For Dorchester-raised rapper and artist Cliff Notez, his debut album When The Sidewalk Ends posed more than a toe-dip into the Boston music scene. The 15-track opus was five years in the making, poring over the intensity of racism and mental health issues amongst people of color.
And it almost never saw the light of Bandcamp.
“Immediately after the album came out, there were so many times I went back and forth with Tim [Hall] and Oompa, and I was like ‘Yo, I’m gonna delete this, I’m gonna delete this album,’” he tells Vanyaland. “For months before that I was like ‘I give up. I don’t want to do this anymore.’”
He pressed submit roughly one year ago, to much (unnerving, somewhat terrifying) success; Cliff says that record has resonated with enough people that the risky move was more than worth it. Speaking out about mental health on a personal level is intimating enough on its own. Pile on the myth that depression and anxiety are “white people problems” and the stakes become a little more staggering.
But the musician, filmmaker, and spoken word teaching artist has a history — or HipStory, rather — of paving the way for other artists. After first forming HipStory as a way to elevate himself and other area musicians in Boston, When The Sidewalk Ends presents a brutally honest portrait of dealing with mental health as a person of color — a phenomenon that’s not common in any musical community. Even when the path seems to halt, Cliff Notez keeps paving.
In advance of his performance at Great Scott this Sunday (August 26), Vanyaland chatted with the budding talent about his massive catalog of unreleased tunes, the intimidating honesty of When The Sidewalk Ends, and making the space he deserves in Boston.
Victoria Wasylak: What are you most focused on right now? You always have so much going on.
Cliff Notez: I think that’s the problem, and the good thing about me is that I’m never focused on one thing. The last couple of days I’ve just been focused on getting some rest and trying to recover a little bit. The last few weeks have been hectic… The past few years have had a couple of bumps, but I’ve had a lot of good stuff happening too.
I’m surprised to hear you say that there have been bumps, because from over here it looks really smooth.[laughs] Oh man, no. I guess it’s different when you’re seeing the sausage being made. I am definitely extremely grateful for where we’re at and how fast things have picked up in the last couple of years. I’m a Boston native — Dorchester — I’ve been around the Boston music scene for a while, and it’s definitely been not the easiest journey to get to where I’m at now.
Your work touches on so many topics and issues, and then on top of that, your work spans so many different forms — you have the music, the filmmaking, the activism. How do you not get overwhelmed?
I’m definitely in a perpetual state of “overwhelment.” I’ve always had high anxiety and brought different things to my own plate because I just have so many ideas and want to stay active and continue to keep moving. I definitely get overwhelmed — that’s a big part of what my album was about, taking a step back and saying “woah woah woah, wait a second.” I think having that album out is a reminder that I’m not invincible or anything, and I have my weak points, but those weak points are chances to learn and grow from those.
When The Sidewalk Ends just turned one year old. Looking back on the past year, do you think things have improved or changed since then? How do you feel about the topics you covered looking back a year later?
That’s a tough question. I think they’ve gotten worse and they’ve improved at the same time. I can obviously only speak for my own immediate situation and experience in the world. I’d like to think that if it’s improved in any way for me, it’s been because of changing my outlook on how I’m seeing things. I think that there’s always going to be crazy things happening, and I think it’s just a matter of when you decide to clock out or tune out just for your own self-care, and hopefully that’ll re-charge you to jump back in the battlefield whenever you’re ready — for me, that has worked. In terms of the general political climate, I think we’ve been on a constant decline since the beginning of man.
That album is one of those pieces where for better or for worse, it’s always going to be relevant.
I’m really grateful for you saying that the album will be something that will always be relevant. It is definitely bittersweet. I think the only reason the album has gotten to that point was because of how long it took to put together, and because it’s my first project, my whole life summed up in 50 minutes up to that point. Obviously there’s a lot more that’s happened in my life, but it’s my first testimony. Part of me hopes that it does stay relevant, or at least listenable in 20 years, but a small part of me also wishes that people are way beyond this, that people are like “let’s get rid of all of this, we figured it out, we’re good now.” But I don’t know if it’ll get to that point.
