A lot of kids at East Oakland’s Unity High School hadn’t heard of Coup frontman Boots Riley before he spoke in the school’s DJ class on a recent Friday afternoon. Evidently, Riley is speaking to a different audience than the high-school students who flocked to see him in the mid-’90s: Now he’s dealing with hip-hop fans raised on MTV Cribs fantasies, for whom Ice Cube is a Vin Diesel wannabe and Rodney King’s beating has little resonance compared to the beef between 50 Cent and the Game.
Fortunately, the years haven’t changed Riley’s appeal, or his fashion sense: Rocking his trademark ‘fro, long leather jacket, and skate shoes, the emcee looks like the stereotypical Cool Older Brother. So when he tells the five DJ class students that the only way to throw a wrench in the increasingly commercial rap industry is to “use the ideas that you have in a different way, and then just find people to listen to it,” they take the advice to heart.
And with that, the kids trek off to a board meeting, specifically, a roundtable with teenage reps from Raparations Records, one of Unity High’s partners in the Bay Area-wide DJ Project. They’ve trekked over from a downtown Oakland studio on 17th and Webster streets for the two groups’ first face-to-face meeting, though they’ve kept in touch through weekly video conferences. Now, with everyone sitting in a circle and primed to discuss the theme for their forthcoming joint-venture album, the differences between these two groups become clear.
The Raparations kids are a lot rougher around the edges. Many of them first heard about the label through Covenant House — a program for at-risk youth — and come in with lucrative, BET-inspired dreams of the “Forty Acres and a Pool” strain. Immediately, they dismiss the compilation’s working title — The Town — as too vanilla to hold its own in a cutthroat market. “If I could sum it all up and Saran Wrap it, I’d say Breathed Out, like a breath of fresh air,” suggests D-Nok, Raparations’ most loquacious emcee (the “Nok” part stands for “Never Over Karma”). “Matter of fact,” he adds, whipping a business card out of his coat pocket and flashing it at the other kids, “that’s the name of my own record label.”
A tense 45 minutes later, the group has talked itself in circles and knocked around fifty or so possible titles — Oak City, Turfed Out, and Color Me Oakland. D-Nok suggests that everyone listen to the album before making a verdict, pointing out that it would be tragic “if we decided to call ourselves ‘the Locomotives,’ and then all of our beats is smooth.” But by that time, the Unity kids — who’ve been in school since 8 a.m. — are sinking low in their seats. “Why don’t we just call it Another Town Album?” implores sophomore Roman, unable to withhold sarcasm.
Not surprisingly, none of the new titles really stick. What these fledgling moguls really learned is how to sit with colleagues and squabble over ideas without fronting on anyone — in business jargon, it’s called “being accountable to a team.” And to Jeff Feinman, that’s a step in the right direction.
Feinman, who has spent seven years day-jobbing at SF Mission District nonprofit Horizons Unlimited, launched the DJ Project in 2000 to teach entrepreneurial skills to urban young people by way of a medium they love. So while the afterschool program showed kids how to use DJ equipment and digital production programs, it also offered skills in administration, marketing, and event planning, given that the kids have to organize and promote their own CD release parties and talent shows. After four successful years running the show out of Horizons’ basement, Feinman expanded the program to Galileo High School in San Francisco and Unity High School — where it’s offered as an extracurricular class for students with stellar GPAs — as well as downtown Oakland’s Raparations Records, where it’s open to anyone aged 12 to 22.
Now the DJ Project is releasing its eleventh compilation, United Roots (a much better title than Another Town Album), which the group will commemorate with a release party at East Side Arts Alliance Saturday night. In order to incorporate Raparations and Unity in the recording process (Galileo opted out, in favor of a more performance-based curriculum), Feinman developed a collaborative model borrowed from the hip-hop duo Foreign Exchange –in making the group’s 2004 album, Connected, the Dutch producer Nicolay wired beats over the Internet to North Carolina MC Phonte, who laid his verses on top. Similarly, the DJ Project’s three arms — Horizons, Raparations, and Unity — share the work of crafting beats and kicking flows, communicating tracks and ideas via the Web. Ideally, a track gestates when the kids at Raparations make a beat and upload it onto the DJ Project server, so the kids at Unity can add instruments or loops, which the kids at Horizons can amplify with other frills — maybe found sounds like the crackle of gunfire or a bottle breaking.
