As it turned out, it was a role for which he was uniquely suited. As a published academic, Foster knows how to write and research. Plus, he had an asset that even most rap insiders didn't — access to the mysterious Johnstone, who'd left Boston for the northern sticks of Maine more than a decade ago.
In the late 1990s, Foster worked at a Newton antiques store where the college DJ was employed as a furniture painter. Years after that, they often hung at Boston College, where Foster was writing a dissertation on the music business, and Johnstone had a dub-hop show on the school's radio station, WZBC.
Foster's chapter in the 2009 book Hip-Hop in America: A Regional Guide (Greenwood Press) turned out to be just the beginning of his musical spelunking. In the process, he'd convinced Johnstone to lend him nearly 200 original demo tapes that rappers had sent him between '85 and '87 — among them the first-ever recordings of Boston legends Edo G and Guru, who were known then as Edo Rock and Keithy E, respectively. The only thing missing were tapes of the Lecco's Lemma shows.
"It was like having all these page proofs from hundreds of unpublished authors," Foster says. "That's great, but it's even better if you have the whole book."
From the beginning, the hunt for Boston hip-hop history took some interesting turns, like Foster's pilgrimage to Maine to see the great white hipster hope of early Beantown boom-bap. Nothing, however, prepared him for the end of the rainbow. After querying some local rap aficionados like DJ Spin, who himself has an honorable stash of old Boston rap cassettes, Foster was led to about 300 Lecco's Lemma show tapes belonging to none other than Willie "Loco" Alexander, the 69-year-old Boston punk-rock originator, Boom Boom Band front man, and one-time member of the Velvet Underground. "He contacted me and just said that he had some tapes," says Foster. "When I finally saw what he had, I think I actually fell over."
Foster sat on the archives for about two years while he shopped for an institutional underwriter. His goal was twofold: to preserve the original tapes, and to digitize them so that later heads can appreciate their heritage. Few were interested in funding the project. Berklee respectfully declined, as did the Harvard Hip-Hop Archive. MIT and BC turned him down, despite Johnstone having broken major rap ground on their airwaves. Foster kept pitching, though, and this year finally scored a partner in his own school, winning a grant from the UMass President's Creative Economy Initiatives Fund. With that juice, he was able to hire David Garcia, a music student from the Universidad Nacional de Colombia who's currently studying at Harvard, to help curate the archives.
"I don't know how any of this happened. I'm the management professor guy," says Foster. With help from Garcia, who recently moved into the library of vinyl to assist with the cataloguing, Foster is working to first organize and upload everything, and will then move to permanently display at least some of the collection. He continues: "At this point, I think it's best that we're doing this [with UMass]. Community-based scholarship is part of our mission, and I want to reconnect these tapes with the communities they came from — I feel like it's our responsibility. On a lot of these shows, Magnus was talking to the artists he had on about what was going on in their neighborhoods. It's not just a history of Boston hip-hop that's on those tapes. It's a history of Boston."