Even before they released their debut single in 1983, one of Boston’s first hip-hop groups suspected they might have some trouble getting noticed. They were, after all, living in the shadow of New York City.
“It’s hard being heard when you’re from Bosstown,” goes one verse on “Sweat It Off,” a nine-minute, 12-inch single by Kevin Fleetwood and the Cadillacs of Sound. “ ‘Cause people don’t think we know how to throw down.”
But the group had a point to make, “loud and clear”: In those early days of hip-hop, Boston already knew all about throwing down.
In the early 1980s, there were aspiring rappers from Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan, and more across the river in Cambridge. In Worcester, too, rap was a fast-growing subculture.
The Boston area’s college radio stations, from MIT and Harvard to Emerson and Boston College, were quick to create programming around the new music. By 1986, the Institute of Contemporary Art was hosting an event called the B Town Rap Battle at its old location in a former police station on Boylston Street.
That year also saw the release of a compilation album called “Boston Goes Def!: The Champions of Boston Rap!,” which featured tracks by the Fat Girls of Boston; the Fresh to Impress Crew, which featured a fresh-faced, beatboxing teenager later known as Ed O.G.; and Rusty the Toejammer, a DJ who made his name by scratching records with his bare feet.
“I was spinning records at 9 Lansdowne St. at 16,” said Rusti Pendleton, hanging out at a recent pop-up exhibit called “Moment of Focus” at Nubian Square’s Black Market. Pendleton may no longer be barefoot, but he is still celebrating Boston’s place in hip-hop history on his internet radio station, Funky Fresh, named after his long-running Roxbury record shop.
Lansdowne, he said, is where he first met his idol, Grandmaster Flash. Yet despite the fact that his hero — founder of the first hip-hop group inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — grew up in the Bronx, Boston rap fans should stop comparing their history to New York’s, Pendleton maintains.
“We have our own history right here,” he said.
This year the world is celebrating the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, an occasion tied to one summer evening in the Bronx in 1973, when the DJ Kool Herc threw a party with his sister. Hip-hop’s first commercially available singles began appearing in 1979; its first full-length albums were released in 1980.
From the beginning, Boston’s contributions to the musical genre that would take over the world were significant. “Planet Rock,” the groundbreaking 1982 single by Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force, came about when Bambaataa and record producer Arthur Baker, a Bostonian, bonded over their mutual love for the German band Kraftwerk.
“Sweat It Off” was produced by Roxbury native Tony Rose, who was instrumental in the local Black music renaissance that began in the late 1970s. Rose worked with the funk group Prince Charles and the City Beat Band, whose leader, Prince Charles Alexander, would later become an in-house producer and audio engineer for Puff Daddy’s Bad Boy Records. Rose also worked alongside Maurice Starr, the mogul who helped launch New Edition and, later, New Kids on the Block. (Alexander, now a Berklee professor, will be honored as an inaugural inductee of Berklee’s Hip-Hop Hall of Fame at an upcoming event.)
In 1985, the student-run radio station at MIT, WMBR, debuted a new show mysteriously called “Lecco’s Lemma.” Hosted by a painter and music fanatic named Magnus Johnstone, the show quickly became a hub for Boston-area rappers, including the Almighty RSO (who would record, and court controversy, well into the ‘90s) and Keith Elam, soon to be known as Guru, the jazz-oriented voice of the group Gang Starr.
“Magnus opened the door for hip-hop in Boston, literally,” said Ed O.G., who has modified his stage name to Edo G. “He treated everyone equally. He was really for the culture.”
For a time the young Edo was managed by Dave Mays, the Harvard student who founded the Source (“The Bible of Hip-Hop”) in his dorm room in 1988. With Jonathan Shecter, Mays cohosted “Street Beat,” WHRB’s hip-hop program.
The college stations were critical to the scene, Edo recalled: “Their antennas were huge. From Providence to southern New Hampshire, those stations had reach.”
Johnstone, who died in 2013, often interviewed local artists and played their demo tapes on the air. Pacey Foster, a college professor and friend of Johnstone’s, launched the Massachusetts Hip-Hop Archive at UMass Boston in 2016 with a collection of those demo tapes. After an extensive search, Foster learned that the veteran Boston musician Willie Alexander had made hundreds of tapes of the show. Those too are now in the archive.
