This is Wor-town 
Written by Scott Zoback 
Thursday, 08 March 2007
http://www.worcestermagazine.com/content/view/1210/

The Worm turns more gritty than the city you knew

Welcome to Wortown. Wormtown is dead. Long live Wortown.
Wait.
Stop. Rewind. Play. Check that.

Wormtown isn’t dead, it’s just evolved.


You see it everywhere, if you don’t shuffle right by without noticing. It’s the graffiti on the walls downtown; the shouts of the teenage MC outside of Voke trying to hustle and make a couple of bucks; the homemade rap videos on YouTube or the custom T-shirts at East Coast Kustm Rydz. It’s in the barbershops, the basements, the bars.

It’s Wortown.

But what exactly is the Wortown Phenomenon? Much like the moniker “Wormtown” represented, largely to the punk rock crowd that popularized the name, a kind of feel or emotion or culture as well as a telling nickname for the city — Wortown is the hip-hop culture’s persona of Worcester.gotham

“Wortown is like the bastard stepchild of Wormtown,” says local hip-hop artist Nytmare. “It’s like the long-lost brother who you loathe. Even though they think they’re far apart, they mirror each other.”

The Wortown Phenomenon

In an interview last year for another Worcester Magazine story, local barber and rapper Alex “Fatt” Corchado told us that Wortown “represents Worcester …. At the same time, ‘Wor’ is ‘warrior.’ We have to survive in the jungle.”

It’s a popular theme.

“Wortown is the frontier of 1,000 unseen wars; the battleground. It’s the battleground of 1,000 invisible battles,” says local persona (and sometime hip-hop organizer/artist) Allie Bombz.

In many ways, Wormtown evoked a similar feel: a gritty, underground culture and sound that was the essence of the day for a certain non-mainstream crowd.

But this is different. While evoking the same sense of the underground, the dropping of the “m” in “worm” phonetically suggests something even grittier: wars, battles, struggles. Nytmare talks about living life in the trenches, recognizing the similarities between the two cultures.

“It’s kind of similar to the Wormtown thing. It’s self-deprecating a little bit, because it’s pointing out something that’s wrong with it but at the same time people embrace it because it’s what we are, it’s like a family. You know, there are some nasty elements and it makes us rugged and veterans of it, so to speak. Kind of the urban strife … but part of that is it made you weathered, and it made you stronger.”

Allie Bombz agrees. “Wortown … it’s a war to grow up here, man — for a lot of kids. It’s a war to survive. I know when I was young, I knew kids who had to hustle and do things and liked doing them. And I knew kids who got shot when I was really young and died from hustling and doing shit like that. There are a lot of grim situations.

“The kids here, when they all talk about Wortown … it’s grim here. There’s a lot of grim shit in Worcester. Go to Main South, go to Lakeside, go to the Valley,” says Allie Bombz. “Go up on Grafton Hill. Grafton Hill is buck wild sometimes. Gunshots and shit. So that part of hip-hop culture that’s like recognizing shit is rugged and raw.”

Nytmare acknowledges the toughness, but says the Wortown culture is communal, not just for a kid raised in a tough neighborhood.

“Even if you don’t grow up in that situation, you go through the city and you see it. You can drive from Shrewsbury Street through downtown and go past Elm Park and then go down Park Avenue and then you see Lakeside on your right. So you have urban strife sprinkled in with all the areas that wouldn’t even identify themselves as Wortown. You can go to Green Hill Park and go to a BBQ that is being thrown by some kids from the Valley and there’s people over there playing golf making like eight times what one of these people are making a year.”

In Allie Bombz’s words, “We’re all growing up in this industrial ghost town city.”

“So they still see that, and that still affects their experience in the city. So they can identify with it too,” says Nytmare, who adds “There’s a lot of upswing right now and Worcester goes through a lot of cycles where things get better and then it’s kind of desolate for a while. But everyone sees that desolateness, everybody sees that kind of despondent piece of the city, even kind of that jaded attitude.

“The ‘Wor,’ whether it was intended to or not becomes like a metaphor for the experiences that you see.”

