…was from Boston?!?! Back before Earl Simmons became known as the NY DMX, a Boston Beatboxer by the same name was tearing up local mics. I had not realized that the DMX we have come to recognize was also originally a beatboxer who got his start around 1984. I guess given the timeline, a DMX vs DMX battle was a possibility. Note to the hip-hop historians: Could we still put this battle together as a follow up to the infamous A-Train vs Solo Battle? (Yeah NYC, we won that one hands down). DMX (NYC) and DMX (Boston), you down?
Anyway, a while back I got a request for some Boston DMX and being the keeper of the tapes, it is my responsibility to provide. Here is the classic DMX/LaCarr routine from the Leccos Lemma show ca. 1986. There are so many amazing things about this routine to me. From the quotation of Trans Europe Express, Inspector Gadget AND the Pink Panther to the huge number of people in the background shouting and cheering along to the whistle beatboxing (which according to A-Train we invented) to the seamless tradeoffs between these cousins, it’s another example of how Boston was right there at the start (and all along really).
Simply put, Think Tree was one of the most important and incredible bands ever. They also happened to hail from Boston, MA. The story goes something like this. In 1986, all but one member had been in a short lived punk/keyboard outfit called Psychotech. According to this description from their last interview “It was kind of a hard-core techno band. It was sort of like a hard-core band with keyboards instead of guitars and we used to smash up keyboards and stuff.” In other words a punk/funk/keyboard outfit before the chili peppers OR nine inch nails or any of the bands that later blended hardcore and funk and/or keyboards and samples.
Consider the following historical factoids:
Meat Beat Manifesto formed in 1987 – a year after Psychotech had been tearing up stages at Boston clubs like Chet’s and the Rat and the same year Think Tree had its first show.
Nine Inch Nails started in 1988 – a year after Psychotech disbanded to start Think Tree. Think Tree had already been playing around Boston for a year by the time Nine Inch Nails was formed.
The seminal Chicago based industrial band Ministry was out around that time on Wax Trax, but they never had the groove and punk/funk angle that always found its way into Think Tree sets.
Think Tree included Peter Moore (keyboards), Will Ragano (guitar), Paul Lanctot (keyboards), Krishna Venkatesh (keyboards) and Jeff Biegert (drums). Their music and live performances blended punk/industrial aesthetics with progressive prog rock compositions played live with plenty of electronics. The video above is sadly one of the only ones on the web, but it gives you a good sense of the band at their prime. Just before the grunge tsunami hit and obliterated many lesser keyboard oriented bands, Think Tree represented the ultimate synthesis of keyboards and live punk/prog performance. In their reign as one of Boston’s most progressive and influential bands, they released Hire a Bird in 1989 as a 12″ single, a full length record “Eight / Thirteen” (which included “Hire a Bird”) in 1990, and the full length record “Like the Idea” in 1991. “Hire a Bird” was included in the Boston Phoenix’s Top 500 records of all time in 1999. They were also hilarious and irreverent to the end.
Here is a super funny interview with them on WMWM (Tufts University’s station) in 1991. It gives a good sense of their aesthetic and sonic palette as they keep interrupting the talk with goofy and ghastly electronic punctuations.
To say Think Tree was influential is to put it mildly. Rumor has it that they had a strong influence on early Nine Inch Nails (though they never did perform the Devo/Zepplin live mashup “Uncontrollable Hop” that Think Tree had planned for a special gust appearance with Reznor). Brian Eno was a fan as were many other forward thinking punk/progressive/industrial/electronic tweakers. They literally helped invent the genre “synthesizer oriented industrial prog funk”.
In the classic indy rock band story, their label Caroline Records never really gave them the support they deserved and so they never toured or got the distribution they needed to break out nationally. Once the grunge wave hit, lots of keyboard bands were kicked to the curb in favor of small guitar rock outfits with big narcotic habits. Although Think Tree paved the way for the genre, brainy synth punk was definitely out in the mid 1990s and their distinctly non-commercial aesthetic certainly didn’t help them convince the bean counters of their mass market potential. In 1993, Think Tree played their last show.
Krishna went on to form the even harder sounding El Dopa with his brother, Bassist Alex Smoller and drummer Danny Lee from Cxema. Will and Peter went on to form Count Zero, who continue the Think Tree tradition to this day. The Count Zero story is rich enough for its own long post (they have released 3 full length records, appeared in Guitar Hero, etc etc). More importantly, they are having a CD release party this Friday, May 13 up at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge, MA.
