Image via DJ Lucas/Instagram
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Donna-Claire‘s apex for the week was listening to new BONES and GREAF while the snow gently falls.
It’s the late ‘90s and Jonathan Richman is playing a solo show at the Middle East, one of the clubs responsible for the Boston noise and punk rock renaissance. A cradle of the underground, it regularly hosts a who’s who of Boston music, and from New England there is no more influential avant-garde figure than the mastermind of The Modern Lovers. Zoom in on the heir to the Velvet Underground taking the stage at what was once a Lebanese restaurant in Cambridge. The opening band that night was fronted by a second grader, an artist we now know as the Western Massachusetts, art rap swamp creature, DJ Lucas.
“My dad booked a club in Boston, and I grew up with him saying, ‘My kids are gonna open!’ For my first show, I sang in front of 600 people,” the now 29-year-old DJ Lucas tells me one March morning. “I did five songs, and quit in the middle of the show. I was in second grade in a rock club, but I was already uninterested in a lot of people cheering.”
Lucas began rapping at age 21 after a handful of years producing and building a local scene in Amherst. From his earliest punk days, Lucas realized there was no infrastructure for the music culture he hoped to cultivate. Heavily inspired by the f*ck-it-we’ll-do-it attitude of Odd Future, DJ Lucas and his Dark World Records comrades set out to redefine what a Western Mass. music scene could look and sound like. From his earliest days working with local rapper LuieGo to now connecting with stewards of the New York scene–Wiki, Subjxct 5, Papo2oo4–DJ Lucas developed his artist identity around building something bigger than a solo rap career. Dark World Records represented “something that wasn’t there,” as Lucas puts it. “We always talked about that, as kids, ‘These noise powerhouses in Mass. aren’t going to f*ck with us.’ We never felt like those people would accept us as musicians. We had to create something to explain ourselves.”
In his own art, DJ Lucas embodies the freewheeling element of the woodsy and distant New England that he loves. But first, he moved around the Boston suburbs before settling in Western Mass. at age 10.
“There’s something to be said for the ‘60s, and the whole DNA of the mid-century Western Mass. human who turned into this folk artist, hallucinogenic-using kind of person,” he explains. “I was raised in that post-hippie era. There was a lot of fallouts from cults. A lot of the kids I grew up with, their parents were part of that.”
Lucas’ parents were both in the arts (no cults for them, though) and showed him the ability to make a living while being creative. His dad was a punk rock, New Wave, ‘80s guy, working odd jobs when not playing music. Lucas’ mother, Connie White, co-directed the Boston Women’s Film Festival.
There’s a softness to Lucas’ presence. He is meticulous and reflective, and has been since a child who defined himself against his creative inclinations. “I was the kid who wanted to talk to the teachers,” he recalls. “They always said I talked too much, but I’m not sure my peers would say that. When I was growing up, there were a lot of jocks. The weird kids were all in one box. The goths, the rap kids, the theater kids, we’d all chill just not being sports kids.’” Lucas was always captivated by the substitute teacher specifically; he saw them as travelers and quiet observers. Slowly, he built up a dream of traveling the world to learn its secrets, and in turn, as he grew into a touring musician, being on the road became his favorite part of the DJ Lucas enterprise.
DJ Lucas dropped out of high school in tenth grade, at 16, and immediately began producing under a variety of aliases. DJ Lucas, the name, came about in the fall of 2013.
“Me and God’s Wisdom started a group, and he named it BDSM and then I stole the name,” Lucas remembers. “This is the era of A$AP and all these weird letters. So, it was almost a joke. Eventually, I was like, ‘I’m actually DJ Lucas,’ and named myself after DJ Paul. I was making Memphis beats—that’s what I liked.”
Inspired by Tommy Wright III, Three 6 Mafia, Lil B, Black Sabbath, and Xavier Wulf, DJ Lucas’ first beat tapes are a blend of wonky footwork productions. 2015’s The Conception is 26 minutes of jittery and paranoid sound. Lucas’ formative beats, collab tapes, and his early punk recordings in Worms, can all be found on his label’s carefully kept Bandcamp. Parsing through the descriptions on these dated releases, going back as far as 2011, there’s an emphasis on darkness. Everything was “recorded in a cave.” This stuff isn’t horrorcore, but it isn’t the same playful hip-hop of the early ‘10s. Big Sean and Wiz Khalifa would have nothing to do with this music.
