Amid Newbury Street’s promenade of buzzing restaurants and boutiques, the Green Street Jungle looks somewhat out of place on this Tuesday night. Outside of the clothing store’s walk-down entrance, a group of young men begin to congregate, slapping hands in acknowledgment and exchanging greetings. Some are already familiar, while others are meeting each other for the first time. The scene begins to attract curious glances from a few of the older couples and groups of college-age girls walking by as the balmy day turns to night.
As new arrivals show up, they are met by three men who immediately stand out. They look significantly younger than the rest of the group, and they’re wearing plain T-shirts and shorts while the others sport eye-catching ball caps, tank tops, and big digital watches. One wouldn’t guess it, but they are the reason why the group — a hand-picked selection of the city’s brightest hip-hop talent — are there tonight. In a scene that has at times struggled to grow as a community, three ambitious outsiders are determined to make 2012 the beginning of Boston’s new rap era.
“You can think of every other major city and there’s a major rapper who’s on right now,” said 20-year old Tim Larew, speaking from his apartment near Audubon Circle the day before. He, alongside fellow BU students Blair Lineham and Guillermo Antonini, are the brain trust behind “12 for 12,” a dynamic, amorphous hip-hop project attempting to rebuild the city’s rap community from the ground up. “There’s enough talent here to do it, so we want to try and change the perception of Boston. It’s not going to change overnight, but we want to take a step in the right direction.”
By their own admission, the trio of Larew, Lineham, and Antonini knew little about Boston’s hip-hop scene upon their arrival in the city several years ago. They initially met through a Facebook group established to connect BU rap fans, where they shared their feeling that the amount of homegrown talent in the city wasn’t commensurate to the amount of opportunities young artists had for exposure.
“We came in with an outsider perspective,” says Lineham, a 19-year old Rochester, N.Y., native who cofounded the blog CollabProjekt.com with Antonini. “We saw there was a gap between the older heads and the younger generation. Everybody has their fan base here but there’s not too much intermingling between completely different artists. We want the world to see the talent here and we can have our own objective spotlight on to what’s going on in the city, as opposed to someone who’s been here and established their connections already.”
Using connections with artists that they fostered via their respective blogs, the three came up with a basic plan: invite 12 local rappers to become part of a movement showcasing the Boston scene on a collective scale, first by building relationships with each other and later by producing videos, music, and events as one unified force.
“We agreed from the beginning that there’s no way we are going to say, ‘These are the best rappers,’” said Larew, who along with Lineham and Antonini approached each artist individually and asked them to participate. “There is no such thing as ‘best’; it’s all about preference. We tried to get really unique artists, people who brought something really different to the table, people who aren’t typically grouped together.”
He added: “The vision all along was that it wasn’t a list as much as a movement, we just had to start with a certain amount of artists that we wanted to push everything through. If we tried to do a big unity movement from the beginning, then it would have flopped. It would have been over-saturated. We had to start with the 12 that we felt could start something.”
The dozen artists invited to join represent a broad spectrum of styles and backgrounds. Both Black EL and Moe Pope have been a familiar presence in the scene for years with full-length albums already under their belt, while Charmingly Ghetto and Bigg Dee are just starting to make waves locally.
When the group all got together for the first time for an informal meeting, many were meeting each other for the first time. Once they had a chance to get to know each other, they began to do what they do best: rap.
“My first reaction was I was skeptical,” says Black EL, who is featured in the first official “12 for 12” cypher video, which currently has more than 1,000 views on YouTube. “I did like the idea but I feel like people have done it before and failed. But they were very sincere about it. The first freestyle thing we had, I got goosebumps. It reminded me why I started doing this in the first place, because it was fun.”
While Larew and company have ambitious plans for the rest of the year, including a possible showcase concert and mixtape featuring the 12 artists, “12 for 12” is admittedly still developing as an idea, with roles for both its creators and its subjects still being fleshed out.
“The direct approach of using community as the driving force is why it has the viability to work,” says Charmingly Ghetto, a 24-year old rapper from Dorchester. “The intention — not necessarily for the people but for those involved — still needs to evolve a bit. I think it has to take a certain route or direction in order for it to be meaningful or viable or else it could get lost with everything else that’s going on with Boston hip-hop.”
Whatever “12 for 12” eventually becomes, the signs of a growing community are unmistakable outside of Green Street Jungle. People who were once strangers now know each other by name, and the collective enthusiasm for Boston hip-hop is infectious as new connections and relationships are being made. This in itself is an achievement.
We’re not giving handouts,” says Antonini. “We are just using our networks to pioneer something new, to make a new platform in the city and move away from some of the current platforms which are damaging to the artist and damaging to the scene in general. We’ve chosen to market them, but we are letting their music speak for itself.”Martin Caballero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @_el_caballero.