Back in the ‘80s, photographer John Nordell also befriended Johnstone and began hanging around the studio, taking pictures of the artists. His photos from various venues around the city were a prominent feature of the recent “Moment of Focus” exhibit, and they made up the bulk of “Hip-Hop: Seen/Unseen,” an exhibit that ran from August until mid-November in Dewey Square on the Rose Kennedy Greenway.
“When I see my photos, it’s about the youth,” said Nordell, now a professor at American International College in Springfield. He recently donated his negatives to the Hip-Hop Archive.
At the “Moment of Focus” exhibit, curated by contemporary photographer Jaypix Belmer, a middle-aged woman sat in a corner, wearing a bucket hat and big earrings that looked like cassette tapes. Behind her hung a large banner that read “UMMF: Us Making Moves Forever.”
Cindy Diggs, a community outreach manager at Massachusetts General Hospital, is better known in the community as “Mother Hip-Hop.” For years, she acted as a big sister to Boston’s up-and-coming rappers, helping them find venues to perform in, at a time when that wasn’t always so easy.
It was the Dorchester rapper Akrobatik who blessed her with the nickname.
“I’d always been involved in Black social organizations,” she explained. “I’d been putting on events since middle school.” For years, she’d set up a voicemail with details on the next local rap show, with instructions about how to attend.
Across the room Vivian Smith-Barnes, a life coach and family therapist, recalled her own introduction to the Boston scene. A Bronx native who moved to Boston when she was 7, she became a spokeswoman for the Universal Zulu Nation, the hip-hop awareness group founded by Bambaataa. She’s still known as Queen Viv.
Back in the day she managed the Spin City Rockers, a breakdance group who took their name from another Roxbury record store. The Rockers were arch-rivals with the Floor Lords, Smith-Barnes said with a smile. As in other towns, Boston’s breakdancers (or b-boys) were among the most visible representations of the new movement called hip-hop: Unlike rappers, who had to pay to get into a recording studio, anyone could breakdance, anywhere.
The Hip-Hop Archive recently received another major donation, this one from a longtime Boston post office clerk: two boxes of VHS tapes covering 30 years of underground music. Beginning in the late 1980s, Al McFarlan moonlighted as a cable-access television producer, presenting the bi-weekly Roxbury show “Strickly Hip-Hop.” A part-time concert promoter at the time — he says he helped bring the rap pioneer Slick Rick to Madison Park High School — McFarlan got his start after responding to an ad for a course: “Become a TV Producer for $15.”
“The show was bangin’,” said McFarlan on a recent phone call. “I lived in a tenement in the South End. I opened my window one day and heard the show in the airshaft.”
In the early years of “Strickly Hip-Hop,” host MC Spice presented standout local acts such as TDS Mob (who brought NHL jerseys into hip-hop culture with their matching Bruins gear), Joint Ventures, and Lisa Lee. Though Boston had its own version of hip-hop’s East Coast-West Coast feud at the time, McFarlan said — the attitude was “if he’s from Cambridge or Worcester, he’s wack” — the show welcomed everyone.
“Strickly Hip-Hop” took off when a marketing executive from the Def Jam label, founded in New York by Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons, discovered it and began feeding McFarlan promotional videos to broadcast.
“She couldn’t believe what she was seeing, because the show was uncensored,” McFarlan recalled. “Once I got Def Jam, I got ‘em all, bro.”
MC Spice, said to be the first rapper signed to the historic Atlantic Records (“Don’t Treat Your Girly Like a Dog, Dog, Dog,” 1987), went on to co-write several songs on “Music for the People,” the 1991 debut album by Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch.
That year also saw the debut of Ed O.G. and Da Bulldogs, whose “Life of a Kid in the Ghetto” deftly straddled the divide between “conscious” hip-hop and party music. That album’s most successful single, “I Got to Have It,” went to No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Rap Songs chart, confirming something many in Boston already knew.
He might have been speaking for the city’s whole hip-hop community: “It’s my turn to go, and I got the right of way.”
James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @sullivanjames.