‘I gave it all up for the Good Life.’ An aural history.
Not unlike our city’s subway but with better drinks and Technics decks, the Good Life in Downtown Crossing is an iconic equalizer, the rare place in our segregated Hub where several walks of life cross paths and even exchange spit and digits. If that’s not a sweet enough pedigree, the bar has almost single-handedly kept hip-hop hope alive in Boston proper for a decade, as racist policies and club owners have otherwise pushed boom bap DJs into Cambridge and beyond.
In large part due to an anything goes dress code and a famously drama-free environment, the Good Life has become a Shangri-la for countless cadres. And of all the many noted parties that have animated the bar’s dance floor through the years, the monthly hip-hop homecoming Fresh Produce, which celebrates its 10th birthday next Saturday, July 30, stands out as a star-studded flagship. With an exalted guest roster that has featured everyone from Spinderella and Kool Herc, to DJ Premier and Pete Rock, to Mayer Hawthorne, the memories are extra thick, if not loud and cloudy. We reached out to a dozen key players and regulars—everyone from bartenders and DJs to Good Life owner Peter Fiumara—in an attempt to cement the story behind Fresh Produce for the hip-hop history books.
DJ ON&ON [GUEST DJ, HOST OF HIP-HOP TRIVIA AT GOOD LIFE]: I remember [DJ Knife and DJ Tommee’s original party at the Milky Way in Jamaica Plain] Marinate through another guy—Nato—who had a party at the Chopping Block in Mission Hill. I just moved back to Boston from NY and I was trying to infiltrate the Boston scene and this is the Dipset era and I’m wearing bandanas …
I show up to this crazy night in all my Dipset gear and it’s this dive bar, and this is where Alaskan Fishermen, and guys like Statik Selektah and Termanology would come in on the low and sip Heinekens. And Nato books me for a 30-minute set. And it’s all vinyl. So I go in, and it’s just hip-hop …
There I met Knife … and through Knife I met Tommee, and through Tommee I met Ripshop, and T-Ruckus, and Bomshot. And again, very important, vinyl was alive. DJing was alive … That’s what was happening at the time—the Chopping Block!
PETER FIUMARA [OWNER, GOOD LIFE]: I was never much of a good DJ but I’ve always had a crazy draw toward music. I grew up in Newton but had family in the North End so I was always back and forth into the city, and I got into music fast …
I was drawn to New York, which was like the center of the music universe. I had a ridiculous music collection because my dad died when I was 16 and I inherited it. I started DJing with one [Technics] turntable and one stiff-arm turntable …
I went to New York in ‘99-2000 and worked doing music curation. Pre-iPods, making 17-track CDs, and we would duplicate it for different bars. My name was DJ Pietro, which was kind of a joke. I eventually became Rusty Nail up here …
I remember sneaking out of the house to go to The Channel to see Boogie Down Productions. That place and that part of town [Fort Point] gave me a New York kind of vibe …
I’ve always known I wanted to own a bar or a nightclub. My dad was in the restaurant business. After seeing the movie ‘Less Than Zero,’ there’s a scene where he is trying to open a club. That was super intriguing to me. I remember talking to my dad about it, and he was like, ‘There are other things I can do.’ I was probably 14 or 15.
PETER FIUMARA: When I opened this up it wasn’t just with myself, but with my sister and my brother. It was 2004, I was back and forth, and this opportunity came across. This was called The Good Life for 10 years. It was like Lucky’s in Fort Point—live jazz, they opened it right around when ‘Swingers’ came out. The place was jammin’, it was great. I used to come in all the time …
I thought about calling it The Afterlife, but then I just decided to keep the name. It wasn’t the name I would have chose, but it kind of stuck. So we re-branded it. I saw that every bar in the city didn’t allow sneakers, that every bar in the city didn’t allow Timberlands, and I was like, ‘What the fuck?’ This was crazy. In New York you can go out wearing what you want. I wasn’t going to make someone wear loafers if they only wear sneakers.
DJ KNIFE [CO-FOUNDER, FRESH PRODUCE]: [The founders of Fresh Produce] were a group that was very much just coming into its own in this city. Karmaloop [which co-sponsored the party at first] was just coming up. UndergroundHipHop.com had just moved to downtown. [Me and DJ Tommee were] doing Marinate at The Milky Way since 2000. We wanted to expand and do a new party, and kept Marinate and Fresh Produce both going [simultaneously] for a couple of years.
