Let's be honest. For the past decade or so, there have essentially been two Greater Boston hip-hop scenes — one for which the audience is black, and one for which the audience is not-so-black. As in many cities, the black scene is typically called "street," while whiteboys use the term "underground" to describe their tastes. This reality has historically been too taboo to touch out loud, yet the silent schism was not lost on first cousins E-Flash and V-Knuckles, whose legendary Cambridge duo, Natural Born Spitters, have enjoyed just a fraction of the worldwide audience that some of their so-called "underground" neighbors have attained.
SHANK-HOP With E-Flash and V-Knuckles (kneeling) and Neo and Virtuoso (standing) “street” meets the “underground.”
It's not like Flash and Knuckles didn't know Virtuoso before they were labelmates with him on Big Bang Records. Despite their variant approaches to the genre, NBS first crossed paths with the famously heady motormouth more than a decade ago in high school, and in the years since they wound up sharing several studios and stages. But the relationship ended there. While NBS was establishing its brand around housing-project hallways, Virt was collaborating with cats from Montreal to Munich, and landing flattering write-ups in publications all across the world. NBS established firm footing as the premier hardcore rap act in the region, but that was essentially it. They'd hit a brick ceiling.
"On the street level, we're legends," says Flash. "If you could buy records in jail, we'd be platinum. But while we were in the 'hood being legends or whatever you want to call it, guys like Virt were touring Europe and making money off of CDs. One day a couple of years ago, me and Virt just got to smoking and talking about all this, and that's how we ended up working together. Before now, we weren't really business-minded at all."
Virt was no music-business wiz himself. By his own admission, he's succeeded and failed in the industry in most ways possible. Three years ago, while living in Puerto Rico, he even made a run at a reggaetón career. Needless to say, Virt's club vibes didn't sit well with fans of his complex socio-political wordplay. Two years ago, back in Cambridge with his beach-bum days behind him for good, he decided to get his rhyme career back on its original track, which, years earlier, he'd ridden to a rank among hip-hop's top lyricists. This was no simple task. He'd need some co-defendants.
For everything from street promo to Web marketing, Virt tapped Neo, a Cambridge local whom he'd peripherally known for years. Neo had been helping NBS pro bono ever since they discovered him, an unlikely white kid, rapping along to every word at a Western Front show 10 years ago. With Neo now managing the business side of Big Bang — securing distribution, booking shows — Virt and NBS got to writing and recording. "I'm in the studio and writing rhymes more now than I have in years," says Virt. "And these two haven't stopped in months."