Bring the Noise
In the Early Days of Rap Music, One COM Student Fanned a Cultural Spark that Caught Fire Campus-wide
By Chris Faraone (’06)
Dan Charnas had black music on the brain even before he got to Boston University. Growing up in Washington, D.C., in the 1970s and early ’80s, he was immersed in funk and R&B, and he could always scratch his itch by cruising down the FM dial. No matter what the hour, contemporary soul brothers from Prince to Stevie Wonder were occupying frequencies above the Capitol.
Things were different in Boston, though, which then had just one commercial station that bumped black beats. As a result, Charnas (COM’89, CAS’89), who’d grown accustomed to the soul smorgasbord on D.C. airwaves, began searching for alternatives when he arrived on campus. The quest quickly led to college broadcasts, and also to the relatively new frontier of hip-hop.
Though he enrolled to study pre-law, Charnas adjusted his long-term plans before first semester ended. Living in Danielsen Hall, he’d found himself fixating on rap music, and on acquiring as much vinyl as possible for his weekly hip-hop show, “Street Jams,” which was the first of its kind to air on WTBU. In his second month Charnas approached Daily Free Press editors about covering hip-hop for the paper. It was a prime moment; though not yet old enough to enter most venues, Charnas got to interview the likes of Public Enemy and Fresh Prince (now better known as Will Smith), and even scored a Free Press cover feature on the first Def Jam tour. He didn’t know it at the time, but years later he’d go on to work for the legendary label’s founder, Russell Simmons, and years after that to write the definitive tome about the genre’s heyday.
“It was Boston that really forced me to pay attention to hip-hop,” says Charnas, former writer for The Source magazine and author of the acclaimed book The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop. “It was the MTV era—the middle of the 1980s—and there wasn’t too much black music available through popular outlets. I was the white guy who was jumping up and down about why there weren’t any reviews of black artists in the Free Press, and about why there wasn’t enough hip-hop on the radio. After a few years I made the decision that hip-hop was the most important thing in American culture, and that I wanted to be part of it no matter what.”
Decades have passed since Charnas introduced BU to rap, but his legacy lives on, with a steady breeze of boom bap blowing through campus ever since. Some fanatics, like Charnas, have used skills acquired at COM to write about hip-hop. These range from Martín Caballero (CGS’06, COM’08), the rap critic for the Boston Globe, to scrappy bloggers like Sean Croegaert-Key (CGS’10, COM’12) and Tim Larew (’13).
Some alumni host radio shows. Others have been involved on the business end, and a select few actually perform as MCs and DJs. They’re from different hometowns and eras, and represent a range of sub-genres and niches, tastes and influences. All together, though, they’re the BU rap crew—not exactly the most fearsome collective in the game, but they’ve certainly left a mark.
Spinning Records, Writing Rhymes
Charnas wasn’t the first BU grad to make the hip-hop history books. That honor goes to Amanda Scheer-Demme (CGS’85, SHA’87), who helped popularize a number of pivotal groups before becoming one of Hollywood’s premier music supervisors. At the grassroots level, Scheer-Demme earned her reputation throwing roving hip-hop parties in New York when most rap clubs had closed due to the crack epidemic. After that she started the management company Buzztone, which represented such defining acts as Cypress Hill and House of Pain. She also married film director Ted Demme, who started the hugely influential cable show Yo! MTV Raps. Though Demme passed unexpectedly in 2002, Scheer-Demme did work the soundtrack for his 2001 classic Blow, and has since handled music for blockbusters including Mean Girls and Garden State.
While Charnas and Scheer-Demme had to pave their own roads, by the 1990s BU was slightly more in tune with hip-hop. Paul Foley (MET’01), who performs as one-half of the Boston rap duo Wasted Talent, says there was plenty of punk music bumping in his dorm. But while he remembers partying with roughneck rockers like Jeremy Wooden (CAS’97, ’00), who went on to co-found the Boston hardcore outfit Blood For Blood, Foley also recalls freestyle sessions with Ian Matthias Bavitz (CFA’98). Now better known as Aesop Rock—and widely considered one of hip-hop’s most inventive lyricists—Bavitz came to study painting at BU, but spent most of his tenure making music in his dorm room on a four-track recorder.