You almost don’t want people to be able to relate to it in the future because we’ll have gotten rid of those issues.
I also think that a lot of the subject matter on the album is immediately connected to more negative things right off the bat, just because of who they’re coming from as a person of color. In the broader subject matter, songs like “Good Riddance,” which are about not caring and just letting go of things, or songs like “Mommy,” which are literally about mother figures — those, I’d like to think, would be timeless. Songs like the “Manic” series are definitely much more hard-hitting because of their connection to black mental health, but unfortunately, I think mental health will always be something we need to explore.
What was it like putting that [mental health] on the album as a person of color, with the myth that depression and mental health problems are a “white person thing?” Was it daunting?
In short, 1,000 percent. I’m not only a black man, I’m of Dominican and Haitian descent, first generation. I feel like especially in that household, the last thing that was talked about was mental health. Most of the time it’s being turned to religion, and to be 100 percent honest, I had not considered my own mental health as a thing until maybe a year or two before that album came out. To this day, I still have a lot of those nightmares where you’re in a classroom and you’re butt naked — I feel that way and go back and forth between being very terrified of the album because of how honest it is, but most days, as I’m starting to see other people relate to the album and tell me what the album has meant to them, it’s more reaffirming in that way.
Immediately after the album came out, there were so many times I went back and forth with Tim [Hall] and Oompa, and I was like “yo, I’m gonna delete this, I’m gonna delete this album.” For months before that I was like “I give up. I don’t want to do this anymore.” As the album was coming together, I started to realize what the album was. I started really having more breakdowns, and you’re like “oh shit, I’m really messed up right now. This album — I’ve been working on it for so long and focusing on the music and not really listening to myself.” I think it was due to the affirmation of my friends like Tim and Oompa — literally with Oompa on November 3rd, having heard her story, and seeing how people believed in her, supported her with her story and her depression, and having her be in my ear and say “nope, you’re not deleting any of this,” and Tim and all these amazing musicians be like “nope, this needs to be heard” was that much more empowering.
I still shudder sometimes at the album, only because I know it’s an honest piece of who I am. But there’s sometimes no greater feeling than being at a show and have someone come up to me crying or talking to me about what their depression is, and really opening up, having an honest conversation. I think that was the thing with one of the films I made, I think with my social anxiety, I wanted people to have the chance to understand what it was that I was going through before we could have a conversation, and that would make me feel much more comfortable. Those conversations have been amazing.
I think also [being] a person of color, first generation, above all things, was definitely the toughest because there aren’t many of us talking about this at all because of that stigma. Seeing that made it that much harder to put it out, because I could just be like everyone else [instead], but at the same time, I couldn’t see myself living without being able to talking about this in the way that I best knew how. I was really bad with talking to my friends about it. I just had so many walls up, and I figured if I put it in this music and translate it in that way, maybe then [they could understand]. I really wanted to be able to take my album to my therapist or take this album to my friends or even family.
Were you ever worried about having your parents or your family hear the album when you’re discussing things that weren’t talked about in your household?
I’m still terrified. I don’t think my dad has heard my album, and I’m not offended by that, but he did find an article in Scout and about what I was doing with my life, and that was the first time he was excited about my artwork in that way. In terms of the rest of my family — I have a lot of family, and a lot of them are on Facebook too, and the thing about my family is that a lot of them are musical too. I received some feedback from my cousins, more about the production. I haven’t had a conversation — aside from with my sisters — about what that album means or all that content that’s in it. I hope one day one of my uncles or something listens to the album entirely and reaches out. I’m also terrified because I don’t know what that conversation would be like.
I think that makes it all the more important for people to talk about it via art forms instead of an article on health that comes off as clinical. When you discuss it in an album or a film or piece of art, it assigns a person to it, and you get to see and hear everything.
It assigns a person to that for us, and to a certain extent, it allows the artist to kind of hide behind that. It’s one thing to come out of nowhere and say “I’m depressed and I want to kill myself,” and it’s another thing to put out a song and make people empathize in a completely different way. I like to think that it kind of allowed me to hide behind that, and still let people be able to digest that [message] in a way that they can come to it on their own terms… as opposed to just throwing it in their face.
