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Boston Hip Hop in the Headphones: Michael Christmas

This winter as part of the Under Pressure Tour with Logic, native Boston rapper Michael Christmas has been rocking his way across the country, hitting Orlando tonight for the 24th stop on the 38-show tour. They’ll work their way through the South Atlantic states through the end of the month before hitting the Northeast the first weekend in March.  He seemed to be really feeling the love as he made his way across Texas from this past Friday to Monday:

Christmas’ 2014 debut ‘Is This Art?’ has been banging out my headphones all week long, along with a few newer tracks from his Soundcloud page like “Fuck Wit Me”, recorded soon after his move to the Left Coast last November. With Odd Future sensabilities, and a quirky sense of humor, the recent transplant has been one of the hottest names to come out of Boston in the last few years. Those of us who live here know the always burgeoning feeling of the Boston Hip Hop scene, populated every couple years by someone new and talented seemingly poised to hit on a national level (Akrobatik, Maverick, Dutch Rebelle), a feeling that has perpetuated since the days of Guru’s departure for the Bronx. Within the last 2-3 years some acts have broken through the notoriously difficult musical landscape with unique styles and strong online promotion. Black El and Gio Dee are just a couple that I’ll revisit in later editions of this column, but 2014 belonged to the man who claimed he thought he was the skinny star of Superbad. If you’re late to the Christmas party as I was – I didn’t get put on about Boston’s new hottest rapper until he came back in December for his show at the Newbury St. Converse store – then it’s time to catch up.

In the summer of 2013 the video for “Daily” started to get some serious notice and it was from there that things began to take off for Michael Christmas. By the time the video for “Michael Cera” dropped 3 months later, the Boston teenager had a growing fanbase to which to feed the infectious single. Each video was subtitled ‘Is This Art?’, a seemingly innocuous and perhaps relevant question given the artist’s minimalist, commonplace approach. It wasn’t long before fans would learn that it was, in fact, the title of Christmas’ debut mixtape, complete with a brilliant cover featuring an adapted version of Michelangelo’s David statue. It is that second single that has been the strongest vehicle of his early success, partially because it is representative in a way of his overall style, deadpan and off-kilter. In his Will Ferrell and Dave Chappelle references, frequent laughing on the overdubs and choices of subject matter like “Taco Truck”, “House Cleaning Music”, and “Michael Cera”, Christmas displays a wry sense of humor, deftly understating an important concept as the wave of Hip Hop 3.0 rolls in: You can make songs about things other than drugs and violence (well, keep some of the drugs) and hit with an audience. It’s a setup, a mental trap, even if it’s not intended to be, where the comedic nature disarms the listener to his lyrical acuity and depth. Yes, much of the subject matter is “the everyday” (see “Daily”) but from those snapshots a plane of culture is created, one shared by some of the new young emcees of the 3.0 Wave. We’re out here to make art, they say, and that inspiration can be found everywhere if you’re willing to expand beyond the guarded cliches of your genre.

There’s an irreverence, a level of abstraction, a freedom in emcees like Christmas. And it’s not all jokes that inform this style. A more serious side creeps into the album on tracks like “Still” featuring Mr. MFN eXquire, “The World”, and even “Duck Duck Goose” where the rapper talks about his current move into the music industry and its pressures, both behind and in front. And while that irreverence belies a self-confidence, there is a thrill in knowing how early it is for him, in knowing that he has some fantastic growth immediately in front of him. It’s a great time in an artist’s career, especially an independent one, where there is little wrong he feels he can do from an artistic perspective, allowing for experimentation and a lyrical and thematic openness. In an interview not long after the release of ‘Is This Art?’ Christmas explained his approach thusly:

“I think about my music like [comedian] Louis C.K.’s show—it’s based on real stuff. There is sadness behind the jokes, but they are really funny jokes. It’s all really relatable. Hip-hop is one thing where everyone is afraid of being themselves. I’m hoping to make it cool to be you. I want everybody in my crew to have a Prius. I know there is a kid out there that gets all of that.”

With so much of our artform dressed in exaggeration and persona (good and bad), I find the idea of fear in Hip Hop to be oneself particularly poignant. There is fresh air in Christmas’ stripped-down approach, which he certainly does not trade for lyrical cunning. In this column and others we’ll continue to explore the issue of why the Boston Hip Hop scene seems to eat its young, with some of our greats feeling an urge to find creative refuge in other cities. For now it’s safe to say that there is some interesting talent emerging all over our great city, even if the opportunities to showcase that talent live are too few and generally subpar. For Christmas it’s been a great winter, gaining new fans with each stop on their national tour.

Who knows what the rest of 2015 will hold for the boy from Boston but we at #JPLMagazine salute his efforts and will certainly be keeping eye on Christmas as the stage seems set for big things.

Tick tick.

“Brian Scalabrine paid / That means I got a ring for sipping pink lemonade..”

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