Straight Outta Cambridge
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.
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.”
Though he grew up in Cambridge, Adams hopscotched through a handful of high schools – Cambridge Rindge and Latin, Proctor Academy, Beaver Country Day – before finally finishing up at Wayland High. He had become a fan of rap music in the eighth grade, but it wasn’t until he moved away to college that he began writing and recording songs.
One of those songs was “I Hate College,” a snarky, point-by-point response to the massive 2009 hit “I Love College” by Asher Roth, another white college kid from the ‘burbs. When Adams posted a video of the song on YouTube a few months after Roth came out with his song, it became an instant hit. “I Hate College” quickly attracted more than a million page views that summer, and served as the catalyst for Adams’s career.
Adams says his song isn’t a parody or an attack, and seems sensitive to being labeled a Roth clone. “I’m playing the college scene, and now [Roth] is more into niche hip-hop,” he says. “I’m picking up where he left off, but that’s my whole plan.
“I have a lot of respect for him,” he says of Roth. “We probably wouldn’t have come up with the song without him.”
After the sound check at the Paradise wraps, Adams and his manager, Alex Stern, adjourn to a nearby apartment, where Adams and his friends kill a few hours drinking beers before the concert. “Do you want a beer?” he asks. “It is Cinco de Mayo.”
Except for his “Heat Packing District” baseball hat, Adams looks the preppy part: pressed khaki shorts held up by a checkered Louis Vuitton belt, which matches his Louis Vuitton wallet.
Though the hip-hop industry has long put a premium on street cred, Adams is candid about his less-than-hardscrabble background. “I mean, [growing up near Central Square] wasn’t, like, fuckin’ Harlem, but I was never the kid riding his bike around the cul-de-sac,” he says.
Adams admits that Boston’s Boy isn’t a “typical” rap album, which is something of an understatement. The songs tend to blend hip-hop, pop, electronica, rap, and even some Auto-Tune with lyrics about killin’ stages in Nantucket or chillin’ up in Hartford. He recorded the album on Newbury Street, of all places. “I’m probably the furthest thing at this point in my life from being a ‘hood gangster rapper,” he says. “But that’s not my market.”
His unusual résumé has caused some to question his rapid rise in the industry. When Boston’s Boy started to take off on iTunes, rumors surfaced on the Web that he was buying the album himself – at a price tag of approximately $75,000. Some music bloggers started to call him “Scam Adams.”
Adams swears on a certain Founding Father’s grave that he didn’t finance bulk purchases of the album, a claim backed up by Billboard. Nielsen SoundScan data show that 22 percent of the sales came from the Boston area, another 18 percent from New York, and the rest from 100 other markets nationwide, from Philly to Los Angeles. “That’s why people are jealous,” Adams says. “Not because of my music or because the music ‘sucks,’ but because they don’t have the fans that I have.”
About 15 minutes into the interview, Adams’s entourage starts blaring songs from Boston’s Boy from the other room.
“Excuse me,” he says.
He walks over to the kitchen, where he spots a roll of toilet paper. He hurls it at his buddies, who turn the music down. It’s hard not to notice what’s on the kitchen island: a paperback copy of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by David McCullough, John Adams.
Through major record companies like Atlantic, Universal Motown, Interscope, and Sony have expressed interest in signing him, Adams says he isn’t committing to a label anytime soon. “I’m very much satisfied with being independent right now,” he says. “People are sort of wondering, like, why are you doing music if you don’t sign a deal?” One reason is that Adams, like every recording artist today, no longer needs a big label to get his music to the masses. After an album is recorded and manufactured, there is little to no additional cost for distributing the music online. In other words, by sticking with his current independent label, 1st Round Records, he has more control over his music – and fewer people to share royalties with.
A good decision? “Genius,” says Alexander. “Right now the music industry is hurting. At some point he’ll need a large campaign behind him, but now isn’t the right time.”
Adams agrees. “Eventually signing a deal wouldn’t be bad, but right now with these existing [tracks], why would we sign a deal?” he says. “I need to get me, myself, out as a product before I can, you know, sign myself away.”
Adams has already proven to be remarkably savvy about making himself a brand. His number of Facebook fans has grown exponentially since he released the album. In fact, at his current rate, Adams gains an average of 965 fans every day. What’s more, he’s chosen to launch his career in the Hub not only because he’s “Boston’s Boy,” but also because he knows there’s no better place to peddle frat-party music. “Most people [overlook] how much of a college atmosphere this entire city is,” he says. “We’re marketing to one of the biggest college cities in the United States.”
Adams would love to remix some songs associated with Boston, like “Sweet Caroline” and “Dirty Water.” “Especially with the college scene around, I think that is something that would be amazing,” he says. “They’ll be like anthems for the bars.” Playing off the city’s sense of nostalgia could be a very smart tactic – but it might also make Adams seem like a novelty act. For now, though, his strategy is paying off. Last month, he headlined at the House of Blues on Lansdowne. The month before that, he opened up for rap stars Drake and Ludacris in front of 20,000 screaming fans at a sold-out Comcast Center show.
For Adams, this success is just the beginning, as a musician – and as a marketer. “We don’t even have merchandise yet,” he says. “I can’t even imagine what would happen if we had that.”