Exploring the city with Cousin Stizz and Michael Christmas...

Along with Boston-born sports lifestyle brand ’47, CLASH is delving into cities where rising rappers are redefining how their city is viewed within the global hip-hop culture, embodying ’47’s mantra to “let your you out.”

“All of this shit is something I thought I would never do,” Cousin Stizz looks up from under the brim of his cap. It’s pulled low to shade him from the overpowering afternoon sun, which bounces off his gleaming grills. He’s laid back on a sofa that’s been dragged into a makeshift backstage area on one of Harvard’s sports fields, as he prepares to hit the stage for the Boston Calling festival. “Boston Calling is the only thing I thought about ever doing,” he says, looking up with a grin. “I went to the first one [that Wiz Khalifa headlined]. It was my first concert and that’s the first time I ever wanted to become a rapper.”

A few minutes later and the 25-year-old is making this ambition a reality, posed like a warlord on the edge of the stage, gazing over his legion of followers who chant back lyrics from his ‘MONDA’ mixtape. An uninitiated attendee wandering over from another stage would likely get the impression that Stizz was performing back-to-back chart toppers.

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“There’s good music coming from everywhere, but when it comes from your city it’s a little more fun to listen to,” Michael Christmas offers a few days later. Born and raised in Roxbury, the 23-year-old was something of an instigator to the city’s burgeoning scene. With his larger-than-life personality, Christmas’ blend of humour, self-deprecation and pop culture references he was the first of the current crop of Bostonian rappers to gain notoriety outside of the city when videos for his songs ‘Daily’ and ‘Michael Cera’ dropped mid-2013.

Released in the space of a few months, their success would mark a turning point not just for Christmas’ own career but a new generation of budding creatives. “That was the first time anyone in Boston could look up [to someone] that they see walking around,” explains Tim Larew, manager of Christmas and Stizz. “This is a young brand new artist getting major press love.” Stizz confirms this notion: “One of the most important things in my career was having Michael Christmas’ first mixtape ‘Is This Art?’” he admits. “It showed me this shit can happen.”

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Compared to cultural hubs like New York, L.A., Chicago and Atlanta, Boston is considerably smaller. “Everybody knows everybody, and I think that’s where the support comes from,” says Christmas. “We already knew a lot of these artists before we even knew they made music. I met Big Leano at some event, and I didn’t even know he was rapping until he got up and started rapping. I was like ‘Holy shit! He’s actually really good at this.’ Everybody is friends and shit.”

By 2014, Cousin Stizz was beginning to give music his full attention, and his song ‘Shoutout’ even soundtracked Drake’s birthday celebrations that year. Focussing on the darker side of Boston living, Stizz tells stories of hardship and hustling in the Fields’ Corner neighbourhood where he grew up. ‘No Bells’ warns those that aren’t from the area to stay well away, unless they have someone to vouch for them. “It definitely gets like that sometimes,” he says. “It’s a smorgasbord of different types of people. It’s unlike anywhere else in the city; a melting pot of so many different things.” Videos like ‘Where I Came From’ reveal neighbourhoods that sit a far cry away from Harvard’s collegiate gothic architecture or downtown’s cityscapes.

“They don’t want to market the black community when you come to Boston,” Christmas says. “They want to market the colleges, the clubs, downtown and the hotels. But I think [Roxbury] is a beautiful place. It’s very regional and unlike anywhere else. You’re going to get some good ass West Indian food, Jamaican food and meet some kind of friendly, kind of scary people!” He’s especially thankful that some of the college students venture beyond campus and dig for something more real, getting a taste of the city that lies beneath the surface. “I think that the amount of Boston that people don’t know about is probably the most unique part,” he says. “To the point where there is a whole secret city that people will never know about.”

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The mission now is to share that secret city with the world. With the absence of any real competition, Michael Christmas took inspiration from the fact that the crown was for the taking, but his plan was never to keep it for himself. “The plan was always to make sure that whenever I’m done making music there would always be people from here making rap music on a national level, doing that for us,” he explains. “I want Boston to become like all of those other places. All it needs is some inspiration and a real dedication to your craft. Now it’s at a point where everybody sees what can happen, and that’s exciting. It excites everyone.”

Cousin Stizz is an example of this, having recently released his major label debut ‘One Night Only’ on RCA Records with a headline tour to follow in October. “We came in knowing that to get here was going to be hard as fuck,” he admits. “But you have too keep going. Keep swinging and eventually you’re going to hit a home run.”

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Words: Grant Brydon
Photography: Nathaneal Turner

Join us on Vero, as we get under the skin of global cultural happenings. Follow Clash Magazine as we skip merrily between clubs, concerts, interviews and photo shoots. Get backstage sneak peeks and a true view into our world as the fun and games unfold.

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