Boston. The land of warm love and bitter cold. Where a stranger might help you unload a couch from a U-Haul double parked on Beacon St. and you can get punched in the face for wearing a Yankees shirt. It's the land that raised me, but growing up in the '90s, the city wasn't exactly overflowing with hip-hop energy. There were absolutely some emcees to look up to (word to Akrobatik and Esoteric) and 88.9 at Night taught me everything I know about underground hip-hop, but incredibly the city had never seen a native son or daughter achieve real mainstream success.
About a decade after I left for the sunnier confines of California it began to feel like Boston was rising, Statik Selektah in particular emerged as a Boston artist with national reach, and then about two or three years ago I felt another rise. This time it was driven by a new generation of artists too young to be tied down to the limitations of the past and equipped with the boundary-breaking tools of the internet. My first real sense of that energy came from Michael Christmas, who we selected for our very first class of Top Prospects a year-and-a-half ago, and now its Christmas' running mate's turn to put on for the city - Cousin Stizz.
"I was just living, whatever made me happy."
When I call Stizz he's in his native Dorchester and we begin by recounting his earliest hip-hop memories, which included both his older cousins playing gangster rap and his Dad's constant rotation of soul music and his favorite group, A Tribe Called Quest. When I suggest those two sources are a good way to describe his music now - gangster rap meets Tribe - it feels right, but I get the sense that he doesn't like the label. "If that's what you want to call it," he says. "I just make the music I want to listen to and tell my story."
For a long time that story didn't have anything to do with being a rapper. He and his friends would rap for fun, diss each other, but he had big NFL dreams - why would he want to be a rapper when football was so obviously his meal ticket? "Rap wasn't a thing to be me," he explained. "I wasn't always set on being a rapper, it wasn't in my plans, ever, actually."
When it became clear that football wasn't his destiny Stizz simply went through life one day at a time. The death of a close friend lead to him acting out which lead to an ultimatum from his mother about military school or a high school in the suburbs, the bucolic Reading. Shuttling between those two worlds daily was a struggle at first, but ultimately he credits the experience with teaching him how to hang with anyone and maneuver through any situation.
"It's not easy growing up in the inner city," he recounted. "Friends you grow up with start to choose their sides, what they want to ride for. A lot of regular hood shit. Just figuring out how you're going to make it, how you're going to get this next buck. No one I was going to school lived that life. But that shit [the suburban high school] saved me from a lot of shit. I learned how to adapt in life, how to adjust. I saw what different people are like, what moves them. It helps me write music."
Stizz was still a little while off actually writing music though. It wasn't until he met Michael Christmas at a cypher and got introduced to the emerging Boston hip-hop crowd (Goodwin, Tim Larew and more) that he began to see music as a tangible possibility.
"When Christmas dropped 'Daily' that's when I started taking music seriously. Literally that week," he said. "You see how hard you have to work, you think, I could do this too if I just put my head down and focus. There's no reason I can't make it happen for me."
So Stizz put his head down and started recording, but nothing comes overnight. According to Stizz his music only started getting good about a year-and-a-half ago. He would overthink records, try too hard to make hits instead of letting the music come from him. Occasionally things would click, but he feels like it wasn't until last summer's Suffolk County album that he was able to consistently make the music he wanted to.
Suffolk County was the project that proved Stizz' name deserved to ring out, but it was Drake who gave him the biggest shout-out before that when Drizzy was filmed partying to "Shoutout," which gave me the rare opportunity to ask one of hip-hop's most relevant questions; just how much is a Drake co-sign worth? Does a stamp of approval from Drizzy actually change anything?
"Oh, definitely," answered Stizz. "Shit changed. Two weeks after that I was in meetings with labels. He's one of the guys, in this generation, who's become a household name. So if that guy is dancing to your song, and no one's heard of this kid, it raises interest."
Stizz never connected directly with Drake, but he quickly came to realize that it didn't particularly matter. The boost in attention was nice, but that's all it was. He couldn't control when the spotlight might swing his way, he could only control the music people heard when it did.
"Everything's up to you," Stizz insisted. "You can't fake hustle, you have to show up. It's cool to get that love, that recognition, that feels good. But you still have to put in the work to keep your shit afloat."
And so it's back to work and as he moves forward Stizz is in the unique position of helping put his city on the national map without being tied to any expectations from that scene. There's really no such thing as a widely recognized "Boston sound" so Stizz is free to invent his own. Despite my best attempts, there's really no easy way to define Stizz' sound, and that's why he might just be the one to finally put that Red Sox hat in front of a national audience. The city deserves it.
"I'm just making music, that's the only plan, make good music."