SOMERVILLE — Earlier this month, several thousand people watched from City Hall Plaza as Kendrick Lamar, one of hip-hop’s most compelling and popular voices of the moment, closed the second day of the Boston Calling Music Festival. Lamar has been headlining shows and linking up with the likes of Drake and now Kanye West for his upcoming fall tour. But two summers ago, when he played for a few hundred people at the Middle East Downstairs in Central Square, Lamar was just a hungry, talented young rapper building a buzz, one in whom larger venues weren’t ready to place their faith just yet.
He was exactly the kind of artist Ned “Leedz” Wellbery has been working with since launching his independent promotions company, Leedz Edutainment, in 2004.
As one of the Boston area’s few full-time independent concert promoters to specialize in hip-hop, Wellbery spent the last decade bringing rap talent to the area, from new wave phenoms A$AP Rocky and Joey Bada$$ to vintage names like Pete Rock, DJ Premier, and the Geto Boys, while also providing proving grounds for home-grown acts like Slaine and Termanology to build toward national recognition.
Now in his current role as booking agent for the Middle East in Central Square, Wellbery continues to shape the scene in lasting ways. And if he can succeed in his new goal — opening the Middle East to a new generation of local promoters — he’ll ensure that won't change anytime soon.
“My purpose right now is to step back as a promoter and open the market to the independents to do stuff at our club,” he said at a sidewalk cafe in Somerville last week, speaking ahead of a release party for the fourth album in his homegrown hip-hop compilation series “The Write Off,” Wednesday at the Middle East Upstairs. “It’s not about Leedz anymore. It’s about growing the hip-hop scene.”
Wellbery’s position at the Middle East, which he’s held for two years, enables him to spur that growth, but only, as he says, if he at least partially retreats from his other role as an independent promoter. With someone for whom ceding ground to competition doesn’t come naturally, this is easier said than done. Wellbery often references the “survival instincts” that have made him the area’s most prominent hip-hop promoter with a mixed sense of pride and defensiveness. Those instincts brought him success, but may have hurt his reputation, too.
“You have to do whatever you can to survive,” he explains. “So there were decisions that were made business-wise that weren’t ethically the right moves, but I had no other choice. Some people agreed with it and some people didn’t. A lot of people didn’t really know what was going on. They looked at me as someone who was hurting the scene and controlling everything, but didn’t really know that I was fighting every day just to get a hip-hop show done.”
Wellbery declined to provide details on those ethics questions, but one of the most frequently heard complaints regards the pre-sale ticketing system at the Middle East, in which local acts are awarded opening slots for major artists based on their ability to sell a certain quota of tickets, thus guaranteeing a return. The result is often a bill packed with random artists of varying quality, all with their own agendas.
“There always has to be balance between the art and the business,” Wellbery says. “At the end of the day, in order for it to keep going, it needs to be financially beneficial. And that system of doing pre-sale tickets is purely out of survival to keep the business going.”
Wellbery says his new goal of grassroots development came from achieving perspective, both personally and professionally.
“I’ve been sitting back and analyzing what’s going on, looking at the whole scene, and I realized there weren’t many promoters left doing their own thing like when I first started,” he explains. “Maybe I’m responsible for that. I didn’t try to take over the market. Maybe I didn’t play a role, I don’t know. But now I’m trying to help these guys and to help grow the scene because to me it’s important. I don’t want to be perceived as this evil dictator, or that you need to go through me . . . which I kind of was in the beginning. I was kind of controlling, and my survival instincts were a little too strong.”
DJ Peter Parker, a longtime friend and radio DJ who helped assemble “The Write Off Vol. 4,” attests to the shift. “Leedz has had major developments personally and as a businessman that have improved himself tenfold,” says Parker, who put together shows with Wellbery in the early days, often acting as the MC. “We were struggling bad in those times. There was a lot of drugs and drinking and living a reckless lifestyle. His sobriety and his positive attitude has changed the entire thing.”
With out-of-state booking companies like the Bowery Presents and Live Nation increasingly staking their claim to Boston venues, Wellbery envisions the Middle East as a haven for smaller promotion companies to capture their share of local audiences.
“You gotta give back,” he says. “I’ve solidified myself to where I feel I should be. Now it’s time to breathe, look around, step back from being a promoter, and try to help as much as possible because I’m in that position now. It is a responsibility.”
Martín Caballero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.