Some hip-hop acts are guaranteed to draw heads around here. Boston juggernauts like Slaine and Akrobatik pack substantial spots. The same goes for whatever fad-heavy phenomenon is atop the game, whether it's Virginia blow rappers Clipse or the decadently clad Cool Kids. Throwback legends like Slick Rick and KRS-1 have enough devotees to lure crowds; so do indie staples Slug and Aesop Rock, both of whom are known to sell out in advance.
BEAT AND POTATOES: Budden is proof that there’s an everlasting market for grounded raps about the goings on in Everyhood America.
But through every trend — from hipster-hop and conscious rap to crunk and bling-bap — lyrically cunning, insightful street rap prevails. This is an easy point to prove: despite the frequent departures into materialistic territory, beneath every kingpin's style is a hardcore edge. Jay-Z first emerged as that guy who "stayed in beef and slept with a tech"; Nas was "the type of nigga who be pissin' in your elevator." Even the Game, who has no doubt marketed himself through a number of beef and ego-driven gimmicks, brings timeless ghetto rhymes that could pass for Golden Era material.
Although few Jay and Nas contemporaries have reached the proverbial penthouse, the top dogs are not the only ones who bank off hood tales and tribulations. This weekend two distinct but similarly veined urban griots will likely swell Boston's largest independent venues. At the Middle East on Friday, New Jersey blacktop legend Joe Budden headlines his Halfway House release party. The next night, at Harpers Ferry, Philly crime rapper Freeway will bring esteemed gutter-riffic game. Much like AZ and Cormega in recent sets, both Freeway and Budden are expected to draw a colorful cross-section, city cats who relate to them and respectfully voyeuristic suburbanites.
"Hip-hop that dictates reality will always be around," says Boston rap promoter Edu Leedz. "It might not always be as popular as the current commercial trends, but it will have more stability in the long run because the fans live and die by it." DJ Statik Selektah, who frequently collaborates with Freeway and a host of other exalted roughnecks including Jadakiss and M.O.P., adds: "Guys like Freeway and Joe Budden don't need radio or television because what they do represents real life. It's past being a trend — it's like listening to a sermon in church. It's more than rap music. It's a lifestyle."
Budden is proof that there's an everlasting market for grounded raps about the goings on in Everyhood America. Once a Def Jam golden child, he's endured the kind of setbacks that spotlight MCs often bump into. His homonymous debut dropped in 2003, and it went gold thanks to the tough-minded, Grammy-nominated club banger "Pump It Up." But when Jay-Z took control of Def Jam the next year and pushed funds into cheese-pop territory with the likes of Ne-Yo and Rihanna, Budden slipped through the budget and landed on the shelf. Still, he retained fans through mixtapes and performances.
Half a decade later, he refuses to dwell on vogues that once threatened to edge him off the rap atlas, or on critics who predicted his demise. "If I ever felt like it was over, that was so long ago that I don't even remember," he says on the phone from Jersey City. "When you make the type of music that I do — music that's about your real life — you'll always have an audience no matter what. People also always want to hear something that's more lyrical, and I'm fortunate to be able to appeal to that audience."
Budden was released from his Def Jam contract in October 2007 after four years without an official album. Within months he signed to East Boston indie imprint Amalgam Digital, and early this year he dropped Mood Muzik 3: The Album to outrageous acclaim. With the major-label monkey off his back, he soared to the heights that fans and critics had long expected him to reach at Def Jam. Despite his independent status, the Source ran a feature, and praise rang from the Village Voice to Vibe. Spin critic Chris Ryan called him "one of hip-hop's most vulnerable and sensitive MCs, a prodigiously talented rapper capable of detailed, arresting moments of honest self-reflection and observation." More important, urbanites who typically ignore everyone except commercial hacks reacknowledged Budden as one voice not to be fucked with in this vapid era of Wayne and Jeezy.
"Don't call it a comeback," he says. "I'd rather just continue to be looked at as the underdog and the guy who's always counted out. I have a lot of people who have stuck with me through the years, and I'm still picking people up along the way. Right now I'm in a great space musically, and I don't want to stop. One thing I've learned is that if you write about reality, you'll never run out of material."