The Hip-Hop Struggle

Allston – If you were checking iTunes’ Top Ten Hip-Hop charts on September 13th, you may have noticed something out of the ordinary. While albums from Jay-Z, Kanye West and other hip-hop icons placed throughout the ranks, breaking in at number nine, between Eminem and 2pac, was “This is Our Science,” the latest album of an indie rapper from Minneapolis named Astronautalis.

That’s the rap name Charles Andrew Bothwell, 29, gave himself when he was fifteen and battle rapping in Jacksonville, Florida, but he goes by Andy when interviewed before the last show of the tour for “This is Our Science.”

“I was out bowling on the night the presale went out,” Bothwell says at O’Brien’s Pub in Allston, off the road from Philly after playing 41 shows in 45 days. “And I got a text message from my record label and they were like, ‘dude, we’re gonna need to make more of these.’ Because we were planning on making about a hundred. And it was just in the first five hours we had already broken every presale record they had had.”

The presale of the album crashed the sales website of New Haven based record label, Fake Four Inc., but they did not give specific details when asked.

In a time when listeners can get their music for free through illegal downloads “there’s no reason to pay for music,” Bothwell says. “You pay for music out of a show of support, it’s like a political vote. And to get that sort of affirmation before the album even came out was like – it was mind blowing! I was completely dumbfounded!”

Bothwell has worked for this personal affirmation since the mid 90s, and has toured across the globe extensively. As opening rappers H.W. and Adeem run through their mic checks on the small platform stage tucked into a corner of the Allston bar, Bothwell talks history at a high table, wrapped in a thick wool sweater. He loves his music, although he says a career in hip-hop has cost him friendships and its fair share of personal sacrifice. The musicians he performs with will attest to that, as well.

“There’s trade-offs, if I was home and had a regular job I could – probably – have a girlfriend and get to know my barber and all sorts of shit like that,” he says. “But I’ve been to four continents; I’ve seen over 20 countries, I’ve seen almost every state in America except for Alaska and Hawaii.”

Although he laments that he’s lost friends from missed birthdays and weddings, he refused to be absent from his brother’s wedding earlier this year, becaming an ordained minister through the Universal Life Church to perform the marriage. He whips out a glossy black license to prove it. “My [two] brothers are my best friends, I wasn’t going to miss my brother’s wedding.”

But there are less glamorous consequences, Bothwell admits. “You don’t sleep much. You eat terribly. You drink too much. You get sick. But on its absolute worst day it’s better than any other job I’ve ever had on its best day.”

Click here to see & hear Astronautalis in a Soundslides gallery. 

One of the openers at the show is H.W., the 27-year-old Boston rapper Joshua Decosta. He agrees that there is a physical and mental toll taken in the struggle to get one’s music heard, but he respects the process.

“The dude [Bothwell] has been moving around and slugging it out forever,” He says over the phone one night, taking a break from his school work.

Decosta remembers an ill-fated trip in which he drove 18 hours to perform in South Dakota, spending hours at local malls passing out flyers to hype his show, only to perform for three people. “The bartender felt so bad, he gave use free shots, but I didn’t even drink then.”

“I remember writing about how shitty this show was, and how I didn’t know why I was still rapping,” he says, “but the next night we played a packed show in Minneapolis, and it was one of the most rewarding nights of my career.”

There is tremendous solo appeal to rap music, Decosta says, but he criticizes aspects of the lone-wolf mentality. “In the rap community, there’s an idea that you have to pretend you’re better than everyone else… I know plenty of rappers who are awesome people, but when we talk about music they withhold. There’s an attitude that, I made it this far on my own, others should learn to do that too.”

There are other sacrifices as well. Decosta began performing in his late teens rather than go to school. He toured the U.S. five times and Canada twice before beginning school at UMass Boston for programming. “You have to realize, if only for now, don’t do it for money. It’s never going to pay. Do it for fun.”

Despite the harsh relationship he describes, Decosta loves rap music. A technical rapper, he minutely orchestrates his raps so they flow not just in rhyme, but in content as well.  As a performer, he focuses his efforts on stage presence and lyrics, two qualities he says Astronautalis exemplifies.

