Tag Archives: Boston

With “CLEO,” Oompa Pays Tribute to a Childhood Hero

Oompa

Photo by Ally Schmaling and OJ Slaughter

CLEO, the second record from Boston-based rapper Oompa, may have just been released last week, but its roots stretch back to the artist’s childhood. “When I started rapping in middle school, I was a chubby, braided-up kid,” says the former Women of the World poetry slam champion. “People called me ‘Queen Latifah’ or ‘Cleo’ [the name of the queer character Latifah played in the 1996 film Set It Off].” 

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Rah Zen is Shining Light on Boston’s Beat Scene

Rah Zen

Photo by RJ Would

“A lot of my beats are dark,” explains Jacob Gilman, the Boston producer better known as Rah Zen. “I’m big on textures and taking percussion and making new instruments out of samples so that the sounds are unfamiliar, or sound like they’re from another creature.”

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Take Us Home: The Story of Roots Reggae in Boston

bostonreggae-1244.jpgWhen cult reggae movie The Harder They Come opened at the Orson Welles Cinema in Cambridge, Massachusetts in February 1973, it played for 26 consecutive weeks. Starring Jimmy Cliff as a struggling musician-turned-anti-hero, the film’s soundtrack—which was the catalyst for introducing reggae to American audiences—received a glorious welcome from the area’s large student population and beyond. Six years later, a flurry of musical activity would ignite a new homegrown scene that brought live reggae to Bostonians every week—the sounds of Desmond Dekker, The Maytals, and Jimmy Cliff had planted the seed for the city’s future love story with the Jamaican-born phenomenon. 

Boston’s newfound appetite for reggae reached the ears of Island Records boss Chris Blackwell in 1973, who booked The Wailers to play their very first U.S. show in Boston that year, with the band returning in 1975 for a seven-night residency at Paul’s Mall. After its initial six-and-a-half-month run, midnight screenings of The Harder They Come stayed for seven years and became a rite of passage for Boston-Cambridge college students. From the late ‘70s onwards, local radio stations further promoted the genre on their airwaves.

In 1977, Reggae Bloodline—a radio station launched by Carly Simon’s photographer/writer brother Peter—helped to platform the new sounds of reggae for a Northeast audience. Enthusiasm for the music continued in 1978 with the arrival of Doug Herzog’s radio show Rockers on 88.9 WERS, which fed radio listeners two full hours of reggae every weeknight and was one of the station’s most popular shows.

“By the late ‘70s, Cambridge was a real hotbed for reggae music,” says musician Abdul Baki, who is among the artists featured on the new Cultures of Soul compilation, Take Us Home. Covering 1979-1988, this collection of Boston-born roots reggae documents a fertile, yet often overlooked era in the genre’s U.S. timeline. “I felt like it was important to try and rerelease this music into the world as it had been left in obscurity,” says label head DJ Deano Sounds, who first conceived of the project back in 2010 while digging for records in Boston. Across 17 tracks, listeners are given a tour of the network of reggae musicians, clubs, and fans that managed to thrive against a backdrop of racial segregation.

“The early reggae scene was pretty integrated—which was unusual, as Boston had a reputation for being a pretty racist city and a pretty segregated city at the time,” says local journalist Noah Schaffer, the author of the comprehensive 28-page booklet that accompanies the release. In 1974, the United States District Court of Massachusetts ordered the racial desegregation of Boston’s public schools. “The judge ordered that these schools introduce bussing so children from white neighborhoods would get bussed to black schools and vice versa in order to encourage integration. This is an oversimplification, but it caused riots, and it was very much a low point in Boston’s history,” says Schaffer.

bostonreggae-danny-tucker-1244Trailblazing artist Danny Tucker, whose 1979 single “Take Us Home” was Boston’s first official reggae record, remembers these racial tensions first-hand. Tucker was born in Jamaica and moved to Boston for high school in the summer of 1973—around the same time as the first edition of the annual Boston Caribbean Carnival. “The school system was like nothing I’d ever experienced,” he says. “I’d never gone to a school where there was so much turbulence. It was challenging to get an education when there is so much segregation, but I had friends—I was a sports person, and in sports, everyone got along. It was the same with music, it didn’t matter what color you were.”

