Photos by John Brewer
How Cambridge MC Millyz skipped Harvard and MIT to go worldwide
Historically, categorically, and definitely musically, Cambridge is a lot more than the Hub’s little brother.
One of the first towns settled in Mass (as Newe Towne), Cambridge has a legacy all its own. It’s a thriving mini-metropolis that has forever made countless cultural contributions, all of those exports coming out of merely 7 square miles.
If we’re talking so-called innovation, it’s where Facebook’s founding footprint is just the tip of the iceberg. Needless to say, as the home of MIT and Harvard, the city is the planet’s foremost classroom. At least for the elite.
But dig a little further underground, and you’ll find more than just a training haven where power brokers have honed skills for generations. When it comes to music, Cambridge has yielded innumerable trendsetters and influencers, including in the hip-hop realm.
For starters, the genre’s longtime culture bible, the Source magazine, was founded by David Mays at the same university where Mark Zuckerberg hatched Facebook. Currently, the Middle East nightclub remains a hip-hop epicenter, a vaunted and respected venue where the top rap acts often begin or end their national tours. In other words, hardly an afterthought on the other side of the river.
Academic accolades aside, oftentimes when a place has a strong college presence, it’s easy to forget the lifers who make up the neighborhoods surrounding those campuses. While the Hiphop Archive & Research Institute at Harvard, for example, studies the culture like it disappeared a thousand years ago, everything from mumble rap to boom bap events pop off nightly, with DJs, rappers, and producers rising through the mix for decades. Among them, hailing from Central Square right in between the attention-sucking entities of MIT and Harvard, is Millyz, one of the latest Greater Boston hip-hop voices to break nationally but one that has been rattling and traveling for years on the come-up.
“It’s two different worlds,” Millyz says about the gap between the colleges and blocks that he grew up on. “They never really mixed when I was growing up. You would see college students in Central Square, but in the actual neighborhoods you didn’t see that. It’s just different. When I was growing up, these were all zombies walking. These were million-dollar drug blocks.”
Powered by a newly announced working relationship with one of the genre’s most respected lyricists, a brand-new album, SPED: The Sequel (which will be on full display when he takes the stage at his sold-out Brighton Music Hall show Sept 21 alongside Dave East), and its breakout single, “Lessons,” the Cambridge-born rapper (real name Myles Lockwood) hopes to give an education on not only the hood he grew up in but the special educational experiences that informed his worldview.
According to the numbers, if Millyz tops the charts, he will be an anomaly.
The US Department of Education reports that about 13 percent of American kids are put in some kind of special education classes. But one of the constant criticisms of such programs is that in the wrong hands, it becomes a dumping ground. The nationwide graduation rate for special education designees is about 20 percent lower than the national average. The minute you cross the threshold in a special ed classroom, the odds forever turn against you.
“I was always a class clown,” Millyz says. “In sixth grade, they took me and put me in the little class with all the bad kids. They took the six bad kids from the school and put us all in a room.
“I was already attracted to bad behavior. If one of my classmates would take a bottle and throw it against the wall, I’d be like, ‘He’s that dude.’ So I was fueled off of the chaos we would all bring at once. I guess when I talk about special education, it’s about how it altered the trajectory of my life through feeding off my environment.”
At one point, Millyz was assigned to a special program in Charlestown, where high school teachers from surrounding cities and towns sent their most difficult students. There, he quickly realized certain differences between his friends from Cambridge and the kids he met from more suburban settings.
“I went to school with kids that, if we were on a field trip to the aquarium or something, they’d sit on a bench, sprinkle sunflower seeds on themselves, and let 100 birds peck them,” Millyz says. Still, more nefarious influences loomed. “The speds from the city would bring a gun to school, bring drugs to school.” As for lessons, Millyz adds, “From ninth grade, [instructors] were already like, ‘We just have to get you through this. We don’t have to teach you anything.’ So I’m learning shit from my class mates. And my classmates were nuts. And I was nuts.”
In the middle of this educational chaos, Millyz discovered solace in music. After getting kicked out of school as a freshman, he found himself hanging in Columbia Park near his Pearl Street home. It was a bit of low-key hate that brought out his inner MC and first recording experience.
“The music came directly from not being in school,” he says. “I remember once I asked this kid who was kinda my man, ‘Where you going, bro?’ And he told me, ‘I’m going to my man’s house to make some songs.’
“His man had like a little in-house studio. And that had me so hot. These dudes were living the dream. So I said, ‘Your man is garbage.’ I was hating. He went and told his man, and they made a diss song about me on the spot.
“Next day, they were playing it all in the school and shit. So I got in touch with my father, and he took me to a studio out in Charlestown. I recorded a record over the [Prodigy] “Keep It Thoro” beat. And I crushed the dude who made a diss record about me. Destroyed him.
“We played it for everyone in the park the next day. Everyone was like, ‘You can rap. It’s crazy.’ Then I went to the high school and personally played it for mad people. We played it for the dudes that I dissed and all of that. That’s how I started. That’s how I knew I was good, because of the reaction that I got.”
In the time since, Millyz has worn the somewhat derogatory term for special education students, sped, as a badge of honor. He’s also built a name for himself with projects like White Boy Like Me and with his high-profile affiliations and concert appearances; Millyz recently rocked the House of Blues in Boston with Jadakiss, who he’s collaborated with a few times, including on his latest single.
“I just try to catch a vibe and just get off my chest whatever I been thinking about,” Millyz says. “I really like to reflect on what I have been going through. Just tap into that part of me and what issues I want to get off.