After years of getting his friends on weird beats, Lucas released his first solo rap tape in 2014. “I was DJ Lucas as a producer, and then I moved to New York City,” Lucas says. “I was entirely alone from my friends in Western Mass.. I put out Lucas’ Mansion in 2014, alone in an apartment, in The Heights. I had GarageBand, and it was me coming home, every day, after chilling with Wiki and Ratking. I’d go home and make music.”
The relationship between DJ Lucas and Wiki is fundamental to Lucas’ growth as an artist and collaborator. When speaking with Wiki about Lucas, the New York rapper constantly mentions having to keep up with Lucas in the studio. With loose joints rolling around in both their harddrives, Wiki and Lucas’ first released song where both artists are rapping landed in 2016. Prior to that, DJ Lucas was producing for Wiki. They met after a Ratking show in Western Mass., in 2013, when Wiki’s seminal group was on tour with GZA. “After the show, we went back to his barn. He lived in a barn—well, his crib was next to a barn on some country shit. We kicked it all night and became friends that night,” Wiki remembers.
Recorded on 163rd Street in Manhattan in the fall of ‘14 and released shortly thereafter, Lucas’ Mansion sounds like New England’s answer to SpaceGhostPurrp.
“This is 2014, but people didn’t understand the music,” Lucas says. “People were like, ‘Oh, it’s like Yung Lean!” Despite the tension of where Lucas’ potential landed versus his execution, Lucas’ Mansion had a charm to it. There was also a clear desire to emulate Wayne, both in punchline style and work ethic. “He was everything to me,” Lucas says. “That was a big frame of reference, but I didn’t know how to capture that when I first started making music.” Lucas’ Mansion would start Lucas out as a student of the series, and to this day, each of his releases is a numbered entry whether he’s unleashing bangers, being a farm boy, or smoking big bleeps.
Lucas’ tactical nature clashes with his own self-perception. He is admittedly not a perfectionist, though Wiki affirms he is at least extremely productive in the studio: “He’s just down to work, man. He’s really passionate. When I’m in the studio with him, he’s always playing his position and trying to help out. He’s quick. He’s on the mic yelling loud as hell. It’s fun, man. He has that energy. There’s never a dull moment.”
To that point, Lucas does record and release with abandon, sometimes dropping music that is “badly mixed” or with art that looks slapped together. This, too, is his lineage: “Everything I like, that I looked up to, has that live feel to it.” With each release—particularly the 2020 one-two-punch of Big Bleep Music, Vol. 4 and Unleashing These Bangers 4 U where he found a particularly crunchy pocket for his voice—Lucas explores a fresh side of his sound. He raps as though he’s been imbued with a forbidden knowledge, coming out of the Western Mass. woods as a flowering weed person. His writing is hyperlocal; Dunkin’ and Cumberland Farms are frequent landmarks. Whether he’s attacking industry beats on YouTube, or saluting “the hipster nation” on an entire album, Lucas’ music is for the bold everyman. He’ll jump on a Yeat beat, or Jack Harlow’s intentional deep cut, and turn them into DJ Lucas parables ofNorthampon fair grounds.
“The early aspirations were, ‘Get a Pitchfork interview,’” Lucas remembers. “Get on Fader. That’s my GRAMMYs. The people I look up to get bad reviews on Pitchfork. I wanted a bad review. I wanted what I’d seen the people before me get.” Lucas operates with a strong reverence for music and rap history. “I look at it as language. It’s storytelling music in its most extreme form. It reminds me of folk music, and rap music is clearly folk music.” The language Lucas speaks on the mic is plainstated, but with a yelping vocal inflection he developed to overcome “shitty PA systems” in underground venues.
At home, Lucas brings a collection of one-liners and swirling thoughts into the booth. His best verses, though, are written on the spot with frequent collaborators Papo2oo4 and Subjxct 5. Their recent works together—Dirty Designer and Continuous Improvement—feature a more subdued Lucas, one who controls the tenor of his voice to match the more relaxed energy Pap brings to the mic. Throughout all his records, he talks his shit as he sells Percocets to Robert Frost in the same breath as tackling weather-worn themes of depression.
On Spotify, DJ Lucas hovers around 20,000 monthly listeners, and I get the sense he prefers it that way. He does not pander to streaming overlords, and he doesn’t ever worry the DJ Lucas project will fail: “I’ve dedicated my life to this. It’s an oath.” Lucas raps in hopes of finding his community of weirdos and building alongside them.
His mentality is, “the minute the weed hits the dispensary, I don’t want to smoke it anymore. I want things to be grassroots… I remember seeing Drake vinyls at Urban Outfitters. Things change. I might be stuck in time, but I’m sticking to it.”