WINNER: “Everything I’ve accomplished so far has been through my live performances rather than smoke or hype,” says Boston Music Award winner Bello.
There’s no underground scene for pop-minded R&B. Not in Boston, and not really anyplace else. The next Ne-Yo or Beyoncé might regularly record and gig around town, but such Bean talents as Masspike Miles and Lisa Bello (who play, respectively, Harpers Ferry and the Alchemist Lounge next weekend) are gunning for pinnacle marquee success. In hip-hop and indie rock, there’s a comfortable middle ground where performers can ride out their careers with blue-collar valor. In R&B, you haven’t made it until several million adolescents masturbate to your videos. (Or, in the case of R. Kelly, until you’ve masturbated onto several million adolescents.)
Despite recently rocketing to just outside the star realm — and signing with Miami rapper Rick Ross’s Def Jam–backed Maybach Music — Roxbury singer Miles understands the struggle of a contemporary R&B artist out of Boston. He belted his first high notes more than 15 years ago with the Maurice Starr–spawned quartet Perfect Gentlemen. That group, who also claimed Maurice Jr. as a member, were the closest thing Massachusetts had to New Edition after Bobby and the boys broke up. But though Perfect Gentlemen toured with New Kids on the Block and landed one joint atop the Billboard singles chart, the ride ended soon after take-off.
“I didn’t want to sing anymore after that,” says Miles, who spent his subsequent teenage years “hustling in the streets” to fend for himself before writing and performing on Roxbury rapper Smoke Bulga’s “Smoke Did It,” which went on to become one of the top-selling singles in Hub-rap history. “I was pretty much done — like a scorned child. On top of that, after the Starr era — when hip-hop got really big but started problems at the clubs — we got lumped in with the rappers and couldn’t really perform anywhere. Before that, there were always venues, talent shows, and block parties.”
“Hip-hop killed the R&B scene in Boston,” adds my close family friend and Hyde Park talent Louie Bello (who is also Lisa’s brother). “We had to reinvent ourselves and do shows that draw more than just rap fans now. You have to really make every concert a party — which is cool because it brings the old vibe back.”
The Boston R&B establishment may be tougher to define than the genre itself — as we saw during the Web melee that ensued following the announcement of this year’s Boston Music Awards nominees. The selections for R&B Act of the Year — Louie and Lisa Bello, Miles, Lee Wilson, Jesse Dee, Eli “Paperboy” Reed, and Dwight & Nicole — fell into two catastrophically distinct niches. Whereas the latter three emanate Sam Cooke soul, Miles, Wilson, and the Bellos ring more in the vein of such pre-AutoTune modern R&B acts as Jodeci and Mary J. Blige. Although he’s since made peace with the scenario, prior to the gala (where Lisa snagged the trophy), Miles ranted that his competitors were ill fit for the R&B designation; the Bellos, he alleged, ought to have been in the new Pop Act of the Year category, which was dominated by indie-rockish bands including Passion Pit and the Everyday Visuals.