By Alex Ramirez
Two decades ago, a promising MC from small post-industrial Lawrence dropped some of the most tragically slept-on rap gems of the ’90s, in the Bay State or anyplace else. The critical album was called Criminal, and featured an all-star roster of producers including Diamond D of Diggin’ In The Crates and Wu-Tang Clan ringleader RZA.
Tying together so much ingenuity was Scientfik, a versatile lyricist in a class all his own. Criminal may have been hobbled by a limited pressing and virtually no label support, but his canon has lived on in more ways than one. When Scientifik died in 1998, he had already paved the way for a slew of other Lawtown artists.
“Lawrence holds an important place in regards to Boston hip-hop,” says Dart Adams, a music historian and journalist. “It’s the home of Krumb Snatcha, the W.O.L.V.E.S., Reks, Termanology, ST. The Squad … but it all started with Scientifik.”
Scientifik was born Dinitry A. Behrmann in 1972, the third youngest of four children raised in Flatbush, Brooklyn. “Our mother died when we were young,” says his sister, Raquel, who sings under the name Red Pages. They were taken in by their grandmother and aunt, and moved to Lawrence around 1986. Dinitry was already rhyming by then, and soon became a local star on the city’s nascent rap scene. According to veteran Lawrence MC-producer DraMatik, at the time the top dogs in the Merrimack Valley were Scientifik and his rival Mr. Fresh, the two of whom battled on countless occasions.
“We were bitter rivals at first,” Mr. Fresh says all these years later. “But after all the battles we became friends. I was good, and … he hit me with good shots.” DraMatik also started as a rival, in his case after watching Scientifik rock the YWCA in Lawrence. “He had such a demanding presence,” DraMatik remembers. “He automatically hooked me with his style and swag.”
Offstage, Scientifik was a good student and an avid reader, “always trying to feed his mind” says his sister Raquel. “He could enter any conversation and expand the discussion. He used to say, ‘You gotta be a good student in order to be a good teacher.’”
Still going by the name MC D-1, in 1990 Scientifik entered a rhyme contest at Club Seven in New Hampshire. His main competitor: Edo G, a rapper from Roxbury who would soon become a Boston legend. Scientifik wound up winning, but Edo thought the crowd was biased on account of the close proximity to Lawrence, so they took it to the bathroom to battle the matter out.
“We went at it for about an hour,” Edo says. “Verse for verse. It went so long people started leaving.” Eventually they became friends, and started working together. Edo continues: “He was my right hand man as far as music went. We had a similar music mind, we both wanted to be as dope as we could be.”
Less than six months later, Edo got a record deal. The two emcees agreed that whoever got signed first would help the other, and as such Scientifik was on hand for the whole recording of Edo’s 1991 debut. They kept at it, and when it was time to record Scientifik’s first opus, the 1994 album Criminal, Edo executive-produced with beatmaker Joe Mansfield. For the lead single, “Lawtown”—a track that veritably renamed Lawrence for the rap generationthe team laced a crackling horn sample, followed by a bouncing bass line and the kind of thumping boom bap drum that defined the era. In his role, Scientifik flexed both his storytelling chops and his battle rhyme muscles. There’s a film noir feel to it all, only naturally considering its hailing from the same town where DraMatik caught a non-fatal bullet, and where car thefts, much like unemployment, are notoriously rampant. Boston Magazine once branded Lawrence a “City of the Damned.”
As for Scientifik’s navigation of this gangland, DraMatik says he helped unite people. Raquel says the same: “He was the only person who could go anywhere and everywhere without problems.” As does Reks, who grew up next to Scientifik’s girlfriend of 11 years, Betty Cora. Reks recalls: “it was just amazing to see somebody who had the ability that he had, and the connections that he had, so early on … When all of us were looking outside of our hometown for role models and idols, it was basically showing we could make it out of that neighborhood as well.”
