Straight Outta Cambridge
A descendant of John Adams is making waves in the hip-hop industry. But is Sammy Adams in it for the music – or the money?
IT’S TIME FOR A ROUTINE sound check at the famed Paradise Rock Club in Allston. Dozens of legendary artists have graced this stage over the past 30-plus years: U2, Tom Petty, AC/DC. But today it’s playing host to a skinny 22-year-old rapper from Cambridge.
[sidebar]Sam Adams Wisner, better known as Sammy Adams, is bouncing around the stage in Nike high-tops, mike in hand, warming up to an empty room. "What up, Boston?! You ready? Yeah, yeah, yeah…" he yells as a drummer pounds away behind him and a DJ busies himself setting up a turntable and laptop.
In a few hours, more than 700 twentysomethings will pack the club for this sold-out show, impressive considering that Adams has been a professional musician for less than a year. But it’s not entirely unexpected. Last year, one of Adams’s first songs became a sensation on YouTube, generating more than a million page views in a matter of weeks. This spring, his first album, Boston’s Boy, debuted at number one on the iTunes hip-hop chart, beating out rap superstars like Lil Wayne and DJ Khaled. In recent months, his mug has been featured everywhere from MTV to Vanity Fair‘s website.
Adams’s popularity partly owes to his music, of course: a catchy, accessible blend of hip-hop and pop that’s about as similar to Dr. Dre as it is to Dr. Pepper. His autobiographical rhymes about drinking beers and meeting girls could be about any kid in suburban America. But the attention also owes to Adams’s unusual heritage (he’s a descendant of two U.S. presidents) and an acute talent for self-promotion. "This kid has it figured out," says Prince Charles Alexander, associate professor of music production and engineering at Berklee College of Music. "If you’re going to be white and a rapper, you can’t just be good. You have to be really good. And what makes Sam Adams really good is that he’s already identified himself as a brand."
WHEN ADAMS TAKES THE STAGE at the Paradise, he has more energy than he probably should. He’s finishing up a concert tour of northeastern colleges, and it’s also finals week at Trinity College, where he is a couple credits shy of a degree in political science.
Somewhere in this crowd of inebriated college kids are Adams’s parents and older brother, Ben. His father, Chuck Wisner, owns a private leadership consulting company, and used to be drummer in a band. His mother, Kata Hull, teaches painting at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. Hull was named for her ancestor Louisa Catherine Adams, the wife of John Quincy Adams.
The family tends to hold the Adams connection "at arm’s length," Hull says, but they don’t hide from their lineage, either. They regularly attended the annual Adams family reunion in Quincy when the boys were younger ("It was the worst," Sam recalls), and Kata owns a couple of interesting family heirlooms, like a ruby and diamond ring that Russian royalty gave to Louisa Catherine as a gift. "You’re proud of [the heritage]," she says. "But it’s never taken on a large proportion of our active life."