Most Known Unknown: Why Harvard's Hip-Hop Needs to Sell Out

Mos Def said that hip-hop is “the sovereign state of the have-nots.” Take a look around the Yard—there isn’t too much that undergrads can’t have. So, by the Mighty Mos’ standards, Harvard hip-hop is dead in the cradle, right?

Not so fast. It’s not necessarily a lack of good material that prevents Harvard students from making it in the rap game. Indeed, two white boys from radio station WHRB understood hip-hop culture so well that they managed to create the longest-running and arguably most influential magazine about the genre and its artists. And in the past five years, two rap crews with Harvard undergraduates have rubbed elbows with the mainstream’s biggest stars, verging on national fame.

But while the magazine exploded beyond Harvard’s gates, none of the groups made it big. The problem might have less to do with Harvard than it does with Boston, as a whole. Intellectual MCs and DJs sell out the coffee houses, while gritty rhymes about violence and street life fall flat; artistic purity is coveted, making money is secondary.

Today, industry insiders say that the time may be ripe for a new generation of Harvard hip-hoppers to snag national fame. But history shows that they might need to stop worrying and love the sell-out.

THE SECRET HISTORY

Cublunk thinks Harvard already revolutionized hip-hop once. And Cublunk is not the type of guy who gives out free praise to a place like Harvard.

He’s what you might call “street.” Indeed, the 36-year-old Boston MC is so dedicated to his on-stage persona that he doesn’t give out his real name to reporters. In the mid-1980s and early 1990s, he toured under another moniker—A-Train—with now-all-but-forgotten Boston greats like Edo G and The Almighty RSO. Today, he runs a website for local hip-hop artists, and acts as a historian and elder statesman for Boston rap.

“The only person who ever cared about both sides and did something about it was a Harvard kid,” says Cublunk, in an interview.

The “kid” he’s talking about is David M. Mays ’89, creator of “The Source” magazine. The two “sides” to which Cublunk refers are the underground hip-hop scene—the world of MCs with wordy lyrics and cult followings—and the street-hop scene—the grit-obsessed world that dominates mainstream rap.

“He respected and understood the underground and the street, and he did more for hip-hop than anybody,” Cublunk says of Mays.

In its two decades of existence, “The Source” shaped the modern face of the genre. Before “The Source,” professional hip-hop criticism was nonexistent; only a handful of records (such as those of Public Enemy and Run-DMC) were seriously analyzed and treated as both art and entertainment, but even then were usually reviewed by critics specializing in rock or R&B.

“The Source” focused on hip-hop in all its aspects, from DJing to fashion choices. Its “Unsigned Hype” column profiled up-and-coming artists who had yet to land a record deal. The Notorious B.I.G., Eminem, DMX, Common, and 50 Cent are just a few artists whose careers were established through the feature.

Mays and his friend, Jon M. Shecter ’90, hosted a hip-hop show on WHRB during their years at Harvard (a show that was cancelled, but brought back this semester—see story below), and in 1988, they began putting out a newsletter to accompany it—under the title of “Street Beat.” The name was changed, Shecter was fired, and the rest is history.

Last month, Mays was fired by the magazine’s board of directors over contract disputes, and couldn’t be reached for comment, but his creation still sells millions of copies, rivaled only by “XXL” for the title of most influential rap magazine.

Mays is the exception. Harvard has yet to produce anyone else of comparable weight in the mainstream rap world, much less any famous MCs or DJs. But the music world is changing, and people in the know say the future looks good for Harvard artists armed with little more than mics, laptops, and strong work ethics.