Feinman contends that so much of hip-hop revolves around fostering false hopes and easy-money myths that many urban teens don’t realize music isn’t a ticket out of the ghetto if you don’t couple it with real job skills — there aren’t a whole lot of slots for the next Dr. Dre or indie Suge Knight. If these teenagers hope to eventually see paper returns, then learning how to network and communicate — even in a seemingly fruitless board meeting — is a better way to grease the skids than flossing in front of a microphone. Guaranteed.
Of course, it sometimes takes a while to get that point across.
The walls of the DJ Project’s Horizons wing are painted in electric, hypermodern colors and decorated with drawings from a class assignment that asked the kids to illustrate what they think a “pimp” is — one shows a blue cartoon dude with a single gold tooth. There’s also plenty of graffiti provided by local artists Juan and Frisko Eddy, who, along with emcee Lady Tragik, serve as Horizons’ youth leaders. A poster on one wall displays photographs of all the hip-hop royalty who’ve guest-lectured or facilitated workshops here, including Sake 1, Azeem, DJ Zeph, Jahi, J. Boogie, and DJ Quest.
Lady Tragik’s all-female DJ class meets Monday, Tuesday, and Friday afternoons. On a recent Friday, eight girls are gathered around computer screens, cobbling beats on a studio software program called Reasons. A girl named Melissa plays hers for the class: a slowed-down reggae loop spliced with a melodic, groove-driven backing track, and jangling with snare and high-hat sounds to give it more of a rattletrap, hip-hop feel. Melissa explains that she composed her own drumbeat by scrolling through the program’s Dr. Rex sampler, poaching loops from different synthesizers and tweaking them.
Cari Campbell, who helms the production and sound-engineering side of Lady Tragik’s class, explains that a few years ago, people had to make beats with outside synthesizers and then write code into computer programs to trigger the results. But now everything is packaged in high-speed software programs like Reasons: samplers, loop players, drum machines, and synthesizers with tons of effects, all accessible with one mouse click.
These ultra-user-friendly apps are the bane of many older-school DJs, who came up digging for records in flea markets and painstakingly minting original beats on expensive, high-tech equipment. “We come from a school where there’s more work ethic involved,” explains Oakland Faders co-founder DJ Platurn. “People respect you more when you’re not just pushing a button.” But on the flipside, the fact that such programs are cheap and easy to use makes them accessible to kids who can’t afford fancy hardware or spare the time to learn old-school methodology, and it gives them an easy portal to swap ideas with their peers.
Feinman explains that he hooks kids from low-income areas by providing the two things they’re most interested in — hip-hop and making money — but envisions a day when inner-city kids won’t rely on the rap game or pro-athletics to get out of the hood. “My bottom line isn’t about the music business,” he says. “It’s more of a social bottom line.”
Of course, each of the three groups has a different way of interpreting Feinman’s vision. At Unity, DJ Project instructors David Castillo and Daniel Zarazua — who also teach math and history while moonlighting as DJs Changó and Domingo Yu respectively — laid out stringent GPA and attendance requirements for kids who wanted to participate, along with an application that includes two letters of recommendation and a personal essay. Zarazua explains that the idea is to teach them important life skills: not only how to use studio equipment but, on a more basic level, how to share files, communicate via the Internet, and make deadlines. They also encourage a lot of race and gender analysis through a hip-hop lens, stuff like picking apart the Destiny’s Child song “I Need a Soulja” to show that it’s really just another example of guns deployed as a metaphor for Lil Wayne’s ‘nads.
