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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Hip-Hop & Boston

Jaime Soto (top) and Mike Andriano (bottom) have been playing
great, and it shows.

Jaime Soto (top) and Mike Andriano (bottom) have been playing great, and it shows.

The first time I ever traveled to Boston, one of the first sights that caught my attention was also the first sign of hip-hop I witnessed in Boston: several graffiti “throw-ups” on the underside of a bridge over the Charles River. Far from being the only time I spotted graffiti on my initial approach to Boston, what made this sight unusual was the seemingly incongruous presence of the writers’ tags mere feet above the surface of the river.

After spending considerable time over the past few years learning more about the role of the hip-hop movement in Boston, I began to feel as though this image reflects the tense juxtaposition between Boston’s urban and hip-hop culture and the culture of Boston’s institutional politics.

I began to wonder why it is that Boston hip-hop, despite its powerful impact on pop culture, remains so far outside of the realm of the general (national) public awareness. Many young people I see on the subway, in the street or at school listen to hip-hop, or wear clothing styles associated with hip-hop culture.

Many young people write graffiti or have an appreciation for artistic expression through graffiti. And “b-boy” culture has a powerful presence in Boston as well-even people that don’t necessarily listen to hip-hop or identify with its culture may be impressed when witnessing a break dance crew in action. So hip-hop in Boston exerts a powerful impact on urban culture, at least as an underground movement-but what is the source of Boston hip-hop’s unique identity and character?

In the few years I’ve spent in Boston, I got the sense that there was some fundamental dissonance or lack of unity in the Boston scene-“Boston hip-hop gets no love,” I’d heard people say. “There’s a lot of good talent in Boston,” I heard, “but a lot of player-haters too.” Benzino, the sometimes-contentious owner of hip-hop magazine “The Source” is often cited as a prime example of the latter.

Evidently, I thought, the ever-present quarrelsome hip-hop drama so often prominently displayed in the commercial media must have reared its ugly head in Boston as well. I’d always heard that Guru couldn’t make it in Boston, because Boston wasn’t giving him any love and that was what prompted him to head to Brooklyn, ultimately to forge a partnership with DJ Premier-the result being the legendary Gang Starr. I decided to interview some friends of mine who are part of a Boston-based crew called Hardhead, and ask them a bit about their experience within the Boston scene.

My friends, Peter, known as “P-Pit,” and Dave, known as “D-Ruckuz,” had plenty to say about the changing nature of hip-hop in Boston. According to P-Pit, “Hip-hop is growing in Boston; hip-hop is changing in Boston.” Although Boston is known more for rock music, he said, hip-hop has a definite presence. “[The problem] is the environment. People need to invest in Boston talent-Boston producers, local talent.”

The problem of representation and support for underground hip-hop artists is nothing new to P-Pit, C.E.O. of Hardhead Records, a record label and crew comprised of Boston based MCs, producers, and DJs from many parts of the Boston area. Both P-Pit and D-Ruckuz have been known to grace the mic, as well as the turntables, with their unique styles of hip-hop, and both are thoroughly tuned in to the wide network of the Boston hip-hop underground.

Boston-based artists have fewer avenues available to them for commercial success and must learn to build support from the streets up, whereas New York is regarded as the place where rappers go to get record deals.

P-Pit also stressed the saturation of hip-hop within the commercial mainstream music industry. He believes that “the next step, after this saturation of commercial music with hip-hop, will ultimately be a return to the more traditional, street-influenced, underground currents of hip-hop.”

It is this return to the underground and the culture of the street that is represented in the struggle of Boston hip-hop artists. Whereas there is a visible side to the Boston hip-hop underground-the presence of graffiti in streets and on subways lines being the most prominent example-many practice other elements of hip-hop culture.

B-boys or rockers, MCs, rappers, and DJs, are often not as visible as are the more outward manifestations of hip-hop culture, such as graffiti, hip-hop clothing styles, and urban slang. In fact, few Boston rappers have become successful within the commercial music industry. So, except for those who are willing and able to submerge themselves in the underground scene, most people in Boston have no idea who local hip-hop artists are, nor are they aware of what is happening on the cultural landscape of the Boston hip-hop scene.