Go see them Friday and be sure to scream out the titles of old Think Tree songs. If you are lucky, they might even play one!
Meanwhile, here is a little live mashup I made a while back with DJ Flack’s “The Story of O” and Think Tree’s classic “Hire A Bird”. Enjoy.
For the past two days I was hanging out at the Rethink Music conference in Boston. I had lots and lots of reactions, some of which I will share here over the next little while. But the one that sticks out most is that there was so little music there. I know it was mostly about new business models, but does that mean we don’t need a kick ass soundtrack? After the first panel as the wireless mics went down and the canned hotel music came back up (I think it was actually a Muzak version of a Kenny G song (if that’s even possible) I quickly tweeted “Rethink Muzak”. To the organizer’s credit, by the end of day two, I was hearing some Afropop and other less egregiously banal selections. Thanks for listening.
This reminded me of something Wayne said about musicology conferences having very little music. I guess the same could be said for the management conferences I go to (very little discussion of actual issues faced by managers). It also reminded me that back in 2003, when I was finishing up my PhD at Boston College, I was browsing around the database enclosure for music industry info and came across a Forrester Research report complete with AUDIO! I grabbed that fast thinking “someday, I am gonna remix this!” It has languished on my hard drive ever since (though I occasionally stumble over it and always laugh at the “disks are dying” phrase – when were they ever alive???).
Back at the once active Riddim Method site, we used to talk about musical discussions about music. That’s what I love the most about music, I guess. Talking about it while its playing and learning as I listen with others. So that’s what I want to propose here. A Rethink Music Remix Project.
To kick things off, I offer my own rapid prototype called Disks Keep on Dying. (There was lots of discussion at the conference of “failing fast” and I am sure that this will fit the bill). Its a quick remix I did just layering the first bit of the audio over a track I had been working on. More importantly, I include the original Forrester Audio here for all my remixologist pals to play with. I know you can do much better than I can. Have at it. Plus, its pretty interesting to listen to a prediction about the music industry from back in 2003. Not too bad really.
Without a proper soundtrack, I can’t think at all (let alone rethink).
Thanks to the organizers and panelists for a fantastic first year. Thanks also to the hidden labor at the Hynes convention center who kept bringing those bagels and keeping us in water bottles. And most of all, thanks to all my new Twitterypals. I am hooked. Your backchannel ROCKED!
Hey innernets. Here’s a new mix I did for you. It’s the story of a club dancer who grows up in the discos of New York in the late 1970s. Considering herself a genius of love she leaves New York in search of a mystical paradise filled with creole music and coconuts. Along the way she has a run in with some nasty Spanish kids in a rollerskating rink but is saved by the godfather of rap. He introduces her to some nice & smooth Spanish kids who take her in and remind her that she was once a genius of love. About that time she becomes enamored with Chicago’s lights and takes a job at a club where she is paid to move her bottom to the music. Things are ok for a little bit (at least she is dancing again) but every night after work, its bottoms up at the bar. The story gets really funked up when she starts doing it anyway she wants to and falls in love with a freakman who promises her an acting career in Hollywood but leaves her broken down in Liquorland. At least that’s what I was thinking about when I made it.
If this doesn’t make any sense, you can think of it as a postmodern allegory about the death of rollerskating jams. That’s another way to look at it, I guess.
Unfortunately, the title of the mix is somewhat misleading because there is really no disco in there. Its mostly late 1970s and early 1980s funk, boogie and other dance tunes I love to rock. There are certainly plenty of “disco” references though. And it starts with a song called discoland and ends with one called liquorland. That’s the main idea: A trip from discoland to liquorland. Understand?
Anyway, I hope you enjoy listening to it half as much as I enjoyed drinking while I made it. Like Casey said, “liquorland is a real nice place/you might want to visit but you don’t want to stay/cause if you stay you’ll never get away/and you might wind up like me someday”. Thanks for the warning Casey. See you all at the disco.
