COMtalk

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.

Dan Charnas photographed by Rue Sakayama.

Dan Charnas photographed by Rue Sakayama.

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.

The Beat Maker

Making old music new again

On a spring afternoon, Steve Jones (CGS’10, COM’12) thumbs through stacks of dusty records in the cramped aisles of In Your Ear, a music store on Comm Ave. Finding an album that catches his eye, he brings it home and imports it into his Roland MV-8000 mixer (a high school graduation present from his parents).

“Using a turntable and a sampler, you can take a bass line from one song, a horn from another song, and put them all together and make something else,” says Jones, who began ­mixing beats at the age of 14 back home in Atlanta, Ga. “Blending­ music that’s been done before—that’s alchemy.”


Watch this video on YouTube

Just as Kanye West uses snippets of Ray Charles’ music in “Gold Digger,” and Flo Rida incorporates Etta James into “Good Feeling,” beat makers are constantly on the lookout for music they can make their own.

While many beat makers download songs from the Internet, Jones prefers physically shopping at places like In Your Ear (“a library,” he calls it) because it gives him the chance to dig around in bins. Sometimes he knows exactly what he is looking for; other times he’s hoping for inspiration and finds it from an album whose cover art catches his eye. He says his curiosity draws him to all kinds of music, which is evident by his current collection of approximately 2,000 LPs and 1,000 45s.

“I started beat making because I wanted to understand how hip-hop music was made,” says Jones, “A lot of people don’t know there is a beat maker behind a rapper. It gives me pleasure when I create something that sounds good, when I successfully blend elements to make one sound. It’s an outlet for me to express myself.”
–Amy Laskowski

The Videographer


Watch this video on YouTube

Interviews with Everlast and Danny Boy from House of Pain, on St. Paddy’s Day and their Adidas sneaker release. The video also includes interviews with Slaine and Ill Bill from La Coka Nostra, as well as producer Dante Ross and artist Slick from Dissizit.

Peter Dudgeon

Peter Dudgeon

Film grad Peter Dudgeon (’07) has worked in casting on feature films including The Town and Gone Baby Gone, but he also directs. The Cambridge native has directed rap music videos for XL (above), Big Shug, Slaine and other Boston rappers, and he shot a short documentary for House of Pain.

As a high schooler, Dudgeon would go to see Mr. Lif, Esoteric, Akrobatik and other MCs at venues such as the Middle East and the Western Front. After college in Chicago, he returned to Boston to attend COM for an MFA while working for a local casting agency. “It was then that I started getting involved in the Boston hip-hop scene beyond just being a fan,” he says. When Ben Affleck wanted to audition local rappers for some roles in Gone, Dudgeon brought them in. The friendships he struck up led to video gigs. “These were the guys that I grew up listening to, and now I was putting together videos for them and documenting their studio sessions.

“COM helped me gain the skills and knowledge to actually go out and shoot, direct and edit a music video,” he adds. “Without that education, I would have had a lot of learning to do on my own. But because of it, I was able to go out there and start working.”

While Dudgeon’s film career has taken him to Los Angeles lately, he says he hopes to continue working with his hometown’s rap artists. “I truly believe that Boston hip-hop is full of really talented people who don’t get the recognition that they deserve,” Dudgeon says. “I’m thrilled to have helped any of them get their music and talent out there for more people to see.”

To see some of Dudgeon’s work, visit http://wn.com/highdudge.

The Drummer


Watch this video on YouTube

A clip of That Handsome Devil playing at the Middle East in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on May 15, 2009.

Not all rap music is played on turntables. Sam Merrick (CGS’05, COM’07) is the drummer for the quirky hip-hop/funk/rock act That Handsome Devil, which formed in Boston but is now based in Brooklyn. A full-time musician, Merrick also sometimes sits in with the Afro-highlife/hip-hop band Soulfege and even recorded a track with reggae legends Toots and the Maytals. “As far as playing hip-hop drumming goes,” he says, “there is sometimes nothing more satisfying than to lay down a feel that makes every head in the room bounce. That’s a good rule of thumb when playing any style of music, but it’s especially crucial when your only job is to play the thickest backbeat possible.”

Writers of Rap

Several COM Grads Have Made, or Are Beginning, Careers in Writing About Hip-hop

Dan Charnas (COM’89, CAS’89), frequently published in The Source, hip-hop’s biggest magazine, is also the author of the genre’s definitive work of scholarship: The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop (New American Library/Penguin, 2010). To read a Q&A in which Charnas talks about how hip-hop helped send an African American to the White House, visit www.bu.edu/today.

Martín Caballero (CGS’06, COM’08) is the Boston Globe’s hip-hop scribe, reviewing concerts and albums in the paper’s arts section. He also reports on music for Thomson Reuters. Find some of Caballero’s reviews at www.boston.com/arts.

Sean Croegaert-Key (CGS’10, COM’12) is the editor of Ruby Hornet, a blog devoted to hip-hop music and culture. The site features in-depth interviews, reviews, videos and more. Visit www.rubyhornet.com.

Undergrad Tim Larew (’13) runs the blog The Fresh Heir, where he posts news and commentary on hip-hop, sneakers and sports. The blog has gained enough of a following that record labels, concert promoters and even shoe companies now send Larew announcements and products to review. Visit www.thefreshheir.com.

Back to top

Post Your Comment