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.
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