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.
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.)
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”
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.