Hip-hop in the hub

Its finally here. The day the book drops. I am heading over to Beat Research soon to celebrate with the Beantown massive and wanted to put up the article before I do.

There is so much to say about this piece of work that I can’t even really begin. It took longer and was harder than I ever could have imagined. But it was also the highest honor to be asked to write the first real academic piece on Boston’s hip-hop history. What would you say? Its a complicated tale to say the least. Well, this is what I came up with.

A few words of introduction are clearly in order. First, thanks to everyone who opened their lives, collections and memories to me. I could not have done it without you. Second, I know there are certainly going to be some errors, omissions, thoughts about other angles to highlight, etc. I welcome your suggestions (post them up here) and hope I can update this in a second version, later works, etc. This is certainly a first pass at a lifelong project. Finally, you may notice that the article leaves a lot of the recent history (and people) out. That’s not because I see it as less important, interesting, etc. Just that I had a chance here to tell some tales that have not been told, reach some people that are harder to reach, and dig a little deeper into the past. I also wanted to celebrate a scene that I have loved and been around (but not quite in) for my whole life. So, that’s what I did.

There are lots of things I would do differently if I could. But most of it, I would do the same way again. Visiting Rusty and Spice at Touch. The trip to Maine to see/hear the Lecco’s Lemma archives and talk to Magnus my old friend. Checking in with Skippy at his last remaining store and asking him about his first memories. Reconnecting the electro sounds coming out of Boston in the early 1980s to the birth of hip-hop. A lot. Anyway. I hope you enjoy reading it half as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Here it is with respect to all of you who lived it the first time around.

Hip-Hop in the Hub: How Boston Rap Remained Underground

For those of you who can afford the $165 price tag (nah, I don’t get any) its also available in the massive comp Hip Hop In America: A Regional Guide.

Thanks of course to Mickey for all the hard work putting out this massive compendium and inviting me to be part of it.

Lecco’s Lemma Mega-Mix

Lecco’s Lemma Mega-Mix

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This Monday, November 30 I am honored to be playing the Beat Research night over at the Enormous Room in Cambridge with fellow hip-hop scribe Brian Coleman. We will be celebrating the release of the book Hip Hop in America: A Regional Guide, in which my article on Boston’s early hip-hop scene is appearing. The book technically drops that very day and this will be a chance for me to share all the musical treasures I uncovered along the way.

This is an enormous honor for me and I have to thank all the folks I talked to for sharing their stories and setting me straight about others. I’ll be posting the article on the 30th so you can all give it a read. In the strange economy of academic publishing, the book will likely be too expensive for most of my friends to buy. But since I was not getting paid anything to do it (thank UMASS for keeping my lights on), I at least negotiated to keep the rights so I can use it for other purposes (such as sharing with you).

In the meantime, Chris Faraone did a nice piece in the Phoenix this week shining some light on the tapes and the show Monday. Thanks! I wanted to follow up with some audio from the archive and some additional pictures. The mix above is a collection of some of the tapes I captured in a sleepless night up in Magnus’ lab two summers ago now. I included some of the station IDs and began the mix with an iconic first interview with Guru (then Keithy E) and Mikey Dee. Perhaps this was Guru’s first on air appearance! In the interview, Magnus asks why he has not heard of them before and seems genuinely impressed with the tape while the phone rings off the hook in the background. It sounds like a beautiful time in the history of Boston rap. Come on down Monday to hear more.

Lecco’s Lemma Lives

Old Whirled Music

Olga Bibor and Her Peasant Jazz Orchesra, Out of My Album

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Archive dot org on Olga Bibor.

When you spend enough time listening to and discussing old records, sometimes it seems like the more things change, the more they stay the same. Let me explain. I recently had the pleasure of hosting a lovely couple named Olga and Raph and who had played at Beat Research under the name The Gypsy Sound System. Despite some of the commentary over at Wayne’s mega blog, I have to say I liked the set a lot. In addition to a tasteful selection of tunes, Olga sang mournful melodies over dub instrumentals and they generally played a tight, danceable (if perhaps a little ethnokitschy) set.

Not the make light of the serious issues (of which I am largely ignorant) around the gypsy term in their name, but the whole debate reminded of another Olga who was engaged in a complex re-presentation of Eastern European musical memes and modern dance trends. But this one fronted a band back in 1919. Now this is the kind of coincidence that can only occur if you have paid proper homage to the vinyl gods.

Olga Bibor and her Peasant Jazz Orchestra’s “Out My Album” was recorded in New York City in May 1919 by a Hungarian group led by a woman named Olga. It was also the subject of an old post of mine back in 2006 titled Olga Bibor’s Peasant Jazz Orchestra and the Proto-Jazz Melting Pot and was the most inexplicable record in Rob’s Collection. The post generated a little buzz among a handful of 78 collectors (scroll down), but never went viral. Until now. If you head over there, note that I was not the source of the “world’s first jazz record” question. But these folks do have some interesting notions about the global dance musical goulash represented here.

According to one commentator “like many such emigrant ensembles in New York during this period, their output included folk dance melodies (csardas, waltz, lander), as well as Tin Pan Alley tunes such as Silver Threads Among the Gold.” Rob Chalfen hears this song as blending the sounds of “circus, NY string bands, proto-jazz, klezmer & somehow St. Louis or Memphis-type (?) ragtime riffs in one enigmatic performance.” While others don’t hear as much nuance perhaps, they are similarly clear about the early jazz content. “The tune sounds to me like it’s based, at least partly, on Weary Blues, a jazz standard dating from 1915, by Artie Matthews (prolific African American songwriter and ragtime composer).” Apparently (and not surprisingly), the group also performed under the name Olga Bibor and her Gypsy Ensemble.

So, here we have a woman named Olga fronting an Eastern European band playing a combination of currently popular dance music with jazz in their name (a term which may have been added by recording executives who were trying to capture the exploding interest in this new beat heavy music). But remember folks, this was 1919, just two years after the earliest Original Dixieland Jazz Band releases. Back in the old days, people still managed to share their influences with no assistance from blogs, torrents or rapidshare sites. They traveled around buying records and playing them for (and with) other people. Listening, watching, learning, playing, and partying together as best they could given the social contexts they were coming from/into. In the process, things get creatively scrambled. Trust me. It happened just the other night.

The night Raph and Olga stayed over, I got to chat with them after the gig for a while. They didn’t strike me as boorish exploiters of others’ cultures. Rather, they seemed like kind, open-eared fellow travelers in the musical omniverse. Things got really interesting when Raph pulled out the accordian and I tried to accompany him on some trad sounding tunes. As an old rock guitarist from way back who has gradually lost his chops, I was having trouble finding the right strumming rhythm. After kindly suffering my rhythmic mutilations for a while, Raph finally turned to me and said, “its like ska, chak-chak-chak” as he mimed the guitar strum physically and sang it on the “ands” for me. Somehow, he must have known that a Specials reference would help this half Ukranian Boston PhDj former alterna-rocker learn how to muddle through Eastern European tunes he was still (re)learning himself.

Like I said, le plus ça change.