Hi there Bay Stater, or lay wanderer stumbling into revelation. Welcome to the rap music of Boston, which, as people from New England know (and people from Boston reject), sometimes means anywhere within a 100-mile radius of the place. Don’t worry, we’ll specify where exactly the music is coming from, but it will be Massachusetts, if not the city.
MA is hot right now. Boston (and this time I actually mean Boston) is a hotbed of rap talent, but it goes past the city limits. The areas just outside are too, as is Worcester, the core of central MA. In this first column, we’ll even take a look at artists that are making noise out west in and around the Berkshires, an area often dismissed as no-man’s land by everyone east of Springfield.
Here, we’ve seen many incredible artists crop up and transport us a couple notches into the future, sometimes amassing significant fandom, but more often waning from a lack of channels. It’s not an industry hub, but the level of talent and grassroots support have produced a thriving and collaborative movement–as far as venue space and physical constraints will allow. These constraints have, to a large degree, stemmed from institutionalized racism. Minority-owned venues are in short supply, and often must follow guidelines discouraging hip-hop events; the rest are disinterested. Luckily, performance access is no longer the same baseline it once was for a flourishing scene. Digital access has opened the floodgates for artists, and passionate creatives working everything from regional YouTube channels and blogs to college radio and DIY events are part of a bustling community basking in musical bounty.
So here’s what might end up becoming a monthly column on Boston (read: MA) rap. By design, there will be a lot of names you haven’t heard of. This is not a best-of list, because we’re people, not gods (do they get art?), but beyond that, we are humble servants. This is music we think is very good out of the music we have found, and we hope to shed some light.
7981 Kal – “Gotti”
Boston street rap is thriving thanks to the rise of the drill scene in its various neighborhoods. 7981 Kal is leading the charge, with songs like “Dead Opps” and “Trap Addict” that have amassed hundreds of thousands of plays. He hails from Dorchester, one of Boston’s largest and most diverse neighborhoods that has an ethos and history of its own. It is full of hidden gems, including the best Vietnamese food this side of the world, but gentrification is gradually displacing historic communities and diluting the culture.
Hip-hop has been the pulse of Dorchester for decades. Ray Dog and E-Devious of The Almighty RSO grew up there. Cousin Stizz kicked his first freestyles in Field’s Corner. When Adidas took over Boston in the nineties, you risked getting your shoes snatched and tossed in a tree if you strolled through Dorchester’s Adidas park with Nikes or Pumas on.
There is a weary, war-torn side to Dorchester divided by loyalties and ravaged by state violence that comes out in 7981 Kal. His writing is frenzied and transparent. For every snarled boast there’s a story about a harrowing case or a dead homie. He’ll threaten to blow your brains out, then offer a supplication to his friends facing time. He’s painting a picture of his Dorchester, both the highs and lows.
“Gotti” is triumphant – Kal raps about how he beat a case – but he’s also exploring new fears – his mother and peers’ perceptions of him, staying in the game, being tugged in different directions. But at the end of the day, all he’s looking for is respect and a bag big enough to buy everyone a Rari. – Mano
G Fredo – “Lose Yourself”
G Fredo, also known as Frizzblock Fredo, is part of Boston’s H$M alongside 7981 Kal, Hamma Thang, Illy Dee and Dollaz. Kal and Fredo are close friends and frequent collaborators, both known for their shit-talking drill hits and moving story work. They share a love for their brothers and a loud disdain for cops, “them kids,” or fear. Despite their proximity and similarity, Fredo is distinct. While Kal’s voice rarely lets through distress, there’s always a tinge in Fredo’s, like a lightning cloud looming. He has been known to produce devastating reflections into the grief-stricken mind, and on all his tracks this pain stays by his side. On “Lose Yourself” he fights with a frantic fury—high-strung, hot, and vengeful. Grey hoodie and bottle in hand, the 17-year-old unloads his resentments and pride with team and address behind him. – Adam
DJ Lucas – “BIG DOPE” / “SCARED THE COOK”
Western MA is where dragons roam and cows graze. It is the home of former industrial hubs sinking into the mantle or finding ways to spring back, pressure-cooker academic bubbles, UMass Amherst, and endless farmland. In North Adams, you can find Kanye West live-tweeting about the James Turrell exhibit at Mass MOCA and Wilco’s new ecotourist lodge. It is the only place that could alchemize the VHS farm boy rap of DJ Lucas and his crew Dark World Records. They mostly hail from Amherst (South Amherst – they don’t fuck with North Amherst) and put on for the towns like few others in the state. For several years, the Dark World YouTube channel has been an encapsulation of their evolution, from the collective’s punk origins into hip hop. Lucas also spun Dark World into the brand BALLERINA that you can catch Blocboy JB and Rihanna repping. The music can be memey and the comment sections are loaded with words like “rare” and “based” but the collective’s shared love for western MA is infectious.
Here’s a taste. “BIG DOPE” is a Kenny Beats-produced piano crawler in which Lucas recalls a drug delivery in a Nor’easter, pays equal respect to Dunkin Donuts and Cumberland Farms, and brags that he’s a “Mass legend like Henry Longfellow.” “SCARED THE COOK” sounds like Detroit but Lucas growling about “farm boy shit” and pulling up to Somerville brings it back home. – Mano
Soap.Wav – “Top Down”
Cambridge, the city across the river from Boston, is home to a promising batch of pop rappers focusing on melody and charisma, letting their voices melt into the production. It’s hard to differentiate yourself from others in this class but Soap.wav settles into patterned melodies until they’re planted deep in your subconscious. He has an eclectic ear for beats and layers his voice so that it’s translucent and pillowy. He’s surrounded by rocks in every color on “Topdown,” which received glossy visuals from videographer BT Livin, a regional mainstay who’s constantly churning out videos for rising Cambridge artists. – Mano
(In the interest of full disclosure: Adam books shows for Soap. Business aside, we both think this song is dope.)
GNipsey- “Act Right”
GNipsey’s voice alone draws your attention. It’s gravelly, and always calm, like he’s right there talking to you. Released while he was behind bars, “Act Right” is a bleak and simmering rumination on the moral poles of his survival and, better yet, success. From hunger and guns to cash and jail, he remembers it all, and is trying to “act right.” His grumbling words march steady like the hands of a clock, passing through memories and aspirations forming his convincing defense.
My momma prayin’ everyday that I change my ways, always askin’ questions / Shit, I remember playin’ cool, focusin’ on school, I forgot to mention / but everyday a n—-a late bussin’ all these plays, end up in detention / Teacher can’t tell me none, I be selling drugs, this shit ain’t for fun.
There’s a perceptive wit close behind his menacing stature that keeps you hanging onto his words. GNipsey is also from Cambridge, and he is now back home. – Adam