Words by Daniel Isenberg (@StanIpcus)
I first encountered Boston rapper Avenue’s music in mid-2015 on a friend of mine’s blog. It was a video for his song “SPILT MILK,” and there was something about his modern take on classic street rap that struck me. He had his own style and sound with strong traces of golden era grit, but it was also deeply rooted in the millennial mindset of the new school hustler. I was intrigued, so I did what any rap fan should do when they discover a new artist’s music they like—I started following and supporting.
It’s now a year-and-a-half later, and Avenue’s new project Mass Ave and Lenox is on my short list of most anticipated rap releases of 2017. It started with the first single “Party’s Over (Ringing Off),” a captivating banger complete with block-wise bars, hard drums and smart samples. It was apparent with this drop that Ave’s writing and ear had matured during his hiatus. Clearly Avenue, along with his production partners Frank The Butcher and Arcitype aka Cooking To Kill, were preparing to put Boston back on the rap map in a real way.
As we rapidly approach the release of Mass Ave and Lenox, we thought now was an appropriate time to get Avenue on the horn for our latest In The Lab, and get a feel for how him and his team get down in Beantown when it comes to putting a new project together. It turns out it’s a lot of what you’d expect (beats, rhymes, and blunts), but there seems to be an extra layer of thought and craftsmanship going into their collective process, because they know the legacy of their city is on the line. Go In The Lab with Avenue, the new pride of Boston, below.
First Recording Experience
Avenue: “I was 11 or 12, hanging out, spending a lot of time outside. A lot of the dudes I grew up with were older than me. And I’d be battling outside. I was 12 years old, battling dudes like 17, 18. Anyone who came around, I’d be battling.
“And I don’t know what was going on, but my mother figured that music would keep me in the house—like a safe haven for us. She created a makeshift studio, nothing crazy. A couple turntables, a couple records. LL Cool J joints, Gladys Knight. And I grabbed a couple of my own. Stillmatic was one of the first ones I ended up grabbing. So that was my earliest memories just playing with music, getting familiar with hip-hop, DJing, and that aspect of it.
“Then there was a karaoke machine. It didn’t hook up to the turntables or anything, but me and the homies would go to the crib and record, straight into the karaoke machine. About a half a mile up the street there was a store, South & Soundz. They sold durags, incense, DVDs, mixtapes—it was one of those spots. And we’d get instrumental CDs. J. Armz, White Owl, Green Lantern, Alchemist joints. And we’d bring those shits back to the crib and just rap over them.”
Creating Mass Ave and Lenox
“Since I started working with Frank The Butcher, it starts with him sending me a beat. I have a microphone and a basic set-up at my spot, so I usually put together a draft to get the scheme, and send back that reference. Then he’ll build on the beat and send it back to me. Then once he does that, I’ll write and add to it more. Then we’ll go to the studio.
“We’ve been doing the majority of the recording out in Deep Blue Studios in Worcester. It’s a state of the art studio, with a Studio A and Studio B. And everything we’ve been doing has been in-house, from the production to the mixing to the mastering.
“Ariez Onasis, who’s an artist as well, he did a lot of the engineering for this one, and keys. And Frank’s there giving input on tone, tempo, concepts and things like that. But he lets me do what I do on the rapping tip.”
“I go to the studio like I just got out of bed, just because I like to be relaxed. I like to have that same vibe as if I was recording at home. It’s a lot of takeout, Voss water, weed smoke. A lot of back and forth, discussing topics and concepts.
“I like to just focus on the music. I don’t mind people being there, but I don’t really like too much outside company. I like to keep the numbers pretty low, I like the lights low so that it matches the tone of the music. Sometimes you’re in a different mood, or you have a car full of people with you and you gotta go to the studio. And sometimes that calls for us to create different music.”
“There will be all types of blunts passed around. I’ll have some Sour in the Backwood, Frank will have some crazy OG in the Raw, Ariez will have some crazy Kush from out in Worcester in the ‘Rillo, and Deon will have some crazy Sour in the Fronto. That’s how it is.”
