events in these kinds of spaces enables a more DIY mentality; artists can shape interiors to directly respond to their needs. "When I had my listening party last year, I was looking for a bunch of spaces where I could hold it, and I was running through an issue with size, accommodation, what was included in that space," Red Shaydez tells me. "I ended up just going on a site called Peerspace.com and found an untraditional venue to throw the party." The release ultimately happened in a yoga studio, which gave Shaydez the ability to create an intimate environment that met all of her needs.
There's a refreshing comfort level that comes with control over the spaces one performs in, which makes sense in light of Boston's historical lack of support for its hip-hop community. For many, race and gender consistently affect access to venues around the city, in addition to how they're treated while using them. "I have heard over the last year that people feel very uncomfortable and threatened by my music because my content is very unapologetically Black," Billy Dean Thomas, a non-binary rapper based in Boston, says. "I've found that that has been a barrier to why, also, I'm not invited into certain places."
Oompa, an artist from Roxbury, Mass., has had similar experiences. "It's part and parcel of being a Bostonian, a Black Bostonian ... People have the ability — and they constantly do — [to] tell you ways that you don't belong in a space," she says. "And there's some spaces that let me physically be there, but they ask me to leave all of the certain Black parts about me that make me excited to be me. I've done shows that pay really well, but I couldn't talk about my queer identity. Or, I've done shows where I've been advised, because there's a lot of wealthy, older white people, not to ruffle their feathers too much."
This is a dynamic at play, not only in performance spaces, but also in the rooms that host Boston's hip-hop artists. Talking about her process of writing verses, Dutch Rebelle explains that she has a preference towards studios with separate areas and it's tied to her experiences as a Black female hip-hop artist. "Sometimes I like to have my own space like — y'all dudes over there are talking about whatever you are talking about. I'm over here writing whatever I'm writing," she says. "I don't want what you look like or what you're doing or what you would say or what you would think to influence what I'm doing."
Rebelle explains to me that in the rooms where hip-hop is being made, she's often the only female. As a result she's constantly creating "a space within the space" to write her verses, which includes finding quiet corners and writing verses in her car. She continues; "(It goes) back to the car. I'm outside, but I'm not outside. I'm in a car. I can see everything. If I put my window down, I'm inside, but I'm outside — you feel me?"
While the ingenuity of the Boston hip-hop community making it work on their own terms deserves praise, the lack of institutional access, equality and ownership still needs to be addressed. It's the type of work that's familiar to Cliff Notez, a Boston-based creator who has spent a lot of time outside of his artistry advocating for access. "We're at the point where we need Black voices, and we need more Black faces in music and all of the media," he says. "The excuse of 'Black people can just make it with little' just doesn't fly anymore."
It's work he continues to do with HipStory, a media company he co-founded with Boston musician Tim Hall. During the pandemic, they have been hosting a series of house shows where hip-hop artists like Brandie Blaze, DJ WhySham, Pink Navel and more perform online. One location inspired a lit Brandie Blaze performance. "It was a beautiful feeling for me," she says. "Like I said, there's so many beautiful venues here (in Boston) that we're starting to get access to as hip-hop artists that we just historically have never had access to, but pre-COVID we started to. But, you can't replicate that vibe and that energy because Black people know, a house party's a house party."
The coronavirus pandemic has been difficult for so many. However, for Boston's hip-hop community, restrictions recall those times when its artists didn't have space to perform and gather in. When the album release party that Red Shaydez was planning got canceled due to the pandemic, she already knew how to adapt: "'I'm really going to have to take a page out of my book from 10 years ago and do it virtual,' I said, 'I don't know why I'm acting like this is new to me, it's not. This is what I started out doing.'" There's a hint of optimism here; the techniques and strategies hip-hop artists in Boston have been forced to employ in response to the lack of institutional support for their genre expand beyond music. They're frameworks of resilience that can be used to reimagine the contexts we all find ourselves in. It's a lesson found across genres, scenes, and mediums, but it's something the hip-hop music community in Boston exemplifies quite well.
DJ WhySham, who spins for Brandie Blaze and released her debut album in September, is one example. She calls herself a "community DJ," which means she prioritizes playing gigs for community organizations instead of club owners. Outside of that, she started Bringing Back Boston (a network of people, organizations and businesses that come together to address mental health, public health and trauma in communities of color) and Boston's Got Next (a space where local artists can share their music projects and receive feedback).
There are also non-profits, like The Record Co., who aim to provide studio and rehearsal space to artists in the city, and have been a great resource for hip-hop artists over the years. Late in 2020, they will be opening up a new facility in Boston that will have four studios and 15 rehearsal spaces, all at affordable rates for the city's artists. It's a powerful thing to see, especially considering the need for accessible and inclusive spaces for the artists here.
GBH would like to thank Malia The Model, Pink Navel, Tim Hall, Eric "Loman" Sarno, and Cakeswagg for their contributions to this article, even though there wasn't space for their quotes. More from them, and the other artists mentioned in the article, are in the accompanying playlist.
GBH worked with local music luminaries to curate its City Scenes articles to provide a diverse and focused perspective on Boston's music scene. Darien Carr is a multi-disciplinary artist pursuing a master's degree in architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. He conceived the idea for this project during an internship with The Record Co., a non-profit organization that provides affordable music workspace and professional development programs for Boston's music makers.
Copyright 2020 GBH