Sober and with Arcitype producing by his side, a Boston hip-hop stalwart modifies his craft and hustle
Rite Hook is leaning forward in the cockpit at the Bridge Sound and Stage lab in Cambridge. Behind him is a tilted control board with a dizzying array of dials, plus a monitor perched directly above with the cover of his new album, Modify, on the screen. The image is a creepy doctored close-up of the artist, who designed it himself; somehow, his eyes stare right back at you from any angle you ogle from, sort of like the Mona Lisa but a lot more menacing.
Huddled all around him in the studio are Hook’s mates and collaborators, some of whom have cut pitch-dark music with the rapper since adolescent days of rolling deep in hoopties blasting Wu-Tang Clan and Slipknot. Others, like top Boston producer Arcitype, whose chair Hook is currently occupying as he navigates us through his latest masterstroke and all the misery that shaped it, have added their energy to the matrix more recently.
Whether new or old associates, the reaction on all of the faces in the room is some twist of insanely mesmerized. This shit that we are listening to isn’t simply different. This shit is amazing.
It is neither corny nor hyperbole to say that few heads in this studio thought Hook would make it to this point. An open book and veteran of the Bay State’s perpetual opioid crisis, he’s lived through and gone on to tell more drug-addled war stories than most. Unlike the contemporary trap clowns who toast to inebriation without even mildly acknowledging the nightmares that haunt chronic painkiller abusers in reality, Hook has pulled fans head-first through the intravenous trials he endured, battering our brains with violent lessons from the toxic trenches.
While the beats are mostly morbid at his engagement in Cambridge, the mood is rather light. Hook has been clean for months and in that time climbed out of a rut he had been buried beneath for years. On the personal front, he got engaged; professionally, he linked with Arcitype of STL GLD fame and opened up his range. Those who came for this unveiling of the fruits of Hook’s sobriety appear to be as stunned by the fact that this night is happening at all as they are by the beats and bars.
“I moved to LA to get my shit together,” Hook says. For the past year, he’s been flying back and forth between Boston and Los Angeles, tattooing for rent money while working on new albums. “Before that I’d work on Modify a little bit, then fuck up, go into a [rehabilitation] program, and then try getting back into the music. But when I got to LA I finally had a clear head. That’s the only reason Modify came out.”
If this sounds like a familiar tale to Hub rap fans, that may be because Slaine, who Hook has shared innumerable marquees and album credits with, found a similar salvation years ago. After earning a rep as a liquor- and coke-monger, Slaine put down the vial. In the time since, he’s helped others do the same, and in this case assisted his old accomplice into a much healthier gear.
“I’m a big fan, I’ve always been,” Slaine says of his longtime co-defendant. “He was with me when I was at my bottom, passing out on stage, and he was sober at the time. I’ve been mentored by a lot of people in this game—helping each other is just what we do. I’ve watched him develop from an 18-year-old kid into a unique and mature artist with a sound that nobody else has.”
“My whole team is sober,” Hook says. “Nobody really gets fucked up, so I can’t even show up if I have been getting wasted.” Looking back on his musical purgatory before cleaning up, he adds, “I just didn’t go [to the studio]. I didn’t want to hear it from anybody.”
“LA isn’t the best place to get sober,” he laughs, “but Slaine was there and I had the opportunity.”
As for that unique sound… as was discovered early on by producers and concert promoters who pushed him to take his talent past rapping, Hook packs the kind of naturally electric vocals that cannot be fabulated using Auto-Tune or learned in voice lessons. It’s a light gravelly bass with elements of Aesop Rock and Eddie Vedder, not unlike the way that his creations split the hip-hop and hard rock divide. What started as mere vocal riffing at the urging of some early Hook producers like Lu Balz—who has gone on to work with bigs like Justin Bieber, Post Malone, and Halsey—has effectively evolved into a golden and distinctive ring under the tutelage of Arcitype.
“I think it’s been a slow progression and a gradual change,” Hook says of his versatility. “I know everyone thinks it’s something totally new, but I was singing on my first album.”
For Modify, Hook returned to his roots in a literal sense, with him and Arcitype enlisting musician and co-writer Jeff Gard, who Hook used to play with in the Worcester metal band Doomshot.
“We’d do the American Legion and Polish club halls,” Hook recalls fondly. “I moved from Winthrop to Central Mass as a kid, but split my time between both. In [Winthrop] I was exposed to writing graffiti and being in graf crews, which brought me into the world of hip-hop after being taught how to freestyle and beatbox from my cousins.
“In Central Mass, I was the only kid who didn’t have family there, so I ended up being the odd one out a lot. [I had] just a general feeling of not being accepted, which in turn fueled anger and the drive to do something no one else could do as a fuck you to a lot of people. I had a city mindset in a small town.”
All of which provided endless fodder for his first several albums, and even Modify to an extent. Now that he has a clear head, though, and is already back in the studio with Arcitype for a follow-up LP, Hook has had to look beyond the depths of despair for compelling content.
“It’s weird,” he says. “I had experienced so much awful shit when I was fucked up out of my mind—I had only written from a place of hurt. I had never written a love song. I’d never even tried.
“Not knowing anything but self-sabotage in the past, I’m just trying to figure out how to do this now that things are good.”
MODIFY ALBUM RELEASE. SAT 5.4 AT THE MIDDLE EAST, 472 MASS AVE, CAMBRIDGE.