You know it’s been a solid night when you find yourself walking home across the Mass Ave Bridge with a silly smile on your face as the Sun is rising after the party after the after party that got broken up by Cambridge’s finest. This all occurred following a show at Sonia, which featured some of the strongest heavyweights of the Massachusetts underground hip hop scene. This night was a special mixture of acts who gathered across the many bridges – both physical and figurative – that separate the budding hip hop heads of the state. Randolph was represented by headliner Kyle Bent and supporting act L. Damas, King Inc. ventured from Chicopee, and longtime friends Rex Mac, Lu Dow, and Aaron King bid all “Welcome to the Bridge,” tying acts and crowd alike, together (from Cape Cod to San Francisco) with Cambridge kinship.
To say that it was a night of generosity would be an understatement. All were welcome to Sonia, the newest live music installation at the Middle East, which has replaced T.T. the Bear’s Place. The classic Cambridge staple has hosted many an alternative dance night and showcased renowned acts such as the Pixies, Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Brian Jonestown Massacre, Jane’s Addiction, Arcade Fire, The Shins, Peter Wolf, Bikini Kill, Smashing Pumpkins, Rivers Cuomo, and more. In fact, the first show I ever saw at T.T.’s was Acrassicauda, the Iraqi Metal band featured in the 2007 documentary film Heavy Metal In Baghdad, alongside local acts whose names I sadly don’t remember. While T.T.’s is no more, Sonia has taken its place – and just in time for the new crop of this musical generation’s talent.
80’s and 90’s babies are growing up, and they have a lot to say. Rap itself, especially in the underground scene, is mutating into an entirely new breed of expression. History is not lost on millennial rappers of the day, as they strive to make the most of the present for the hope of a better and brighter future. The lingering stumbling blocks of the past loom as ever, threatening the progress that our predecessors could only take so far. The torch has been passed and the young crop is taking it on with no holds barred. It is the endless honor of the ages. Kyle Bent is indeed “Something Different,” Chovi spares no introspection while recognizing that it’s “All Mine,” Lu Dow has had it with misogyny and apathy and with pals Rex Mac and Aaron King, the triple threat trio are not one bit shy about the fact that they’re “Comin Up.” L. Damas knows that he’s on the ”Right Path,” and King Inc. flexes big because he can. Producer DJ Mazado held the beat, spinning as the crowd danced, with not a modest number of up-and-comers in the local underground Hip Hop Scene out in full force.
The first act always has the toughest job as they are the one called to draw the crowd into the progression of the show. It is both an honor and a quest. Minor technical difficulties did not stop King Inc. from priming the crowd with impromptu rhymes and dancing before his set could begin. A young persona belies a charged and commanding act. Braids and gold chains pair perfectly with wire-rimmed spectacles and graceful showmanship as he flits across stage, engaging crowd always, and welcomes friend and DJ for a jam. First slot was fueled by the writer of “In the Way” that reflects “I’m the one, I’m the one…” always charging, always questioning who is going to try to hit the giant target on their back. King Inc. spits over hard beats with autotune and cautioning chimes, reminiscent of Bay Area Gansta Rap of the 90’s. His lyrics reflect the survival instinct that comes with being self aware and introspective, as in the track “Embarrassing.” There is a never ending need for self preservation and distinction in the grind and King Inc. shares the balance of challenge and celebration of success. Not a one will doubt King Inc.’s presence or ability upon seeing him live. It’s easy to deliver a hot lick, but to do it with grace and verve? It is the task of a true performer and King Inc. in no small way fit the bill.
