Look out for the OVC (poster)

OVC poster by way of Saturn

OVC poster by way of Saturn

The other day, I walked into the front room and was flabbergasted to find a little-known piece of Boston’s Hip-Hop history casually laid out on Ken’s Klipsch speaker as if I were meant to find it. This would seem like a magical manifestation under almost any circumstances given my fascination with Boston’s Hip-Hop history and the mindboggling connections between the Jonzun Crew and Sun Ra represented by this little paper triangle. The fact that I had recently been dreaming of building Pyramidal subwoofers makes it seem more like an intergalactic message dropped there by the Man From Saturn himself.

Although there is now a fair bit of information available about the OVC, when I wrote my chapter on Boston Hip-Hop, Tompkins had yet to release the mindbomb How to Wreck a Nice Beach and there was almost no information anywhere about the cryptic reference in the title of the Boston electrofunk classic Pack Jam (Look Out for the OVC) by the Jonzun Crew.

PakMan_Boston_Intl_Records

As I did research for my article, I kept re-wondering “What the hell was this OVC anyway?!” Having whined about it enough to the right people, I learned the answer shortly after it was (re)discovered but swore a solemn oath to keep the story to myself. Which I of course did. Take my word for it, this whole OVC thing was seriously secret info only a few years back. Even now it’s a bit esoteric and the fact that the OVC is the link between Sun Ra and Hip-Hop still seems almost impossible. If you are not quite sure what the hell I am talking about, here it is in one ghastly sentence:

Boston’s Jonzun Crew was connected to Jazzman/Intergalactic traveler Sun Ra via the OVC (the Outerspace Visual Communicator), a light show-producing keyboard that was designed by MIT-affiliated inventor/funk keyboardist Bill Sebastian and used in several Boston Sun Ra Shows and one film.

Now even if you are not a Boston obsessed music obsessive like me, this is a pretty amazing story. For me, its fundamental. In fact, the whole Boston-Electrofunk-Sun Ra connection is a critical piece of evidence that Boston was an important (and overlooked) source for Hip-Hop’s electro/cosmic elements. Seriously, find me a place where early Hip-Hop and Sun Ra connect other than in Boston. Whatever your beliefs about the importance of the Bean in providing some of Hip-Hop’s deepest connections with intergalactic beings, at the very least the OVC deserves a special place in the story of the birth of Hip-Hop (and its Beantown roots).

Since I could not run this down in the chapter given my oath (and could never have done it better than Dave anyway), allow me to offer a few annotations to the now mythical story of the OVC. (Oh to have stalked the beast into the gloamy evening underbrush with Dave and Brian back in the dark ages of ’09…sigh.)

Sun Ra at Mass Art

But first of all, where did the poster come from? Did Sun Ra really show up and leave it up front? Most likely not. Originally, this poster was from a series of shows at Mass Art on June 26-29, 1980. Most recently, it arrived by way of Roger Miller who had it floating around in the Alloy Orchestra van. Being a fan of Sun Ra, a gobsmacked bandmate asked if he could have the artifact for his ephemera collection (since it was just laying around the van anyway). Apparently Roger gave it up gladly claiming “to have plenty of them”. Wha?! Sometime after that point the cosmic communique was left on the speaker where I found it. But frankly Ken did not seem entirely sure about any of this, really. Maybe its more plausible that Sun Ra did drop it off.

Wherever the thing came from, it got me sleuthing around again about the OVC. I returned to Dave’s book, of course. Then I went looking for digital crumbs on the internet which I have assembled together here for you. This re-search turned up the following known and semi-known bits of additional info arranged in a rough timeline of the OVC and its interconnections with the Arkestra via Bill Sebastian and the Jonzun Crew.

1973 – Keyboardist/inventor Bill Sebastian is playing with the Johnson Brothers and invents a keyboard light show that plays the band’s name in lights. Perhaps the fractal-electronic seed of the OVC had been planted. Go read the whole awesome interview with Michael Johnson (did you know he and Maurice Starr did a bunch of backing tracks at Sugarhill, for example?). That same year, Sebastian sees sun Ra play in Boston (where was this show?) and spends the next five years building the OVC.

Sometime before 1977 – Sun Ra and the Arkestra play at Paul’s Mall in Boston. According to Warren, they were promoting Space is the Place so this show had to be before 1977. Please go see his amazing pictures of this show. Here is one I borrowed for this post.

1977 – Sun Ra plays the Cyclorama in Boston. No info on this show yet.

1978 – According to Tompkins (p. 117), this was the year Bill completed the OVC in Ore City, Texas. At around this time, Bill was placed at the Starsystems Loft on Thayer St. in Boston. Apparently Sun Ra and Bill spent some time together there using the OVC.

