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Why Boston is more than a footnote in hip-hop's success

BIA performs onstage during the BET Awards 2023 at Microsoft Theater on June 25, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Paras Griffin/Getty Images for BET)
BIA performs onstage during the BET Awards 2023 at Microsoft Theater on June 25, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Paras Griffin/Getty Images for BET)

New York beams as the birthplace of hip-hop, but it couldn’t have pushed it into mainstream success without Boston.

Dart Adams, a music historian and journalist, explains why Boston is more than a footnote in hip-hop’s origin story.

The history of Boston hip-hop, as told by music historian Dart Adams

Boston’s influence in hip-hop’s infancy

“The early days of hip-hop culture spread out starting from the boroughs of the Bronx, then to New Jersey, out to Connecticut, and then parts of Pennsylvania, to Philly, and then through Massachusetts into Boston. So, it was one of the early places where hip-hop culture actually spread. And a lot of that was due to the fact that a lot of the early rap producers were just coming out of Boston and Massachusetts.

“Boston had several record labels affiliated with New York, including Streetwise. Streetwise had another label attached to it called Partytime, which ends up being the label that Def Jam releases its first major 12-inch on through Rick Rubin. It was T La Rock and Jazzy Jay’s ‘It’s Yours.’ The in-house producers were Boston guys: Arthur Baker, and the Jonzun Crew.

“They didn’t just make the beat; they wrote. They arranged. They played on the songs, and they were some of the great early rap producers between 1979 and about 1983.”

Boston’s attempt to break in the New York market

“In 1984, rap had kind of taken over. Madison Avenue and Hollywood had finally embraced rap and hip-hop culture. So in 1984, ‘Breakdown New York Style’ was done by Rusty the Toe Jammer and the Sure Shot 3.

“They realized that they were at a disadvantage making a record from Boston thinking it was going to break in the New York market. Therefore, they used it as a Trojan horse. They hid everything about Boston and Massachusetts and tried to make it like it was a song from New York, thinking that it would do well. But the market was inundated, so it never really caught on.”

The fundamentalism of Boston funk

“Boston originated something called Boston Funk or Space Funk. A lot of Boston DJs and a lot of Boston producers were part of the same record pool with people from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Philadelphia.

“What ended up happening was when they were producing these early records, they would have this sound in it. New York, Connecticut, and Philadelphia, recognize that sound not as Boston funk, but as electro, especially in leading records, like ‘Planet Rock,’ which end up becoming one of the staple songs. Boston funk ended up being the template for other genres of music and is one of the defining early characteristics of Boston rap music.”

How Boston’s local rap scene grew

“The local hip-hop scene in Boston really grew around a few radio stations and a few radio shows. There was a show called Lecco’s Lemma on MIT’s radio station, WMBR. It was run by a man named Magnus Johnstone. When young people in Massachusetts and the Boston area realized that Magnus was going to play tapes from up-and-coming rap groups, as opposed to just playing records that came from major labels, they were ecstatic.

“They started sending in their demos, and they would get played on the air. And the entire hip-hop community and Massachusetts would congregate at the tiny studio at WMBR on MIT’s campus.

“Then in 1987, over at WHRB on Harvard’s campus, two undergrads, Jon Shecter and Dave Mays, decide that they’re going to start a radio show. And after a while, those guys decided to launch a buying guide that became The Source magazine.”

The significance of The Source

“By 1989 into 1990, the founders of The Source graduated from Harvard and then moved the publication to New York. It was no longer a buying guide. It was a full magazine, and it was growing in circulation.

“It was a publication that took rap seriously in the face of racist rock writers who covered it begrudgingly. It was very important to properly frame and give the music and the genre and the culture its proper historical perspective so people understood that it was a viable art form.”

Boston wasn’t receptive to the emergence of hip-hop

“What the Massachusetts hip-hop scene was doing was bringing people of all backgrounds and cultures and creeds together, but Boston wasn’t very receptive to it as a whole. There weren’t very many venues you could perform in unless they were Black-owned venues or they were in Roxbury or Dorchester.

“The younger people loved it, but it was hard to figure out a place for it. But nothing ever stops hip-hop from growing, even if you try to throw blocks in this way.”

Boston’s first major rap album

“In 1991, Ed O.G. & Da Bulldogs releases a classic LP with a classic lead single, ‘I Gotta Have It,’ and this is the first Boston rap album on a major in 1991. But not only is it the biggest rap song, it’s also one of the biggest songs internationally.

“The sad part is, there’s no venue in the Boston metro area that he can really perform it in. But, Ed & Da Bulldogs were very important because at the time people were telling you ‘If you want to do well, don’t talk about Boston too much because it’s going to hinder your success.’ People do not see Boston and Black cultures being synonymous. And Ed O.G. was the one that let everybody know that’s not true: ‘Da bulldogs, Roxbury, and Boston is what I represent.’”

‘Boston rap is fiercely intent on representing Boston’

“Boston is a small, big city and people come from everywhere: the Caribbean, Latin America, Central America. There are those of us whose families came from the South. All of us arrived here and created our own culture where everything blended together.

“In Boston, you have 25 different neighborhoods; it’s like a different universe, each neighborhood. So what that means is that Boston rap isn’t going to have any super-defining characteristics like other places. It’s going to sound all over the place but Boston rap is fiercely, fiercely intent on representing Boston.

“Boston’s Black population has been here since the 1630s. Without Boston, a lot of things never happen in terms of movements, in terms of culture. And we never get that acknowledgement, unless you’re a historian or a writer who’s from Boston, who gets extremely annoyed at people overlooking our contributions. And we’re still here.”

A playlist of quintessential Boston hip-hop

I Got To Have It” by Ed O.G & Da Bulldogs

Watch on YouTube.

Breakdown New York Style” by Rusty P & Sure Shot 3

Watch on YouTube.

Whole Lotta Money” by BIA

Watch on YouTube.

Could be Normal” by Cliff Notez

Watch on YouTube.

Archival tape of Lecco’s Lemma, courtesy of the Massachusetts Hip-Hop Archive at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

Ciku Theuri produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Theuri also adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.