While this space is usually reserved to highlight local artists making music, this week we profile five individuals who are helping shape and build the future of Boston hip-hop.
Steady Leanin’ launched in 2011 as a Tumblr page collaboration by Jeremy Karelis and Nate Welch, friends from Newburyport who shared a taste for Southern-born subgenres like cloud, trill, and chopped-and-screwed. Using that as a base, posts eventually reflected a broader spectrum of modern hip-hop from across the country, with a bent toward innovative young artists hustling on the Internet in search of their big break.
Three years later, instead of just posting about those artists, Karelis and Welch are bringing them to Boston with their monthly Thursday night event PRPL at The Good Life.
“Some of the music that we like, Boston just hasn’t heard,” says Karelis. “When we started PRPL, we had to get Boston into it. We had to teach them a little bit about that type of music.”
Using connections built through social media, Welch and Karelis were able to book guests with strong Internet followings like Mike G (Odd Future) and Trap-A-Holics, while also giving veterans such as Michael “3000” Watts and OG Ron C, both legendary DJs among Southern rap aficionados, a rare chance to spin their homegrown music in Boston.
Now in its second year, PRPL is the centerpiece of Steady Leanin’ ’s expanding brand portfolio, which includes two successful SXSW showcases (in collaboration with blog Ghost Pizza) and another monthly event with DJ crew You Deserve It, also at Good Life. Welch and Karelis also consult with concert promotions company Leedz Edutainment, and helped bring the likes of A$AP Rocky, Schoolboy Q, and Danny Brown to town before they became stars.
“We would love to do quality events with local people,” says Welch, noting that Michael Christmas played their SXSW showcase this year. “People like Cousin Stizz and OG Swagger Dick fit in with the kind of music that we push. It’s nice to see the local side, and we can help them.”
If you’re active in the Boston hip-hop scene, chances are you’ve interacted with Malcolm Gray at some point. As an on-air personality and urban programming director at WERS-FM (88.9), social media director for KarmaLoop and interviewer for NEHipHop.com, the Dorchester native covers a lot of ground.
“My role is kind of like a connector,” says Gray, “I lend an ear to whoever wants to talk. I’m really out here just to help the whole scene in general. Anybody that I see putting in work, I’m here for.”
The relationships he’s built throughout the scene testify to that. On 88.9 @ Night, he regularly gave homegrown artists like Natural and Dutch ReBelle a platform to build their fan base as well as get SoundScan-certified radio spins. Though the station’s hip-hop programming ceased as of last fall, he’s maintained his media presence via podcasts and by using his music background to help incorporate artists into KarmaLoop promotions and events.
His newest venture is CLLCTV Boston, a start-up event and promotions company where he serves as vice president of marketing. This month marks the fifth edition of their event The Wave at Middlesex Lounge in Cambridge, a day party starting at 4 p.m. with a comfortable, musically eclectic vibe.
“It’s about creating an energy,” says Gray. “We’re taking some of the negative energy that people feel about the local Boston party scene and how repetitive it is and try to re-channel that energy into this new type of event.”
He adds, “On a bigger level, it’s just to let people know that this stuff is achievable. I’m not Superman, I’m just out here putting in work, making good relationships, meeting good people, and being ready for opportunities. That’s what it’s really about.
In 2011, after hosting it at various clubs around the city, rapper Mark Merren was searching for a new home for his weekly local hip-hop showcase Branded Authentic. After the release party for his album “Motivate” at Church in Fenway, he knew he’d found it.
“The name of my album was ‘Motivate’ and they gave me a Monday, so that’s where Motivate Mondays started,” he remembers. “When I did that, I realized that it was much bigger than me. It was something that I needed to keep consistent because of the energy I had that night.”
The weekly event is still going strong, which is a good sign for rising artists in a scene that has struggled with a lack of venues interested in hosting hip-hop events. Merren’s vision of a comfortable, professional environment for rappers and producers to hone their live performance skills, build relationships with fans, and foster a spirit of community has lifted the scene as a whole.
“As an artist myself, I saw how important it was for people,” says Merren. “If we can get a nice venue, something that’s in metro Boston, not a hole in the wall, and people can feel like they’re on a real stage, and more so have a place where people know they can go and congregate, it will grow the scene.”
Besides Mondays at Church, Merren hosts another weekly showcase, The Authentic Lounge, on Wednesdays at Midway Cafe, which also presented his The Stew, his open-mike event for producers in January.
“Ultimately I believe what will push the Boston scene is people really having a real belief in what’s going on in the city right in front of us,” says Merren. “We have the resources and the melting pot of people right here.”
When Lisa Finelli moved from New York to Boston 2½ years ago, she admittedly didn’t know anything about her new city’s hip-hop scene, despite being a lifelong fan of the genre.
“I had no idea the magnitude of what it was until I was here and I was standing in front of these people and I would hear them and immediately fall in love with their music,” says Finelli, who had prior jobs with Internet-based broadcasters UNregular Radio and DigRadio before moving to a marketing position with hip-hop-centric concert promotion company Leedz Edutainment. “That’s when I realized that there is absolutely a scene and we need to shine a giant spotlight on what’s going on here.”
In her new role with Leedz, Finelli is responsible for helping expand the company’s connections with sponsors and brands for cross-marketing opportunities. But it also involves doubling down on the local scene that has supported the company for the last 10 years. With out-of-town promoters dictating most of the area’s live hip-hop options, the link between artists and the company has grown in significance.
“We need to be a city that fosters artists,” says Finelli. “One of my personal goals is to teach artists how to market themselves. There’s no one place for artists to go to get everything they need to know how to market themselves. I want to be a part of the movement that changes that.”
Finelli also hopes to strengthen ties with college audiences, and points toward Mayor Martin Walsh’s election as an encouraging sign that the artistic community has an ally in politics.
“There has to be a sense of community,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be a cutthroat situation.”
A few notes on upcoming events involving the people covered in today’s column: In conjunction with Leedz Edutainment, Steady Leanin’ presents Bun B and Kirko Bangz (“Drank in My Cup”) at the Middle East Downstairs on May 29. The next edition of CLLCTV Boston’s The Wave party kicks off at 4 p.m. on May 25 at Middlesex Lounge, with guest DJs That Somebody, Real P and Brek One. Motivate Mondays takes place weekly at Church starting at 8 p.m., while you can also see Mark Merren’s Authentic Lounge showcase on Wednesdays at Midway Cafe from 8 p.m.-2 a.m.