The night before Christmas Eve belongs to me. I first commandeered the pre-holiday in 2004, when I moved to Boston from my native New York City. On that annual occasion, I lie to friends and family members in both places. To those expecting me in Gotham, I tell them that I'm still in Massachusetts through the 24th; to those in Massachusetts, the story is that I'm breaking out a day early to go shopping with my cousins back in Queens. In reality, I spend December 23rd each year partying between realities – usually on hallucinogens, hopefully by myself, and always at an underground rap show.
On my 2007 personal holiday, a stomach full of mushrooms walked me all the way to the Lower East Side from my midtown hotel room, leading me to the iconic Bowery Poetry Club. I'd abandoned the New York scene years before, and didn't recognize a single name on the bill. But I was spun, and Bowery Poetry is one of the coziest venues on earth – a gem spot where you can imbibe music from a bar stool. Plus they had someone on the bill named Homeboy Sandman, who the bouncer promised was the real deal Holyfield. That plus my having to urinate was enough to coax me through the door.
The show was hitting. While I'd been in Boston, New York's subterranean rap community had undergone the sort of revival that happens in boom bap's birthplace roughly once a decade. Homeboy Sandman, or Boy Sand, as his fans called him, had risen to the forefront of this countercultural niche, which had morphed significantly since my days of watching cats like Cage and Company Flow tweak the genre. Unlike most other rhyme contrarians, Boy Sand seemed beyond content with a career in the intellectual shadows of major labels, and in exile from the corporate frequencies that claim to be “Where Hip-Hop Lives.”
It's not easy to impress me – even with the ideal chemical cocktail of boomers, Ritalin, and Budweiser crashing through my bloodstream. Boy Sand lit my fuse though; with infinitely complex lyrics woven around arcane pop culture references in onomatopoetic rhythm, he won the attention of everybody in the packed and sweaty house. By the time he dispatched Lightning Bolt – easily one of the least traditional, off-the-wall joints ever rolled – the crowd was fully enthralled. As for me; I'm not sure if there was one specific person who discovered Mozart, but that's what it felt like. On psilocybin.
In the years that followed, I pushed Boy Sand's work relentlessly. I touted his skills in The Source, which allowed me to bestow upon him “Unsigned Hype” honors, and also introduced his projects to my readers back in Boston, who are always game for the sort of enlightenment he traffics in. Having grown exhausted with the devolving pop rap landscape – its grotesque materialism and suicidal narcissism clouding the terrain – I eventually stopped writing much about hip-hop, focusing more on investigative tasks and social justice reporting. Still, I made it a point to sound alarms whenever Homeboy emerged.
As time went by, others joined my chorus to sing their own praises. By 2010, Boy Sand had become a name on every underground aficionado's tongue; in the most devout circles, you'd risk all and any credibility by confessing that you weren't feeling him. All of the components needed for a fringe icon were in place, from his utter uniqueness, to Homeboy's raw gusto.
Dude even had an unlikely MC pedigree: raised in Queens, Angel Del Villar attended prep school in New Hampshire, and went on to earn an Ivy League degree at Penn. Somehow, he works the whole experience into every line.
About three years ago, I got a call from Homeboy. He was in Los Angeles, where he'd just shot an episode of Made for MTV, which had asked him to coach a hapless white kid into being a battle rapper. That wasn't all; Angel had grown close with iconic beatmaker Madlib, and was entering discussions about signing to the legendary Cali label Stones Throw. There aren't many imprints that can hold a talent like Boy Sand. Stones Throw, however, was the ideal fit, its fans so trusting in Madlib and owner Peanut Putter Wolf's tastes that they'll happily quaff whatever flavors the team cosigns.
I've spent my entire adult life defending interesting, adventurous hip-hop – mostly with no results. In that time I've written for major magazines like Spin, right down to daily newspapers – all for the purpose of convincing ignorant heads that there's a wide open world beyond Jay-Z and Young Jeezy, where the artists are intensely smarter and the sounds are more fulfilling. This thankless task has led me to mild depression, not to mention countless arguments with rap pedestrians. Still, I continue to fight the power in some perilous form, confident that every now and then, I'll ween an otherwise good person off of Kanye West.
Every realm of music has pretentious snots like me. Back when Frank Sinatra was in business, I'm sure there were Italian guys who claimed Old Blue Eyes bit his whole style from some ugly duckling back in Hoboken. But while we're all shameless hacks, I truly believe that some critics serve a greater purpose than to just complain in chat rooms and re-write press releases. Music writers rarely admit such things – we're not supposed to – but in discovering Homeboy Sandman, and amplifying his message, I answered that calling. It might just be an elaborate excuse to trip balls once a year, but it's one that I can live with.