PETER FIUMARA: From the jump, the difference was that we were going to have guests. And with UndergroundHipHop, and people always coming through the city doing promos, we figured maybe we could get people to come DJ for us.
TREES [PROMOTER, UGHH.COM]: The night was basically conceived between myself, Jeremy, Knife, Tommee, and Wil from Karmaloop. We wanted a night that was free, to be a place where b-boys could take over the dance floor, where we could partner with streetwear companies, beer companies. We had the UGHH.com store, but we wanted a monthly party.
JEREMY SULLIVAN [TALENT BOOKER, UGHH.COM]: The biggest piece that UGHH brought was having the connection to all these DJs. Just being able to connect with them. We didn’t want them to play Top 40.
HILARY CLARE [REGULAR]: I remember when I was working at UndergroundHipHop, and Knife and Tommee were talking about doing another Marinate. They’d been looking at a lot of different places, and they thought Peter really got it. He was trying to change the way nights were run in Boston.
DJ FRANK WHITE [GUEST DJ]: I remember seeing Trees and Knife at the Middle East, and I was with Mister Jason and Nabo [Rawk] and they were talking about this new scene. And I was like, ‘Oh shit, a place where you can hear great music and people are breakdancing and shit.’
DJ KNIFE: [Kingston Street in Downtown Crossing] has always been kind of under the radar. There’s not a ton of clubs. Knock on wood, we have always tried to provide an atmosphere where it is not pretentious and you listen to good music and we treat people with respect. That was the basis. I had always noticed that weekly parties failed in Boston. It had a lot to do with neighborhood. So we started having our first success when we would have a whole month to promote one night.
PETER FIUMARA: At the time I was worried budget-wise. How are we going to do this? How are we going to make money? We wanted some of the best [DJs] in the world, but at the same time we weren’t ready to spend a couple of grand.
DJ KNIFE: We started small because we didn’t know what to expect. The first guest was Dooley-O, who was a smaller name. But there was a ton of hype because it was a new place and a new party. I remember ordering 5,000 flyers and we got rid of every one of them. The whole crew.
ALFREDO RICO-DIMAS [DESIGNER, FRESH PRODUCE PROMO FLYERS]: Fresh Produce is one of the few parties [I designed flyers for] that I actually went to a lot. For a while I did all of them. The challenge [for the flyer] is how many times can you switch it around so that it still looks fresh every month. I think we used to print 1,000, then 500. Now Facebook has that it basically looks like a banner, but back in the day we used a straight party flyer, 4×6 format. At one point we could have circles so we did an orange for DJ Synapse and DJ Legacy …
I think for the five-year anniversary they did a two-part party. The first part was Dam Funk, and the second was Turquoise Jeep. And we had Jazzy Jay along that time too. I took inspiration from Buddy Esquire flyers from old school hip-hop, which had cool geometric shapes.
HILARY CLARE: The first one was my birthday celebration. I remember the outfit I was wearing—this black tight camisole with a blue skirt.
DJ KNIFE: Every Fresh Produce we would give out bags with all this swag and gifts and T-shirts … At the beginning we made a lot of these connections through UndergroundHipHop, and then word got around from that. Now when we reach out to people they know that the Good Life is a place where a lot of their peers have played.
DJ ON&ON: As a pro-black, pro-Boston, pro-Northeast hip-hop guy, I would love every opportunity to throw hate at these guys, but the place was packed and it was hip-hop, just straight hip-hop. We mixed it up.
ERICA MCNULTY [GOOD LIFE EMPLOYEE, 2008-PRESENT]: I got here in August 2008. I’m from Lowell. I came here back when the turntables were on the piano downstairs, and I was in here one day and Dave asked me if I needed a job. Before I worked here I had an office job for eight years. I gave it all up for the Good Life …
LAUREN RUBIN [GOOD LIFE EMPLOYEE, 2009-PRESENT]: I didn’t know what kind of place [Good Life] was, didn’t care. I had just moved to Boston [in 2009], so I needed a job and I took it. My first impression was there was a guy in the middle of the afternoon who walked in, sucked down a martini, and left. And they were like, ‘Yeah, that happens all the time.’ It was like his coffee break …
ERICA MCNULTY: I was nervous when I started. It was so busy at night, slammed. To be on the bar here was scary back then. One time I remember being short-staffed, and it must have been a Fresh Produce because people were hanging over the bar asking for drinks and Peter was bartending with me. That was the same night that the dishwasher caught on fire.