1979 – Sun Ra plays The Modern Theater in Boston. This is a week (or two) long run at which The OVC appears for the first time. Waren’s recollection of the show contains a nice reference to the OVC:

“He [Sun Ra] was to perform at a now-defunct theater in Boston, and it was to be a week-long run in which the Arkestra was joined by light artist Bill Sebastian, who had crafted an extraordinary device (the Spacescape light organ) that gave a dazzling visual accompaniment to the music. The photos of Ra and the Arkestra on the back jacket [The Other Side of the Sun] were taken during the band’s two-week stint at Boston’s Modern Theater in 1979. (Obscure digression: if you happen to see the film The Verdict with Paul Newman — filmed in Boston around the time of these shows – watch for the distinctive triangle-shaped flyer for these shows next to him in the scene where’s he’s chatting on an outdoor payphone.) Anyway: Two photos on the rear jacket of this LP show members of the band playing in front of Bill Sebastian’s eyeball-melting Outerspace Visual Communicator, an amazing light-sculpting device”

Back of the Other Side of the Sun

1980, June 26-29 – Mass College of Art. The OVC was clearly in full effect at this point, as was its inventor, who apparently spun around dressed as some kind of space Wizard. Perfect.

1984 – Sun Ra visits a new “OVC-3D” at the Johnson Brother’s studio, Mission Control. Somewhat earlier in 1982, the OVC was placed at Sebastian’s Munster-esque mansion in Roxbury, MA.

1986 – Sun Ra’s “Calling Planet Earth” video is released. Bill and Jonzun worked on this video with the Arkestra and it contains the best footage I have seen of the OVC (though it is still a little unclear to me how many of the effects were done with the OVC and how many were post production). The video once lived on the YouTube, but the only version I can find now is this one which I scraped off of the web:

Can we get a reissue/better version of this, Bill? Anyone?

More recently, rumors have been circulating around town that Bill and/or Sun Ra may be rebuilding the OVC. There is a tantalizing video called “The Return of the OVC” that claims to be footage from 1986. I can’t be sure what it all means but I hope posters about it keep showing up.

I’ll be looking into all of this as soon as I get that Pyramidal Subwoofer built. In the meantime, keep your eyes out for the OVC (or at least another poster). It may be appearing soon at a future mythical reunion show near you.

Massachusetts Graffiti History Vol. 1: MAST and SPRAY

MAST_Freight_Train_Graffiti_p102

To celebrate the recent release of the book The History of American Graffiti by local author Caleb Neelon and co-author Roger Gastman, I thought it would be good to share some additional detail on a piece of Massachusetts’s graffiti history that did not make made it into his book. Though I am still waiting for my copy, I did skim the chapter in the bookstore and was blown away by the amount of history they cover. Neelon and Gastman clearly did an incredible job and I offer this as a friendly addition, both to my own chapter and to his, not as any kind of criticism. As I learned when writing my own version of our local history, there is no way to get it all the first time. That’s why we need to work together to get it straight. [Ed note: Caleb emailed this AM and explained that he was the one who connected Freight Train Graf folks with MAST and that both he and Spray WERE in his chapter on Mass. A real honor given how much he had to include. Apparently, its just me that has trouble getting it right out of the gate and he certainly needs no help from me! LOL and sorry to doubt you from a mere skim, Caleb!]

Back in the 1980s, a Lowell MC/DJ/Dancer/Writer by the name of MAST/Def Rock was rockin’ the Shaughnessy Projects and tearing up the train yards. Back in the early days, there was much less specialization in hip-hop than there is today. Def is a classic example of what I call a 4 elements b-boy. In other words, he could dance, rhyme, rock the decks and get UP…all at the same time. Dudes like him are rare (non-existent?) among the up and comers who seem to focus on one, or at most two, main skills. Like all fields, it seems hip-hop has undergone a degree of specialization as it has evolved. (Correct me if I am wrong about this and there are more young 4 elements b-boys/girls out there than I am aware of).

Back in the day, there seemed to be many more who could do it all. He was (and still is) one of those dudes. As such, he deserves our undying respect as a founding father of the art out here. And like many of the best from Mass, Mast didn’t get the credit he deserved. Luckily, he is still at it and still dropping heat (focusing on the music now rather than the less legal forms of the practice). Go check out his shows up at the Stone Church (recently rocked with Just Ice and Lyrical) and get his latest release Progress/Regress! Its free up on Archive.org fergawdsakes people (but you should really send him a check anyway for helping to create hip-hop for you).

Not only was he the mastermind behind monstamind/megabug and the engineer/DJ behind Excalibur’s 1997 Butta Messenga/Les Miserables (with a young MC Lyrical on the mic), he was also a well known freight train graffiti artist writing as MAST. Living near (and eventually in) the Lowell freight train yards, his early train pieces got him enough recognition to appear in the 2006 book Freight Train Graffiti. The picture above is MAST and his partner SPRAY (rip 1994) rockin’ red jackets in their “iron playground”. Note that like many things Massachusetts hip-hop, the title suggests a low status position in “eleswhere USA”. Come on man, it was right up in Lowell. Elsewhere my ass. Dude was all NATION – besting the hardest of the early MBTA bombers in geographic reach at least.

