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 third in that series–an exclusive on the Husslington Post.
A Cambridge native, Virtuoso attended the Fayerweather and Agassiz schools before graduating from Cambridge Rindge and Latin School’s Pilot House in 1997. A Cantabridgian MC through and through, Virtuoso maintains a steady cult following throughout the Boston area and beyond, notably as an original member of Philadelphia-based hip-hop conglomerate Army of the Pharaohs.
In the late autumn of 2012, I was lucky enough to sit down with Virtuoso, E’Flash of N.B.S., and producer Nikki Broadway of The Beat Bullies. Throughout our conversation, we explored Virtuoso’s career and the role schooling and Cambridge have played in his development as an artist.
On the early years of his musical development:
I can’t really remember a time when I wasn’t making music. My dad was also an acoustic engineer – he designed a lot of studios and did a lot of electronics work for The Cars and Boston…he used to work at Electric Ladyland. Studios and professional musicianship was always something that was ubiquitous in my life, anyway. So, I think, from a very young age, I always kind of was like: “I might just be a musician.”
I grew up on Classic Rock mostly, and funky stuff. The first tape that I bought myself…was LL Cool J’s ‘Radio’ and Beastie Boys’ ‘License to Ill’.
And just the poetry of it all…I’d always been into words even since I was a little kid, and always into writing stuff, and writing very intricate stories and s**t like that, so it was cool to me the way they were able to just talk and lay it down.
On the early years of his education:
My parents were some pretty f**king serious hippies and they let me decide when I was gonna’ go to school. I was almost six. I didn’t go to kindergarten. I also didn’t go to first grade. All my friends on the block went to school for one year. My mom was like: “Do you want to go, or do you not want to go?” I remember that one of my main focuses in life was watching Mighty Mouse. And I remember after seeing it a bunch of times, starting to see the same ones, and being like: “This is bulls**t! There’s only a few of these? It’s not going to be a new one every day?” Soon after I went to my mom, and I was like: “I think I’m gonna go to school.”
When I was almost six, I went to Fayerweather Street School. It was like an alternative school – it’s still around. Do you know who Mighty Casey, the dude who did ‘White Girls’ is? He was the math teacher there for a while…It’s an ill school.
On the arts at Fayerweather:
In third grade, we were given the task of bringing in a poem or song that was special to us. Every other kid brought in, like, Mary Had a Little Lamb. I stayed up for two nights straight, memorizing Paul Revere by the Beastie Boys.
It was a school where there was definitely room to do your own thing. I was always somewhat of a performer. In third grade, I came up with a song called The Chicken Rap…Even back then, I was performing. In fourth grade we had a teacher who was only there one year. Her name was Nicki. I’ll never forget. [She] was totally in to hip-hop and all types of Caribbean history. Brought in KRS-One/BDP ‘You Must Learn’ and asked if anyone wanted to learn it and perform it. So I immediately volunteered.
So this woman put me on to BDP in fourth grade.
On the freestyle scene at CRLS:
Everyone was just kind of starting. K the I went to Rindge, graduated the same year as me [in 1997]. There was a group called Question that was K the I and just about – not to sound funny – but there was about eight black kids in the school who were good at rapping – and then there was me…It [also] involved Knuckles from N.B.S.
People would be rapping at lunchtime, and I started to show up on those scenes. There was definitely nobody else who could freestyle like me. So we would have a lot of cyphers at lunchtime. Afterschool, sometimes. This dude Zack Johnson, who made a bunch of beats for N.B.S. – he made ‘Devilish’ on my second album. He was also a frequent collaborator.
Particular CRLS hip-hop memories?
There was the Pilot [House] play…where if we said we wanted to do x or y…they would entertain. So people started to say: “I want to rap.” That was one of the first times I ever rapped in front of that many people. After that, I really gained a lot of confidence.
On the role of music in elementary and secondary education:
I think music is one of the last things that should be cut in education programming, personally. I think it’s one of the only universal things that exists. There’s nothing else that can transcend language and culture and race…I know, personally, that being involved in music – just analyzing it, performing it – even if you’re only listening to it…If you’re truly tapping into what’s going on, it’s a soul-opening experience. Quite often the people are amazing poets. Just trying to follow melodies and trying to pick apart what’s happening in a song – it’s certainly exercise for your brain…To me it’s by far the most powerful form of communication.
I would definitely urge anybody who’s involved in education and has influence over it who has the opportunity to present music in the school or anybody young’s life to do it at any turn they can. I definitely think it’s just good for the well-being of the universe. Whether you call it god, or whether you call it science, or whatever. Music is…it’s the vibrations of the universe. Everything is a vibration.
Can hip-hop be used in the classroom as a teaching tool?
I think there’s a role for any kind of music and I think especially hip-hop, considering that it’s so…There’s, in some ways, room to convey a more complex message in hip-hop. I think it’s definitely valuable in the classroom. Considering it’s the music that kids like nowadays, it’s obviously got to be the most useful.
The whole point is: who cares what some scholar thinks is useful? What are the kids gonna absorb? And if the kids want to absorb hip-hop, you might as well give it to them in the way that they find easy to understand.
Have you ever taught?
I did teach a hip-hop class to some pretty young kids at Agassiz summer programming. It was a good time.
Is there a specific type of humor that you find in Cambridge?
A lot of sarcasm…We’re really smug. I would say that. We’re cocky, we think we’re better than everyone else. We also generally tell it like it is. That’s another reason why people sometimes may view you as smug, or arrogant…People are very open here, too. People are very accepting. Of different races, of gay people. You don’t have to tiptoe around people as much here, as you do other places. It’s a little more: “Cut the bullshit.”
On being from Cambridge:
There’s no question, I think, Cambridge is a pretty unique place in the entire country and the world. Cambridge is a microcosm. There’s no other place in the country that can really replicate how much knowledge is stored in that small area. I wouldn’t say Cambridge has the magic formula like Brooklyn, for knocking out big rap stars, but we also live a whole different existence.
I think the main thing we’re blessed with, is we’re blessed with access to a lot of knowledge, coming from Cambridge. I think that’s the strength of Cambridge. I go to eat Indian food and I hear people talking about robotics, and I hear them talking about rocket science. Why do I rap with such big, complex words? Well, that’s just what was around.