I don’t think I understood what that album was or would be for other people at the time. When the album came out, I was extremely depressed, and I was proud to be like “yo, I know I haven’t talked to y’all, but listen to this album.”
“This explains everything.”
That’s what I should have called it, This Explains Everything.
You worked on this album for five years. Was it hard dedicating so much time and energy to such a difficult topic? It sounds emotionally labor-intensive.
Within those five years, I was doing a lot of different things. I had my Masters program, I was in college, and I was also in another group called the ValidDictorians, which allowed me to be a musician and talk about things without it being directed at me. With them we put out [around] seven different projects. Making those projects with the ValidDictorians, I think that’s when I started to develop [the questions] “what do I look like? Who am I? Who am I as an artist?”
I continued to refine myself and my music, I continued to study music in school, interning at different studios, building my craft. That too was building my studio and also building HipStory, creating that platform for whatever it is I did put out when it’s finished. Within that five years was five years of growth. I was definitely exploring and figuring out who I was. Archetype, who I’ve known for years and years now, literally had no idea that I was this level of a musician until maybe a few months before the album dropped, and I think it was because that was the first time I was like “This is who I am. Y’all see this?” There’s beats I started five years ago, there’s lyrics on there from over the past five years, there’s songs on there that have been in development for that amount of time. It wasn’t until the last year and a half or year where I was like “okay, I think I’ve got an album.”
Have you started thinking about the next record yet?
The thing about me is that I’m constantly making music. I think I counted well over 2,000 songs from just the last three years. I think that’s a symptom of having your own place and getting really annoyed with songs after an hour. I think the album was also a slow burn, I think people are just now realizing this album is out. There’s been like a resurgence almost. I had a whole project recorded and written, 10 songs in two days, and I came to Tim and said “this is what I want to do and we’re putting it out next month.” Tim was like, “hold up, slow down.” Even after coming back from the UK this week, I’ve been even more inspired, so I’m just going to continue to make the songs and when the time feels right, we’ll assign a numeric date to it.
You’ve talked about Boston and the Boston music scene before and how it can hold its own. At the same time, Boston still has a lot of race problems, and I’ve heard Moe Pope talk about when it comes to being a musician, rap and hip-hip aren’t treated the same as rock bands. How do you reconcile those things?
I think Moe is in a completely different place than I am in my career. Moe is a well-seasoned vet, he’s been a trailblazer for years now in this city, so he has more experience with what’s happening here. I’ve had experiences that almost validate the experiences he’s had. I’m still very brand new in the Boston music scene as a solo artist.
I can only speak for the last two years with myself and Oompa, and we’ve both been blessed, but we’ve also had a lot of hiccups and seen how much harder it is for us to get a leg up for sure. I think that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to create HipStory to begin with. Before I even understood the Boston music scene, I felt like I didn’t see a place for me in the Boston music scene — not because I didn’t deserve one, but more because it’s already so small and because it’s historically not a place for people of color to be on top of the world.
When I first made HipStory seven years ago, it was literally a fake label to make it look like I had the support, as opposed to me just posting things on my own. More intentionally, doing things like the HipStory house parties was twofold: One, selfishly giving myself the opportunity to have my own show, realizing that it would be much harder to try and go through a venue, or the venue that I want and that my music deserves, [instead] I’ll just host a show at my house and record it and post it on YouTube. [Two], I think in HipStory we started to build this own path for us — this would be a path that other artists could use as well, and being able to highlight people we know in the city who haven’t gotten the stage that they deserve and give them that stage, whether it be my living room or at the MFA. I think that’s something I want to embody — just continue to build with the people who I’ve literally grown up with and seen struggle, and as I open doors for myself, hold those doors open for other people as well.
LYSTEN BOSTON PRESENTS CLIFF NOTEZ + BRANDIE BLAZE + CITRUSPHERE :: Sunday, August 26 at Great Scott, 1222 Commonwealth Ave. in Allston, MA :: 8:30 p.m., 18-plus, $8 in advance and $10 at doors :: Advance tickets :: Bowery Boston event page :: Facebook event page :: Featured photo by Brunei Deneumostier