“I’ve always been a fan of bodies of work. So prior to this project, I always tried to pick things to make it cohesive. And I usually would just do that with producers that worked with artists that I’m fans of, or producers that might hit me up on social media like, ‘Yo, I got beats.’ I really try to keep up with everything, and check every email, skim through beats, and see if there’s something I like. Then I’ll pull it and try to match it with what I got going on.
“But for this project, the majority of the production was done by the team Cooking To Kill, which is Frank The Butcher and the Arcitype, who has done production for guys like Slaine, Jared Evan, Termanology. And with that, it was basically Frank sending me joints, me going in on them, and then sending them to Arcitype.
“Then, we took like four beats from other producers that I was fans of—Wally West, J Diablo, and Suave Beats who’s done production for Dave East, he did the ‘KD’ joint. And that’s how I got connected with him—just hearing that and reaching out and letting him know I was a fan of his production. That’s how I hooked up with J Diablo as well, just hearing him do production for guys like Tray Pizzy and other artists I keep up with.
“Then, once we got the production from those people, it was easy to tweak it to fit the vibe of everything else. You’ll be able to tell, but then they’ll be like splashes of that Cooking To Kill, like that Arcitype bass tucked underneath the Latrell James production.”
“The majority of my writing is done in the car, normally in the mornings. Me and Frank are usually on the phone in the morning, 6 or 7, or going back and forth on the group texts. I write right on my phone, auxiliary cord in the car. I like to be able to hear every bit of the beat. I turn it all the way up and just vibe. I let the emotion of the beat guide me, or I’ll have a concept that I might have put to the side while I was watching or movie or something, and I’ll work on that.”
“I really don’t do ad-libs. I do everything in one take, and I shy away from punching in and out. I like to get everything done clean in one take, if I can. But it’s usually the easy, most fun process.”
“I usually build my hooks off of the verses. It also depends on how the beat’s structured. With this project, the beat sometimes might start off with the hook, or it might end with the hook. There’s no standard 16s or 32s. But it really comes from the energy of the production.”
“Party’s Over (Ringing Off)”
“‘Party’s Over’ was produced by Cooking To Kill, and it was the last record we recorded for the project. When Frank first sent it to me, I was feeling it, but it really didn’t have much of anything. But then Frank sent it to Arcitype, he touched it up, sent it back to Frank, he touched it up again and sent it back to me, and it had a whole different type of vibe. It’s that real rap, blended with that hardcore and that boom bap, but it’s still youthful.
“I wanted something that was fresh that was gonna reintroduce me the right way. So I tried to carry myself like that on the record. And I wanted to make statements. There’s things that I really wanted to say, that I haven’t felt like I’ve had the chance to say in a long time. I’ve developed.
“My previous project Chandelier View, a lot of that was written in 2013. But I released it in 2015, and didn’t have a plan. It was just, ‘This is all I got left.’ But since then, it’s just been about working on my craft.”
“With the Royce one, over the past few months I was able to build a rapport with him, through his relationship with Frank. We were keeping his manager Keno in tune with the music we were releasing, and found a record that we felt was suitable for him.
“Originally, ‘Nobody,’ which is the record that features Smoke DZA, we had the idea to have them both on it together. But moving forward, it was like, ‘That would be dope, but it would also be dope to give people two different things.’ So we pulled Royce’s vocals, and built a whole new beat around it. I wrote a whole new verse, and we made it a ‘Pt. 2.’
“With DZA, it was really me being a fan of his, him having a relationship with Frank, and me being like, ‘I would love to do something with him.’
“There’s other people I want to work with [in the future]. I love what Dave East is doing, I’m a fan of his work. I love what Westside Gunn and Conway are doing with Daringer, I would love to work that in when the time is right. I know they’re developing their sound also, so I know how that go. But we have a rapport with them, I had a chance to meet them at Royce’s release at SOB’s.”
“We really want to portray a side of the city that a lot of people aren’t too familiar with. A lot of people don’t see past the Green Monster or the New England Patriots. It’s deeper than that. There’s the roots of The Almighty RSO, Guru, New Edition, and others.
“We’re really trying show people like, ‘This is it. This is the way we dress, this is the way we carry ourselves. This is what the music sounds like for us.’ I feel like right now, I have that confidence and that material to back it, where I can bridge a gap and grab both generations.”
Pics via Frank The Butcher and Avenue’s Instagram.
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