Next up was L. Damas who began his set with an acapella spit. He took the show up a notch with Team L. Damas deep in the crowd while delivering a set that flowed like 90’s R&B, a feeling that would continue to hover around the stage and waft through the crowd throughout the night. L. Damas brought the poetry, reflecting Soul of the likes of Jill Scott, speaking to relationships, self worth, natural beauty, and baby making grooves. “…Life is like a test, got me playing’ chess, but I am blessed, cause I am the king piece, used to be a pipsqueak…” (I Am Next). L. Damas delivers with the balance of a Kung Fu Master, his rhymes floating atop beats that feature jazz flute, 70’s guitar riffs, and the wisdom of a Bruce Lee film. He delivers a “Good Vibe,” and rocks the crowd from the stage. It is his mission to inspire a variety of feelings and emotions to his listeners. He accomplishes this not only through the music of his tracks or his flow; it is his manner of expression – fluid and immersive – that has the audience vibing along with him as hands rise in the crowd. The rapper whose name is a close mirror to Léon-Gontran Damas, the French poet and politician who helped spearhead the Négritude movement, shares knowledge, wisdom, and pride with smooth hooks and dreamy lyrics that are far from spacey, saying that he is “changing climates.” L. Damas speaks thoughtful reality delivered with a positive flair that you can’t help but bump to. Every song has a message and you don’t want to miss a word of it.
On flowed the show with the Cambridge phase of the night, appropriately kicked off by Aaron King of Bridgeside Entertainment and the influential Bridgeside Bars, who immediately invited the entirety of the show to his house for the afterparty. “You never heard of me, you never heard before I’m a herbivore…No I’m a omnivore, eating’ cause I want it more, I’m the hungriest rapper, I’m a velociraptor, a high velocity rapper, like that could ever matter…” You may have seen Aaron King on CCTV with Dr. Flow, or possibly at Rex Mac’s monthly Sonic Bloom Showcase at Out of the Blue Too Gallery in Cambridge, at the Middle East, at Zone 3 for Allston Fridays, or perhaps on Youtube. After rapping with the ambience of a haiku it isn’t long before Aaron King invites Lu Dow and Rex Mac to the stage for the trifecta jam “Coming’ Up,” the track for which they filmed a music video in the freezer of endless winter this Spring. The trio rapped about living in a second story apartment, endless hours in the home studio, saving for equipment, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, all part of the delicious struggle of making one’s mark in the Northeast music scene.
Lu Dow took over bringing a contemplative ferocity that egged on the show. His set touched on racial ignorance and misogyny and invited the audience to a musical story time with a hot untitled and unreleased track about relationship abuse. In the stunned hush that followed the song he said, “I don’t wanna bring the mood down, but fuck that misogyny shit. You guys care about that? Nobody cares, you’re vacant.” Lu Dow represents a significant and often underrepresented Asian American population of – not just – New England, but Hip Hop too. “Go Back” references the identity of Asian Americans and the in-between identity conflict of multiculturalism. Whether rapping about racism, identity, relationships, or the love of his home, Cambridge, Lu flows positive, with upbeats and hope-filled rhymes, like in “Yesterday:” “Yo that was yesterday, I give my best today, don’t stress today.” The Cambridge native is currently preparing for a pan-Asian tour, further spreading Boston Hip Hop around the globe.
Lu Dow passed it on to Rex Mac who took the torch with gravity, beginning his set with an introduction that honored the passing of a dear friend the week before. “He’s in the room, I know he’s here,” said Rex Mac before he plucked his keyboard and delved into his set. Rex Mac performed excerpts from his latest release, Spring’s Abloom, including East Meets West, and Mantra as well as vintage classics The World is Not Enough, Ceasar, Sheep, and WTF. “My boy upstairs told me, ‘You gotta do this song every set because you’re gonna have everybody saying’ ‘What the Fuck.'” Rex’s father was in the crowd, who first introduced him to West Coast Hip Hop, which he says may have been too much for a ten year old, but as far as anyone can tell the otherwise *inappropriate* repertoire of Ludacris and Wu-Tang has served the blooming rapper well. Currently gracing the cover of Scout Somerville, the humble Rex charged his set with the fire of a modern Ceaser…minus all that “Et tu Brute” misfortune. Despite a week tinged by tragedy, Rex came, he saw, and he conquered. The San Francisco native is certainly making his mark in the East.