By the mid-2000s, when Dory Greenberg (CAS’10) came to BU, the University was fully greased for hip-hop. Though she’d been more into the punk scene back home in Fort Lauderdale, Greenberg met friends during orientation who hipped her to Bay Area rap music, and was inspired to dig deeper. Weeks later, she found her groove at a jamboree put on by the Student Activities Office featuring Boston rap stalwart Mr. Lif.
“A big lightbulb went off in my head at that show,” says Greenberg, who went on to host the weekly WTBU hip-hop show “White Chocolate Drizzle” for three years. Greenberg currently lives in Brooklyn, where she works as a project manager for the hip-hop PR firm Audible Treats, and hosts an online version of “White Chocolate Drizzle” for Brooklyn Radio. “I remember the DJ said they were going to have a [dance] ‘battle,’ so I went up against some leggy blonde and turned it out. I’d never felt like that before. Then I saw Mr. Lif, and the show was amazing even though there weren’t that many people there. I just kind of left saying, ‘This is what I want to do every single day from here on out.’”
While Greenberg was on radio, Conor Loughman (COM’00, CAS’00) was pushing singles on her and other college DJs. Loughman ran a label, Base Trip Records, out of his room in Claflin Hall until the end of sophomore year; he was ordered by school officials to move the business off-campus after BU Today reported on the burgeoning imprint. By then he was working with BU-born hip-hop acts Neil Anand (CGS’07, CAS’09), who performed as Aviator, and Micah Domingo (CAS’10), who went as Rapper Steph back then. Loughman discovered Domingo at an open mic at BU Central, and before long the two were recording in a makeshift studio down in the Claflin basement.
“Being at BU definitely allowed me to meet a lot of the artists who inspired me to pursue this for a career,” says Loughman. Nowadays, Loughman still runs Base Trip, but mainly hustles for the Brain Trust, his promotion and management company that handles, among others, the popular Boston MC Moe Pope. “From that point on I did my best to take advantage of all of the resources that they offered. BU had a framework that I was able to use, and that in some ways I still use being in the music business in Boston.”
The Big Payback
You won’t find the names Tupac or Rakim in any COM course descriptions. Not yet at least. But while BU doesn’t cater classes to its rap aficionados, most heads who studied here used more than just physical resources to facilitate their hip-hop dreams. Through classes with iconic professors like Howard Zinn, Charnas “became politicized” at BU. “That’s how I started to understand what hip-hop was all about,” says Charnas, who cites his 1989 thesis, “Musical Apartheid in America,” as the prototype for The Big Payback. “The very first paper that I wrote for my creative writing class in 1985 was a defense of hip-hop. It was all about [the Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five song] ‘The Message.’”
Similarly, Greenberg did an independent senior study on Japanese rap culture. And Caballero earned COM credits via hip-hop by interning for Boston’s Weekly Dig. After a stint as concerts editor for the Free Press—where he interviewed Prodigy of Mobb Deep among other hardcore heavyweights—Caballero used the Dig as a platform for his unique brand of learned yet trend-savvy hip-hop criticism. After graduating he became the rap reporter for the Boston Herald, and now fills that role at the Globe.
Of course not everyone had such a direct route to jobs in hip-hop. Jeff Rosenthal (CAS’06), a satirical rap star who interviews top-tier MCs on MTV and rhymes with his brother Eric in the duo It’s the Real, hardly planned for his career. “I got to write a few papers about censorship and some high-minded things about how Eminem and hip-hop weren’t really changing the rules—not a very straightforward track to interviewing rappers. I did interview Biggie’s mom, Voletta Wallace, for the Freep one time, though. That’s got to count for something.”
But no matter how they landed in the game, there’s a bit of BU in every B-boy and B-girl who has rap roots along Comm Ave.