Rastafari ensemble Zion Initiation, who hailed from the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, would draw in big crowds and became “a real vehicle for cross-cultural fertilization,” according to Baki, who was the band’s keyboardist. “White people didn’t really go to Roxbury and Dorchester much before that, because Boston at that time was so racially segregated it was unbelievable,” he says. Tucker joined the band as lead vocalist and saxophonist, before branching out on his own as a solo artist. Channeling his turbulent experiences into music, “Take Us Home,” which was recorded back in Jamaica, was Tucker’s response to “feeling like I was at a place I didn’t belong.” “Changes,” which is also featured on the compilation, “is about being in a band that wasn’t ready to record,” says Tucker, referring to Zion Initiation.

Zion Initiation were one of the scene’s most popular live acts for years, playing venues like the Channel, the Western Front, alongside churches and colleges. “We would get invited into people’s homes,” says Tucker. “We were playing on boats. I remember going to Nantucket Island on a reggae boat with the band. There were so many different types of people watching us from every walk of life.”

bostonreggae-1244-3“Many of these reggae bands were also filling the same large clubs that rock bands were playing, but over the years their role in the history books has sort of been wiped out, and I’m not sure why,” says Schaffer.

Baki moved to Boston around 1970, during the time of the Vietnam war, and was drawn there primarily because of the city’s anti-war activity. He opened a vintage store and a percussion shop called Cambridge Custom Percussion, which became a key venue and hangout for the Cambridge reggae scene. It was located in Central Square, which—along with Dorchester and Mattapan—was home to the majority of the town’s growing Caribbean community. It also happens to be located between Harvard and MIT. 

bostonreggae-1244-5Baki was also a member of the dubbier-sounding I Tones, who made their live debut in 1979, and whose cover of “Walk On By” was a local radio hit. Also featuring virtuoso drummer Horace Reid, the I Tones were formed by two “reggae-loving white guys,” Luke “White Ram” Ehrlich and Chris “Rockers” Wilson. Baki recalls the group’s third gig, where the queue wrapped around the block. “You almost couldn’t get through the front door because of the crowd,” he says. “It was incredibly exciting at that point, just to be part of something that had exploded like that.” 

Take Us Home features recordings from Lambsbread (made up of Bobby and Dannis Hackney from proto-punk legends Death) and Errol Strength, who launched one of the scene’s only labels, Majah. The majority of the recordings on Take Us Home are self-released. There is also a noticeable and disappointing lack of female musicians. Although both Baki and Tucker fondly recall touring with a singer named Sister Rose, apparently there are no recordings of her available.

bostonreggae-1244-6Eventually, Zion Initiation went their different ways. “You’ve got to have a major contract at some point. You can’t just play the same clubs in Boston all the time,” says Baki. “We didn’t have a distributor. I produced Zion’s records and Danny’s myself. I tried to distribute them as best I could, but I couldn’t get this stuff out there on the airwaves where it should have been.”

For Schaffer, this collection of music has held up really well. “I think one of the reasons is that these are some of the first self-contained reggae bands outside of Jamaica, anywhere in the world. Most of the time, if these bands were playing a gig, they were playing to people who had never seen a live reggae band before, so they were really ambassadors for this new kind of music. It was a responsibility that they clearly all took very seriously.”

-April Clare Welsh

Mint Green On the Internet, Inclusive College Spaces & Paramore

Mint Green

The best band names act as a reflection of the member’s personalities. It’s also a collective message, giving clues as to what genres and themes they operate in. It’s no new thing: goth and metal acts opt for dark imagery, bands with top 40 aspirations throw in a number or two (Maroon 5, Twenty One Pilots, Blink-182). Indie pop-punk artists are drawn to simple nouns and phrases; there’s something to be said about the delicate simplicity of a name like Turnover. Indie band Mint Green also adheres to that structure, but with sweet, surprising function—the color is soft, muted and inviting. Googling the quartet without adding “music,” “band,” or their hometown, “Boston,” will draw thousands upon thousands of wedding inspiration websites and Pinterest pages full of the friendly pastel shade. In that respect, it feels hilariously true to the band: They’re fans of social media platforms (You can find them on most of the popular platforms, including a YouTube page they regularly update with studio vlogs) and they appreciate the silliness of it all. “Everyone knows my favorite color is green. I was teased in school and called ‘Mother Nature’ because I only wore this green sweater,” frontwoman Ronnica divulges. “I love it.”

But still, a band name is just a moniker. To get to the heart of a new act, you’ll have to listen to them. Starting just a few months ago, Mint Green spent the summer hitting the road in their native Massachusetts before sitting down to record a dynamic debut EP. We called the band—made up of  frontwoman Ronnica, lead guitarist Frank Price, drummer Daniel Huang and bassist Brandon Geeslin—to learn all about them, Reddit, diversity and their unique sound, one that exists in the gray space between the harmonic immediacy of straightforward punk-pop and the matured sentimentality of modern day indie-leaning emo.

