When asked if there’s a new wave of Boston hip hop on the horizon, Latrell James stated calmly and confidently:
“It’s already started.”
It’s a reaction that speaks volumes. Shy of three decades old, James has co-headed a coalition of Boston rappers that are putting their city on the map, a city, mind you, largely void of hip hop in its family tree. Fellow Boston rappers Cousin Stizz and Michael Christmas have both recently received positive reviews from Pitchfork, the formidable and esteemed music blog that can make (or break) a career. Perhaps this recognition is long overdue, but James isn’t upset; in fact, he’s optimistic.
“I feel like there hasn’t been any national attention as far as Boston hip hop until what’s been going on here lately with Stizz and Michael Christmas. There’s a lot of eyes on Boston music, so I think it might be in the best place it’s ever been in.”
James, born and raised in Dorchester, is the fourth child of six in a musical family. Music was a constant in his busy household, perpetuated by music loving parents.
“Music was just an all day thing. My father would always come home with CDs and vinyl. He would play Ramsey Lewis. I look back now and realize my father was playing some great jazz in the house all the time.”
Preteen-dom was a turning point for James, specifically when a friend turned him on to some music production software.
“Once I got FL Studio in middle school, it was game over.”
James was an active participant in high school extracurriculars. As a teammate of the New Mission High School basketball and debate teams, he won championships. Although actively making music at home, it was just a hobby; more so than creation, James was on a quest for assimilation. In fact, being wholly engaged is something that has always been of the highest necessity.
“I believe in knowing a great amount about everything. I’m a consumer of stuff. My girlfriend will be like, ‘Why are you watching this old 1993 Eastern Conference finals game?’ and I’m like ‘because I haven’t seen it.’ I want to see it and understand what happened.”
James’ inherent drive for understanding lead to the creation of Twelve, the rapper’s debut album in 2015 that took nearly three years to complete. Its distinctive, sample-driven beats and uninterrupted flows of poetry served as a vessel through the past. Produced and solely performed by James, Twelve marked a major milestone for the untrained producer. The debut was even heralded by The Boston Globe.
“Twelve is a complete story. It’s about my life between the ages of twelve and twenty-four. People get to see where I’m at mentally at the beginning and at the end. I wasn’t trying to make a catchy record, I just wanted to tell my story.”
Before the fanfare of Twelve, James had his nose to the grindstone, often in an unglamorous occupation. No stranger to an expendable work experience, James jumped from job to job to sustain his dream. Ultimately, stints at Shop & Stop, various retail positions, and a gig at Rent-A-Center all succumbed to James’ creative desire. The latter was a no-brainer.
“I left Rent-A-Center because I got the opportunity to open up for Kendrick Lamar at UMass Boston and they wouldn’t allow me the time to do it. So I quit.”
Despite having opened for one of the most influential artists in a generation, James remained composed, even when sharing a meal before the show. Though Lamar has shown his influence in the jazz-tinged, poetic musings of James’ work, it’s the industry’s old guard that inspire him the most.
“[With Kendrick] I wasn’t really starstruck. The people that would really move me would be like, Quincy Jones. I want to pick his brain for hours.”
In April of 2017, James began a creative partnership with Gratitude Sound, a production company focused on producing and licensing original content. Two months later, James was offered his biggest gig to date: a commercial campaign for Cheerios.
“They contacted me and said Cheerios was looking for a rap song, so I took a shot at it. The first one I did was the one that got approved.”
Now he hears “Good Goes Around” while watching TV at the gym; one of the campaign’s ads featuring James’ original song has nearly four million views on Youtube.
“That makes me feel amazing. My grandmother saw it too and recorded it on her TV.”
The good has literally gone around.
“For my mother and father to believe that I could do it, and to then do something like I did with the Cheerios campaign, it’s affirmation for them. They let me do what I wanted to do and it’s paying off.”
Not long after the success of the Cheerios commercials, James was offered another gig. This time, it was for his heroes: the Boston Celtics.
“They asked me if I had any music for the Celtics during the playoff run, and I didn’t, but I made something for them in about eight minutes and fired it in before the deadline.”
James’ clutch, last minute game-winner calls to mind a certain Boston legend.
“I met Larry Bird once. I literally fanned out. I asked him about the fight between him and Julius Erving. That was the only thing I asked, and he was like ‘come on man, get out of here with that!’”
Currently, we find James at a surge in his career. “Okay”, his newest music since Twelve, was released in March and recently broke 100,000 streams on Spotify. Just this week, James dropped his newest single “Today”, while a completed new LJ album lies dormant, ready to launch. Oh, and those licensing gigs are paying off. When asked if he’s seeing the effects of the worldwide campaigns, he laughed: “Yeah. Financially.”
Current success aside, his family comes first, even if that means throwing them into his work.
“I had my older sister sing on some of [Twelve]. My younger sister is on my new project, I have both of them on there, and my brother produced on it, so it’s always a family affair.”
What comes second is more personal.
“When I’m writing, I think about how I’m human, and I want to learn about me. It’s always about how it connects to me, and how that connects to somebody else. That’s super important.”
Latrell James is performing at BAMS Festival this weekend. Find more information regarding the event here. Listen to the new single “Today” here. Follow Latrell James for a comprehensive list of tour dates, new releases, and live performances.