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Sullee forth (continued)

"The Stroke" finds Sullee throwing down angry rhymes over thunderous guitars and drums, explaining how his life’s climb "from the ghetto to the ’burbs" has made him stronger, ready to take on all comers. The Riley-produced tracks are even better, high-gloss and radio-ready. When he was recording in Hingham, Riley told the Quincy Patriot Ledger that his goal was to make Sullee "what Vanilla Ice always wanted to be: a great rapper with a great look ... the music has to be good, the image has got be as good as the music."

The music is good. "Hip Hop" starts with busy beats and bouncy synths and a breathy falsetto chant: "Hip-hop, hop, hop." In the song, Sullee asks a frightening question: "What would the world be without no hip-hop?" In answering, the 19-year-old pays tribute to the graffiti, turntables, and beat boxes of the old school, while condemning the rampant materialism and gratuitous violence of today’s hip-hop. The song "Rock Star" marries the serpentine guitar licks of Slash, who recorded his parts as a favor to Riley, with Sullee’s genial pimping. That song boasts the most potential to be a crossover hit, and, with big names like Slash and Riley attached, it also certainly stands to gain Sullee the most notice. So why isn’t it the album’s first single?

"People say, ‘Why aren’t you using your Teddy Riley stuff?!’ " says Bob. "You got Teddy Riley and Slash on the song!’ But I say, ‘Okay, if that doesn’t work, then where do we go?’ We know that’s a top-10 record. There’s no way in the world that’s not a top-10 record. All we gotta do is a video with Slash and Teddy Riley — and Teddy will bring whoever we need to show up; Teddy’s been very good to us. Come March or April, you’re gonna see Sullee everywhere. But if we can break ‘Party Ain’t a Party,’ and then come back with ‘Rock Star’? It’s a wrap. And everyone around the country that’s listened to these songs knows it."

DESPITE whatever help Sullee’s gotten from established stars, his story is, more than anything, about two men named Robert Sullivan: a younger one who knows who he is and what he wants to do, and an older one who’s hell-bent on helping him do it. Their tales are inextricably intertwined — even if Bob was largely absent from his son’s life for six of his 19 years.

In one of his most striking songs, "Life Story," Sullee rhymes over a crackly sample of a mournful violin and a thudding, bass-heavy beat:

Everybody got a life story, so here’s mine

Dealing with the present thinking back in time

I walk a straight line,

Reminded by peoples who did crime

And if the good die young, I’m ahead of the game

Pay attention, get direction from the older generation of flames

Carry the name, call me Sullivan, I’m one and the same. . . .

Y’see, my daddy he would school me as a young’un,

The cage or the grave.

But I would always have something to say.

He would tell me envision

The times you came to see me in prison

Is this the way you want your son to be livin’?

I hope you listen

"Everything I knew, everything I felt, everything I wanted to say came out in that song," Sullee says. "We wrote that entire song in about two hours." Because he’s heard it all before: who is this kid, acting like he can make it in hip-hop? He’s white. He’s from Massachusetts. He lives in Hingham. Sullee laughs it off, but he also wishes critics would understand that his life hasn’t been as plum as his current address might suggest. Sullee was born on Shawmut Avenue in the South End, and spent much of his childhood in the rougher section of Medford. He moved to Hingham only after his father got out of jail.

" ‘Life Story’ was just one of those songs that we had to put out there," Sullee says. "I really got sick of it. Me and him," he nods toward his father, "have had so many conversations where I say, ‘These people try to judge me right when I walk in the door, and they have no idea who I am.’ "

"Or me," says Bob. "You have no clue. You really have no clue."

Bob doesn’t offer many details when asked about his earlier life, but he does admit that he spent six years in Lewisburg Federal Prison in Pennsylvania. "I made some mistakes," he says. "And I paid for ’em." Then, alluding to the wanna-be gang-bangers so ubiquitous in hip-hop: "I was everything those guys wish they were."

The South End in which Bob Sullivan grew up was a multiethnic red-brick plexus of rooming houses and tenements, places that rented for just a few bills a month, where one was lucky to have glass in the windows. "There was no welfare," he says. "Whatever you had you had, and whatever you didn’t, you didn’t. You hadda come up through the ranks. And I came up through the ranks very strongly. It was a very tough neighborhood. Some tough, tough guys came out of there. A lot of legends."

The South End is fundamental to the Sullivans. Bob and Cindy and Bobby Sullivan were all born there. Bob Sullivan’s father died there, in a 1977 construction accident. (That’s him in a fedora, grinning behind thick-rimmed glasses, a lit cigarette held to his mouth, on the Old South End Records logo, and it’s in tribute to him that Sullee takes his nickname.)

But Hingham, with its good schools and safe environment, was a better place to raise a family. "I’ve really tried to keep my life separate from his," Bob says. "It’s one of the reasons why I moved to Hingham. No one knows me out here. I haven’t even had a parking ticket since I came home in 1990. Not even a parking ticket. He and his mother had it rough. As it says in [‘Life Story’], ‘Mommy don’t cry.’ It’s a heavy, heartfelt song."

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Issue Date: December 17 - 23, 2004
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