As an artist in today’s day and age, it’s easier than ever before to make your music accessible to the world. This empowerment for creators arrives with numerous benefits, but it also operates at the cost of visibility and in the long term, longevity. Now that anyone can put their music online and gain a following at the click of a few buttons, it’s easy for great art to get lost in a sea of mixtapes and loose singles, regardless of quality or sound. Furthermore, even if a given project or upcoming artist does begin to receive their deserved attention, the sheer volume of options that listeners are now presented with makes it difficult to capture an audience’s focus for more than a few moments.
With this in mind, how, in the current condition of music, does a project last? Why do people keep listening and what is it about either the music or its positioning that makes them want to stick around?
Well, like all things, there’s no black and white answer to provide here. Nevertheless, one reason that we’ve seen in several cases throughout recent years is that of cultural context. If a project can capture and create a moment larger than itself, the chances are that listeners will stick around for longer. In this light, the art needs to have a value proposition greater than “good music” to resonate with people, especially when the musician at hand doesn’t have the same resources or platform available to them that so many others do, whether geographically, financially, etc.
Here enters the underdog, Cousin Stizz, and his 2015 debut, Suffolk County. Set in a traditional city not known for its rap output and moreover, in an area that often lacks the representation of most other areas of Boston, Suffolk County wasn’t meant to work on paper. However, Stizz’s “real life” storytelling, cold charm, and steadily confident stature turned his debut into a moment suspended in time — a first-hand account of a relatively untold perspective, complete with both triumphant, lofty-hooked anthems and chilling tales of inner-city life in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston. With this project, Stizz became more than just a voice for the people in his neighborhood, but an ambassador for Boston’s flowering music scene to the entire country. Immediately, Suffolk County became his Andre 3000 Source Awards moment — “Boston’s got something to say.”
Now just over four years removed from Suffolk County‘s June 1st, 2015 release, local audiences and beyond widely regard this mixtape as a current day — dare I say it — “classic.”
“Classic” is thrown around all too casually nowadays, so in order to remove some of the discrepancies surrounding the word, it’s important that we define it before moving forward. In my eyes, a “classic” project is one that withstands the test of time, is cohesive all the way through, and captures the essence of an artist and/or their message. In the case of Suffolk County, all of these boxes are checked off, from the fact that “Shoutout” still can, and will, shut down sold-out crowds to the very nature of Stizz’s keen ability to flip struggle into motivation.
With this, and under the assumption that we all agree Suffolk County is, at the very least, in consideration to be a modern “classic,” it’s important to understand the culture of Boston so as to capture the true breakthrough power of Suffolk County.
When someone from outside of Boston thinks of Boston, their mind tends to resort to an image of over-intense, arrogant sports fans — and they’re not wrong, because this is a lot of Boston’s population. However, what this obsession with sports actually says about the city and its values is of greater concern.
So what is Boston all about? What’s the structure of the city and how is the environment for rap artists out here?
To answer this question is subjective to an extent, but in general, Boston is a deeply traditional city. Venues and businesses are flooded with old money, hip-hop has never received overwhelming local support until the musical renaissance of recent years, and of course, sports are placed on the highest of all pedestals.
Adjacent is the fact that Boston loves heroes — figures who embody Boston’s values and give them something to rally around. The city rewards passion, champions the prideful, and beyond anything else, relishes at the thought of unwavering success as a vehicle for the constant boasting of its hardworking, resilient stock. At just under 700,000 people, it’s a relatively small city but certainly one of the loudest and proudest, from sports dynasties all the way to its rich history, Boston Tea Party and all.
Suffolk County gave Boston hip-hop its very own hero.
At its very core, this project introduced the world to a sharp, confident young man whose slow-but-sure rhymes refused to deviate from real life. Stizz spoke what he knew, and an engaged audience responded, taking pride in the pure honesty of his message. Whether telling stories of getting by in Fields Corner (a neighborhood of Dorchester) by any means necessary or voicing the prospects of his future aspirations, Stizz captured the heart and soul of his lifestyle and turned it into something that the entire community could appreciate. As the success of the project began to scale unto cities far beyond Massachusetts, this storytelling became the living, breathing testament to what a slice of life in Boston’s inner city looked like.
Simultaneously, in a more immediate sense, Suffolk County became a pivotal moment of disruption toward Boston hip-hop’s stagnant, long-standing obsession with boom bap as a watered-down little brother of New York City’s hip-hop scene. Stizz’s style mixed Boston’s lyrical roots with the rejuvenated sound of the new school — as headed by producers DumDrumz, Tee-WaTT, Lil Rich, and more — bounding together the divide between history and the current day. This unique sound, complete with hypnotic melodies and towering drum sequences, gave Boston the individualistic charm that it needed to remove itself from NYC’s shadow.
Years later, reflecting on the widespread success of Suffolk County, it makes sense why the tape’s confident and composed, “no gimmick” appeal has become such a fixture and foundation for Boston’s current music scene. The project refuses to be anything but itself, and with authenticity as its central thematic string, Suffolk County has become a springboard for organic growth, all the way from Fields Corner, Dorchester to becoming a spokesperson for the Boston Celtics. With tradition arrives exclusivity and resistance to change, but Suffolk County dared to break the mold, rewriting Boston’s history and achieving the status of a current day “classic.” On June 1st, 2015, not only did Boston music change for the better, but the city made room for a new hero — and this time, one from Fields Corner.
“I think the kids in Boston, the concertgoers, producers, photographers, etc. were all sort of waiting on something REALLY good to come out of the city that everyone could rally behind, and Stizz was definitely that.
The music, itself, was kind of an open invitation. It was obviously very street life-oriented, but it didn’t make itself unavailable to those NOT part of the street life. There were moments of struggle and triumph that had enough openness to really allow most to insert themselves into it and at least feel something going on.
The music is why people stayed after that initial listen and the “moment,” I think, is why people continuously come back to it. There was this movement within Boston of all these young hungry kids — looking back on all of it and realizing how far everything has come and the music being as triumphant and celebratory as it is, Suffolk County almost wrote its past in real time because everyone was and is so elevated from that moment. It’s like the music told the story before the story told itself.”
– Greg Gaffney, @gregisonfire