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How Boston quietly triumphed as a seminal rap city

Gang Starr, Cousin Stizz, BIA, Mr. Lif. Collage by Jackie Lay / NPR.
Martyn Goodacre / Isaac Brekken / Gonzalo Marroquin / Jack Plunkett
Getty Images / AP
Gang Starr, Cousin Stizz, BIA, Mr. Lif. Collage by Jackie Lay / NPR.

As it celebrates its 50th birthday, we are mapping hip-hop's story on a local level, with more than a dozen city-specific histories of the music and culture. Click here to see the entire list.

Hip-hop couldn't stay in the Bronx for long. After spreading to the other boroughs of New York City, the culture permeated the tri-state area, crept into the bordering regions of Pennsylvania and, eventually, arrived in Massachusetts. By 1979, tapes of jams and famous battles were already circulating throughout Boston. The city was most known at the time for its Boston funk or electro-style production, utilizing vocoders, synthesizers, samplers and drum machines like the LinnDrum and TR-808 — a sound emulated by contemporaries like Warp 9, Zapp and Egyptian Lover. This aesthetic could be heard in early Boston rap records — like Rusty P "The Toe Jammer" & The Sure Shot 3's 1984 single "Breakdown New York Style" — even as the artists attempted to hide their roots: Critique, a label based in Woburn and Reading, Mass., listed its distributor's New York address instead, hoping the records would perform better in hip-hop's birthplace.

College radio was a gateway between the emergent hip-hop communities in New York and Boston. The first rap records were played locally on MIT's radio station WMBR, on a show called The Ghetto, and on Boston's long-time Black radio station WILD. After introducing a new audience to the sound and style, the spaces quickly became ports for the city's own promising townsmen on their own journeys. Crucial local rap acts soon found a home on the show Lecco's Lemma, where young rap fans from all over Massachusetts crammed into the cramped studio armed with demo tapes, prepared to perform on the air. Boston's hip-hop community came of age between visits to Lecco's Lemma and Harvard's Street Beat show on WHRB. In July 1988, Jon Shecter and David Mays, who ran Street Beat, launched The Source magazine from their Harvard dorm room, and it soon became the hip-hop bible, guiding taste at rap's epicenter from afar.

Just as The Source was critical to rap's mainstream breakthrough, so too were Boston's artists. The story of rap innovation in New York's developmental stages can't be told without the successes of a producer like Arthur Baker, who cut one of the first rap records, "El Rap-O Clap-O," for legendary vocalist Joe Bataan, in 1979, and some defining releases for Tommy Boy — including 1982's "Planet Rock" for Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic Force. Michael Jonzun and Maurice Starr (of Jonzun Crew) made foundational rap songs for Sugar Hill Records while running their own label, Boston International, writing, arranging and producing in the distinct Boston funk tradition that made them an in-demand production unit in the first place.

Rampant racism and restrictive laws limited live rap's reach in Boston-area clubs and lounges, so the music was often relegated to community centers, schools or punk clubs. But hip-hop, eternally a rebellious art, would not be denied in the city. At venues like The Channel, not far from where the Sons of Liberty dumped tea into the Boston harbor, hometown flag bearers like TDS Mob opened for national acts with such skill and ferocity they'd often steal the show. The stage routines of Kool Gee and his DJs, Devastator and Michael K, were so influential they had the Boston inner city rocking Bruins gear.

Despite working at the margins, some artists found themselves at odds with local law enforcement. The star group Almighty RSO, awarded a Boston Music Award for best rap group in 1987, faced controversy over the 1992 single "One in the Chamba"; the Boston Police Patrolmen's Association threatened to sue Time Warner and the group, accusing them of violating cops' civil rights. (Tommy Boy dropped them.) But even with these obstacles, there were breakthroughs. Edo.G & Da Bulldogs hitting No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Rap Singles for "I Got To Have It," and Guru's success with Gang Starr in the early '90s, seemed to validate what fans in the area already knew. And the stars were there, too: In 1992, The New York Times spoke to a group of Canadian women who had traveled 12 hours to Manhattan to see Marky Mark.

But the younger Wahlberg isn't the default of the Boston scene, as some might assume — he's just one character in an exhibition that's only gotten broader with time. A city of 25 neighborhoods, with inhabitants from all over the West Indies, Latin America and Africa, Boston is home to a wide cast of personalities, and the sounds, styles and approaches to rap are as diverse and varied as the city itself. Boston is equal parts Athens and Sparta. There are college campuses located right in the 'hood. In the 21st century, this has produced great parity: There's been the slashing lyricism of Terminology, the conceptual consciousness of Mr. Lif, the flippant provocations of the Eminem-inspired and -endorsed Joyner Lucas, the triumphant introspection of Cousin Stizz, the feel-good rhapsodies of Michael Christmas and the sassy trap of BIA. Even those unaware of its rich hip-hop history shouldn't be surprised by all it continues to contribute.

All Rap is Local icons.

Where to start with Boston rap:

  • Prince Charles & The City Beat Band, "Tight Jeans" (1980)
  • Kevin Fleetwood & The Cadillacs of Sound, "Sweat It Off" (1983)
  • Rusty P The Toe Jammer & The Sure Shot 3, "Breakdown New York Style" (1984)
  • Prince Charles & The City Beat Band, "Combat Zone" (1984)
  • Almighty RSO, "The Greatest Show on Earth" (1986)
  • Gang Starr, "Fresh Avenue" (1986)
  • Fresh to Impress Crew, "Suzi Q" (1986)
  • Gang Starr, "Believe Dat!" (1987)
  • Sir Jake, "Jayhawk!" (1987)
  • TDS Mob, "Dope for the Folks" (1988)
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    Dart Adams