This year is the 50th anniversary of the birth of hip-hop. We’ve had numerous public celebrations, panels, television shows, podcasts, and articles marking the occasion. But Boston’s contributions to hip-hop’s growth have largely been ignored.
It’s time for greater recognition.
The city’s hip-hop scene was strong from the start. Among the earliest in-demand rap producers were local products like Arthur Baker, Michael Jonzun, and Maurice Starr, who crafted jams for prominent labels like Streetwise, Sugar Hill, and Tommy Boy.
It wasn’t hard to keep up with their work or the rest of the emerging industry. Fans could find the newest 12-inch rap records at Skippy White’s, Strawberries, A Nubian Notion in Dudley (now Nubian) Square, and various mom-and-pop convenience stores throughout the metro area.
And while there wasn’t much support from traditional live music venues, schools and community centers provided important stages for Boston-area hip-hoppers. Among them: the Lee, Mattahunt, and Blackstone schools, the Jorge Hernandez Cultural Center, Harriet Tubman House, and Bromley Heath Community Center. Roscoe Gorham and Maurice Starr’s “Hollywood Talent Nights,” held in spaces like Roscoe’s Lounge in Roxbury and The Strand Theater in Dorchester, provided opportunities for Boston’s B-Boys, emcees, and DJs early on.
Radio was critical. There was Boston’s most prominent Black station, WILD; Northeastern University’s WRBB; and Emerson College’s WERS. But some of Boston hip-hop’s most important moments came on two radio programs from other colleges — the “Street Beat Show” on WHRB, at Harvard, and “Lecco’s Lemma” at WMBR, out of MIT.
In 1986, Magnus Johnstone, host of “Lecco’s Lemma,” began playing demos sent to him by local artists at the small radio station located in the Walker Memorial Building on MIT’s Cambridge campus. Before you knew it, folks from Boston were crossing the Mass. Ave. Bridge and kids from all over the state were descending upon the building. In the tiny WMBR studio they performed live rap routines, beatboxed, and scratched records for a live audience — fueling big growth in the local rap scene.
Local artists now had a dedicated outlet to get heard, meet up with each other, and network. It was here that a young Keith Elam, then known as Keithy E and later as Guru, brought his early Gang Starr recordings before signing with New York label Wild Pitch in 1987. A young Edo.G, then known as Edo Rock of the Fresh To Impress Crew, was a beatboxer and occasional rapper before setting the rap world on fire in 1991 with his debut single “I Got To Have It,” which hit No. 1 on the Hot Rap Singles chart. Acts like Rusty The Toe Jammer, MC Spice, Almighty RSO, Body Rock Crew, Roxbury Crush Crew, and more were able to find a home there until the stream of studio visitors forced “Lecco’s Lemma” to move to WZBC at Boston College in July 1986.
In 1987, Harvard students Jon Shecter and Dave Mays launched the “Street Beat Show,” taking the name from rap pioneer Lady B’s program in Shecter’s native Philadelphia. In order to build credibility in the Boston rap community, they enlisted DJ Deff Jeff of Boston’s most prominent crew, Almighty RSO, to spin. Soon, the “Street Beat Show” took its place on Boston’s burgeoning rap scene.
In the summer of 1988, Shecter and Mays saw a void in terms of getting the word out about upcoming rap releases and shows coming through New England. So they printed a two-page buying guide called The Source — available in local stores like Skippy White’s and Spin City. After Shecter and Mays graduated from Harvard in 1990, they moved The Source’s offices from Cambridge to New York where it became a monthly publication dedicated to covering the rap world and earned the tagline “The Bible of Hip-Hop.”
Boston’s rap scene still struggled to be recognized outside New England. When you watched “Yo! MTV Raps” or “Rap City” on BET, you didn’t see a lot of Boston acts. By the time Gang Starr became a prominent rap crew — Guru teaming with DJ Premier — they were associated with Brooklyn instead of Boston. Boston’s TDS Mob, who were poised to be the city’s next breakout stars, ended up disbanding shortly after releasing their singles “What’s This World Coming To?” and “T.D.S. Scratch Reaction” in 1989.
But by 1993, Boston looked like it might finally be ready to burst onto the national scene. The city had multiple rap acts signed to major labels. Juice With Soul was signed to Atlantic. Edo.G and Da Bulldogs were readying their sophomore LP for PolyGram. Almighty RSO were signed to Epic Records as part of Queen Latifah’s Flavor Unit imprint. Top Choice Clique was signed at A&M, and it released “I Think To Myself” on the “Posse” soundtrack. Funkmaster Flex signed Boston’s Joint Ventures to Profile. Unfortunately, none of these groups broke through. Most ended up leaving major labels, and in the case of Joint Venture, front man and potential star Fly Ty was killed in February 1994.
Whatever the struggles of the individual acts, they all had to deal with something larger: Boston’s reputation problem. Music journalists were primed to look for talent in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, Memphis, New Orleans, Oakland, and Los Angeles, all of which had generations-old reputations for their contributions to Black music. Boston did not — despite the efforts of artists like Donna Summer and New Edition.
Still, Boston’s underground rap scene grew on its own terms in the mid to late 1990s. College radio programs like WRBB’s “Soul’s Place,” WMBR’s “Dope Jams Show,” and WERS’s “88.9 @Night” played a big role. By 1997, Boston had become an underground hip-hop mecca, attracting audiences to venues like The Middle East, Western Front, and Bill’s Bar to see Akrobatik, Mr. Lif, 7L & Esoteric, Virtuoso, Concrete Click, Skitzofreniks, Term & Ed Rock, REKS, Krumb Snatcha, Big Shug, Insight, and many more. For those in the know, Boston was finally gaining the reputation it deserved for its diverse, talented rap scene. Still, with the passage of time, that golden era has largely been forgotten.
Heading into 2024, Boston’s rap scene is full of more elite talent, star power, and diversity than ever before, whether we’re talking about Bia, Cousin Stizz, Oompa, Termanology, Dutch ReBelle, Millyz, Latrell James, STL GLD, Cliff Notez, Najee Janey, Avenue, Bori Rock, Brandie Blayze, Red Shaydez, or Van Buren.
Let’s hope that sometime soon, we’ll get to a point where the output of these artists can change the national perception of Boston and Massachusetts as a whole — and usher the region into its rightful place in hip-hop history.
Dart Adams is a journalist, historian, and author from Boston.