The voices of more than 40 men cut through the white noise and sporadic squeaking of turnstiles at the Downtown Crossing MBTA station. It’s Sunday, around 4 p.m., and James Babraitis takes a step into the middle of the circle. He’s rapping “off the dome,” coming up with lyrics spontaneously, to a beat emanating from a bite-sized Bluetooth speaker.
Babratis’s rapper name is James EPB, and a vein is writhing on his forehead as he rhymes. James has dwarfism, and he says the Wreck Shop Movement saved his life. “The Wreck Shop brings all of these unique styles together, and instead of being about competition and hate, it’s all about love and respect,” says Babratis, “It gets you pumped. These guys can really help build you up.”
“These guys” call themselves the Wreck Shop Movement, which stands for When Raw Elements Combine Kinetically, Start Helping Other People. They’ve been getting together to share rap and poetry at an MBTA station every Sunday afternoon from 3 to 6 p.m. for more than a year, making Downtown Crossing their base since the fall. The group is diverse, and continuously changing. Although this white writer was in the minority in the circle, and the worst freestyle rapper to attempt a rhyme that day, I was greeted with nothing but respect and support.
“The Sunday get-togethers provide a platform for incredibly passionate Boston artists—not just rappers, but DJs, producers, poets, dancers and anyone else who loves to create,” said Justice Born, organizer and originator of the Wreck Shop Movement. He also teaches breakdancing and works closely with a nonprofit for the homeless.
Born started the movement in 2003, but after momentum slowed he went on a hiatus until coming back full strength in 2011. It has seen steady growth over the last five years, but nothing compared to how much the movement has exploded since the fall and the beginning of its Sunday Subway Cypher series.
The average passerby might call it a rap battle, and he or she wouldn’t be far off. However, the difference between a rap battle and a cypher is crucial: In a cypher, you aren’t trying to win. It’s an exhibition, a friendly, a scrimmage. But that doesn’t mean these artists take it any less seriously. “It’s therapeutic,” says Born. “A lot of us are dealing with life sh*t and stress and hard times. This is our outlet.”
The bite-sized Bluetooth speaker dies. The station goes quiet. Curious commuters look around, waiting for something.
The voices cry out again. As the speaker charges over by the wall, the spectators clap, holding a steady beat. “Social justice isn’t just what’s coming out your mouth, it’s in your being, your movement….”
A man who goes by the name of Big Brotha Sadi is rapping to the handmade beat. “The energy you put into your work, that what you get back/You can make a difference…” He trails off, struggling to find his next line. Words of support emerge from all sides of the circle. “You got it. Just let the raps come,” says Born. Just as a train pulls into the station, the rapper gets out a line, but it’s lost under the noise of the squealing brakes.
For Justice Born, this is more than a movement—it’s a job, it’s a lifestyle, and it’s not easy: “When we started we were just the Wreck Shop and a few hip-hop heads, and now it’s starting to bloom like a flower,” said Born. “I just wanted to put Boston on the map. I just said, ‘Let’s do something that elevates the whole community.’ And when you make something for the people, you have a responsibility to them now to keep it up.”
Being for the whole community, however, Born and the other founding fathers didn’t want the movement to become exclusive. Yet some people still are scared off. Sarah, a sophomore at Boston University, stopped as she was getting on the Red Line and considered joining the circle, but didn’t. “When you’re a small Asian girl, you can’t do anything like this,” she says.
This is the mentality that worries Born: that because of the way you look, you feel that you aren’t allowed to do something—say, rapping in a subway station, for example.
“Some people come and are scared and don’t think they can say anything, and we are, like, no, of course not, because anyone can say anything even if they’re nervous. We want to help them feel that love and energy,” Born tells Sarah. They chat in whispers so as not to disturb a rapper’s flow. “This is for everyone. That’s why we do it here, hoping someone might be waiting for their train and hear something that makes them smile. We’ve had people get off of their trains and end up being two hours late for work because they wanted to stick around and watch,” says Born.
As he says this, a young man steps into the circle. His name is Erick; he is still wearing his Primark nametag as he says, “I came here knowing no one, but I ain’t leaving nameless.” The circle erupts—everyone loves a good punch line.
“Rap, snap, trap, crap, whatever letter you put in front of it, it doesn’t matter at all, it just needs to be love,” says PSA, a rapper, emcee, actor, comedian, and the self-proclaimed “face of the Wreck Shop Movement.” As he gives his title, Born nods in approval. The two have known each other a very long time.
“We want to be a place to bring all of these connections, whether you are a rapper trying to sell your mix tape, a producer trying to push your beats, or any other type of artist, we want to bring it all together with mutual respect. But you gotta keep it spicy,” says PSA. “It’s my job to make sure the flavor of the cypher is just right.” Apparently, just right means something that sounds like, “These crazy Asian clams I had last night, covered in jerk sauce and green curry with a bunch of ghost pepper. I want the most spice, in the best dish.”
Elise Dachew stands a safe distance away. Dachew is the vice principal of Holy Trinity Catholic Middle School in Charlotte, visiting Boston for a teacher’s conference. She still has her nametag on, too.
She is filming the spectacle on her iPhone. She is smiling. Even for her, the Wreck Shop seems to have found the right flavor.