At this point, Cliff Notez is going through that thing where he is largely seen as something of a sudden star exploding out of Boston overnight, when in reality he is a solidly accomplished artist who has self-produced five albums, including his standout solo debut, When the Sidewalk Ends, as well as a film director with some festivals and honors under his belt.
Nevertheless, on the heels of a 2018 Boston Music Award for New Artist of the Year, Notez and his media collective and company, HipStory, are bound to be seen and heard much more, and that’s always a positive development. Before he takes off on a national tour, Notez is curating an ambitious three-part miniseries that will see him rock with “future soul” duo Optic Bloom and Brockton rapper Luke Bar$ (January), as well as Treva Holmes (February), Red Shaydez (March), and Forté (February).
It all goes down at Atwood’s, which says the collection of Cliff Notez sessions, called Sketchbook, “is a major step forward in greater Boston venues making space for the growing hip-hop community.”
Notez broke down his plan and motivation for us.
Your style is incredibly unique, somewhere between traditional boom bap and spoken word. Super poetic, as I’m sure you know. What kind of venues have you found up until this point are the best fit for your music?
I don’t think I’m out here trying to be intentionally different; the uniqueness in my music comes from my upbringing. My whole life has been fast-moving and constantly transitioning. It could be a symptom of my ADHD, or maybe it’s related to the 13-plus different homes, or dealing with homeless[ness] repeatedly in in the last 15 years of my life. I’ve been raised by a lot of different environments and cultures, so I think that’s why my art reflects so many different things. That mindset of constantly having to readjust and “fit in” in different environments has helped open the door for a lot of different opportunities.
On a surface level, to the public, I’m just a rapper from Boston, which creates a more difficult environment to get the respect and recognition I may or may not deserve to book certain venues. It wasn’t until we created our own venues with HipStory House Parties that we really started to garner some attention to finally be booked in more “legit” venues. My team’s openness to play mixed bills now has been important to our growth. To this day we’ve played more mixed bills than straight hip-hop shows. Unfortunately, that has been an anomaly in Boston, but the more I’ve played these mixed bills, and seen others do it throughout the city to success, the more their necessity has become apparent. Playing spaces that previously did not book hip-hop as much, like what we’re doing with Atwood’s, is the next step.
Most people don’t expect for a Boston Music Award to immediately lead to fame and fortune, but community recognition can be an important part of any artist’s growth. Have any doors opened for you over the past few months? Is the Atwood’s gig one of them?
Personally, I’m not really looking for fame, to be honest. I’m so grateful for the BMA and have trouble wrapping my mind around it all. Since then, other than some shows that were booked prior to the BMAs, I’ve been in “hiding” in the studio, trying to catch up and make sense of everything.
Unfortunately, I lost my brother a little over a week after the BMAs. He was a major, major influence for my first album, When the Sidewalk Ends, and integral to everything that culminated the night of the awards. What has been most important, and I don’t know if this is directly connected to the BMAs at all, is seeing the amount of love and support I’ve received from complete strangers who check on me and make sure I’m doing ok. I think finally leaving my hermit crab shell, and seeing that there are people out here who have heard my testimony through my music and care enough just to see that I’m ok, or give me food, or send me pictures of their puppies, has been beautiful.
I’m just starting to see the potential that the award has to make a major impact on my career, but the thing that’s most important for me is being able to connect with people and feel human.
How did this whole collaboration come about? Who approached who? Atwood’s is a cozy favorite. We’ve written about it on more than one occasion. And it has a ton of great music too. But it’s never been much of a hip-hop venue. Is your series something new for it? Or is it more something new for you, rocking in that kind of laid-back intimate venue? Is it a bit of both?
I spent the month of November at MASS MoCA for a residency, and the very last show that I had done before that residency, and the last show before I performed at the BMAs, was a show at Atwood’s with Aisha Burns. It was the first show I’d sold out as a headliner.
Ben, a relatively new booking agent at Atwood’s, had reached out months before that wanting to do more hip-hop shows. Coincidentally, I do some work at Pink Noise around the corner and I literally read his email as I walked by Atwood’s. It was like fate, haha. I was thrown off and almost had to read the subject line twice, like, “Atwoods Tavern, are y’all familiar with what kinda artist I am?”
I was down regardless, after doing a ton of Sofar Sounds shows last year and growing up in the slam poetry world, I already had an affinity for doing intimate venues. Putting together this residency has been really important because I’m not an island out here in the Boston hip-hop scene. There are so many artists that are extremely talented and deserve stages, venues, and audiences. Everyone wins when they win, I promise. It was the reason why I started HipStory, my belief in myself and the dope friends I have in this city, and our ability to put on a dope show, wherever we are—Paradise, my apartment, the MFA, or Atwood’s Tavern. We belong in all the same places every other artist has the opportunity to be in.
What was your vision for the series going into it? How and why did you go about tapping your collaborators? What will Sketchbook look like in motion?
My vision has been to just have a dope show, honestly. This isn’t a major production where we have billion-dollar budgets, business plans, and whiteboards filled with logistics. I think that’s the point; this is just a normal dope-as-fuck show. And it’s as simple as putting it together. There’s a lot of fears that people have with putting together a show with hip-hop on the bill, and it stems from structural and institutionalized racism, honestly.
I encourage people to do the research and see how this has plagued our music scene for years. But this, this is just a series of shows that should have been happening for years. Hopefully people can see that, see how possible it is to continue the trend. The collaborators we’ve chosen are legit just all friends, homies. People whose music I enjoy and come from the same neighborhoods as me. We didn’t do a huge search to find these talents, they’re been working in the scene. It’s not hard to be surrounded by immense talent in a small city like Boston. All you gotta do is take your blindfold off and open your eyes, [birdbox voice] it’s beautiful.
CLIFF NOTEZ PRESENTS SKETCHBOOK. ALL PERFORMANCES (LISTED BELOW) ARE AT ATWOODS TAVERN, 877 CAMBRIDGE ST., CAMBRIDGE.