“Lately I’ve been getting more vulnerable, or I’m trying. How we grew up, you can’t be vulnerable at all, because sharks smell blood in the water. I’m so much from that. Now that I’m a pure artist, I’m just trying to get to the point of being vulnerable, and give the fans all of me. I’m already making records my family don’t like me for. I’m already kicking my whole life.”
This relentless pursuit of success isn’t new. His childhood friend and fellow artist, Neva Soba, remembers Millyz during his younger days and says little has changed, “Loyalty. Inspirational. Driven. Focused. If you ask me, that’s what comes to mind when I think of him. That’s it.”
Best of both worlds
Cambridge isn’t necessarily the melting pot that people often think it is. As Millyz puts it, the city’s more of a mosaic, with the talents of many—from the likes of Cambridge Rindge and Latin School grad and NBA legend Patrick Ewing to all the gifted individuals on campuses—strengthening an overall cultural effort. It’s not a facade. Look into the bars and coffee shops, as well as the living rooms and kitchens of the local families that are too often forgotten in considering the fabric of the city, and you’ll see far fewer trends than people simply being who they are when they are allowed to be whoever they want to be.
“It’s like that mural [on the side of the Middle East],” Millyz says. He notes that Ringe is well-known for the vast variety of languages its students speak. “That is the city. That’s real people. That’s how it’s supposed to look. It always was a super diverse place.”
Diversity is one thing. Stability is another.
“I had two environments,” Millyz says. “My mother and my father split when I was like five. And my mother moved down the Coast [in Cambridge], and my father lived near Porter Square. He’s like an artistic dude. He’s like a real hippy from the ’70s. His house was full of artists. His house had way less structure. He was just free. I could do what I wanted. But at my mother’s house, that’s where all my homies were. That’s where it was going down. ”
Being where it went down, as he puts it, led Millyz into more than just a couple of run-ins with the law. With sporadic musical successes have come losses; on the night of the Boston release party for one of his mixtapes, Roc Ducati, a friend and fellow budding national artist, was shot and killed. Millyz says the loss inspires his creative efforts and that drama he’s endured has only served to help him reach new heights and break through to something bigger after years of plugging away.
How the does a tattooed kid from the Coast create a national buzz?
In short: he earned it, one bar at a time.
A fan from Philly connected him with Set Free, the well-respected DJ who created the epochal AND1 basketball mixtape, leading to a contract with an agency. Knowing what it takes to make the leap, Free pushed Millyz to leave Cambridge for New York. After spending his life in a city where people from all over the world come to learn and explore, it was time for him to go abroad, so to speak.
New York proved to be the source of new beginnings and allowed Millyz to focus on his artistry. Putting that newfound discipline on full display, last year he turned out an appearance in one of the 2016 BET Hip Hop Awards Cyphers and was a standout highlight of the show displaying signed and unsigned artists for an international audience, guided by legendary likes of DJ Premier. Given a chance to rap on any topic of his choosing, Millyz chose to speak on rampant police violence in the hood, with the ensuing verse showing the kind of artist that he was becoming.
“You think about yourself, and you think that people know what I do,” he says. “But they don’t. You have to show them. Especially in today’s day and age. People have a short attention span. You gotta show and prove. So I started going to radio.”
Set Free didn’t just use his powerful contacts to get spins for his client. Instead, Millyz put the real work in, going on a nationwide shock and awe tour that included airtime with some of the most respected DJs in the country, including Funkmaster Flex, Statik Selektah, and Cosmic Kev of Power 99 in Philly. Between the power of his freestyles and resulting internet and YouTube views, Millyz set forth toward the acclaim which once seemed so elusive.
“The more I show people what I really do, the more the world will understand what I have to bring to the game,” Millyz says. “I love being able to do both. I love being a versatile artist. It confuses people, but I feel like people want the whole package.”
Rising to the top
To quote the artist, the debut single from the new Millyz project, SPED: The Sequel, is a peek into that package. The story behind “Lessons,” which has made its way onto playlists organically after a groundswell of support from the internet, is a lesson in and of itself about being in the right place at the right time.
“This girl that was going to be in the video had did a Snap[chat] of her listening to it,” Millyz says. “She put that online, and that shit boomed right there. Then we started playing it for people before it came out. Dave East, Jadakiss, Cousin Stizz, and we got videos of them and it hit. People knew my whole first eight bars before it was even out. It’s been moving ever since.”
Soon after, fans everywhere were posting clips of themselves reciting the track. That projectile motion, coupled with his continuing commitment to lyrics, also led to his recent collabo with Jadakiss. More than just another album guest, Jada has also been mentoring Millyz, and coaching him to build his following on skill instead of connections and cosigns.
Which puts Millyz at a crossroads, in which he must navigate the depths of hardcore ’90s favorites like Jada and the Lox as well as the fast lane alongside trap rappers with their emotional rawness. With the rocky road that he has traveled in the rear view, Millyz approaches such adventures like it’s all part of the plan.
“I got fans that look at ‘Lessons’ and be like, ‘Damn, you can really rap,’” Millyz says. “Rap is the NBA. See how the NBA switched? You gotta be 6’8”, know how to have an Iverson crossover now, and shoot the three. That’s what I’m doing. I’m really rapping at a high level, and I’m really making dope trap music at a high level.”
He continues: “I thought my life was over. You are in this type of school. You are in this type of environment. Look at all these kids. We’re going to be failures. So I started the alternative route, selling drugs and doing crime. I knew I wasn’t going to college.
“Most people start to navigate their life after college or high school. I knew from 11 it was over. I’m not dumb, though. That’s why I want to go back and tell those kids, ‘You can really be something, bro.’ Cuz I’ve surpassed everyone that was in my public school as far as my quality of life.”