WERS Deep Dive: History of the Boston Music Scene Pt. 2

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Graphics by Maeve Huttner

Check out Part One here!

By Simru Sonmez-Erbil, WERS Staff Writer

Music is everywhere you go in Boston. Start in Cambridge, take a walk up Mass Ave, and by the time you hit Symphony Hall, you’ll have passed four or more different record stores. You could see three shows every night if you wanted to with Boston’s abundance of concert venues. I’ll bet there are plenty of bands you hear on the radio that you had no idea are from Boston. In this town, the streets are paved with sheet music and guitar picks.

Over the decades, this city has nurtured countless genres and made them grow, and has always been home to a distinctive scene. Let’s continue this deep dive into Boston’s musical history; We pick up at the ’90s!

“DRIVIN’ ON 9” – THE BREEDERS – 1993

The Boston alternative scene that took off in the late ’80s was now imminent. Boston bands began to hit it big as major A&R execs hung out at Kenmore Square venue the Rathskeller, searching for their next star. The Breeders came about as a conglomerate of Boston alternative stars; In fаct, they were originally billed as “Boston Girl Super-Group!” 

Kim Deal, feeling unfulfilled as Pixies bassist, began to write new material in the late ’80s and threw ideas around with Tanya Donelly, then of Throwing Muses, and who was with the Breeders until after their first album, 1990’s Pod. Bringing in Carrie Bradley of Ed’s Redeeming Qualities, they recorded their demo tape in 1989. “Drivin’ On 9” comes from their second album, Last Splash, and is actually an Ed’s Redeeming Qualities cover, hence the haunting, unique alternative folk feel. Regardless of whether it’s referring to MA’s Route 9 or some other American highway, it’s a killer tune!

“THE ALLSTON BEAT” – THE ALLSTONIANS – 1996

When ska made a U.S. comeback in the mid-’90s, Bostonians hit the clubs and skanked (the name for ska dancing) the night away, birthing the likes of The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, who became hugely commercially successful. Boston bands really bolstered the ska community, playing everything from traditional ska to ska-punk and hardcore ska. Being avid listeners of Jamaican ska, The Allstonians strove to create their own sound using the traditional influence. “The Allston Beat” is one of their many songs paying homage to their hometown. Its upstroke rhythm and lively horns are reminiscent of 1960s Jamaica with a modern twist, all the while describing Boston college culture. I wouldn’t be surprised if Allston had a tourism boom in 1996…

“BLIND” – CONVERGE – 1997

Boston had a lot going on during the ’90s, including a huge hardcore music scene. The earliest hardcore shows in Greater Boston took place in the late ’80s, a while after the rest of the nation hopped on the hardcore train. However, Boston was so eager to have their wave of hardcore that the scene became violent and frustrated. Younger musicians viewing this violence became motivated to form a fresh scene where the focus was on shaping heavy music, not marring it; That’s how bands like Converge came to be. Boston became a haven for hardcore punk, where metal musicians could connect over their shared ambition. “Blind” comes from a 1997 release featuring Converge’s rerecorded early works – works that wowed and refreshed Boston hardcore fans in the early ’90s.

“MEMORIAL DAY” – THE PERCEPTIONISTS – 2005

Boston’s hip-hop scene’s cohesive formation came much later than it should have due to a lack of venues that would support the genre. However, in the mid-2000s, hip-hop finally began to get its platform. The Middle East nightclub in Cambridge’s Central Square became the premier spot for Greater Boston hip-hop and gave a voice to local rappers. The Perceptionists consisted of Mr. Lif, Akrobatik, and DJ Fakts One, hip-hop artists that began their careers in the early 2000s and came together to make their debut album, Black Dialogue. “Memorial Day” addresses head-on inequality surrounding the Iraq War and stands among songs addressing a number of social issues on Black Dialogue, making for an incredibly masterful album that’s nothing short of revolutionary.

“A BIRTHDAY PARTY” – NIGHT RALLY – 2006

It was in the 2000s that DIY music culture began to take root, and to this day it’s arguably Boston’s most prominent underground movement. The concept is evident from the name: It’s a system in which all aspects of performing and recording music is put in the hands of musicians and music lovers. House shows are a major staple – concerts that take place in ordinary people’s houses. The house shows of the 2000s were spaces for exploration and indie experimentation where commercial success wasn’t a priority; The priority was simply to join together and share music. Night Rally was one of the short-lived bands from that period of Boston music history. Their tune “A Birthday Party” is an indie/post-punk masterpiece. The bands that played this circuit may not be widely recognized individually, but together they formed a part of an innovative and remarkable scene.

“BROTHER SKY” – RIPE – 2015

The 2010s have been an incredible decade of musical exploration for Boston artists. Name a genre, and there’s a place for it in this city. With Berklee College of Music conveniently located in Back Bay, there is musical innovation spreading everywhere. For example, many of the artists we play on Wicked Local Wednesday are Berklee students or alums; They are making waves in Boston and beyond. Ripe, Berklee alums themselves, is a blindingly groovy jam band that brings funk to Beantown and will never fail to get you moving. “Brother Sky” features their signature bright horns with wah-wah guitar and an infectious melody; It’s energy and innovation at its finest.

“I DESERVE THAT” – OOMPA & CLIFF NOTEZ – 2016

Oompa and Cliff Notez are both huge advocates for and participants in Boston’s rap and hip-hop community. It’s fitting that they collaborated on this powerful work all about empowering marginalized people to claim the space they deserve. Both Oompa and Cliff Notez were born and raised in Boston; Now they’re working to increase awareness in venues about giving airtime to hip-hop artists. You can read more about both of them here! Last year, Cliff Notez launched a monthly “Sketchbook” series at Cambridge’s Atwood Tavern that highlighted hip-hop, and Oompa has been actively addressing venues regarding their hip-hop representation. “I Deserve That” is a compelling testament to their shared passion for the work they’re doing.

“I EAT SALADS NOW” – 2017 – SIDNEY GISH

The Boston DIY scene is thriving more than ever; Artists like Sidney Gish are proof that the DIY technique can lead to widespread acknowledgment. She self-released her first album, Ed Buys Houses, on Bandcamp, which is where she began to garner some well-deserved attention. “I Eat Salads Now” comes from her sophomore effort and showcases her sonically unique style of indie and cheeky, unabashed lyrics. When she performs, she does so solo, with just a guitar and loop pedal; She is the epitome of DIY and a demonstration of all you can do with what you’ve got. That’s the beauty of where Boston stands today music-wise. There are so many artists with sounds you won’t find anywhere else, with room for more to come and room for anyone to become the next shaper of Boston’s music scene.

Extra Listens:

“I’m Allowed” – Buffalo Tom (1993)

“Let’s Face It” – The Mighty Mighty Bosstones (1997)

“New Man Theme” – Mr. Lif (2002)

“Ruby Falls” – Guster (2006)

“Chariot of God” – Troll 2 (2016)

“Beamin'” – Cousin Stizz (2019)

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