But Decosta also remembers watching another artist whose performance enthralled him, recalling Adeem’s performances at Scribble Jam – the legendary Cincinnati hip-hop gathering. “He was more of a technical rapper; he had great lyrics, but he goes so fast – he was so technical and skillful.”

Adeem is the other opening act for the show at O’Brien’s. Born and raised in Keene, New Hampshire, Adam Michael Arnone, 33, was spurred by rappers like Run DMC to express himself. “I wanted to be a part of every aspect of the culture,” he said over the phone. “Especially since it was foreign to my community.”

But hip-hop has changed since the days Arnone began touring and free-styling, winning Scribble Jam’s Emcee battles in 1998 and 2001, performing against the likes of other hip-hop stars such as Sage Francis, Eyedea, and others at the now-defunct hip-hop festival. “I had this amazing talent that, when I beat someone at Scribble Jam, I made them famous!” He jokes, pointing fun at his limited success before turning more somber. “There are few things that become better with more money.” He says of the now multibillion-dollar industry. “Hip-hop isn’t one of them.”

For the most part, Scribble Jam refused corporate sponsorship, and in April 2009, organizer Kevin Beacham confirmed the festival would not continue.

Arnone’s one-year-old daughter Stella can be heard cooing over the phone as he talks about the changing culture of hip-hop and free-styling. “The internet has again changed things. Everyone can do it. If you had told me fifteen years ago that white kids rapping fast was going to be a big thing, I would have laughed at you, and been excited, because I would be rich.”

Now, he says, he has a hard time with the music. “I think a lot of it is fake, it was the authenticity of the songs that made them real.”

Living in Peterborough, New Hampshire, Arnone works on his projects surrounded by his wife, Joana, and daughter; slowly tuning his lyrics and music until it suits him. “Being where I am, I want to make things that are interesting, and I want to challenge myself, but I also have a 1 year old daughter and my wife. I’m here, I’m very rooted. I don’t think I’ll ever tour again because I don’t want to be away from my family.”

“Ironically enough,” he says, “I met my wife through Astronautalis.”

Acknowledging the often relationship-averse lifestyle of touring and hip-hop, Arnone elaborates. “I played in Chicago in 2004, and Andy opened up for me. I got introduced to her and that was that. I did all of my touring with her, so we have a really good balance.” He says.

Arnone’s musical plans for the future are simple. “Stay relevant,” he says, “but I have no need to impress anyone. I don’t have to run out and make a dub-step song right now because everyone is making dub-step.”

“Life is just about sharing stories, and I hope that I can keep hearing stories from talented artists.”

And stories are what Astronautalis does best.

Sort of.

His performances are often compared to slam poetry, but he disagrees with the comparison.

“There’s not necessarily a nomenclature for what I’m doing, and [slam is] a readily available connection to my rap.” He says.

“I never grew up in slam, and I kind of loath the repetitive cadence of it and the notion that –“ he breaks into a faux-poet persona – “’This is: the most important thing I’ve ever said!’”

Instead, Bothwell matured in theatre, “and I can easily be mocked for that in the same way I just mocked slam,” he adds, “but a lot of my creativity comes from solo performance.”

A graduate of Directing and Lighting Design from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Bothwell says his biggest influence from the stage is playwright and performance artist Spalding Rockwell Gray, who’s simple narrative story telling is visible in Bothwell’s lyrics and emotion on stage.

His favorite storytellers?

He instantly nods to his father and grand fathers.

“They were all really damn good story tellers.” He says. “And there’s always been sort of a priority, in my life and in my family history, a great priority put on the stories that you’ve lived and the stories that you’ve told. And not even as a spoken thing.” He pauses. “I remember at a young age being at barbeques and seeing my dad at the end of the night with a bunch of people sitting in chairs around him, handing him beers and everyone being like ‘Ah, tell us a slice-of-life-story!’ I really admire my father, but seeing that was just such an incredible thing. It stuck with me.”

All images (c) Copyright Benjamin Cooper.

One Response to “The Hip-Hop Struggle”
  1. Sarah says:

    hey ben, i really really like this article, you´ve definitely asked the right questions. greets from germany

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