Tale of the Tapes

PROFILE: Crate-digging with Boston rap historian Pacey Foster

By Chris Faraone

Originally published in the Boston Phoenix (November 2012)

Pacey Foster used to fly home from college in Indiana, hustle to his Newton bedroom, and reach straight for the radio dial. It was the mid-1980s, and, just like in New York, hip-hop was mesmerizing the youth around Boston. At the local level, acts like Almighty RSO and MC Spice were making noise, and chiefly amplifying tales of ghetto life and partying through WMBR, the MIT station at the ass crack of the FM dial, 88.1 FM. For new jams, burgeoning hip-hop fans listened there for Lecco’s Lemma, a weekly show hosted by eccentric music scenester Magnus Johnstone. Like countless others from the ‘hood to the ‘burbs, Foster was fully fixated.

Hip-hop history is full of stories about standout white guys — mostly on the business side — who changed the game. But Johnstone was different: a creature of the deep underground whose affection for emerging rap trends was entirely devoid of monetary motives. A tiny figure in tattered T-shirts and tight black jeans, Johnstone was a product of the punk-rock aesthetic. In MCs and DJs, he saw both the hope and the rebellion that rock once evoked, and he helped deliver that excitement from the streets to listeners from Mattapan to Malden.

“That was the best experience of my life,” says Edo G, the leading Boston rap stalwart who got his start on Lecco’s Lemma. “Magnus changed everything. Once we were able to get on the radio, everybody in the whole neighborhood would listen. That show was the only thing going for rap — and especially for local rap. Back then, everything was new — we didn’t rock to hip-hop before that, like New York did. It was an amazing time — Magnus definitely helped shape hip-hop out here.”

In addition to being the first to spin hip-hop in Greater Boston, Johnstone also opened up his studio doors, inviting budding artists to rock live on air. Those in-house jams were so hectic that in his final year, Johnstone had to relocate Lecco’s Lemma to WZBC at Boston College; MIT had grown tired of his entourage packing the studio each week, their “routines,” as raw tracks were known back then, spilling onto the surrounding campus after shows. By the time that mainstream vultures and commercial jocks caught the rap bug, around 1988, Johnstone had moved on. He’d dutifully fulfilled his role as the odd Caucasian uncle of a new urban art form.

Though Foster was among those who listened to Johnstone’s show religiously, by 2006, it had been years — decades — since he thought much about Boston rap’s pioneering moments. A professor at UMass-Boston’s College of Management, he had become a well-rounded music geek: the more than 10,000 records in his library of vinyl, as he fondly calls the walls of wax in his East Cambridge party loft, span all genres. So when friends approached him six years ago to pen the Boston chapter for an epic tome about regional rap scenes, Foster was reluctant to engage the opportunity. Before long, though, the old-school beats got the best of him, and Foster became the closest thing that Hub hip-hop has to a historian.

As it turned out, it was a role for which he was uniquely suited. As a published academic, Foster knows how to write and research. Plus, he had an asset that even most rap insiders didn’t — access to the mysterious Johnstone, who’d left Boston for the northern sticks of Maine more than a decade ago.

In the late 1990s, Foster worked at a Newton antiques store where the college DJ was employed as a furniture painter. Years after that, they often hung at Boston College, where Foster was writing a dissertation on the music business, and Johnstone had a dub-hop show on the school’s radio station, WZBC.

Foster’s chapter in the 2009 book Hip-Hop in America: A Regional Guide (Greenwood Press) turned out to be just the beginning of his musical spelunking. In the process, he’d convinced Johnstone to lend him nearly 200 original demo tapes that rappers had sent him between ’85 and ’87 — among them the first-ever recordings of Boston legends Edo G and Guru, who were known then as Edo Rock and Keithy E, respectively. The only thing missing were tapes of the Lecco’s Lemma shows.

“It was like having all these page proofs from hundreds of unpublished authors,” Foster says. “That’s great, but it’s even better if you have the whole book.”

From the beginning, the hunt for Boston hip-hop history took some interesting turns, like Foster’s pilgrimage to Maine to see the great white hipster hope of early Beantown boom-bap. Nothing, however, prepared him for the end of the rainbow. After querying some local rap aficionados like DJ Spin, who himself has an honorable stash of old Boston rap cassettes, Foster was led to about 300 Lecco’s Lemma show tapes belonging to none other than Willie “Loco” Alexander, the 69-year-old Boston punk-rock originator, Boom Boom Band front man, and one-time member of the Velvet Underground. “He contacted me and just said that he had some tapes,” says Foster. “When I finally saw what he had, I think I actually fell over.”

Foster sat on the archives for about two years while he shopped for an institutional underwriter. His goal was twofold: to preserve the original tapes, and to digitize them so that later heads can appreciate their heritage. Few were interested in funding the project. Berklee respectfully declined, as did the Harvard Hip-Hop Archive. MIT and BC turned him down, despite Johnstone having broken major rap ground on their airwaves. Foster kept pitching, though, and this year finally scored a partner in his own school, winning a grant from the UMass President’s Creative Economy Initiatives Fund. With that juice, he was able to hire David Garcia, a music student from the Universidad Nacional de Colombia who’s currently studying at Harvard, to help curate the archives.

“I don’t know how any of this happened. I’m the management professor guy,” says Foster. With help from Garcia, who recently moved into the library of vinyl to assist with the cataloguing, Foster is working to first organize and upload everything, and will then move to permanently display at least some of the collection. He continues: “At this point, I think it’s best that we’re doing this [with UMass]. Community-based scholarship is part of our mission, and I want to reconnect these tapes with the communities they came from — I feel like it’s our responsibility. On a lot of these shows, Magnus was talking to the artists he had on about what was going on in their neighborhoods. It’s not just a history of Boston hip-hop that’s on those tapes. It’s a history of Boston.”