Boston Hip Hop History: Magnus Carta

Not long ago, I posted a link to some info at WZBC about early hip hop shows (see the bottom of the page) with legendary Boston DJ/Artist Magnus. This generated a conversation with Brian Coleman (another WZBC DJ) about when Magnus started playing hip hop in Boston. We decided to e-mail Magnus for some clarification. Here’s a great bit of Boston Hip Hop History from a true pioneer (pictured here with his paintings from a photo at Art Net.)
pace- although i’ve been to a number of blog sites – grime fr’ instance- to cull info & ting – i’ve never blogged myself or ever been to a chat room – not much of a chit chat type – so i’m sending you this in email – you can post it if you like –

in the summer of 85 i had been filling in once a week almost every week on wmbr’s nightly black music show “the ghetto”. All the other dj’s – like ray antoine – who i think is still at wmbr – were playing stuff like the gap band, prince & morris day’s the time – i didn’t like that shit but i was mad for the emerging hip hop – it got so that by the end of the summer i would get on, not even say anything, play 3 raps in a row & the phones would start ringing – “keep it going magnus! i remember in august i played a new song twice by popular request – the only time before or since- it was “la di da di” by doug e fresh & slick rick- i was having a very good time.

at the same time my regular reggae show- “reggae mukasa” had hit a doldrum- the new music coming out was getting increasingly lame & my enthusiasm was flagging so i decided to give it up. my buddy at wmbr & mit- thomas uebel- alias “thomas alien” a german by way of england student who i had originally produced to start the first african show in the country- “aliens’ corner”-(note the placement of the apostrophe) didn’t wanna see me give up radio & suggested that since i was so keen on the new digital rythym music- not just rap but other stuff i was into- that i propose a new show to the wmbr program board- he even invented the name- “lecco’s lemma”. i did & it was accepted & given the 4-6 saturday afternoon spot in september.

as soon as i started though the kids found me & the requests started jamming the phones- all for rap. it got so that as soon as every show started all 3 phone lines would light up- & stay that way- as soon as you’d answer it & put it back down- it would light back up- the energy was incredible & there were no other rap shows anywhere- dj red alert had a late night 1 hour show in nyc- but that was about it.

in fact there was a real antipathy for rap music in the older black audience- mattapan music fr’ instance- who were sponsoring my show- took out an ad at the time on WILD- boston’s “black” radio that they self produced that included a snippet of rap on it. the owner of the station- joe johnson- a trinidadian- heard it & was furious- called the station & had them yank it. i remember particularly a letter from a black parent & teacher to wmbr accusing the show of promoting regressive language that featured later as a bit of evidence in the show’s cancellation at wmbr – many of my fellow (white) dj’s couldn’t believe that i listened to that music at home- said that i was just doing it to be different & that it wouldn’t last –

meanwhile i was soliciting homemade tapes that i was then playing- & then some rappers came down to rap live on the show – this was not such an innovation for me- i had had many jamaican rappers “toast” live over rythyms on my reggae show – but the floodgates soon opened-

before i knew it the studios were inundated with gaggles of aspiring rappers eager to get on live- one saturday i showed up it was standing room only inside-in fact the overflow was packed outside the studios at walker memorial building- some kids had mimeographed flyers announcing a “battle” & invited everybody down.

the powers that be at wmbr however, were becoming concerned that things were getting out of control – & they were not entirely wrong as regards the unintended obscenities getting aout over the air-no matter how much some rappers were asked to obliterate the expletives inevitably the enthusiasms would overwhelm & bad words would happen –

by may of 86 mbr had had enough & canned the show- i was going to leave it at that but the kids wouldn’t have it- so i called andrew herman- the pd at wzbc- & he gave me a spot- sunday night at first- then saturday- with the stipulation of no guests- which held to some extent- & also zbc was harder to get to-

by the way pace- i noticed in yr top ten- (ed note: actually a link to someone else’s top 10) no grime? no mia no dizzie rascal et al? no reggaeton? no tego calderon no mickey perfecto et al? what’ up with that? ok i’m done m
Ed note: Despite his claim to be “done”, his show The Matrix can be heard on WERU in Blue Hill, ME. For the sake of music, thank god


5 thoughts on “Boston Hip Hop History: Magnus Carta

  1. Hello Pace, thanks for posting Magnus’ words for my viewing pleasure. I thought you might be interested in this – I posted it on a WZBC message board last year in response to a quesiton about Magnus. Enjoy!


    Magnus Johnstone was always a bit ahead of his time where music was concerned. He’d discover, devour, disseminate, then depart once the next new thing came along. He was into reggae, Chicago house, Kraftwerkian electro, all before they became widely popular. And then in the early 80’s he got in on the ground floor with hip-hop. In 1985, he got a radio show on MIT’s radio station WMBR 88.1 FM, on Saturday afternoons, and would play the newest rap records from Spin City, Skippy White’s, Nubian Notions, and Nancy’s Record & Book Store downtown. Although some rap had been heard previously on WERS 88.9’s “Special Edition” (Cosmic Crew, pre- Def Jam Beasties, UTFO’s “Roxanne Roxanne” in Hosh Gureli’s 1984 Mastermix), that show featured mainly current urban dance like Jonzun Crew, Shannon and Freeez. Kiss 108 had played “Planet Rock”, “Jam On It” and “Rapper’s Delight”, but that was really just for novelty’s sake. And Boston’s preeminent black music station, WILD 1090 AM, utterly refused to play rap at the time. So hip-hop fans from all over Boston tuned in as best they could to Lecco’s Lemma, this tiny signal down at the bottom of the dial. The origin of the show’s title was that the whole thing was being run at the behest of a master computer named Lecco, and these songs were the “lemmas”, or things he desired.