In other words, Wortown signifies a unified experience, regardless of your background.

“It’s kind of a common ground,” says Allie Bombz.. An understanding of common ground. You know … you feel that when someone talks about Wortown. You understand what they’re talking about, where they’re coming from.”

It’s a good point: Wortown goes beyond the physical borders. It’s about identifying with a certain culture. If Detroit had its “8 Mile Road,” and the south the “Dirty South,” Wortown has it’s own individual grittiness. “Kids identify with it just to represent where they’re from, so to speak,” says Nytmare. “They’ll say ‘I’m Wortown’ even if they’re not involved in music at all. If they’re just involved in hip-hop culture, or embrace it, or even some people who aren’t. There are people, there are kids from Leicester who are at Hot Dog Annie’s talking that they’re Wortown because they identify with that subculture that it represents,” says Nytmare. “This encompasses our little subterranea, our microcosm … the underbelly of Worcester,” he adds.

Origins of Wortown

No one knows exactly where the term came from, but everyone seems to remember the first time they heard it.

Allie Bombz recalls about five years ago, “I was in Main South at Moynihan’s. We were in there drinking and these two young kids came in and they were just starting static. And you could just tell they were up to no good. And they were beefing with somebody and riffing and yelling and stuff. And they were like ‘Yo Wortown, Wortown.’

“And I don’t think they were even 21. And I was like, ‘Wow, what are these kids on?’” Allie Bombz remembers. “And they were thugs, white thug kids. I definitely wouldn’t have messed with them. They were charged up on some shit. They were just riffing about Wortown. I don’t know who they were. I imagine they had something to do with hip-hop or rappers. And I was like, ‘Wow these kids are taking that shit serious.’”

Nytmare’s memories go back a bit further. “It started showing up for me when I was young … I was raised in the ‘80s in the hood … so I started seeing it as graffiti on walls and hearing older kids talking about it and identifying it with pride like ‘This is where we’re from, ya know.’ And I think part of it stems from the violence that kind of picked up in the ‘80s with drugs and gangs and a lot of stuff like that. But at the same time it was a proclamation of ‘This represents us.’

“I remember hearing it when I was really young — we would listen to WCUW,” Nytmare says. “They had a show on Friday and Saturday nights with these dudes that used to cut our hair. And they would have a rap show and a reggae show. And they would shout it out, too … so it was kind of ingrained in us when we were younger. So I couldn’t tell you exactly what it started from, but I remember seeing it back then.”

Of course, as much as Wortown can’t be separated from the hip-hop culture, it’s all about the music.

“I’d have to say the music of Wortown [separates it] from Worcester,” says TraGiK. “Wortown’s music … adds a great vibe to the city, and it shows what Worcester provides to the rest of Massachusetts … the artists, and how they live.”

As Nytmare says, local artists calling out “Wortown” is about recognizing where you’re from. Take a small local sampling: Dirty Redd, on his track “So New England,” gives a shout out to most of Main South, including Maria’s Kitchen. Nytmare raps about Skylite, the Dream Machine and “snatchin’ your Mr. Kim’s chain,” a shout out to the old Midtown Mall stop; and a whole Wortown Warriors crew has emerged, posting music videos of Corchado on YouTube.

“I always try to sprinkle local stuff so people can identify … things I grew up around. Even just mentioning places that, if you grew up and experienced them, that you would identify it but if you didn’t you wouldn’t,” says Nytmare.

It’s almost a self-branding and a nod to the listeners who have a common background. “If you’re a local artist, you should give things that people can identify with or appreciate. And besides that, in my expression, it just comes out because it’s just my experience.”

Still, while “Wortown” may be the image that ties together a certain scene, there’s hardly a unified community. While Allie Bombz acknowledges that, “There’s definitely a common ground [being from Wortown],” he’s also quick to note, “When I say there are battles … everybody’s got their own battle and there isn’t a hip-hop community. Everyone’s doing their own thing in their own closet or studio or basement.”

