Twelve is the magic number.
The number twelve holds a special meaning for Boston rapper Latrell James, even if for somewhat arbitrary reasons. Twelve is the age that James started rapping and making beats at home in Dorchester. Since then he has amassed a lengthy catalogue of songs under various rap names, produced numerous tracks for local artists, toured the Midwest with Boston rap duo STL GLD (Moe Pope and The Architype), as well as shared the stage at universities with artists like Kendrick Lamar, Cam’ron and Scarface.
Now, James will be releasing his forthcoming album, Twelve, on May 12. Twelve chronicles James’ years twelve to twenty four. You guessed it—Twelve has twelve tracks.
When James hits the gym he exclusively does reps of twelve. Okay, that part may or may not be true.
A full-time musician, James runs a home studio out of his basement in Brockton, Mass. where he produced the album with one of his brothers. Pursuing music around the clock leaves little time for much else.
“It’s stressful, but it’s cool,” James said. I had met him in Kendall Square on a Saturday afternoon—it was seventy and sunny, one of the first warm Spring days. We took the elevator up to the roof garden above the parking garage. Sprigs of mint and savory were poking out of the flower beds. We sat down at a picnic table in the middle of the roof garden. “I kind of make my own schedule at the time,” James said, smiling, before taking a sip of his ginger soda. “There are times when I have to be swamped with engineering and recording other artists, but it’s cool.”
Unlike many producers today, James took an interest in music production hardware before learning the software, to emulate some of his favorite beat-makers.
“I bought the MV-8000 from Roland [a self-contained production studio to make beats], which is like the comparison to Akai’s MPC station. I saw RZA using it. And I was like, I really love RZA’s music, so if I get one maybe I can somewhat sound like his stuff.” James paused. “That wasn’t the case,” he said, laughing. “But I did end up using it for like six years. It gave me a good balance of how to work on hardware and how to be more natural.”
Along with the MV-8000 James owns four pairs of studio monitors, a stack of vintage keyboards—a Casio CZ-1000, an Ensoniq ESQ-1, a mini Korg, and MiniBrute. Does James have a studio, or a warehouse full of spaceships?
Also included in his hyper-tech musical arsenal is a drum set, seemingly antiquated even among vintage equipment. But this is the item that James seemed most proud of, having played drums for three years.
“Everything I do I try not to quantize it,” he said, referring to the setting on digital audio software that “corrects” recordings that are played offbeat. “A drummer doesn’t play directly on beat. There’s no such thing as a perfect drum,” he said. “When you listen to old music it isn’t perfect, but it sounds perfect. The human ear isn’t perfect.”
Unsurprisingly, James is inspired by J Dilla’s beats, who is famous in the hip-hop kingdom for leaving his tracks unquantized. And James’ respect for fellow Boston artists’ work ethic runs deep too, citing Avenue, Caliph, Boogie Boy Metal Mouth, and even electronic-pop quartet Beatstronaut as influences. And of course, former tourmates STL GLD.
STL GLD rapper Moe Pope (and two-time Boston Music Award winner) gave James high praise. “Trust me, I have learned a great many things from watching Latrell perform and by listening to his music,” Pope said in a message a few days after my interview with James. “There is only one Latrell. A good dude, passionate about music, not just hip hop. He sings, makes amazing beats, not just good ones. Amazing, crazy lyricist.”
With lyrics like “I grew up with my own Heathcliff and Clair / To have both of your parents in your household is rare,” James combines pop culture references with mature lyrics that confront important topics. How does James come up with them? After a month of making beats, he will put them on his phone and play them during car rides. “I do a lot of idea forming in car rides,” James said. “I got a lot of mumbles or four-bar, two-bar couplets on my phone, and then I’ll just start forming them into complete songs.”
One of James’ strengths as a rapper is that he can switch styles from song to song, both in content and in flavor. His track “Boston to London” is straight-ahead and danceable, hook-driven, fun. “The Button” is dark and bristling, at once a vivid tale of life affected by poverty and an admonishment of one’s own self-destruction.
Others in the Boston hip-hop scene are beginning to notice James’ ability to change pace from song to song. At a recent Boston Scene Party networking event, hip-hop promoter Ned “Leedz” Wellbury (CEO of Leedz Edutainment) gave Latrell some advice that he has been thinking about since their conversation: define who you are as a rapper.
James clarified. “What [Leedz] meant by that was people can only consume things in a certain way. A Joey Bada$$ is consumed because he’s a boom-bap rapper. It’s straightforward. He knows his market. But when people can’t put a label on something, it’s harder for them to consume it,” James said. “That was the best criticism I’ve gotten in a year.”
At the same time, James understands the potential limitations of putting himself in a pocket. “He has a good point,” said James. “How do I control this but not control this so much that it’s stunting my growth?”
As any artist knows, building a brand takes time, plenty of experimenting, and a supportive team. Perhaps it is from those close to him where James can begin to answer that question. James’ manager, Jessica Richards, sees him as an artist, not just a rapper.
“He’s always one hundred percent involved in the creative process of what he puts out,” she said in a message to me. “Whether it’s spending 30 minutes practicing his set for a show, learning new engineering techniques, or finding new sounds to use for beats, he is in tune with music as an art form.”
It certainly seems like James has his eye on the whole picture. To amplify Twelve’s listening experience James recruited local artist Nadia Westcott to design the album artwork, who created each of the twelve hieroglyphics to represent one of the songs. The graphic for “Distance” follows three roads that lead to a black sun. “Candles” portrays a jagged birthday cake with twelve candles.
“I love the concept of Twelve and how each track is significant to each year of Latrell’s life,” Westcott told me. “It is a personal story with universal messages. I feel like everyone can relate to it one way or another.”
After Twelve James plans to release smaller EP’s—two to three tracks apiece—and also hopes to tour. “I’m trying to focus on quality shows, though. People will ask me to perform a lot of places, and I’ve said no, not disrespectfully, but I really want to focus on quality of shows—who’s going to be there, who else is on the bill…I also want to introduce people to new artists that have never been here. I’m willing to help out somebody from Brooklyn or Rhode Island to come here and perform. Because, you know, that’s what you’re supposed to do as an artist. If you have a platform, help somebody else on that platform, and you’ll grow.”
With hopes of making a living off of his own music, James is constantly networking. The night of our interview James was headed to an event at Kingdom of Royal, a pop-up clothing company shop in Boston. “I like to shake hands,” he said.