Freight Train Graffit Cover

The book quotes him as follows:

“My house was directly across the street from the biggest freight yard in Lowell. I had anger against the freights because those things woke me up in the middle of the night. I could step out of my house and there I was in my iron playground. I knew every nook and cranny of the freight yard; it was packed tight with trains. You couldn’t even take flicks of most of them because they were so close. The trains would pull out before you could see it too. We had three cabooses we used to hang out in. We brought turntables down and turned it into a writers bench. We had a power supply for the turntables — plugged into the weigh station for the trains. We actually did live in the freights: For a very long time, SPRAY and I were both homeless. We had these three cabooses that we painted, bombed and partied in and brought girls back to and drank wine in. During the cold winter, we stayed inside the engine because they kept it on all night. Graffiti was a big movement; Lowell was crushed out because we wanted it to look like New York.”

Can you even begin to understand having that kind of history in this hip-hop life?! Respect to all the Massachusetts originators out there and peace to my man Def. Give him respect due. Still wondering…go check the Battle Yell video! Underground hip-hop like it always was meant to be. RAWWW!

peace

pace

Boston Beats and Rhymes Day 2

IMG_4530

Thanks to Brick Casey (aka Polecat) who braved the snow storm yesterday to come down to WZBC and talk to us about the 1990’s scene in the Bean. Casey came up in the 4 Corners neighborhood of Dorchester and released a couple of early 1990’s underground gems under the name Polecat. Out Ta Flip is one of my personal faves. The Ruffa Mix features the gravelly Buju-style vocals of Dorchester’s own Ruffa and hints at the deep roots of the ragamuffin hip-hop sound in the Bean. More on that today as we round out the last of the 1990s and head into the Oughts and beyond. Happy 2010.

Here’s the audio from yesterday (Part A Part B).

P.S. Although it wasn’t snowing in the studio, I was sure dressed for it. Maybe I need to get a new hat too.

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

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.


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

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.


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.

Lecco’s Lemma at Beat Research

As many of you know, I’ve been workin’ on an article about the history of Boston’s early rap scene for better than a year now. Its finally off to the press and I’ll certainly post it as soon as it hits the streets (if not sooner). A big part of the project was locating (and visiting!) the legendary Lecco’s Lemma tapes.

Back in the fall of 1985, DJ/painter and local music legend Magnus started a rap and electronic music show on Saturday afternoons at WMBR in Cambridge, MA. In addition to being one of the earliest rap shows in the country (which puts him in the company of folks like Mr. Magic and Red Alert), it was the first in the Bean to feature local artists regularly. As a result, it was the hub of the Hub’s earliest rap scene. Shows like Beat Street were soon to follow, but Magnus was a critical pioneer and superfan who helped to launch the careers of artists like Gangstarr, The Almighty RSO, Edo G, Big Chuck, etc. To this day, he refers to the regular attendees as “the kids” and he loved them like an older brother. Based on the interviews I did, the love and respect still flows back to Magnus from everyone who remembers the show.

According to folks like Rusty Pendleton (whose legendary Funky Fresh Records is in danger of closing – so go by a cd y’all!!!), the Lecco’s Lemma show was THE SPOT to be back in the day. He should know. After all, he was rocking the decks with his TOES back at the Talent Nights while the New Kids took notes in the background!

Still don’t believe a PhDJ/professor of management? (I don’t blame you really). Check out D. Scribe’s words on the matter from back in 2005. Or how ’bout a post from my very own early bloggy days with critical history from Type 4 and Magnus himself chiming in. For that matter, head on over to the Lecco’s Lemma page Matt put up with streamin audio and all!

The amazing thing about Magnus is that he saves everything (everything good that is). Over the years, whispered words of a lost Lecco’s Lemma tape archive were passed around among Boston hip hop junkies but no one had ever seen them or knew whether they existed for sure…until now.

Last year I was honored to visit my old friend Magnus in his lab in rural Maine and see the Lecco’s Lemma tapes. (More on the visit soon as its a story in itself). Sitting above his equally legendary collection of reggae 45’s, the three wooden wine boxes contained a litteral treasure trove of early Boston rap tapes! The first one I opened knocked me off my chair.

That hand written tape on the top says “This one’s called she’s a mutt by Edo Rock of the FTI crew”. OMG! There was Guru’s “For Magnus” tape when he was just back from college and appearing as MC Kiethy E. Right up front was Malden’s Top Choice, there was TDS Mob’s whole TAPE (!?!) on Race Records, a hand made demo tape of Boston Goes Def…and on…and on…until the break of dawn. I spent a sleepless night surrounded by Magnus’s psychedelic bio-mechanical paintings taping everything I could in 12 hours. (If you look below, you might notice that my portable protools rig is connected to…what’s that? No, no, not the cool ass reel to reel. Try the 1/8″ jack of the ca. 1989 “all in one” stereo Magnus pulled out for the purpose! More on that later)

I’ll be sharing some of the gems in all their hiss and glory this Monday night at Beat Research at the Enormous Room in Cambridge, MA.(567 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA)

The Lecco’s Lemma listening party goes from 9:30-10:00 at which point, Flack, Wayne and I will trade sets. You can be sure mine’s gonna have plenty of classic Beantown tracks in it (along with a healthy dose of the random dancefloor killers I have collected over the years).