DANA SCOTT [REGULAR, HIP-HOP JOURNALIST]: The [Good Life] is the connection. That’s our Latin Quarter. It’s like The Max on ‘Saved by the Bell.’ There have been other places, like The Channel, but it’s the only place now on the Boston side of the Charles that has those kinds of artists …
Every scene needs a center, and the Good life always fostered that with the kind of DJs it has. It’s a place for DJs to feel at home. For a long time, the club scene was eradicated under the Menino administration, and for a lot of things it’s all we have left and can rely on.
DJ TOMMEE [CO-FOUNDER, FRESH PRODUCE]: [DJ hospitality] has been huge since day one. The party is a downtown Saturday night, and for a long time it was impossible to do something non-mainstream downtown. Really this whole thing works because we’re laid back, and we’re fans, and from that there’s really no rules or constructs around what we want other people to do other than to show up and play what they want to play. That’s how we got a lot of guests in the door. It’s what we would want – to show up and play what we want to play for an awesome crowd.
7L [GUEST DJ]:  was the beginning of the bottle service places, like commercial hip-hop places. But I was still doing Middlesex and Enormous Room. The Cambridge spots I got to play all the fun stuff, then Boston was catering to a specific audience …
When Good Life popped around with Fresh Produce it was one of the first nights you could play whatever you wanted. And the crowd got it!
LAUREN RUBIN: We have the business crowd and the nightlife crowd. Before this place I’d never seen hipsters and the whole mix of everybody. I can have two extremely different parties going on at the same time and it seems to work. Everyone eventually kind of blends when the State Street people have had a lot to drink. If there’s good music, sometimes the after work crowd will stay for the nightlife as we’re clearing out the furniture and the lights are getting darker.
ERICA MCNULTY: Some of us are friends with the people who DJ here. It makes it fun when you have [Beyonder] and DJ Frank White behind your bar.
JEREMY SULLIVAN: I have to single out Peter for having the vision to create an eccentric-friendly space to bring everyone together. Besides the fact that he is a true fan of music and can recognize the importance of the guest DJs we’ve brought through, Peter seems to have a personal relationship with everyone and always keeps himself at the center of the antics. During one Fresh Produce, Peter had us battling in an impromptu basketball game in the side alley using a milk crate on the brick wall.
DJ TOMMEE: A lot of times Knife and I are an odd couple. He kind of trends more toward a lot of newer stuff, where I’m pretty much stuck in the ‘90s. But we did decide that early on that we wanted to reach out to people from that classic era and bring them through. At the same time, there was a resurgence of a lot of people who were not only DJs from that classic era but MCs who were going out and trying to run the DJ circuit.
DJ KNIFE: 2013 was the crazy year—Qbert, Afrikka Bambaataa.
DJ FRANK WHITE: It’s a small intimate venue. To see Qbert or Pete Rock that close watching them with 150 people in the room is great. There’s no other venue like that.
JEREMY SULLIVAN: My favorite part about Fresh Produce over the years has been the house party atmosphere where artists, fans, and staff could stand shoulder-to-shoulder. When people feel comfortable enough to let down their guard that’s when the fun happens. The guest DJs picked up on this vibe which many times led to late night antics like the time DJ Platurn laid down in the back of my pick-up truck to keep the party going at the next place, laughing his ass off the whole ride.
DANA SCOTT: Prince Paul was always great. Even though it’s a small gig, Diamond D was great, Jazzy Jay was good, and Babu from the Beat Junkies was awesome. Peanut Butter Wolf came a couple of times. DJ Premier!
ERICA MCNULTY: Spinderella was here a couple of weeks ago, and it was my birthday so I wanted to be downstairs. The night we had Qbert here was a complete snowstorm. I wasn’t working but I got to come in, and it was wild. There were like 11 people here. It was basically like being at a private party with Qbert. If it’s someone that I love I usually try to get in there. Everybody was super excited when we had DJ Jazzy Jeff here. We had a lunch, and our lunchtime regulars all ended up downstairs and got pictures. Where else can you work like that? One time I was bartending and Smif-N-Wessun were standing on the bar performing.
