Mass Hip-Hop Archive breaks critical positive gem out the vault
BY PACEY FOSTER + REEBEE GAROFALO
Times like these are ripe for pulling every tool there is out of the old idea shed in the search for harmony. Enter Pacey Foster, an associate professor of management at UMass Boston, where he spearheaded and organizes the Massachusetts Hip-Hop Archive, a digital collection of remarkable foundational materials from the Hub’s boom bap heyday. Along with newly digitized material from the Rock Against Racism archive (also housed at UMass Boston), it reveals how past generations fought for justice and peace against seemingly impossible odds.
At an event for the archive held at the BPL Central Library last year, Foster joined a fleet of Boston rap alumni in a series of discussions about this region’s elaborate musical history. Among the topics that came up which are worthy of much deeper dives and documentation, the seminal Rock Against Racism (RAR) program stood out. Specifically, Foster describes a hip-hop initiative within the bigger RAR effort as a “vehicle for the larger mission of helping to discuss and heal racial conflicts.”
Next Saturday at Freedom House in Dorchester, the Massachusetts Hip Hop Archive and Rock Against Racism members and performers Naheem Garcia, Reebee Garofalo, Vivian Smith Barnes and Fran Smith will host another discussion, this time following an anticipated digitized screening of Breakin’ Rappin’ Poppin’ and Graffin’: A Rockumentary, a 1985 doc produced by RAR. The production features interviews with and performances by break-dancers, rappers, and graffiti artists, and ends with an epic battle between the Floorlords, the Unikue Dominoes, and Spin City Rockers.
As a warm-up for the modern premiere, we asked Foster and Garofalo to provide some background on the Mass chapter of RAR. Using a recent interview he did with Reebee Garofalo, an author and UMass Boston professor who helped organize the group back in the day, as well as a paper that Garofalo presented at a music studies conference in Canada in 1985, the local rap historian laid out some background behind the vaulted classic he’s about to unveil. -Chris Faraone
Rock Against Racism began in 1979 as a multiracial group of educators, rock writers, and radio and television personalities who responded to a request, made by a group of Cambridge Rindge and Latin School students, for a program on popular music and race relations. This responding crew developed a multimedia presentation called “Rock and Rap” that was first delivered to an assembly of some 700 students at the school on Dec 12, 1979.
“It begins … when there’s a lot of racialized violence in the city,” Garofalo recently said. “A bunch of us were invited in to do, you know, “can music bring us together?” rap … The thing was to get well-known DJs in the room so the kids would listen … We then turned that into a horse and pony show that we took around to a number of schools and community meetings … a panel of well-known people talking about “don’t be a racist,” and using music to illustrate it. The public schools liked this enough that I got them to give us a grant.”
Though such a workshop may seem basic now, in its day the work RAR did was groundbreaking. It came after a notoriously turbulent period of intense racialized violence in Boston including fights around busing, the shooting of a black football player by white youth at a game, open recruitment by the KKK at high schools, and a spate of murders of young black women over a period of less than two years.
Although Rock Against Racism was named after, and loosely modeled on, the movement of the same name that started in England several years earlier, from its earliest incarnations, the Massachusetts chapter took on its own unique character and trajectory. In particular, it included much less of an emphasis on punk and new wave music, and included hip-hop as well as reggae, Latin, and rock music from the beginning.
From 1979 to 1982, RAR functioned as a volunteer organization presenting music at local events. The theme of multicultural unity was prominent, and the organization tried to present diverse styles of music on the same stage. This in itself was an anti-racist statement in a city like Boston, which had such a divisive racial history, and where multicultural and multi-genre musical performances were practically nonexistent.
In the early 1980s, RAR aligned more closely with local progressive organizations and members of the black community. Using those connections, they established a relationship with Boston Public Schools to field participants, and with resources from UMass, were able to find permanent space and a professional video studio that allowed them to broadcast youth-oriented anti racist programming to approximately 240,000 households.
RAR started making shows and films in ’82. In his 1985 paper detailing the experience, Garofalo described their first production, But Can You Dance To It, as “essentially American Bandstand with racial consciousness. Black, white and Latino deejays played records from their respective playlists as a multi-racial group of young people danced to each selection. Each deejay was interviewed concerning the cultural significance of the material he selected and a historical segment on the multi-cultural influences in popular music was provided by yours truly.”
Garofalo continued: “Based on the success of this project, RAR negotiated a $20,000 contract with the Boston Public Schools in 1983 to work collaboratively with [UMass Boston], the Community Access and Programming Foundation, and students from three inner city high schools to produce a series of videotapes showcasing contemporary youth culture.”
From that point on for several years, RAR operated as a nonprofit with a paid staff, and in time transformed from being an adult-led educational program to something resembling a membership organization with “young people providing a significant part of the leadership.” One of the videos they dropped was Breakin’ Rappin’ Poppin’ and Graffin’, which came after two years of work with the BPS, and documented a legendary bboy battle outside Madison Park High School in the summer of 1985.
“We had two separate incarnations,” Garofalo recalled. “We had a bunch of professionals going around to schools talking, and [later] paid staff working with kids in an after-school program. [It was] a gathering place for anybody who was into hip-hop. And that happened every day of the week … For years. In the early ’80s.”