It’s pretty rare that a band wants to do an interview on a Friday night.

Ronnica: Music is life.

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The Confounding Story of La Gritona, Boston’s Best Kept ’90s Noise Rock Secret

La Gritona

La Gritona. Photo by Ryan Murphy.

Unless you were living in Boston during the 1990’s, you’ve probably never heard of La Gritona, a four-piece noise rock outfit that burned brightly for a short period of time before fading into obscurity. During the band’s brief tenure, they recorded a body of work that is urgent, intense, and years ahead of its time. For anyone who is a fan of Deadguy or Coalesce, La Gritona should be required listening; they were exploring the same chaotic landscapes as those bigger bands a good three to four years before them.

The heavy rock underground was in a particularly bizarre place in 1994, teetering on the line between obscurity and mainstream success. Helmet’s Meantime had launched a sneak attack on the Billboard charts, Nirvana had almost single-handedly created “Alternative Rock,” and suddenly middle America (and a feeding frenzy of major label reps) were talking about punk again after suddenly forgetting it existed roughly a decade prior. Independent labels like Sub Pop, Amphetamine Reptile, and Touch and Go were releasing records by artists that were both creatively innovative and modestly successful on a commercial level. Whether you’d grown up with Black Sabbath or Black Flag—or you were in your teens and having your mind newly blown—here were dark depths that were still relatively accessible.

La Gritona—vocalist Colin Burns, guitarist Dana Embrose, drummer Thos Niles, and bassist Andy Donheiser—had metal elements too, but didn’t hew many of the genre’s popular conventions. There weren’t any ripping guitar solos or songs about Satan. They used metal like a tool—a method to communicate their stories of alienation, or as a weapon to punish the ones that didn’t get it. Burns had cut his teeth in prominent Boston metal band Slaughter Shack; Niles had been active in the Boston hardcore scene and was formerly the drummer of Eye for an Eye. Burns, reflecting on his Slaughter Shack days, says that his first group always had a love for post-punk at its root—The Birthday Party, Black Flag, Gun Club, Big Black, Scratch Acid, Butthole Surfers, Sonic Youth—though their sound slowly evolved into something more commercially understandable as metal. “There was always a lot of hair,” he laughs.

Niles and Burns met through the small Boston underground heavy rock circuit and formed the band Suicide King; they played a total of four shows and recorded a demo tape before two of the original members departed. Embrose and Donheiser joined, and La Gritona was born. Says Niles, “Of those three or four songs on the demo, two of them turned into La Gritona songs that were the same sort of structure and spirit. A couple others were dropped pretty quickly afterwards. But it’s definitely sort of the seeds of La Gritona for sure.”

The band was painfully intense live—they didn’t play music as much as they executed songs. The destructive rhythm generated by Donheiser and Niles provided the structure for the tortured guitar work of Embrose and Burns’ Nick Cave-meets-Black-Flag-era-Rollins vocals. The essential rules of punk—short, loud and fast—dominated their sets, sometimes frustrating those who didn’t understand that a 20-minute set can be the perfect length as long as you rage all the way through. “I remember club promoters not wanting to give us a headlining spot because our set was so short,” Burns says. “We played as much as anyone else, we were just determined to have as few breaks as possible.”

La Gritona

He continues: ”It was a really intense experience for me—I think for all of us. We were tight. We honed the attack of the set. I think when it came to playing live, we were all giving it everything. It was kind of desperate, if you know what I mean? Physically, it was exhausting. I always needed to hide for about half an hour after a performance. Then I could mingle and load gear. Niles adds, “We wanted to make anybody else who was trying to play rethink their own situation. We wanted the bands that played before us and after us to just look trivial. We were essentially trying to hurt other people’s feelings with our music, and that was part of the creative spark.”

Parallel to their live output, La Gritona were prolific in the studio, releasing a grip of singles, splits, and demo tapes. Perhaps their best-known release is the “Frank White” 7-inch (two originals and a Circle Jerks cover), named for and featuring Christopher Walken’s character from the Abel Ferrara film King of New York. But some of their most powerful material came out of a late-night recording session from 1995 that wasn’t even mixed until 2007. Any building can be a studio if you have the right equipment; La Gritona recorded these songs at the now-defunct Liberty Coffee Shop in Cambridge, blazing through four songs in the middle of the night with Ayal Naor (Spore, 27) at the controls. Naor was an early supporter of the band and is responsible for documenting much of the their output. The songs from that session captured the band at their most ruthless.