Lonnie Jordan – Discoland
Gap Band – Shake
Kid Creole and the Coconuts – Going Places
Tom Tom Club – Genius of Love (12″ dub)
Grandmaster Flash – Its Nasty
Nice and Smooth – Hip Hop Junkies (Spanish mix)
Spoonie Gee – Godfather of Rap
LV – Throw Your Hands Up
Trickernation – Rap Bounce Rockskate
Vaughn Mason – Bounce Rock Skate Roll
LV – Throw Your Hands Up
Chi-Lites – Bottoms Up
Bunny Sigler – I’m Funkin You Tonight (With my Music)
Empire – Freakman
Kool and the Gang – Hollywood Swinging
Crave – Bounce
Mighty Casey – Liquorland Pt. 2
Happy Easter and recently passed Passover. Given that my Hebrew name is Pesach, it has always been an important holiday for me. Whatever you think about organized religion, it seems like a good idea for families and friends to get together to talk about liberation at least once a year. Since the Exodus story is at the heart of the holiday, there are lots of ecumenical and inclusive approaches to this one in particular. (We always have an orange on the seder plate and some discussion of the contradictions of a diasporic people supervising the occupation of others).
Here is a musical interpretation I did some years back with my man Darren “The Bass Creator” Beaudet as part of our Dubya project. It was done live with two decks, two Lexicon Jam Man looper/delays and an ancient Mackie Micro 1202 mixer.
We looped up the break (I forget which one it is, but a familiar one for sure) then Darren looped and layered as I rocked away with some Seder records and eventually worked into some ragamuffin hip hop style (a Blood and Fire break I believe and Cutty Ranks’s “Stopper” acapella on top).
Back in 0ught 6 when this was made, Matisyahu was still fresh and I was thinking lots about Hebrew dubhop. We never really went that way, but this track at least gives an idea of some imaginary futures.
Till our next dub-hop Seder, keep on chanting down Babylon.
On March 2rd, 2011 I joined Dana Scott and the gang down at WMBR (88.1 FM) for the second installation of my Boston Hip Hop tribute and Lecco’s Lemma Archive sessions. It was epic, if I do say so myself. I dropped some classic Boston 90s ish by artists like God Complex, Polecat, Tmax, Motion, Prento Kid (not from Boston but with Boston production by Underground Productions) and more. We also rapped about some history, had some laughs and nearly melted the decks with all the Boston heat.
Heads were bobbing off their necks in the studio as always happens when I break out the mid-90s Underground tracks (respect to Brad and Dow, the least appreciated producers out there in the Bean IMHO). Man, people have been sleepin’ on Boston’s lost classics for way too long now. Its amazing to us elders, but for all the really deep underground 90’s stuff (and earlier), there’s a new generation of ears out there who are feeling it hard. Lots of catz and kittens who are down with the underground now were still making macaroni art for gold stars when some of the Best Boston Beats dropped in 1995-1998. Listen for yourself.
Given the long silence over here you might have thought the Lecco’s Lemma tapes had gone missing again. Never. Its just been a busy time over in the academy (with tenure decisions looming and papers piling up). We also had some grants out for digitization that didn’t come through so its been me ripping them in my spare time – which slows things down for sure. We might need to crowd source this after all. Then again, UMASS just launched a new archival studies program and I met the new director who seemed to immediately get the importance of this collection. Fingers crossed.
Meanwhile, with political shootings making their ugly re-appearance in the USA and the renewed interest in the power of words to change minds (for good or ill), seemed important to remember the peaceful principles built into the foundations of hip-hop. So I decided to go digging in the Lecco’s tapes for the MLK episode I was sure I had seen. Indeed, there it was. Lovingly illustrated and notated as I had remembered it.
I think I first met Billy Ruane in 1988 when I sat in with a friend’s band at the Middle East upstairs. I was back from college on a winter break that turned into a year long hiatus in which I attended a bunch of Billy’s shows. At that time, The Middle East Downstairs was still a bowling alley and until recently, the entertainment upstairs had been mostly belly dancing and other light cultural fare. In the legendary Boston rock origin story, Billy Ruane changed all that in 1987 and lit the fire that still burns in Central Square. In the family of Boston rock, Billy was the crazy uncle who always came with arms full of gifts (even if they were sometimes as mysterious as a trunk full of scavenged biology texts).
