Boston’s rep is as a rock town, but we matter more to hip-hop than people realize.
Roxbury’s New Edition, starting in the ’80s, was one of the first mainstream acts to regularly use rap in its songs. Aerosmith’s collaboration with Run DMC on “Walk This Way” outsold the original. And New Edition spinoffs Bobby Brown and Bell Biv DeVoe set the hip-hop hybrid blueprint that dominates R&B to this day.
Hip-hop’s love affair with jazz, made notable by groups like A Tribe Called Quest, was fueled in part by Boston rapper Keith Elam, a.k.a. GURU, through his Jazzmatazz projects and his duo Gang Starr and hits like “Mass Appeal.”
Less well known is Boston’s contribution to gangsta rap. The Almighty RSO were four guys from Dorchester — MCs Ray Dog (Raymond Scott), E-Devious (Marco Antonio Ennis), Tony Rhome (Anthony Johnson), and their DJ, Deff Jeff (Jeff Neal). They became known for their customized Bruins gear and outlandish stage shows. A quick trip through the Massachusetts Hip Hop Archive shows that the RSO crew was a staple of Lecco’s Lemma, a pioneering rap show that ran on WMBR (88.1 FM) and then WZBC (90.3 FM) between 1985 and 1988. They played at block parties and school auditoriums and neighborhood spots like the Strand Theatre, and even at rock clubs like the Channel.
I still remember a show Almighty RSO did in the early 1990s at Harrington Elementary School (now the King Open School) in Cambridge, along with Boston rapper Ed O.G. Onstage with Almighty RSO was its Legion of Doom, an entourage like Public Enemy’s S1Ws, and the 9MM dancers. Jeff Neal started his scratch routine, hip-hop’s version of a guitar solo, where the DJ goes back and forth between turntables creating a rhythm. As he cut the records, faster and faster, the auditorium lights went dim and suddenly both turntables seemed to burst into flames. The crowd exploded in cheers.
Neal says he did it to stand out from rivals in the city like Killer DJ and Reesey Cutz (who toured with Bobby Brown). “I was into trick mixing,” he says, “spinning around, behind the back. One day I just thought it would be dope to put my turntables on fire and still be able to mix the records.” He and his production partner had to come up with a way to do it that didn’t warp the vinyl. Once they did, “I loved to do it, but I hated to do it, because that was real fire. I’ve burnt eyelashes. My hands caught on fire,” says Neal, who still lives in Boston and DJs under the name Jeff Two Times.
RSO never caught fire the way Ice-T or NWA did, but it did cause sparks. Around the same time Ice-T’s metal band Body Count came under fire for its song “Cop Killer,” RSO faced its own trouble for “One in the Chamba,” a song that drew the threat of a lawsuit from the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association. But Neal and RSO’s showmanship (minus the controversies) continue to influence young Boston rappers: Witness promising Boston rapper Avenue dropping a Ray Dog reference in a recent song and donning the black and gold for a video from his new album Mass Ave & Lenox.