Perhaps one of the reasons for La Gritona’s lack of recognition in the history books is that they utterly confounded most listeners at the time. They weren’t part of the emerging Boston “indie rock” scene, nor were they a straight-up metal band. Though some members had roots in the hardcore punk scene, they weren’t really invited to any of those gatherings, either. “We’d play with a lot of these [hardcore], bands but we weren’t part of their scene,” says Niles. “Some of it was by design, because we didn’t want to be a part of any of these scenes. Looking back, it’s kind of a shame. Maybe we could’ve been a part of something that was more community-oriented. Maybe we could’ve shown more leadership in that sort of situation. But we just never really fit in.”

Though they were perennial outsiders in the scene, a few like-minded misfits fell in love with La Gritona. “I think the small number of people who enjoyed it really, really enjoyed it,” Niles reflects. “[We were] definitely an acquired taste. I think you had some people who got it on kind of the same level we were trying to give it. There were some people who enjoyed it on sort of a more spectacle level. Colin definitely had a unique stage presence. Like I said, we were trying to bring sort of something to the performance that was maybe above and beyond your garden-variety local band.”

Former WFNX DJ Janet Egan (a.k.a. Juanita the Scene Queen), who had a local music show and wrote for area fanzines, was one of those few people who thought there was something special about La Gritona. She introduced the band to reps for MCA Records, who were more prone than usual, in those gold-rush post-Nirvana days, to throw a difficult-to-market group some cash (“I think it was $2,000,” says Niles). They got in the van and drove out to Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio studio in Chicago to begin work on the sessions that would eventually become their self-released full-length LP Arrasa Con Todo.

La Gritona

La Gritona. Photo by Ryan Murphy.

“I think we wrote a letter—like an actual snail-mail letter, because that’s how things were done then—to Steve Albini and asked him if he would record us, and what that would cost. That turned into a couple of phone conversations,” Niles reflects. “His whole trip back then was that he operated on this sliding scale—I don’t know if he still does this—but depending on what the project was, his level of interest and availability and how it was getting funded, he would change his rates accordingly. So I think we didn’t tell him that we were getting money from MCA, we told him that it was self-funded—which is really not so much of a lie, because there was never really a hope in hell that MCA was going to put anything out we recorded.” Both parties settled on an agreeable rate; Arrasa Con Todo only took three or four days to record and mix.

La Gritona’s complete discography, including some previously unreleased material, is now available as Demasiado Tonto Para Los Niños Listos / Demasiado Listo Para Los Niños Tontos. It’s a welcome recollection for those who were there at the time and a chance for noise-rock fans outside of Boston to discover the band’s confounding, anxious, visceral aggression, to be transported to a bleak and entirely realistic world where it’s always 4 AM on a Monday night, the trains have stopped running, there are sirens in the distance, and you’ve got $5 left in your pocket to get you home.

Michael Hill

Daytripper: IAN SWEET Try on Halloween Costumes

IAN SWEET
IAN SWEET are Tim Cheney, Jilian Medford, and Damien Scalise. Photo by Nicole Fara Silver for Bandcamp

If this whole “trying to make a living playing music we love” thing doesn’t work out for them, IAN SWEET—a/k/a Jilian Medford, Damien Scalise and Tim Cheney—might want to try their hand modeling Halloween costumes. On a scorching afternoon in New York, the three musicians, who are getting ready to release Shapeshifter, their debut full-length, are perusing the offerings at Halloween Adventure in the East Village. A year-round treasure trove of ghoulish garb, cartoon masks and every Sexy Animal ensemble you can imagine, Halloween Adventure spans an entire city block and provides hours of amusement for shoppers looking to try on a new personality. As soon as we pass through the doorway, which is spackled with flyers advertising makeup workshops and glow-in-the-dark contact lenses, Medford makes a beeline for a rack of sunglasses. We giggle over aviators worthy of a Big Lebowski costume closet, studded frames that “Just Dance”-era Lady Gaga might sport, and a confounding pair of lip-shaped shades, but Medford goes for giant, opaque plastic goggles that look like they serve an actual optometric function.

“My friend just gave me this pair that were his grandma’s,” she says. She puts them on, cracks up, and returns them to the rack before joining her bandmates by a wall of feather boas. “I’m really into the full-coverage, old lady, just got out of the eye doctor [look]. These are, like, eye doctor glasses from the year 3000! I wish they had the world’s tiniest pair of sunglasses that just cover your pupils, where you could still see the whites of your eyes.”

Jillian Medford
Jilian Medford from IAN SWEET. Photo by Nicole Fara Silver for Bandcamp

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