The North Shore artist confesses about sneaking out to break in
I didn’t want to open up this article with an anecdote about Justin Clancy’s recovery. Though his decision to donate the proceeds from his show this coming Friday at Sonia—to the Right Turn addiction resource center—initially moved me to contact the increasingly viral MC and singer, the story that I wound up wanting to tell is about more than just how Clancy traded his former degenerate ways for more positive pastimes. To put it in his words: “I don’t consider myself to be the ‘Recovery Rapper.’”
Still, I can’t resist starting off with a vignette about rehab that he shares in our chat. It speaks entire tomes to the young artist’s indomitable spirit.
Less than four years ago, Clancy, now 22, found himself living in a Massachusetts halfway house, recovering from years spent bent on opiates. He was determined to stay clean, still on this one occasion he saw a worthy excuse—a mandate really—to violate his residential guidelines.
“I remember breaking curfew and going out so that I could do shows,” Clancy recalls. “The first show I [did after getting clean was opening up] for Cassidy in Rhode Island, and I wasn’t even supposed to leave the state.”
Also risking their own asses, the musician’s dedicated friends from recovery drove along with him. One of the women who came for the ride was wearing a government-issued ankle bracelet, still they persevered.
“If I got caught I could have been kicked out of my housing,” Clancy says, “but I was two months clean and it was the first time I ever performed sober.”
Rewind the tape a decade, check the fuzzy YouTube clips, and you’ll discover a significantly different Clancy.
“I lived in Saugus, I lived in Peabody, I lived in Lynn—I lived all over the North Shore—but I went to Peabody High School,” he says. “I didn’t really fit in with a lot of the other kids. A lot of kids are really into sports and the athletic teams, but growing up I was raised by my mother and my grandmother because my father was in prison. I didn’t really have much to do—my mother couldn’t teach me how to play sports and shit. So I had a lot of people who I thought represented masculinity, the quote-unquote tough guys who all of the parents hoped their kids would stay away from. I didn’t have much guidance.”
He continues: “I liked writing poetry and acting in plays and stuff, but I couldn’t show any of it because I thought it was a sign of weakness. Instead I did a lot of fighting and running from police and doing drugs. By the time I was 19 years old I was a full-blown intravenous heroin addict, going in and out of detoxes, in and out of halfway houses, going to jail. I went to county for charges of breaking and entering, and a larceny, and a weapons charge.
“I was still making some good music. It depends on what day you caught me, but I’ve been doing this for a really long time. I’ve been writing since I’m like 8 years old, I’m no stranger to this kind of thing, though I feel that the music I was making before I got in recovery wasn’t really me. A big piece of being in recovery is finding yourself, and a big piece of being an artist is being comfortable in your own skin. So I didn’t really start making music that represented my soul until about a year ago.”
The turnaround stuck. Discovering unique and improved rhyme and melody chops in his bones, Clancy has since caught major wind on Facebook with the tracks “The Bottom Line” and “TV Dinner,” either of which could seemingly rock any pop chart, and may indeed land in commercial pastures soon from the exposure. Reinvigorated in his cleansed personal temple, he’s also retooled his performances.
“Being on stage, especially with some of my recent success, and hearing the crowd sing the words that you wrote with your heart and soul, word for word, is probably the most liberating, exhilarating, beautiful thing that I’ve ever felt in my entire life—better than anything that I’ve ever felt,” he says. “That’s how I knew this was what I wanted to do [after I got clean].”
It’s understandable why Clancy doesn’t want to be pegged as a recovery rapper. As he says, “There is a very thin line between a cool story and a gimmick.” Nevertheless, there’s nothing gimmicky about his day gig working at a substance abuse treatment center, where he receives “anywhere from five to thirty phone calls a day from people looking for help.” Nor does Clancy appear to be trying to score pity points by sharing stories about clients who pass away, and those who can’t “get into treatment [and who] die while they’re waiting for a bed.”
“I’m just out here doing my thing,” Clancy says. “Doors open, doors close. More often than not, when someone opens the door for me, things work. When I stopped doing the wrong things, all the right things started happening, but I really do try to keep helping people separate from my music.”
As for this Friday at Sonia…
“It’s not a benefit show,” Clancy stresses. “It just happens to be a show that I’m headlining, and I’m donating all of the money. All of the other artists on the bill thought it was a good idea too.”
JUSTIN CLANCY W/ SUPERSTAR SNUK, TASHAWN TAYLOR, TIM NIHAN, AARON ODUM. FRI 8.11. 10 BROOKLINE ST., CAMBRIDGE. 8PM/18+/$12. MIDEASTOFFERS.COM
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.