Latrell James understands this, but it doesn’t make the experience of returning to the neighborhood he grew up in — Fields Corner in Dorchester — any less weird.
There are new apartment buildings, a new Vietnamese center. A different clerk now mans the counter behind his favorite childhood corner store.
Some things are the same, though: the triple-decker on the Dakota Street – the one where his parents and four of his five siblings lived in a third-floor three bedroom apartment – is still yellow.
The neighborhood still provides the backbone of his art; James is a rapper and producer, is preparing to release his debut album, Twelve, which focuses on his childhood, adolescence and young manhood between the ages of 12 and 24. In many ways, it’s about this neighborhood, which James, the fourth of six children, moved away from seven years ago, when he was 18. That’s when his family moved to Brockton.
“I kind of feel like this area is better than Brockton now. I don’t know what happened. Growing up here it was crazy,” said the 25-year-old James, who now lives not far away from a basketball court where someone was fatally stabbed recently. “We moved out and the next thing you know everything is livable.”
Now, he raps about his childhood, about his decision to remove himself from the more toxic aspects – violence and dealing drugs -- of his neighborhood, parting ways with childhood friends in the process.
He raps about his parents. His family was among the few he knew growing up where the mother and father were both present.
“As a child you don’t really express how you feel to your parents,” he said. “Saying it into the microphone was the most difficult thing for me to do, because I knew once I said it, I couldn’t take it back.”
All the songs are original compositions he literally made in his basement during the last two years. James quit his day job selling sneakers more than a year ago and has concentrated on his music full-time.
James is a self-taught audio engineer. People come to his Brockton basement to record music everyday, he said. It’s apparently enough to making a living out of, but he declined to say what his hourly rate is. He said he gives local artists brutal feedback: if it sucks, he tells them.
And yes, there are stories of street violence that feature in cliché origin stories of countless rappers across the country.
James goes through the anecdotes: His cousin was fatally stabbed in the heart on Valentine’s Day. His mother pulled him out of one school after a body was found nearby. Sometimes, his mother would not let him out to play; it was too dangerous. He pointed out one house, where drug dealers used to live. It’s on the same block as an elementary school and not far from the corner where he witnessed a street brawl while waiting for one of his siblings to get off the school bus.
But there are also happy memories. James recounts those with enthusiasm: the court where he learned to dribble a basketball, water balloon fights, the hydrant the neighborhood kids used to pop open during the summer.
“I always try to revert back to a child when I’m making music. The child has the most creative mind in the world,” he said.
He added, “When I think of pure happiness, even though it wasn’t the greatest environment to grow up in, I think back to this street. It was cool man. We didn’t have everything, but I felt like I had everything I’ve ever wanted.”
Twelve will be released on May 12.