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Sullee forth
Can a white kid from Hingham become a hip-hop superstar? If his tough and tenacious father has anything to do with it, you bet.

It’s 1990. We’re a kinder, gentler nation. Hair is high. Boston’s New Kids on the Block are still pubescent behemoths, their mega-hits "Step by Step" and "Tonight" all over the airwaves. At a pop concert at the Bayside Expo Center, a five-year-old rug rat from Medford named Bobby Sullivan strides up to New Kids’ Svengali, Maurice Starr, who at that moment is one of the most powerful men in the music business. The kid tells Starr he’s putting his own group together. Starr likes this kid. He tells him to audition for another boy band he’s assembling. Before long, Bobby Sullivan is the pint-size front man for a group of tweenagers called TCB (Taking Care of Business). They perform a little. Record an album. But, for reasons unknown, Starr dissolves the group almost as soon as it’s begun.

It was an early lesson in the machinations of the music biz, but also in the good things a little gumption can bring. "I walked up to him and said I was the best thing eva," Sullivan remembers. "I just went up and started talking to him. I didn’t care if he was Maurice Starr. I was Bobby Sullivan."

Fourteen years later, Bobby Sullivan — call him Sullee — is again aiming fearlessly for the top. Now this 19-year-old Boston-Irish MC might — just might — become the first hip-hop star to emerge from tony suburban Hingham. His forthcoming debut, It’s Time, to be released this spring by Old South End Records — the indie label he founded with his father, Bob — is a scintillating slab of radio-friendly rhymes. Sullee’s lyrics are positive, his good-natured braggadocio tempered with humility and a touch of vulnerability; his backing tracks aren’t afraid of a guitar or two. And it doesn’t hurt that the record boasts high-profile help from legendary producer Teddy Riley, ’80s rock god Billy Squier, and Slash from Guns N’ Roses.

But even if the music industry, especially the infamously image-conscious and trash-talking world of hip-hop, isn’t quite ready to confer stardom on a white Celtics fan from the Massachusetts ’burbs, the Sullivans are still going for it. Sullee has the skills; his father, a bantam, loquacious tough guy who rose hard from the pre-gentrified South End streets, pays the bills. The elder Sullivan made some mistakes earlier in his life, and he expunged them with six years in prison. But his misdeeds have taught his son valuable life lessons — and they inform some of Sullee’s most affecting lyrics. Now Bob Sullivan is channeling his considerable energies into navigating the daunting and often duplicitous record industry, and he’s unafraid to take on all comers as he sees his son to the top. Cashing in Sullee’s college money, taking out multiple mortgages on the family home, and hitting up investors, the Sullivans have cobbled together about a half-million dollars so far, and over the past several years they’ve worked assiduously to make it happen. Headlining Boston City Hall Plaza. Opening for Funkmaster Flex and Lil’ Romeo. Appearing on ABC Family’s Knock First. Working the phones. Making contacts. Lining up sponsorships. Getting the debut single on radio programmers’ radar from Fort Myers to Flint, Michigan. When It’s Time hits streets this spring, the Sullivans are planning on big things.

"We’re in for a penny, we’re in for a pound," says Bob. "The bottom line is that this became a decision we had to make. Since he’s been old enough to walk, he’s been dancing. When he came to me and said, ‘We’re gonna do this,’ I sold my company. Three and a half years now, that’s all I do. Seven days a week, 365. There’s no rest. I can’t miss an opportunity. My wife, me, and him. Diligently working, every day. Making inroads. I’m on the phone seven hours a day, minimum. We are minutes — not even weeks, we are minutes — from launching him. In a big way."

I CATCH the commuter boat from Rowes Wharf to Hingham Shipyard, pitching port to starboard in choppy waters under diagonal, slate-gray rain. When I reach shore, Bob Sullivan is there to meet me. He shows me to the well-kept home, set back on a quiet cul-de-sac not far from the pounding surf, that he and his wife share with their son and two daughters.

In an airy, pink-walled kitchen, at a long table punctuated in the middle by a Christmas candy bowl, strapping Sullee sits at one end, draped in an oversized dress shirt, ironed but untucked, loose-fitting jeans, and a Red Sox cap cocked to the right over his close crew cut. At the other end of the table, Bob Sullivan, compact and wiry, spreads an array of promo CDs and trade publications in front of me, missives put out by Street Information Network, the independent promoter in New York City that’s working to get Sullee’s songs on the radio. In the S.I.N. newsletter, among items tracking the latest chart movement by marquee names such as Ashanti, Ja Rule, and Ludacris, program directors from across the country submit notes on which songs are pricking their ears among the hundreds constantly sent their way. Sullee’s first single, "A Party Ain’t a Party," released in October, is cited by several of them.

"What we’ve been doing is we’ve been positioning ourselves in November," Bob says. "Knowing we couldn’t get any airtime. Eminem. Beyoncé. Everyone had albums coming out. LL Cool J. So we just waited, got people familiar with the name."

"Programmers only add in one or two new songs a week," explains Sullee, who’s also been recording station identifications and public-service announcements for stations far and wide.

To these untrained ears, "A Party Ain’t a Party" would seem to stand a better-than-average chance of becoming a hit. Its smooth flow and hydraulic back-end bounce bring to mind breezy, summertime block parties; as it starts, Sullee shouts out his hometown — "South Shore ... Let’s show you how we do in Boston. Old South End style" — before laying down verse ("I’m from the mean streets of Boston/And if you see me in a white tee with a little green, I’m flossin’ ") and chorus: "A party ain’t a party if Sullee ain’t in it/And if the party ain’t hoppin’ then Sullee ain’t wit’ it."

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Issue Date: December 17 - 23, 2004
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