It’s 1986, and somewhere in Boston there’s a party going on. The place to find out where is along the outer fringes of the FM dial — 88.1 (WMBR) to be specific — where an effortlessly cool, smooth voice floats out over the airwaves as a raw hip-hop beat pulses in the background. The station hot line is open and listeners are calling in to announce that their house party is the place to be, or maybe give a shout-out to a friend, a diss to a rival, or to find out what rapper just kicked a hot verse on the last song. Whatever it was, this was the place to find out.
Broadcasting from the station’s basement studio inside the Walker Memorial Building on MIT’s campus, the engaging voice on the other side of the mike, belonging to an infinitely curious music fan and part-time antique painter named Magnus Johnstone, was helping lay the foundation of Boston’s nascent hip-hop scene on his show, “Lecco’s Lemma,” one week at a time. By the time the genre grew from urban youth phenomenon to part of mainstream pop culture in the latter part of the decade, the show’s brief, bright run had already ended, and in later years the reclusive Johnstone himself retreated from the community he helped create. The legacy he left behind included hours of tapes, a golden generation of local artists, and two individuals determined to celebrate and preserve the show that helped start it all in Boston.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m the only person who knows or remembers these shows,” said Pacey Foster, a rap historian, author, and longtime friend of Johnstone who is in the midst of a long and ambitious archival project on “Lecco’s Lemma.” “And one thing that blows my mind is when I play stuff for people who have listened to the show before, and within a verse, they are lip-synching right along as if it was a national hit. And these are 45-year-old guys who haven’t heard this in years. What that means is that they listened to it that much that it’s blazed in their memory.”
Foster, who along with the DJ collective Beat Research and current WMBR hip-hop director Dana Scott put together the Tribute to “Lecco’s Lemma” event at Good Life this Wednesday, has spent the last five years working hard to ensure that memories of the show don’t only exist in listeners’ minds: He’s leading the efforts to digitize and preserve the 400-plus tapes of both full-length shows and local artist demos solicited by Johnstone that he’s painstakingly tracked down from various sources.
The hours of material serve as both an essential piece of the Boston hip-hop canon and a reflection of the city itself. Hip-hop heads will note audio treasures like the first on-air interview with the late Keith “Keithy E” Elam, who would later become immortalized as Guru from Gang Starr, or in-studio routines from local icons like Rusty “the Toe Jammer” Pendleton or the infamous Almighty RSO. But the lesser moments, like Johnstone coaxing answers from a shy 11-year old rapper, or telling listeners which bus lines to take to get to a party, are just as revealing of a city where hip-hop culture was spreading up from the underground.
“It became a community because of people’s connection to the show,” said Foster, who listened to the show growing up in Newton. “It created and strengthened the community. You hear the phone ringing in the background, people talking and cheering. It gives you a window into a community of young people and artists who were creating a genre, not knowing where it would go.”
As WMBR’s hip-hop director and host of the weekly show “Musenomix,” Scott tries to build a communal on-air space for Boston hip-hop — with echoes of Johnstone’s pioneering work decades ago. After being introduced by a mutual friend, Scott and Foster bonded over shared appreciation for “Lecco’s Lemma,” and the current show format blends interviews with historically significant figures and unsigned local artists who struggle to get radio play in the era of corporate radio.
“Hip-hop takes the raw elements that you think aren’t supposed to work together and makes them work,” said Scott, who along with Foster enlisted artists who got their break on “Lecco’s Lemma,” including Edo G (then known as “Edo Rock”) and TYPE 4, for the tribute event. “ ‘Lecco’s Lemma’ did that really well: It wasn’t contrived or predictable. You want to keep that imaginative spirit of radio going, and that can only happen on college radio, where it’s all about passion and not money.”
Yet despite the revived interest in “Lecco’s Lemma,” the most glaring omission is Johnstone, who has remained on the periphery of Foster and Scott’s respective projects after swapping Boston’s streets for the woods of Maine years ago (he did not respond to inquiries for this story). His presence at the event is unlikely, says Foster, but his impact on the scene remains.
“He hasn’t ever said this to me, but [the show] was huge to him. It was life-changing to everyone involved and he just wanted people to know and about it and to hear it. He still loves those tapes. More than anything he wants them to be heard.”Martín Caballero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @_el_caballero.