The black mic is like a red violin.
Okay, everybody back to the lab, try again.
— MF DOOM, ‘Books Of War.’
How does hip-hop want to grow old? Amidst its quiet revolution, it’s something of an open question, a question you can sometimes hear being answered when someone like Vince Staples (a fellow Long Beach native) flips a N.W.A. intro on its head in “Screen Door,” but The Massachusetts Hip-Hop Archive, which officially launched on November 19th, 2016, is now out there in the world striving to implicitly answer that question in an institutional sense. A collaboration between the Boston Public Library and UMass Boston Special Collections, spearheaded by a DJ-turned-professor by the name of Pacey Foster, it has taken the initial steps of making a set of 300 radio shows and 200 demo tapes available online for all to hear with the promise of more to come.
But here’s the thing about those demo tapes and that radio show: there was only one radio show in Boston that played hip-hop for a time. Ronnie Ruff wasn’t kidding around when he said that “If it wasn’t for college radio / we’d be hearing slow jams.” He was talking about Lecco’s Lemma, a program hosted by Magnus Johnstone which aired on the local MIT radio station in the city, and then — after too many kids roamed the halls and too many swears made their way out onto the air (it does not seem that these teenagers heard then-mayor John Hynes announce in 1958, fearful of the impact of rock’n’roll, “if the kids are hungry for this kind of music they’ll starve for it — until they learn to behave like citizens instead of hooligans”) — made its way over to Boston College.
For hip hop to be so big, so self-evident, and so taken for granted amongst all of us now renders an even cursory examination of its introduction to Boston and Boston life in something of a fabulist’s light (especially if one also indulges in the ‘what if’ of history in looking at the referendum Roxbury held in 1986 to break away from Boston, change its name to ‘Mandela,’ and declare itself a separate and independent city): Magnus played hip hop on the radio. Kids called Magnus, asking if he could play more hip hop. Magnus obliged. “Rapper’s Delight” was initially only being sold out of one store in Boston before other stores caught on — at a place called “Skippy White’s” down in Jamaica Plain that’s still in business today. Kids then called and asked if they could send their demo tapes in. Magnus said they could send their demo tapes in. Magnus asked kids on air to send in their demo tapes. The kids obliged.
How do the demo tapes sound? Often, though not exclusively, the tapes sound like they’re made by 14 year old kids. You can hear the fuzz of the tape. The beats swing wide. Joanne Riley, the University Archivist and Curator of Special Collections at the college, told me about one song she came across that was nothing more than a young man doing a ‘fairly standard’ Christmas song for his Mom, though more broadly spoke of “the fact that [the tapes are] so alive and so youthful and so clearly of the moment.” Foster, who has played some of the old demo tapes to kids who once sent in tapes to the shows, told me over the phone that the people he played it back to were “transported back to being 14. They’re smiling, laughing, and telling stories. It’s like someone recorded their clubhouse play and noise. And they were happy kids! It was literally, like, ‘I haven’t heard this since then.’ That’s part of my mission: giving people’s art back to them. Mostly, it’s been absolute joy and love. I haven’t had a single person be like, ‘Oh, man, you can’t play that.’”
“Keep in mind that I’m in management,” Foster later added. “This [archive] is way outside of my lane. This was my hail mary, have-to-do-it passion project otherwise I wouldn’t be able to look at myself.”
The November 19th launch was marked by an event at the Boston Public Library. Riley, who was also reached by phone, told me that “we were expecting teenagers to come,” but was pleasantly surprised to see attendees who were all “grown up people with lives and families,” and that “They’re still working with their kids and their communities! Just the fact that [making those tapes and sending those tapes in] wasn’t just a youthful experience for them. It wasn’t just them fooling around as teenagers.” Instead, it was reflective of an exchange between a speaker that evening and the audience, with the former saying, “You all know what I’m talking about when I say that rap is a style of music, but — ” and the latter answering en masse with “Hip hop is way of life.”
How does hip hop want to grow old? Future plans for the archive include exploring the history of early hip hop in Massachusetts cities outside of Boston, documenting early breakdancers and graffiti artists — or people who combined some of those roles, like Rusty ‘The Toe Jammer,’ who made a name for himself standing on his hands and scratching with his feet bent up over his head (or just sitting down and having a go at it, as illustrated above) — the role and underrepresentation of women, how to best ensure that the project won’t be a project for academics alone, and whether or not reissues of music would be something worth considering. And, in a way, these details start to answer that larger question: you can grow old when you know exactly how it used to be, when you have the primary sources. Hip hop is a great engine of authenticity, and, in this collection, we can start to catch a glimpse of how that engine was built.