On a lazy Friday afternoon, the teachers are recovering from another long school day. Castillo flips through a copy of Oakland’s snarky new rap rag Bootycrack before shuffling to a pine-paneled annex at the back of the classroom, where the five Unity DJs — Tone, Roman, Ana, Evelyn, and Carla — are sitting at computers and plunking beats on keyboards. Ana and Evelyn (whose beats bear traces of the reggaetón and dancehall joints they favor over hip-hop) ask their teacher for help choosing which voicings to layer on top of their piano loop. While Castillo sifts through the string, brass, mallets, and guitar samples, the girls whisper to each other in Spanish. Tone, meanwhile, is busy remixing a track he downloaded from Raparations for the forthcoming DJ Project single, “Better Days.”
Castillo saunters over to a pair of turntables and cues up Lil Jon’s “What They Gon’ Do” while Ana tentatively scratches with one hand. Zarazua, meanwhile, is flipping through Bootycrack, and stops at a page emblazoned with the headline “Nympho Info,” accompanied by an article that skewers R&B starlet Goapele for having a white boyfriend. The instructor shakes his head. “Um, yeah, you’ll see there’s less testosterone here than in other programs,” he deadpans. Or, for that matter, in the hip-hop scene at large.
There’s considerably more testosterone percolating at Raparations, helmed by Ambessa the Articulate (frontman for hip-hop/reggae group Fiyawata) and Korise Jubert (half of the emcee duo Boogie Shack). The fact that this satellite is run by career artist-activists rather than public school instructors or youth employment counselors is evident from jump; you can tell from the label’s name alone that it’s politicized to a stronger degree than other DJ Project satellites. Compared with Horizons’ vision of rectifying the digital divide and Unity’s emphasis on critical thinking, Raparations is definitely on more of a self-empowerment tip. As four young producers — most of whom double as hip-hop emcees — noodle with computers and keyboards, the wall facing them displays a list of tenets that form “The Way of the S.A.M.U.R.I.,” or Scholastic Authentic Movement of Underground Raw Intuitive hip-hop. Ambessa explains that being a Samuri means taking “the five pillars of hip-hop — graffiti, DJing, breakdancing, beatboxing, and emceeing — and turning them into credos.”
On a typical Thursday evening, Raparations opens its doors to a motley crew of teenage bootstrappers. D-Nok lethargically clicks his mouse while twelve-year-old Shelby stares over his shoulder; A-1 Nemesis and Chuck Wester huddle at another screen reading e-mail. In a far corner sits the emcee Dark Sage, who named himself after a black doctor from the TV series Little House on the Prairie who “had to work on livestock because the other doctor wouldn’t give him no play.”
To describe these emcees as “enterprising” would be an understatement, considering that most of them are around sixteen years old and have already recorded in four different studios; D Nok can’t say more than a few words to you without pulling multiple flyers and business cards out of his pocket. Yet as much as these emcees orbit the deflected dreams of the rap game, they ground their authenticity in their reality, rapping in a style that’s disarmingly truthful. The emcees and producers at Raparations are the kind of hip-hop hucksters who will break your heart and then try to sell it back to you.
On “Better Days” — a gloomy but melodic track coproduced by Dark Sage and Tone from Unity High — each of the Raparations emcees kicks down an eight-bar verse about some cruel twist of fate in his life. A-1 raps: One of these days I’m gonna go crazy and snap/My wise words to you are forget friends, they don’t have your back. Later, he recalls when he was thirteen and a friend set him up to go to jail for a crime he didn’t commit. “He burglarized a house, and the description they had was black kid with dreads, which fit both of us,” the emcee says. “So he told me to walk down the street with him, and when the cops saw us they picked me up instead of him, and I ended up going to jail for a year and a half. I’ve been shot by one of my so-called friends, too.”
Granted, the cult of stardom at Raparations is at cross purposes with the DJ Project’s “social bottom line.” But there’s some crossover — D-Nok gives props to Ambessa for teaching the group that “there should be more to your lyrics than just Shoot ’em up, bang bang.” But in a moment of candor, the emcee confesses that he still puts out shoot-’em-up songs. After all, he says, “That’s what’s selling.”