In March of 2012 a young writer and educator named Joseph Poirier submitted an essay to the Husslington Post. Through an email exchange it was uncovered that coincidentally Joseph and Sam Seidel, the Curator-in-Chief of the Husslington Post, had attended the same high school, Cambridge Rindge and Latin. Joseph proposed conducting a series of interviews of hip-hop artists who spent time around Rindge, with a focus on how their educational experiences influenced them as artists. This piece is the second in that series–an exclusive on the Husslington Post.
Cousins V.Knuckles and E’Flash grew up together in Roxbury before moving to Cambridge for elementary school. Both artists, who are known together as Natural Born Spitters (or N.B.S.), graduated from the Tobin School, moving on to private high schools and colleges. Although they spent little time in the CRLS classrooms, both Flash and Knuckles were deeply involved in Cambridge’s extracurricular hip-hop scene.
I had the good fortune to sit down with Flash, Knuckles, and Kyle Morris (of their management team) in the Big Bang studios early this September, where we had a free-form and free-flowing discussion on their hip-hop careers, elementary and secondary education, and the role of hip-hop and music in the development of the contemporary student. Both Flash and Knuckles have taught in Boston area schools, and are beginning work with a Cambridge and Boston-wide anti-bullying initiative.
On their musical development in the early years:
Flash: Honestly, we went to Paige Academy, and that is a music-orientated school, in terms of performance and things. Kuumba drums, and dancing, and stuff like that.
Knuckles: That’s when we were really young.
Flash. Super-young. But that sort of embarked our passage into music. And plus, his [Knuckles’] older brother was doing music, and stuff like that. And we would just follow dudes around and they incorporated us in their talent shows.
Knuckles: Shout out to Black Rain – they were called Black Rain. We did a different type – a switch, from Kuumba drums and playing African songs, and singing African songs, to actually dancing. We were doing hip-hop dancing.
Flash: He [Knuckles] had more heart, he wasn’t scared to get in front of people and dance. We started doing that. We were signed to Maurice Starr, who was working with Perfect Gentlemen, New Edition, New Kids On The Block.
When was that?
Flash: Shoot, that was our elementary years…We used to do Massachusetts tours. We’d go from Boston to Rhode Island, to all over Massachusetts.
Knuckles: We got to a point where we re-named ourself from the Agent Crew, which we were a sublet of – which was my brother’s group.
Flash: The whole clique was called Agent Crew, but Black Rain was the focus.
Knuckles: And I was Agent Too Funky.
Flash: And I was Agent Too Smooth.
Knuckles: That was my first rhyme! I can still remember half of my first rhyme: “It’s the Agent Too Funky/Definitely not a junkie!”
Knuckles: After that, I was…I was not shy with the flows by high school. I used to go to different schools – Milton Academy – we used to do rap battles.
Flash: We used to battle outside of Rindge. Right in-between the field house and the tennis courts. And it used to be Coast vs. NC. And we used to go hard. We was the verbal vets!
Knuckles: We just all had our little crews from Cambridge.
Knuckles: At Rindge, there was such a strong hip-hop presence, that them dudes used to battle all the time.
Flash: Especially in Pilot.
Knuckles: They used to battle every day, pretty much. They used to have different battles. And then, like, while I’d be battling a couple dudes from Concord, who weren’t really on my level, they’d have a bunch of rappers on the freshman basketball bus, and they’d be battling. And these would be real battles. I’d be like: “Yo, these dudes are killin’ it!” They had a bunch of different rappers who were pretty good at battling. It was just an elevated…public school, with the kids from the inner city…it was more popular. Virt [Big Bang artist Virtuoso] had more competition in Rindge. Battle rapping, at the time, was really…was really what was in style. Now battle rapping’s not as popular as it used to be.
On their musical development in the high school years:
Flash: I never studied music, but my goal was to be an entertainment lawyer. So, in the aspect of wanting to do something pursuing music through education, yes, but in terms of playing an instrument, or studying an instrument, or studying how to write music – no. But Tobin School, obviously, I mean, back in the days, we had music. The xylophones, and the drums, and stuff like that.
Knuckles: We had more music in the elementary school. The people who did music at Concord [Academy] came in doing music. They weren’t teaching a lot of music. But I did get into acting, and that was a good thing for stage presence. Being able to control the ceremony, you know what I’m sayin’? Being the MC.
Did you ever study creative writing, fiction, or poetry?
Flash: Definitely poetry. Poetry – Maya Angelou – everything. That was something that was also sort of required. Poetry, Shakespeare, all types of stuff like that. In terms of creative writing, yeah, that’s one thing that I love doing. It actually comes natural, for some reason. You just let your mind explore. I had creative writing classes in Chapel Hill. It also went up through college, having creative writing.
Knuckles: In terms of my experience with it, we just had different writing classes. Then we got to choose some electives. I think I had a poetry class. It wasn’t rapping, but just writing in general, helped us a lot with our vocabulary. And just…[being] able to find words. Some people now say to me, ‘how do I rhyme this with this?’ Almost like I’m a human thesaurus. Because I’ve been rhyming so long, it comes kind of naturally now…
The writing you did in high school – do you draw on that while writing lyrics now?