With such minimal promotional support, Scientifik wound up selling copies of Criminal out of his trunk around Massachusetts, and propping singles on college radio. He wasn’t bitter over record label letdowns, but had rather grown wiser in those years. Toward the end of his life, Scientifik’s readings on religion, self-help, and philosophy started influencing his music. Unreleased tracks like “Boston” (produced by Diamond D) and “Hard to Kill” (produced by Dialek) mixed vivid street lyrics and battle rhymes with references to the Five-Percent Nation, Louis Farrakhan, and god. Furthermore, his talent for penning dense rhymes was sharper than ever, and Scientifik was spending more time in New York securing yet another all-star lineup for his sophomore project, Black Jesus. But it never came.
On June 4, 1998, Scientifik and his girlfriend Cora’s car was found overturned on the side of I-495, with a pistol about 20 to 30 feet from the vehicle. According to an article in the Lawrence Eagle Tribune from the following day, police determined that the former shot Betty and then turned the gun on himself. It was ruled a murder-suicide. Friends and family of the couple were shocked and confused, as were police. They had been together for 11 years, and had no history of violence. Most who knew them said the couple seemed happy. Rumors and speculation surfaced, but police never determined a motive. Only the couple knows what really happened in that car.
Lawrence was shaken. Raquel left music for 12 years. Scientifik’s sons were separated. Jonathan Pabon, the older son born to a previous girlfriend, stayed in Lawrence. The fallen MC’s younger son, Dante Cora, was sent to Florida to live with Betty’s parents. Looking back, Jonathan describes life after his father’s passing as a “typical ghetto story”—no father, getting into trouble and fights. “I never used my father as an excuse,” Cora says, though he notes the loss played a role.
Dante was raised believing that his parents died in a car accident on account of his grandparents not speaking about what happened. One day, when he was 14, he got curious, logged online, and learned the truth. “It was pretty difficult,” he says. “It was like having to deal with it all over again.” Dante tried to block it out for the next few years. Then Jonathan visited his little brother in Florida, explaining that “whatever happened between them is between them.” “It helped me remember the good times, not just block it all out,” Dante says.
Both of Scientifik’s sons have warm memories of their dad: new bikes, toys, the works. As for the legacy; the 23-year-old Jonathan has taken up his father’s name, calling himself Young Scientifik, and is working on a mixtape, Most Blunted 2 (released posthumously, Most Blunted is believed to be an early Scientifik demo). He’s been rapping since he was young; after getting in trouble at school for freestyling about 40s and blunts, his father brought him for his first studio session.
Criminal’s status as a Golden Era classic isn’t just a claim made by Massholes. Ego Trip picked it as one of the 20 most slept-on albums in their Ego Trip’s Book Of Rap Lists, which Dart Adams says helped the tracks get the attention they deserve.
“He was gone before his time,” adds Edo. “People didn’t really get to experience his full potential like we did … He was right on the cusp of doing some even bigger stuff musically [that] could have been commercially successful.”
The even bigger loss was any sense of unity that Scientifik inspired throughout Lawrence. “Some people here are uniting,” says his sister, “but it’s in clusters. If he was here it’d probably be a lot different.”
The lost video for “Lawtown,” furnished exclusively to DigBoston by DraMatik
DraMatik has done his part to keep the spirit alive, including organizing a 2012 remix of “Lawtown” called “Lawtown’s Finest.” The song features fellow Lawrence natives Krumb Snatcha, Reks, Termanology, Sonic, Astro, Lunox, Hectic, and Ghetto, while the video packs footage from the original “Lawtown” reels.
“The city’s always had a black cloud over it,” Termanolgy says. “Scientifik, then Krumb, now me—we’ve all been going through it. You try and keep it hip-hop and show love and get people to shows, but there’s so many grudges. But when you’re a leader like Scientifik was, that’s your job.”
Of course, the good memories outshine the foul ones. “When people talk about the Golden Era, his name comes up,” DraMatik says. “Someone from our area is part of the Golden Era, and I take pride in that.”
THE UNTOLD STORIES OF HUB HIP-HOP