“There are artists in Boston getting recognition, mostly underground acts,” P-Pit told me. The dilemma they face, he says, is that they have to go down more commercial avenues in order to gain funds, and recognition on a national scale. But that’s not consistent with Boston’s style, which has always embraced an underground street ethic, rejecting a corporate approach to hip-hop. “What we need in Boston is people who want to be the movers and shakers of the hip-hop world,” he said.

None of this should be altogether surprising to anyone familiar with the idiosyncratic makeup and structure of the population of Boston. The culture clash between Boston’s largely white-controlled political and educational institutions and the hip-hop/street culture taking shape in the city’s many segregated, largely black areas provides stimulus for modes of hip-hop expression and awareness.

Becca Murray, known as J-CME, is an up-and-coming Boston-based MC; she sees the dilemma of Boston hip-hop artists as reflective of the deeper issue of social injustice and discrimination in Boston.

“I feel that Boston portrays hip-hop and urban art as a sign of malicious acts, behavior, and gang-related material. With that in mind, we tend to shy away from the public eye, not being able to express artistic views.

“The Bostonian mentality among the young talented rap, DJ, graffiti urban artists somehow seem[s] to be a threat in most eyes that are not fully aware of what exactly the hip-hop culture is all about,” J-CME said. “Maybe if they did they would realize the enormous amount of pressure that we have put upon us in everyday society.”

This pressure is a double-edged sword, for it both provides source material and subject matter for hip-hop expression, yet also makes it harder for young people to express the unique quality of their struggle to a wider audience.

“There is a lot of discrimination where I reside at,” J-CME said. “If I choose to perform onstage at a small local club and spit flows at an open mic, say how I feel, there would be controversy directed at me.”

This “controversy,” as I understand it, is the manifestation of a cultural gap in Boston that serves to divide people along social and ethnic lines, and makes it difficult for hip-hop culture to expand and transcend class and racial boundaries. A deep awareness of these kinds of social injustices may also prove a blessing in disguise to the generation of young MCs and artists now emerging on the Boston scene.

This backdrop of de facto racism and the resulting disparity caused by the politics of abandonment, and the discrimination evident in the class-based, often corporate-interest driven nature of Boston politics, can provide a springboard for hip-hoppers to raise awareness of deeper questions of social stratification, political disenfranchisement, and racism against blacks and other minorities within the corporate, mainstream American culture.

Throughout the history of hip-hop, from the early days of b-boying, DJing and block parties in the Bronx, to the heyday of subway graffiti culture and “All-City Kings,” to the line of succession of generations of hip-hop MCs, it has always been the legacy of the hip-hop movement to exist as a cultural movement within society while simultaneously capturing and calling into question some of the more problematic social and political aspects of the bureaucratic, capitalist and often racist and elitist world in which we live.

To many young people, Boston hip-hop is no exception. Despite the best efforts of Boston’s young generation of hip-hoppers, it seems to me that the gap that still exists between Boston’s native population and the transient population of college students and other young Bostonians that exert such a powerful impact on Boston’s economy must be transcended. Hip-hop has always valued the role of individuals and their creative task of expressing the struggle of young people living with racism, poverty, discrimination or simply trying to survive in the streets.

This message of hip-hop may well be universal, but its impact will be sorely missed if no one does the hard work to forge bonds between the hip-hop movement as reflected in Boston’s urban and street culture, and the intellectual culture of Boston. Ultimately, the definitive criterion of victory for hip-hop culture will be not record sales nor cash profit, but the ability to push the envelope of hip-hop culture past the boundaries of the ghetto and onto college campuses, dorms and other areas where hip-hop may be underrepresented.

Only when this process is well underway, will we all truly be able to celebrate the unity, freedom of expression and cultural richness with which hip-hop promises to bless not just the ghetto, but humanity at large.