The Boston hip-hop boundary breakers’ Rock Boyega taps top talent, transports region and entire genre through an epic perpetual pandemic experience
“I’m in art school.”
“I’m studying to be a teacher.”
“I work as a studio musician.”
“I’m just happy to be here. I’ve been waiting for this for a while.”
“I played on the record we’re about to listen to.”
And then it’s my turn …
“I’m the editor of DigBoston, and I own the first three STL GLD albums on vinyl.”
It’s a crisp fall Friday at the Bridge Sound and Stage studio in North Cambridge, and STL GLD invited a few dozen of their closest friends and most devoted fans to feast on Rock Boyega, the group’s first album in more than three years. The Arcitype asks everybody in the room to make an introduction, and as it turns out, a lot of heads here in the huddle played, sang, or jumped on the project in some fashion. A handout of the tracklist and credits reads like a roster of Hub rap, world music, and indie-rock hitters, this revival being an extended family affair incorporating talents such as singer-songwriter Julia Easterlin and Hub Poet Laureate Porsha Olayiwola. I look around the studio; the energy is percolating.
Creative camaraderie makes for magical moments, but it will only hold attention for so long—including that of contemporaries who contributed to the project you’re trying to preview. And so to discourage their friends, fam, and even collaborators from chit-chatting while they pull back the Boyega curtain for the first time, STL GLD stitched together a hodgepodge of film clips and scattershot images to play along with the music. And it works; probably also due to anticipation along with whatever weed and beer buzzes people brought into the dimly lit sound stage, we all stand mesmerized as the speakers and enormous screen light up.
I won’t overinterpret the visuals; while some tracks like the Darlingside-assisted “Shimmer” align with shorts they will actually release for individual songs, all I’ll say about the filler eye candy that STL GLD offers us to ogle is that it keeps panning to the sky—its beauty, its boundlessness, its infinite light and darkness alike. Which is all fitting since we’re soaring right away, the first two tracks tumbling through torrents of emotion; despite being so captivating that it rings like a familiar battle cry, “Resisting” uncorks cellars full of red-eyed outrage, while the opening “There I Am” with Jared Evan feels like escaping a dungeon, possibly after a COVID lockdown, and running headfirst into a towering wall of light. It’s blinding, but we have seasoned guides in Moe Pope and his bandmates. I crack another beer and buckle up.
“Burgundy Cement” with the intriguing Ed Ballon and Dua Boakye from Bad Rabbits bumps up the belligerence, followed by Moe taking a quick breather on “Default” over a light pluck from Chris Klaxton. Then comes “AB” with Cliff Notez, a siren and my favorite cut on the record so far. The crowd seems to agree; the track has wings but coasts close enough to the carpet to connect on Cliff’s eclectic contours. It’s official, STL GLD is back with a whole bunch of bonzer bangers.
Every musician has a story about how the pandemic knocked their hustle, from bands being abandoned on the road mid-tour to losing deals long in the making. No doubt STL GLD was comparably screwed, still their trajectory has been neither exponential nor linear, but rather an artistically liberating freewheeling adventure. The pandemic could have delivered them in any number of directions, and many of us would have been eager to follow them wherever. I think of the cover of their 2017 masterpiece Torch Song, a guttural glimpse of a nation running from its past and posturing toward progress while chasing its own violent tail. But this time out, perhaps even more than before, instead of simply swinging torches at monsters du jour who fan the flames of fear, Moe and co offer evergreen allegories that apply to hatemongers in modern-day Mass as much as they do forces of evil abroad, with STL GLD scream machine Christopher Talken right there hollering the point home.
Throughout the night, the band leads, and as usual, we follow. And listen. It’s one of their trademarks: some of the places STL GLD has led the scene to, like the Museum of Fine Arts where they released their 2019 album The New Normal among portraits of visibly disapproving Founding Fathers, have marked major milestones for hip-hop in the Hub. Boston Calling was another one; along with the likes of Oompa, Cousin Stizz, and Cliff Notez who have made appearances, their performance at the festival in 2018 showed that it is possible for local acts to advance in a city long notorious for hobbling its own. As for what they’ve done with that position and where they are leading others, that’s a story they’re still writing.
On Rock Boyega, the band boldly steps into the future with the brightest of Boston beside them. “The Art of Birdwatching” with Latrell James follows the catchy yet decidedly non formulaic fluency of attempting new stunts sans discounting accessibility, and of streamlining multiple sounds—core member Tim Hall’s horn, RVRSR’s guitar bird chirps—into a singular successful idea. The serious yet anthemic “Colors,” with its star turn from a raw and unapologetic Oompa, is another highlight, as is “Thug” with Brandie Blaze. Moe’s varied flows match clever and didactic body blows from both, with all steadily boxing through the Black experience over the Arcitype and STL GLD percussionist Jonathan Ulman’s beautiful yet bumpy backdrops.
Things begin to lighten up further down the tracklist, and about 10 seconds into the beachworthy “Caterpillars” with chill Najee Janey, someone breaks a silence that seemingly lasted through three prior songs and walks across the room for a fresh seltzer. Shit’s been rather serious in here but now it’s a party, even if we’re all still silent and glued to the screen as Rock Boyega wraps. My jaw hits the floor as “Signals,” an all-Moe meditation on his position among mortals, slides through an interlude and then right into “Shimmer,” the icing on the greatness. It took a significant pandemic while, but the gang has conquered yet again.
When it’s over, I ask the guys how they have been received beyond the Bay State, if their distinctive paths of rhythm have led to fan bases elsewhere. I’ve played STL GLD for friends from all over the world, and the reaction has been universal wonder, even amazement that something so genuinely hip-hop and notably new but untethered to stupid trends could have evaded them. Judging by their response to the question though, the group has had some difficulty resonating outside of their home state, possibly due to their basically abandoning their much more basic boom bap vibe from early on.
While I usually selfishly settle on seeing exceptional Mass artists make a sizable but nevertheless regional splash, stepping out of the Bridge Sound and Stage, I’m certain that STL GLD’s newest needs to be heard all the way from sea to sea. Rock Boyega represents some of the best that Boston has to offer; people everywhere should hear this, but in order for that to finally happen, first the band will need your undivided attention.
STL GLD Rock Boyega release party with 7L&Esoteric, Najee Janey & ToriTori @ the Paradise Rock Club, Thursday, Nov. 10
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.