Flash: I mean, education for lyrics in general. I mean, just reading books and just being knowledgeable about anything, makes your – not only vocabulary – but your rhyming scheme that much more, you know, “Oh shit, these dudes are nice,” or “they’re saying stuff I just saw on current events,” or…you know what I’m saying…Just being knowledgeable in general will always help an artist out. It’s great, you know what I’m saying, that we’re college graduates, it’s great that we also have taught, it’s great that we’re able to use our knowledge to have a bigger – or broader – spectrum on what we can talk about.
Do you think there should be more of an emphasis on music in schools?
Flash: Of course. By all means.
Knuckles: Yeah, definitely.
Knuckles: Music really wasn’t part of our curriculum, necessarily, but it’s definitely less a part of the curriculum today. That kind of…probably might be some of the reason that kids are labeled special needs, and most of them aren’t even special needs. More kids are given drugs and put on different medicines to control their, you know, “ADD.” All these different diseases, and whatever they’re labeling these kids with. But, at the end of the day, they’re not able to express themselves through creative outlets. And, that’s definitely a problem with schools nowadays.
What are some good creative outlets?
Knuckles: We used to have field day, we used to have a music class. We were able to get our energy out and express ourselves creatively. Nowadays, when I’m teaching in Dorchester, these kids don’t even have a field. They’re running around in a parking lot and they’re giving them like five minutes. We used to have, like, half hour or forty-five minutes.
Flash: You had time to get out your energy, and then get our your creative thought process.
Can hip-hop can be used in the classroom as a teaching tool?
Flash: Of course.
Knuckles: Hip-hop is just…this is just a big thing. Being able to write raps is being intelligent. Being able to write raps that either are creative or that have an influence on other peoples’ lives, like…this is powerful stuff. Yeah, it’s a tool to teach. It’s a tool to teach people how to read, people how to write, people how to make poetry, people how to have spoken word, people how to conquer stagefright…For that to be incorporated in schools is definitely always gonna’ be a good, positive thing. Especially with our, you know, inner-city youth in America. I’m not gonna’ say black, I’m not gonna’ say white, I’m just gonna’ say inner-city youth, in general.
On being from Cambridge:
Flash: Has Cambridge helped us? Of course. Cambridge has given us our education. Whether it be street, or…just growing up in a diverse environment. Where, you know, one of my best friends could be Eritrean, one of my best friends could be Asian, Haitian.
Knuckles: Peoples from different cultures. And it’s a small community, so, you know, we’re forced to interact with each other and most of it has been all positive, pretty much. So it’s given us, it’s basically given us a great perspective on life, in terms of knowing different people, and how different cultures work.
Is there a specific type of humor that you find in Cambridge?
Flash: I think we’re a little less serious. With Boston, I feel like we have something to prove. Especially with hip-hop, and just in general. We want to prove we’re not…
Knuckles: – That we’re the best, that we’re not soft…
Flash: – That we’re “gangsta,” you know what I mean? It’s an image thing with us in Boston. In Cambridge it’s a little less serious. We got a lot of stuff to offer that Boston doesn’t really get to offer kids. Diversity. I mean, everything that we have out here is just crazy.
Kyle: I mean, that’s probably the answer, though, right there. It’s like, with Boston and Cambridge the difference is we have so much more diversity within our city that it probably opens ground for more material [laughs].
Are there any particular artists from Cambridge that you were influenced by?
Flash: We were already doing music. But in our neighborhood there was Cantabridgians, the Starting Five…And we were the young dudes in the neighborhood spitting and dropping our first – ‘Black Ice’ and ‘Frozen Hearts’. Songs like that, where we really started writing our own music. ‘Black Ice’ was crazy and it took a lot of people by storm.
Knuckles: Yeah, ‘Black Ice’ was one of the most popular old songs that we did. But in terms of just artists in general, there was a couple of older artists that were really nice and even in my brother’s group. To this day – Doe Re Mi, Raymond Jordan, was probably one of the best lyricists. Shout out to my man Raymond! He was one of the hottest lyricists, he would be over my house like four days a week. It came kind of natural to me, but I was always around people who were nice. My brother and all his crew, pretty much, rapped, so we had older dudes around us that were always spittin’. And we’d go out in the neighborhood, and dudes who were just on our level, or even better than us, who were our same age, who helped adapt our flows too, you know? Just being able to try to come back with witty responses in a battle, or whatever. Like I was telling you, there was just a pretty strong hip-hop culture in Cambridge at the time we were growing up. So, we kind of learned from all different angles.
Kyle: There was more afternoon, evening type events to feature and showcase talent. There was talent shows – school vacation things – that people were allowed to do, that they don’t normally do anymore. Every vacation – there were three vacations a year, where…they had the Night Stop Talent Show. You’re talking three times a year when kids are always gonna’ be able to go in the city and just rap in front of all the kids in the city. Every vacation.
Cambridge or high school shout outs?
Flash: Not in particular… We looked up to everyone at Rindge. More so for sports rather than music influence. Though we never attended CRLS, we were connected with Pilot due to there being so many rap artists there who were our close friends. Larry, who taught African-American history, came to a few of our shows and photographed.