The return of Boston rap legend Ed O.G.
By Kelefa Sanneh
JUNE 1, 1999: It's Saturday night at Pawtucket's Hot 106 FM and Jenny "Boom Boom" Monroe is telling everyone in the studio that she'd make a great porn star. She's blond, stocky, and short, and she's nervously fiddling with the mixing board and the CART machine as her partner DJ Buck works the turntables. She holds out 10 small manicured fingers for inspection, giggles, and continues: "My hands are so small, they'd make any guy's dick look big!" Rapper Ed O.G -- tonight's special guest, and the ostensible target of Boom Boom's bizarre come-on -- smiles wanly and adjusts his headphones.
It's been almost 10 years since Ed O.G & da Bulldogs released "I Got To Have It," the single that helped put Boston on the hip-hop map. Guru's years in Boston may have earned Gang Starr a plaque on Tower Records' diminutive Newbury Street "Walk of Fame," but most people associate Gang Starr with NYC. Ed O.G, on the other hand, made sure right from the start that people knew where he was coming from: "I'm from Roxbury/The 'Bury but not the fruit, y'all," he insisted in "I Got To Have It."
The subsequent album, Ed O.G & da Bulldogs' Life of a Kid in the Ghetto (Mercury, 1991), showcased Ed's earnest, unassuming style on tracks like "Be a Father to Your Child" and "Stop (Think for a Moment)." That disc was the big-time rap debut for Ed and for Boston. For a fleeting moment it seemed possible that Boston would be the next hot hip-hop city to dominate Yo! MTV Raps. Then something strange happened -- nothing at all. It was three years before Ed's next release appeared. And Boston hip-hop remained underground.
A decade later, as Boston's best-known rapper gears up for a comeback and the local scene once again seems healthy, it's hard to avoid asking what happened to hip-hop in Boston the first time around. The year was 1983. Grandmaster Flash's rap track "White Lines" was a huge club hit, and a sixth-grader named Ed Anderson was making his hip-hop debut as a breakdancer at the Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Dorchester. "I did a school talent show," Ed explains. "I came in second place, because these girls did a cover of 'All Night Long' by the Mary Jane Girls, and back then the Mary Jane Girls were the shit, so they won. But I was a little celebrity: girls in my class came up to me and said, 'I didn't know you could dance!' "
As Ed recalls, he soon moved on from dancing to beatboxing (the once-ubiquitous art of mimicking hip-hop rhythms with one's mouth), adopted the stage name Ed O. Rock, and began hanging out with the Dorchester crew FTI (Fresh To Impress). "There were four of them: DJ Cruz, Jizzy Blow, Slick Rick, and Spoonie T. I knew them from around the way, and they knew I could beatbox, so we set up an audition in Rick's bedroom. Once they heard me, that was it: I was down with the crew."
By '86, FTI were making waves locally. Ed's first gig with the crew caught the eye of mayoral candidate Mel King, who was judging a Central Square rap contest. Was Mr. King impressed? Ed laughs. "Nah. We cursed too much, man. We was off the hook! We were cursing like we didn't know no better. We came out like, 'Fuck that! We're going to fuck this shit up! Fuck! Fuck!' "
The song FTI played that night was "Suzie Q," and it was one of the highlights of Boston Goes Def -- the 1986 compilation that also featured Boston rap pioneers like Rusty the Toejammer and Body Rock. In that era the Boston rap scene seemed to be coming into its own, with the emergence of local stars like the Almighty RSO and the T.D.S. Mob. "It was a beautiful vibe!" Ed enthuses. "In the late '80s, you could do an all-local show and people would come out to see it. You could have a show with RSO, FTI, the BK [Boogie Knights] Crew, and RCC [Roxbury Crush Crew], and you could fill up 4000 seats! They did shows in all these grimy places -- places where you could smoke weed. It was an ill, ill time."
It was also the time when the Boston rap scene developed its not-yet-forgotten reputation for, uh, enthusiasm. "There was a certain Boston attitude," Ed admits. "We weren't taking any shit from anybody. If you slept on Boston, you were liable to get beat up. I was at a show where Milk Dee from Audio Two got hit in the head with a brush, right there on the stage. It was a hairbrush, one of those wave brushes -- the thick ones, dog! They had to cancel the show. Boston always used to do that: they'd have a show and try to beat up the entertainers. Dudes used to be like, 'This is Boston, nigger!' "
Boston even had its own dress code in those days -- it was known as the city where everyone wore Adidas. Ed is emphatic on this point: "Everybody still wears Adidas. It's a Boston thing: Adidas three-stripe sneakers and Timberland boots. We call it threes and trees."