The other night as I wallowed in Pabst Blue Ribbon while watching old footage of Billy at the closing of Mojo Records and making a mix tape in his honor, who should walk in but Roger Miller. In a moment of chance that seems divine, sitting there on the top of the pile of Human Sexual Response, O Positive, Neighborhoods, Lyres, Treat Her Right, Throbbing Lobster, Limbo Race, Wrong, The Dark and Morphine records was Roger’s own 1987 release The Big Industry. Not only is this a significant record for me personally (Roger played twice at my college around this time and was nearly attacked with a machete in my dorm after a show), the release party for this record was the first real rock show at the Middle East. Billy had already been trying book bands in the restaurant’s back room but they had been reluctant. Roger beat him to it for the release of The Big Industry and Billy came back to the Middle East upset that he had been scooped. The next month, in November 1987, he convinced them to let him book bands there for his 30th birthday party. It has remained a hub of the Boston music scene ever since.
Here’s the mix of mostly 80s’ post punk and pop rock I made in Billy’s honor. In fact, I’m not sure he even liked any of these songs. It’s just a mix that reminds me of him and expresses some feelings about his loss that I could not express better in any other way. Plus, its just a bitchin Boston mix. My favorite kind.
1. Unba Unba – Human Sexual Response
2. Houses R Falling Down – The Dark
3. Manic Depression – Roger Miller
4. Sin City – Treat Her Right
5. Sharks – Morphine
6. Talk About Love – O Positive
7. /one/blue story/ – Wrong
8. Down and Backwards – Limbo Race
9. Boys Town Work Song – Christmas
10. Prettiest Girl – The Neighborhoods
11. I Think She Likes Me – Treat Her Right
12. Yesterday – Swinging Erudites
13. No Reason – Treat Her Right
Over the years, Billy paced me (and passed me often) throughout the Cambridge music scene. A dervish dancing like it was a Dead Kennedy’s show to the mild mannered Kora player he had booked at the Green Street Grille. Shirt open to the navel always. Beer barely in hand. A dapper disheveled Boston rock impresario racing through Cambridge with his heart on his suit jacket sleeve leaving a trail of musical madness in his wake. Who will teach the children to slam dance in their slippers and nightshirts? He booked the Pineapple Ranch Hands and so so many other bands over the years. Hell, I even interviewed him for my dissertation on Boston nightclubs.
Although we were not close personally, we knew each other well after 20 years of bumping into each other at shows. For so many people, Billy was the best friend you saw too little and always had the best time with. Maybe the closer you got, the more likely you were to get burned from his intense heat. But from my safe distance, Billy was a comet that streaked through most of my adult life. Usually when I was having the most fun.
Though I always met Billy over music, in the end I knew him best through records. Over the years, I encountered him often on my rounds. At a yard sale here. At a Goodwill there. Often at Mojo Records in Cambridge. In March 2006 Mojo closed. I was there filming between Sunday March 19 and Tuesday March 21. Billy was there too. Every day. In the end, it came down to a race between Billy and the Goodwill Guys. I guess it always did. This time, I got it on film. Billy was never quite so Billy.
All of this seems like it was preplanned. One possibility is that Lecco engaged the services of the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu and somehow orchestrated a rediscovery of 1980’s Boston hip-hop to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the Lecco’s Lemma show. In another, Lecco invaded the Media Lab through a wormhole he left back in 1986 and secretly built a tractor beam to draw the Lemmas back home. Whatever the plan, the machine certainly seemed to speak this weekend up in Maine. Let me provide some history.
You see, according to the origin myth, Lecco was the computer that was secretly running the local rap radio show that Magnus started in September 1985 in the basement of MIT. Even then, the singularity seemed near. The tapes (or more properly the songs) were his Lemmas. I have been searching for them for a while now.
On July 11, 2007, I visited Magnus up in his northern lab/studio/record repository. As usual, he is way ahead of everybody else (having moved to high ground long ago with his massive collection of reggae 45s and acres of LPs and 12’s). Unfortunately, on that first visit I only had one night to spend with him. It was great to reconnect and greater still to hear the famed Lecco’s Lemma tapes. But it was rushed. I was only able to record a few tapes before grabbing a couple of hours of shut eye for the long drive home. Not only that, I hadn’t brought a proper tape deck and the good one was deeply wired into Mango’s studio. So I wound up grabbing audio out of a boom box headphone jack. (Somehow appropriate, but not exactly up to even my lame archival standards).
As a result, I was only able to digitize a small fraction of the three wine boxes full of Lecco’s tapes he had kept together. I thought there was a life’s work just in those three boxes, but as I was leaving he explained that there were probably that many more tapes scattered throughout his dozens of boxes of unsorted tapes. I assured him I’d be back soon.
