No matter which national outlet you turn to, Boston hip-hop is covered the same way. An artist releases an incredible mixtape, the press applaud like crazy, and everyone asks the question: Who knew Boston had this rap scene? It’s been here for a while, and not only is it experiencing a renaissance, but the new generation has local diehards like Cousin Stizz to thank who then turn around to lift the next act up.
The 25-year-old rapper was born and raised in Dorchester. He hung around Fields Corner with locals Michael Christmas and OG Swaggerdick. The group freestyled in each other’s basements for the fun of it. That’s all imbued into his narrative by now, and to be fair, he’s still having fun like he did back then without concerns for other obligations—he hasn’t had a job since “maybe 2009”—but the way he’s put his whole heart into the rap game is nothing short of motivational, especially given how fast he’s grown. In a way, he had to grow up fast. His childhood got cut short at age 13 when a close friend was shot, outbursts of recklessness followed, and he was forced to attend either military school or suburban high school by his mother. Stizz chose the latter, and the culture shock woke him up.
So Cousin Stizz’s rap career didn’t properly begin until he saw Christmas’ kickoff show in support of Is This Art? and was struck with real purpose. He tells DigBoston over the phone—since a recent relocation to Los Angeles at the start of this year has him away from his roots—about the February 2014 gig, a classic instance of a Middle East Upstairs rap show feeling larger than life. “Watching [Michael Christmas], I realized I definitely wanted to do this,” he says. “When someone close to you does something like that, it makes you realize you could do it, too.”
In 2015, he released his debut mixtape, the hard-hitting Suffolk County, and racked up over 12 million listens on SoundCloud. Then he dropped MONDA the following year, one of DigBoston’s Best Local Albums of 2016. Stizz showed remarkable growth over the course of the two records, dedicating the latter to a good friend who passed from cancer and imbuing each track with a heavy-handed dose of personal anecdotes too real to shrug off.
“It’s pretty simple: There was nothing popping until this shit did,” says Stizz. “I knew there was talent because I knew my friends. They’re talented people. But nobody knew that we were there except for us. It just took a while for everybody else to figure it out. That’s how you know it’s fire: that it’s only now getting the shine that I saw back in 2012. We pushed ourselves hard. We campaigned. We got these venues to book us even though no one believed. We fucking started ciphers around the city because no one else was doing it for us, and that brought us here. It was us, it really was just us, and now that everyone is starting to see there’s talent here, it’s beautiful. It took a group of people who loved something to find out how to bring it out.”
Not a single person in the city could be as proud of Stizz as his parents are. Both showed up to his Boston Calling set and got faded at the bar all day. While he won’t let his mom listen to his music (“She knows and stays updated, but I tell her to stay away from the music and the concerts”), his dad is his biggest fan. “If you went to the house right now, I bet you he’s playing my music,” Stizz says with a laugh. “Like he goes to YouTube—because, you know, he’s mad old so he doesn’t know how to listen on SoundCloud—and types in my name and plays my shit on loop all day. It’s mad funny, but I love it.”
Perhaps that’s because they know his narrative is nothing but the truth. MONDA was as personal as it gets, rearing a type of honesty that’s hard to forget but difficult to share. But this time, Cousin Stizz wanted to go in a new direction. While One Night Only is exactly that, he manages to uphold that same honesty. For starters, One Night Only is the first Cousin Stizz record to be entirely recorded outside of Boston. After wrapping up his most recent tour, he moved out to Los Angeles and got to work. The record basks in that glow. Producers Tee-WaTT, Vinylz, FrancisGotHeat, Smash David, WondaGurl, and more lean into tropical backbeats. It’s airy while staying bouncy. Rope that together with guest verses by G-Eazy, Offset of Migos fame, Big Leano, and Buddy, and you get a solid 14-track mixtape that’s a shoo-in for the summer. Lyrically, Cousin Stizz doesn’t overthink it. Because his songs are based on where he’s at in life, if the words come naturally, that means it’s meant to happen—and that’s good enough for him.
Ease of lyricism doesn’t equate to simplicity, though. One Night Only is dense with perfected work. From getting drunk in the studio with Buddy for “Pullup” to getting stress off his chest on “Paper Calling,” or from serious markup work on “Switch Places” to his collaboration with Big Leano, Cousin Stizz made sure to write down each line. Freestyles were penned immediately after they flew out of his lips.
Comically enough, it’s “Lambo,” his second single off One Night Only and arguably the most relaxed, that was the hardest to pull off. Legal rights caught Stizz in a bind, where he reworked essentially everything but the hook. “I usually just do a song and that’s it. No edits, no revising, because how do you emulate that whole feeling all over again?” he says. “We tried to clear ‘Lambo,’ but the sample-holder is this old guy from Japan, like a 55-year-old man, and he was not having it with the lyrics. There were so many slurs on that song. So much derogatory shit being said. I think that’s the only time in life I’ll ever [rewrite a song]. I listen to the unedited version on the time. It’s heat. So having to change it a lot was sad, but I am happy with the other version.”
“Lambo,” like the rest of One Night Only, swims in a pool of classic-LA warmth, but it didn’t come easy. It required focusing, both as a musician and as a person hoping to better themselves, to create a smooth flow that broke away from personal matters of the past. “[Focus] means sitting down and writing. It’s literally that simple,” explains Stizz. “It’s not about doing a specific ritual. You gotta sit and do it. That’s what focus is. Just doing. You have to be it. I get writer’s block all the time, but when that happens, you gotta step back—because you can’t force something that’s gonna be trash. You gotta work in a smart way.”
For those already anticipating change, slow your roll. Los Angeles won’t change Cousin Stizz. He’s certain of it. “I’ve lived in LA for six months; I lived in Boston the whole 25 years before that. Why would I stop being a Boston rapper?” he says. “When you’re from Boston, you grow up on pride because of sports. We didn’t have rap, though. We didn’t have a 50 Cent or Kanye West or Gucci. Anyone. How could somebody know the proper steps to put themselves up if you didn’t have anyone to follow guidelines off of? That’s what separates Boston from every other city—these kids are really doing it on their own, on their own guidelines, because they made their own formula, and that’s fucking fire.”
By now, it’s clear Boston’s status as a hip-hop city is cemented. Every day there’s something new: a new rapper, a new video, a new mixtape. It found its balance, which means it’s Cousin Stizz and his friends—Christmas, OG Swaggerdick, Vintage Lee, and the like—who are inspiring the next crop, and that formula stretches across Boston’s various music scenes, especially into punk and rock. But for hip-hop, it fosters a special intimacy. That growth in the rap community isn’t lost on Cousin Stizz, nor is it lost on his fans, many of whom chat him up after the show to express their gratitude.
“When kids do come over after shows, it’s because they can relate the same way I could to my guys,” he says. “They see that I’m from Dorchester. I grew up like how they grew up. I got into the same fights they got into. I bought the same motherfucking slushie at the same corner stores from the same ice lady that they did. I just happened to make that a beacon—yeah, a beacon of light—saying this shit could happen no matter if they say you can’t do this shit. We made a way. They can, too. It’s literally showing you that yeah, you can, too. I’m Cousin for a reason, because I treat them like family.”
Cousin Stizz’s new mixtape, One Night Only, is out now via RCA Records.