    Eventually, Magnus let local rap groups come down to the station and perform live on the air, beatboxing and rapping into cheap microphones in a tiny studio with little to no volume in the headphones. Early regulars were Disco P & The Fresh MC, Bodyrock (Chuck & E), MC Capers, The RSO and FTI crews, Rusty The Toejammer, The Tuff Crew, MC Fantasy, MC Spice, and RCC. Over the next couple of years, an amazing scene developed there every week, as this tiny studio would be transformed into a mini block-party, with Terry T holding court while sitting on top of an immense speaker, or Emo & Fantasy coming to blows while battling, or DMX & LeCarr putting on their amazing human beatbox routines, or Boston’s first white rap group White Magic making their awkward and timid debut… It was truly amazing to listen to and be a part of. The show got so popular that Magnus started to publish a monthly playlist featuring artwork sent in by listeners, on which he put the most popular songs by both local and national acts. Many in Boston were of the opinion that the former were often more interesting than the latter. Magnus started playing local tapes, either recorded in the studios of WMBR (RCC’s “Vivian”) or mailed or brought down by groups with some semblance of a home studio (usually just two turntables, a microphone, and a radio with line inputs).

    Just as the recordings started to sound better, Magnus moved his show onto Boston College’s WZBC 90.3 FM, which was easier to pick up on radio but had little local flavor at first. The powers-that-be at BC were barely tolerant of Magnus playing stuff like Just-Ice’s “Latoya” – there was no way they were going to allow large groups of young black men to roam their halls and shout obscenities over their airwaves. However, necessity being the mother of invention, rap groups immediately set out to improve their recording techniques so their tapes could be played on the show. By then, groups like The RSO, Gangstarr, and MC Spice had already moved onto releasing vinyl produced in professional studios, and the compilation Boston Goes Def had exposed other rappers. But the charm of the show remained that Magnus would play ANYTHING once, no matter how crappy the sound quality or ridiculous the subject matter. DJ Prime with his off-beat but mesmerizing sound montages. Fantashe running out of breath live at the ICA. The Dilemma Crew’s absolutely inaudible cassettes. The Diamond 2 with their interminable 15-minute scratching / keyboard instrumentals… But eventually, everyone got good or got quit. The reigning kings of tape on the Lecco’s Lemma show were The White Boy Crew, Ultimate GQ, The COD Crew, Top Choice Clique, Extra FX, The DIS Crew. The only problem was this was all deviating from Magnus’ original plan of exposing listeners to underground inner-city hip-hop. What he was getting was slickly produced professional-sounding tapes from young suburban middle-class hipsters of varying racial background, who bought their four-tracks with money from their paper route or weekly allowance. These people got gift certificates for Skippy White’s in their Christmas stockings.

    So fine, great music abounded, but Magnus was growing bored with a medium that was starting to see mainstream airplay (The Fresh Prince and Sir Mixalot were showing up at the Grammys), and that was being showcased in a more professional way down the dial at Harvard’s WHRB 95.3 show “Street Beat” by David Mays & Jon Schecter (the eventual founders of The Source) and Def Jef from The RSO. Even more professional was communication school Emerson’s WERS 88.9 “Rap Explosion”, which featured short-lived DJ wunderkind Jesse McKie and his mixmaster successor Mark Morrow. Magnus was never very professional sounding himself, often getting song titles or group names wrong, playing records at the wrong speed, leaving the mic on while he chatted with his girlfriend on the studio phone. But all this just added to the charm and personality of the show, and Magnus’ easygoing manner encouraged listeners to call up and talk and leave shout-outs or battle cries to one another. The community persisted.

    But eventually Magnus got tired of playing the same damned stuff from the same damned people (COD, Top Choice, Out Of Town Posse, DJ Spin, MCDJ Force, Paris Toon) and started to devote more and more airtime to experimental dub electro and the nascent trip-hop movement. By the time Hammer, Vanilla Ice and BBD happened, Magnus had packed up and moved on. After a lengthy leave of absence during which he endured serious health problems and got back to his surreal biotechnical artwork, Magnus returned to both WZBC and WMBR in the late 90’s, spinning a mix of old-school hip-hop, trip-hop, dub, and whatever else he felt like playing. He has since moved up to Maine and has a show on WERU 89.9 FM, a tiny station up near Bar Harbor. No matter where he may be, he is never far from the thoughts of hip-hop artists and fans from Boston of the 1980’s. He was instrumental in nurturing countless talented individuals that would not have had any outlet otherwise. Guru, Edo G, Kool Gzus, Benzino, readers of The Source, and everyone else on down to the Boston rappers of today owes him an unending debt of gratitude We all wish him well, and miss his voice.

    Matt Reyes

  2. Whoa! Thanks for this amazing addition to the magnus story! I wish I had been taping all these shows. I bet someone was though…


  3. You’re very welcome! It’s great to find others who have these same fond memories. I myself taped most of Magnus’ shows, and am in the process of recording and editing them into my computer. I’ll let you know when I have more to work with. Though obviously Magnus would be the man to see about getting the original unedited local tapes. The last time I saw him, when he was still living in Winthrop, he had boxes and boxes of cassettes and reel-to-reels. I would venture to say that there is no human being on this planet who knows more about, or owns more recordings of, old-school Boston hip-hop. Damn, I gotta drop him an email myself… Talk to you later.

    Oh by the way, I have that same DJ bobblehead figurine sitting on top of my effects rack right now! Funny…

  4. Hi thanks for your blog, I liked it! I also have a blog/site about music that covers music related stuff. Please feel free to visit.

  5. Hey Kev G!

    Thanks for the heads up on the Lecco’s Lemma site. I’d love to hear those tapes of yours too!

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