As it increasingly seems to do, time raced along and it was two years later (nearly to the day) when I discovered the second trove. Not in Magnus’s lab this time but in a closet up on the North Shore of Massachusetts. Coming just before the 25th anniversary of the first Lecco’s Lemma show, this new discovery seemed like an clear message from the record gods and perhaps even from Lecco himself. After years of asking around, what’s the chance of finding a collection of 180 show tapes containing the precious on-air performances that Magnus had witnessed (and fondly described) but never recorded? And on the 25th anniversary of the show no less! I immediately called Magnus to see about coming to find those remaining tapes. This time I went prepared with some time on my hands and a tape deck.
This last weekend, on the 25th anniversary of the show, I spent a whole day in Magnus’s lab sorting tapes while he painted. Strangely, we often worked in silence. Sometimes he would amble over to my ever growing piles and dig out a familiar gem. They were always incredible. Tapes of his pre Lecco’s show Reggae Mukassa, original tapes of Gnawa music from the 1970s and of course, many many Lecco’s Lemma demos.
In my secret dreams I must confess I had imagined reuniting the two Lecco’s Lemma tape collections. In more sober moments I also thought it might be either unwise to have them all in one place (what if lightning hit the pile for example) or at best highly unlikely that Magnus would want to part with even one box of the precious Lemmas. Luckily hope prevailed over caution and I mustered the courage to ask him in a statement that was only half a question…”er, well, you know if we get this grant to digitize them, we might need to, er…take some tapes.” The quiet answer was a shudder inducing, “I think I can trust you”. The next morning, his mind-frying coda was delivered over the phone when I called him at work to confirm that it had not been just another diggers dream. “You are the caretaker now.” I had to turn off the video tape to collect myself.
Oh yeah. I forgot to mention that I got it all on tape. Audio tape of course. But more importantly, video. I have perhaps 2 hours of Magnus telling the story of the show, his own history as a DJ and lots and lots of me digging.
Whether by fate, luck or some cyborgian scheme, somehow the Lemmas returned home just in time for their 25th birthday. I don’t know why I was chosen. Perhaps just because I kept asking. Or perhaps it was part of the plan all along. Either way, Magnus knows I will be a good custodian and that Lecco watches over the Lemmas always.
When I got to visit Magnus and the original Lecco’s Lemma tapes I was honored and humbled. Here were the raw materials of one of the oldest rap shows in the country (September 1985) and a critical one in the history of Boston hip-hop. In all of the wonder of that discover there was only one problem…Magnus didn’t tape his own show (or at least not that often). It makes sense. Listening to these tapes it’s clear he was juggling a lot already. The problem is, he did lots of on air stuff. Without the tapes of the shows the record would always be incomplete.
So I began asking around. Lots of people claimed to have tapes of the show. I have a few myself. But when it came right down to it, there just weren’t that many around. But there was one person on my list who I never quite connected with…until recently. I guess I just assumed when he said that he taped the show a lot it was the same as all of us…a lot less often than we remembered. Well. In this case I was wrong.
I finally connected with him this past weekend. As I walked up to the house with my backpack, he stood up from the stoop where he had been waiting and said, “Where’s your truck”. “Truck?”, I replied already taken aback. “What do you mean? How many tapes do you have?” “Like I said, I have boxes, man” was his only reply as he disappeared up the stairs to the archive. I still didn’t quite believe him until he opened the closet door. Then I had to sit down to keep from falling over. He has boxes man.
I left with one box containing 64 tapes of the show. He still has two more. Rounding down, lets say there are 60 tapes per box. That’s 180 tapes. Two tapes per show on average is about 90 shows. Since the show only ran for three years, that’s more than half the shows EVER! With this and Magnus’ original tape collection we will be able to compile a pretty complete picture of 80s Boston hip-hop.
Needless to say, there will be much more to say (and more importantly hear). I’ll be putting stuff up here and on the new Lecco’s Lemma soundcloud account all year. After all, September 2010 is the 25th anniversary of the first Lecco’s Lemma show in 1985…so bust out the tape decks people as we run it down for y’all.
Peace to Magnus and DJ Spin (the first Lecco’s archivist) and all the Lecco’s Lemma alumni out there!