DJ ON&ON: Knife has had some horrible interactions with hip-hop legends, still he keeps on going. That’s where Fresh Produce is so special—there’s no deviance. Unsurpassed. The closest pedigree to people who present Northeast hip-hop, there’s been no more greater purveyors—you go from Tony Touch to Lovebug Starski. Be sure to ask Knife about Lovebug Starski.
DJ KNIFE: No comment.
DJ TOMMEE: There have been a lot of people who have blown me away, but one of the best dudes was DJ Revolution. As far as technical skill and party-rocking, he brought his A-game every time. And Lovebug Starski. He had a meltdown at the end of the night, but when he first came, even though he brought CD turntables, he was rapping and cutting it up at the same time and it was blowing everyone away.
DANA SCOTT: Lovebug Starski tried to fight me at Grandmaster Caz’s 50th birthday party in Manhattan when I came up to him and asked him about the time he came to the Good Life.
DJ FRANK WHITE: That list [of past performers] will blow away any other list in this city.
DJ KNIFE: Four Color Zack was one of the most amazing DJ performances I’ve ever seen. I had heard he was good, but he did some of the coolest technical stuff I’ve ever seen. Shortkut from the Beat Junkies was the most fluid DJ I have ever seen.
7L: Four Color Zack was amazing. He has a lot of his videos from his routines at battles, but I never really saw a full club set from him from start to finish. He weaved from doing complicated routines to playing shit that people were bugging out to seamlessly.
TREES: I really enjoyed when we started bringing some MCs into the mix to perform. We brought in Camp Lo, Smif-N-Wessun. Just seeing those guys come in and perform was like a dream come true. When we started charging a small cover we started getting some people who had been on the wish list for years …
My favorite job was giving these guys a ride to and from the airport. I would pick these guys up in my Jeep and we would just rap about hip-hop. As a fan it was cool to really immerse myself in the culture that I have loved for my whole life.
PETER FIUMARA: I got to pick up Pete Rock at the airport. He’s the nicest dude. I borrowed my mom’s car at the time, and we were driving up Comm Ave. and his manager put in this tape that he was putting out overseas. I’ll never forget it.
HILARY CLARE: The music is different. It’s always going to be some kind of hip-hop mixed with other things, but I don’t know how many other nights are just hip-hop that went for this long. People aren’t there to posture, they’re there to have a good time.
7L: Fresh Produce has always been a good mix—early on it’s a bit of the older crowd and you play some of the classics, but by midnight there’s a healthy mix of old and young and you’re not losing the people. Especially with the guests they always get—they’re steeped in legends, but ones who are still relevant.
DJ ON&ON: I’ve realized that all the people who are doing stuff today—the great graffiti writers, the computer designers—this is where they were at one point. It meant something. It was a litmus test. DJ Tommee is factually the most slept-on DJ I have ever encountered, and again, I take no pleasure in throwing kudos at a white man. This guy is one of the most prolific DJs. Knife was a great anchor to him.
ALFREDO RICO-DIMAS: I did the Stretch [Armstrong] and Bobbito flyer [for the 10th anniversary]. It’s nice to still be involved. Basically when Knife or Peter call, I drop everything I’m doing.
DANA SCOTT: The Good Life helped revive the Boston hip-hop scene when it was dead. Leedz has helped too, but he’s mostly had to do it in Cambridge. [Knife] has done a great job booking the right people over the years.
TREES: It’s a night we hope people can come down and hear music that they can’t hear anywhere else. We want it to be a collection of all different genres of hip-hop, we want to cover the whole spectrum—from old school to underground to trap. We’ve had hundreds of DJs through there, and each one has brought their unique style
PETER FIUMARA: There’s this ebb and flow of regular customers who keep coming back, and we’re fortunate to still be on their radar. From day one we’ve had that …
I wanted everyone to feel like they knew each other. I always wanted it to feel like a house party in a public place.
Explore the full roster of Fresh Produce alumni here. And check the 10th Anniversary of Fresh Produce on Saturday, July 30 with Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito.
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.