Part of that is the internal struggle between neighborhoods in Worcester:

“People definitely identify strongly with their neighborhood and the cultural characteristics of it,” says Nytmare. “Growing up in Main South, there was definitely a distinction between us and the people from Lincoln and Burncoat and the Valley. And sometimes there would be clashes in different arenas with different things. And you can even tie even the HS rivalries into that. Between what South thinks of the Doherty kids in their area, of Tatnuck … and the West Side, and North, and Burncoat.

“Like it’s their own different experience … very independent from what someone else in another corner of the city can be experiencing.” Nytmare says, adding “Like even the people in the projects were like ‘this project is so different than this one.’ Piedmont, if you grew up in Wellington or the Valley … they all have different nuances and characteristics that can really distinguish them. So people kind of grabbed onto that. But there was also a little bit somewhere on the line [where] people recognized that even though they were divided like that, collectively we represent this … all these pieces that are moving … all the same time that’s Wortown. People, no matter which [part of the city] you’re from, will embrace that.”

One positive aspect of that lack of unity is that Worcester isn’t tied to one hip-hop genre or style. TraGiK talks about sharing a stage with reggaeton acts or with MCs of different styles. And unlike cities or regions with a distinct sound, “It’s amazing how many different flavors there are here and different styles of hip-hop that are original that kids are doing,” says Bombz. “And they’re all legitimate styles of hip-hop. It’s like there’s no father to anybody’s style around here.”

Making your own way

But the Wortown culture, and the lack of unity, also exemplifies the battle of carving your own path and fighting your own fight.

“There are wars because there’s no trajectory out of here,” says Allie Bombz. “You gotta make your own trajectory. There’s no path to get your music out there … no pathway to get your shit heard, or get noticed. It’s all up to you. You’re on your own …. Those are the wars of Wortown. You gotta slug your way out if you wanna make some noise or do something.”

As Nytmare says, “Even from the music aspect … there’s not much infrastructure. So everything is underground, in the trenches. Some people be like ‘What’s going on in the city? I don’t even know what there is for local music.’ Because these people are in basements, they’re making mix tapes putting it out not even contacting the press, because its guerrilla warfare.”

It’s almost self-fulfilling: As close as Wortown artists have come over the past 20 years to succeeding on the national level, none has quite broken past the barrier of “underground” fame. Because of that, and because of the lack of a real center to the hip-hop community (save for a few efforts by guys like DJ Bobo and Allie Bombz), artists have continued to live that guerrilla life. And, as several people noted, once someone figures out how to make a record and distribute it on their own, why would they want to change course and open up to the concept of community? “Everything is do-it-yourself here,” says Bombz. It’s a bit of remorse-filled optimism.

Laughing, TraGiK admits that while he tells people he’s from Wortown (or “the 508?), “Some of the outside areas don’t know where that is.” So what’s the purpose of the name?

“Because even though we’re all Massachusetts, and it’s all collectively a scene …. There’s definitely some — I don’t want to say animosity — but there’s a desire to differentiate,” says Nytmare. “And we kind of have that underdog reputation, like, ‘you don’t even know we’re out here.’ We’re grimy and we do big things and we’re independent of you. There’s definitely a difference. For me it stems from that.

“And obviously the ‘Wor’ is also a play on the name of the city,” add Nytmare. “It’s not just arbitrary like ‘let’s name something violent.’” It’s a theme Nytmare and Allie Bombz both raise a few times, especially in relation to the younger generation who grew up with Wortown as the only image they know. The two shirk from the sort of self-gratifying, self-promoting, tough-hood image that Wortown has come to represent in some circles. In other words, it’s more about the common harsh experience of the city that everyone has, not the individual’s problems.

“One thing I don’t always like about hip-hop is that there’s gotta be a reference to violence,” says Allie Bombz. “It’s true it’s a mad struggle, especially if the kid is growing up in the inner city and you got strikes against you and whatever. But I think feeding into that negativity is irresponsible. But I also think its a unifying kind of concept.”

Scott Zoback may be reached at szoback@worcestermagazine.com

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