From FTI, Ed launched a solo career as Ed O.G. and started attracting major-label interest. A deal was struck with Mercury, and in 1991 Life of a Kid in the Ghetto -- essentially a solo album, though it was credited to Ed O.G. & da Bulldogs -- was released. As Ed remembers it, "The record blew up. I was signed at 19, I had no business sense, and all I knew was that I was traveling everywhere, getting paid to do the shit that I loved. We toured for five years straight."
In retrospect it's hard to overestimate the impact Ed's success had on the local scene. He's not exaggerating when he says that Life of a Kid in the Ghetto "gave people a ray of hope. They said, 'Damn! If this dude can do it, I can do it, too!' It made people feel good to see that someone from Boston had finally made it -- someone besides New Edition. Boston rappers started getting record deals: RSO was on Tommy Boy, and a group called Joint Ventures was on Profile."
Ed's career, however, was about to hit a major stumbling block -- music-industry bureaucracy. It was three years before Mercury released his next album, Roxbury 02119, and in the world of hip-hop three years is an eternity. "Mercury had a policy that you had to have your whole album done before they would release a single," he explains, scowling at the memory. "I had some hot stuff and I wanted to release it right away, but I couldn't."
Instead, Ed spent his time touring the world -- playing London, Germany, and Japan. And back in Boston the rap scene was slowing down. "You know, I wasn't really paying much attention to the local scene in those years. But I did go out every now and then. This guy Blue, who now does the Lyricist Lounge concerts and albums, went to school here, and he did open-mike nights here before he moved back to New York." As he says these last two words, Ed sounds indignant. "People don't know, but a lot of stuff started here in Boston. Lyricist Lounge basically started here, and so did [rap magazine] the Source. But that's what you've got to do with Boston: get your stuff started and then when you're ready to get blown, take it somewhere else -- because you're not going to blow up here."
Ed, it seems, was the exception that proved the rule. And over the past decade it's become painfully clear that his success was an anomaly. What's made Boston such a difficult city for rap? He thinks part of the problem is radio: "A rapper isn't going to get any love from Jammin' 94.5 because, in general, they're not a hip-hop station." Indeed, with hip-hop dominating the pop charts, it's strange to find a city as big as Boston without an all-rap radio station. Fortunately, other avenues for local rappers have opened over the past year: from Lansdowne Street to Central Square, hip-hop is returning to local live music clubs. As Ed puts it, "The Middle East wouldn't have shit to do with hip-hop a couple of years ago, but now they're welcoming us. And that's a good thing, because we need outlets like that."
The "we" Ed's referring to encompasses a whole new crop of local hop-hop contenders, including two of Ed's protégés, da Bulldogs and the Kreators. (The Kreators will release No Contest this summer on Bomb Hip-Hop; the album features two cameos by Ed O.G.) Suddenly, Ed has found himself playing the role of the elder statesman in a genre not known for the longevity of its stars. When I ask why so many rappers disappear after only an album or two when rock artists have careers that span decades, he points out that "rap listeners are into whatever's hot. But if you look at the rock groups who have been doing it for 10 or 15 years, they have an audience who will support them whenever they come out. That's the difference: rap is constantly changing while rock pretty much stays the same." But for those rappers who have stuck around, like Will Smith and L.L. Cool J, the secret has been consistency: "They both stuck to what they were doing, they didn't try to change with the times."
Ed's hoping the same logic will apply to his return to rap. He's aiming to have his third album, which features cameos by the legendary NYC producer Pete Rock and Left Coast lyricist Xzibit, in stores by the end of the summer. Although he's still shopping for a label, he promises that it will be on "some major shit" and that he hasn't hitched his wagon to any fleeting trends. "Too many artists come out and try to change what they do, and they kill themselves. So I'm just going to stick to my own formula."
That formula, though, is hard to pin down. Most hip-hop cities -- from New York and Los Angeles to Atlanta and Cleveland -- have an indigenous sound. But Boston? Ed sighs. "I don't think you're ever going to be able to hear a record and say, 'That dude's from Boston.' A lot of the local white rappers, they can't disguise their accent, but black rappers from Boston always try to sound like they're from New York."
"Me?" he laughs. "My sound is strictly Boston!"
Back in Pawtucket, having completed a perfunctory on-air interview with DJ
Buck, Ed is trundling down Route 195 in a Chevy Tahoe with his crew of four.
They're headed down to hang at the Providence nightclub Big Daddy's. Everyone
has to pay at the door, and a couple of Ed's friends are asked to remove their
hats, but the atmosphere inside is more friendly. Ed gets pounds from a
seemingly endless succession of fans, friends, and well-wishers. From the DJ
booth comes the announcement that "Ed O.G. is in the house!" A cheer for a
local hero ripples through the club. People still remember Ed O.G.
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