Any rapper who rocks a Sade shirt while entirely owning the stage has my respect. So Chovi rocked, delivering a hefty punch with impressively crooner-like melodies over deep bass beats. He doesn’t shop at the mall, mocks Facebook activism, says identity crises come from getting educated, and eloquently depicts the madness of driving in Mass along its many Masshole Markers: 93, Storrow Drive, around Cambridge… As he lays out in the song Whip, Chovi is going places. His gas tank is full and he isn’t planning on stopping. All that’s on his mind is “the future and the Kama Sutra.” Rap has a long history of driving, riding, flowing, and fucking. It is constant movement. Chovi has a lot to say and barely takes a breath between singing and rapping throughout each and every song. I Am recounts this ceaselessness, saying “I’ve been wanting this since the hallways.” He fuses tech talk with the instant gratification of kids born in the age of the internet. Fast food that kills and detective distractions at school are on their way out – they have to be and Chovi is “the remedy.” The dynamic rapper banged another golden hammerhead into the nail that locked this show to the greater theme of Mass Rap: that consciousness is the basis of the structure, and it is only growing larger and stronger.
The stage was set for Kyle Bent. The 20 year old rapper is riding the crest of a giant wave of remarkable success. As a fifth grader working on his first collaboration with a friend, one wonders if he could have imagined what would come from that first ripple. While headlining multiple festivals including SXSW and performing with an impressive roster of artists, enjoying play on MTV, Datpiff and WORLDSTARHIPHOP, Kyle Bent embraced the local love at Sonia where longtime fans gathered to see their hometown hero spit his defining rhymes of poetic reason. Originally from Jamaica and raised in Randolph, Kyle Bent shares a common story among Massachusetts residents: a history of immigration that bonds us together and creates a dynamic and passionate local culture. His music is universal while being expressly American: rebellious, hopeful, intellectual, confident, and unique. The best perch in the house was in the middle of the pit where Kyle spent much of his set, embracing and dancing with the audience. He would return to the stage to Snap himself and the crowd and encourage everyone to clap for themselves in-between songs.
“I am a conscious artist. I rap positive. If one person hears the lyrics and it changes their perspective, then I’m happy.” Kyle raps about the importance of appreciating and respecting the individual experience, working hard to achieve your dreams, waking up and making a difference – essentially what he has been doing for years. While the road ahead has yet to be paved, Kyle Bent knows exactly what he’s doing. In Higher Power he sings, “I know they see me moving, I know they see me vibe, I know you feel confused, but just let me be your goddess.” Not only is his music positive and deeply thoughtful, it expresses an amazingly talented artist who can flow slow and charge up to lightning licks in the same breath and has crafted gorgeous beats to match. With five years of mixtapes and albums behind him, Kyle Bent is one hell of an apprentice to Rap and he has made the most of Millennial platforms, using social media networks to not only reach his audience, but to genuinely connect with them. By the way, have you downloaded his app? If Kyle Bent is a new voice to you, his music will feel strangely familiar, though you’ve surely never heard anything like it. Myself, Don’t Drink the Drink, and Just A Little Bit are only a few of the standouts of his discography and it is worth taking the time to listen to his work in full.
At the end of his set Kyle gathered the audience behind him to Snap the scene before inviting the show’s photographers to get a shot of everyone. It was a sight to behold indeed as the acts and fans alike clustered together to share in the moment. In many ways the night was only about to begin as the celebrations continued nearby. Sonia bore witness to a night that many will never forget, where Massachusetts threw it down and raised the stakes for Hip Hop and New England’s music culture. DJ Mazado, King Inc. and Matt Maratea, L. Damas, Aaron King, Lu Dow, Rex Mac, Chovi, and Kyle Bent are ushering Mass Music into a new era. It was a perfect musical event for a perfect new venue. Of the rappers in attendance, we look forward to seeing what steps they take in the future and one can only guess at the what legends-to-be Sonia will host upon her stage.