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Artist Profile: al.divino Speaks for Massachusetts and Real Hip-Hop

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Massachusetts-bred rapper al.divino is the epitome of what it means to be an independent artist. He is an MC in charge of his own distribution, a producer responsible for his own mixing and mastering, and a visual artist who designs his own album covers and clothing. With an ear for noisy, deconstructed sample loops and signature gruff vocals, al.divino has developed a uniquely psychedelic strain of East Coast boom-bap that has earned him a cult-following. His impressive run has caught the eye of tastemakers like Griselda’s Westside Gunn, who recently tapped al.divino to paint the cover art for his July 2022 album “Peace ‘Fly’ God.”

Growing up across Massachusetts — but primarily in Lawrence and Lynn — al.divino has spent his nearly decade-long career crafting an elusive image along with a brand of music that is not intended to be accessible. “I feel like I do a lot to not have to explain what I do,” al.divino said in a sit-down interview with The Harvard Crimson. “It’s like if you were to ask any painter, ‘How would you describe your art?’ Isn’t that why I paint?”

The rapper lets his music speak for itself — often releasing full-length projects with no prior announcement and very little post-drop promotion. Much of the rapper’s discography is only available for purchase on his bandcamp page for prices ranging from $11 to as much as $567 for a single album. An ever growing cadre of diehard al.divino fans have created an eBay aftermarket for the rapper’s vinyls with some current listings marked up as high as $435. Among his dozens of self-designed album covers, he only makes a physical appearance a few times — instead opting for images that speak to his synesthetic impression of the work.

Before he even knew what hip-hop was, al.divino was exposed to a central component of the genre: graffiti. “I started writing graffiti to a Led Zeppelin box set that my pop’s left in my crib when he left,” the rapper said. “I fell in love with graffiti before I heard hip-hop. That's my master key for everything.”

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In middle school, the rapper became obsessed with classic graffiti documentaries that he found online like 1983’s “Style Wars” and “Piece by Piece” from 2005. Graffiti opened a young al.divino’s eyes to the world of hip-hop culture. “I became like a drug addict for cool shit. That’s the best way I can describe it,” the rapper said.

After finishing high school and beginning to rap, al.divino made a conscious effort to immerse himself in the hip-hop culture of the East Coast. As an escape from the monotony of home life in Massachusetts, the rapper took regular weekend trips to hip-hop centers like New York City and D.C. by commuter bus. “I'm a Greyhound legend man,” al.divino said. “Everybody knows my ‘Backpack Vino’ era. Me getting my ass up and getting on that bus to pop out to your hood. I was really soaking up culture and shit.”

Such an approach begins to explain the impressive geographic sprawl of al.divino’s recent collaborators, which range from Bay Area legend DJ Muggs to D.C. rapper ANKHLEJOHN and Griselda’s Rome Streetz in New York City. However, the place that has arguably had the greatest impact on al.divino’s music is the city just north of Boston that helped raise him: Lynn, Mass.

A manufacturing and shipping center beginning in the late 18th century, Lynn has been historically associated with crime and vice. Over the years, Lynn locals have developed an eerie rhyme that warns outsiders of the debauchery: “Lynn, Lynn, City of Sin / Never come out the way you came in.” For the last several decades, the city has been home to a budding underground rap scene, led by breakout groups like Tragic Allies. It was in 2011 that al.divino first met his now-longtime collaborator, Tragic Allies rapper Estee Nack.

The pair had a few mutual friendships, but it wasn’t until after Nack heard al.divino’s music for the first time that the two spoke. The rapper recalled an early conversation between him and Nack — who is nearly ten years al.divino’s senior — which marked the beginning of a deep collaborative partnership and friendship.

“[Nack] turned around and he goes, ‘Yo, don't ever let anybody tell you that you're not great. You are great,’” al.divino said. “This is 10 years ago. After that I basically stuck around Nack like a fly to light.”

“We bridge a generation gap by having the kind of chemistry we got,” he added.

During the same time in Lynn, Nack introduced al.divino to the Nation of Gods on Earth and to the late King Asiatic. Also known as the Five-Percent Nation or simply Knowledge Itself, the Nation is a movement influenced by Islam that was founded in Harlem in 1963. It is an ideology that is woven into the fabric of hip-hop: The group is credited with coining the term “cypher.”

Rap legends like Busta Rhymes, the Wu-Tang Clan, and the late MF Doom are a few of the most famous Five Percenters. Raised in New York by legendary Five Percenter Popa Wu, King Asiatic was the first to bring the teachings of Knowledge Itself to the Boston area. He was an incredible force for positive change in Lynn, working to turn the needle-ridden Cook Street Park into a community garden and playground. Estee Nack and al.divino were his students.

“Rest in Peace King Asiatic,” al.divino said. “He recently transitioned last year. That was like my pops man. He is remembered in perfection.”

Ever since the release of their 2016 debut collab tape “Triple Black Diamonds,” al.divino and Estee Nack have been at the cutting edge of the New England hip-hop scene. The pair’s musical collaborations combine their Five Percenter spirituality with psychedelic boom-bap production courtesy of al.divino himself as well as other local producers like Sadhugold and Grubby Pawz to create a sound that is unmistakably theirs. The duo’s approach to rap is Coltrane-esque, taking existing genre conventions in hip-hop and rearranging them at will. Nack and Divino have named this intuitive style “the splash.”

“We always called it ‘the splash,’ this kind of like formless form,” the rapper said. “It’s more of a Drunken Master type. Whether it's fast or slow it’s never predictable.”

One of the most prominent fans of “the splash” is Westside Gunn, whom al.divino says he’s known since 2016, before Griselda had ever performed in Boston. Earlier this year, Gunn enlisted the duo to work on his July album “Peace ‘Fly’ God,” giving creative control of the cover artwork to al.divino and Starker, while leaving multiple guest verses open for Nack. The album was a solid look career-wise for both al.divino and Estee Nack, but al says he really only cares about working with good people. “That’s family regardless,” al.divino said. “My relationship with Gunn is beyond rapping.”

—Staff writer Ryan S. Kim can be reached at ryan.kim@thecrimson.com.

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