When I was growing up in Boston’s South End/Lower Roxbury neighborhood, music was a crucial part of our everyday lives. At home, my sister and brothers would go up and down the dial on our stereos and boom boxes, switching between WILD, KISS 108 FM, WRBB, WERS, WBCN, WTBS (now WMBR), and WHRB. Talent shows like the Hollywood Talent Nite competitions — thrown by Maurice Starr in venues like Roscoe’s Lounge or The Strand Theatre — were as popular in inner city Boston as I imagined high school football was in Texas. The competitive circuit gave the world dancers like Wondertwins Billy and Bobby McClain; singer Margo Thunder; and legendary jazz drummer Tony Williams.
My firsthand experience with music began in the late ’70s — everything else I either had to be told about by my elders or read in the accounts of those who were there. What I did get to see with my own eyes was the rise of New Edition. My cousin LeBaron Jones grew up in Orchard Park projects, where he was best friends with a kid named Ralph Tresvant. Tresvant was eventually brought into a music group with Michael Bivins, Ricky Bell, and Bobby Brown, Orchard Park neighborhood kids my older siblings and cousins had befriended. Eventually, they sought the counsel of the man known for developing the most polished acts on the talent show circuit, Brooke Payne. He brought his nephew Ronnie DeVoe, from nearby Cathedral Apartments, into the group and then gave them their name, New Edition. Starting out, they were all barely entering their teens.
There were very few people in mainstream media who’d grown up like me, a Black kid in Boston. Sure, Donna Summer was a superstar, but outside of Massachusetts, few knew she was a Black Bostonian named LaDonna Adrian Gaines, claimed by both Roxbury and Dorchester. But New Edition made it clear they were from Boston — specifically Roxbury. When their “Candy Girl” single was released in March 1983, it became a local smash, but we had no expectations it’d go further than that. When it first appeared on multiple Billboard charts a few months later, we understood why they were doing shows all over the place. Within months, they had knocked Michael Jackson out of the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Black Singles chart and started being mentioned regularly by Casey Kasem on American Top 40. We slowly began to realize nothing would ever be the same again.
The music video for “Candy Girl” was everywhere, starting out with the group members standing in front of the steps of the now long-demolished Dover Street elevated Orange Line station. The song became a huge hit overseas. “Is This The End?” did, too. New Edition soon signed with MCA Records, and that’s when they really took off. Although MCA tried its best to downplay the group’s Boston roots to sell to a wider market, the guys — Bobby Brown included — always made it a point to shout out Boston and Roxbury, where it all started. That sense of pride meant everything to the Black and Latino kids I knew.
By 1991, New Edition, Bobby Brown, Bell Biv DeVoe, and Ralph Tresvant were all prominent hitmakers, but what was missing was a breakout rap act from Boston. That would all change when Edo. G & Da Bulldogs released their debut single, “I Got To Have It,” in January 1991. We tried to manage our expectations as best we could — we’d seen rap acts from Boston signed to major labels in the past, yet things still hadn’t panned out. On March 2, 1991, the single entered the Hot Rap Songs chart at No. 29. As the video started getting played more frequently on BET’s Rap City, Yo! MTV Raps, and Fox’s Pump It Up!, and requested on The Box (a short-lived broadcast, cable, and satellite TV network), its popularity grew exponentially.
What made “I Got To Have It” different was that it was impossible to remove Edo. G from Boston. He mentioned Roxbury throughout the song lyrics, shot the video in the heart of the city, and even had his old friend, Boston native Guru from Gang Starr, appear in it. In rap, you learn the lyrics — people nationwide were saying “I’m from Roxbury, the ‘Bury but not the fruit, y’all/Don’t make me act like where I come from ‘cause it’s brutal.” People who had never heard of Roxbury before — or had no clue Black and Latino folks existed in Boston — couldn’t claim that anymore, especially after it hit the top of the Hot Rap Songs chart. (Even more unfathomable: while Boston had the No. 1 rap single, Edo. G & Da Bulldogs couldn’t find a venue in the Boston metro area to perform it in — thanks to the enduring stereotype that rap shows brought violence.)
Shortly afterward, all of the New Edition members reunited in a video for a Bell Biv DeVoe song called “Word To Tha Mutha!” which debuted on MTV in summer 1991. It was shot in Orchard Park, then a half-century old and in disrepair. Without their decision to reunite, come home, and shoot the video for their single in Roxbury, who knows if the eyes of the world would’ve ever been brought to Boston’s inner city — aside from the 1992 Frontline episode “A Kid Kills.” To this very day, New Edition remains one of the most enduring examples of Black Boston’s existence to the rest of Black America.
Forty years later, the need remains to stress to the rest of the United States that Black and Latino people not only exist in Boston, but thrive here. It all begins with representation in mainstream media, films, and television to dispel the myth that Boston is a white city.