He's the DJ, I'm the Mogul 

The teenagers in Jeff Feinman's DJ Project are equally adept at making beats and running board meetings.

Page 2 of 3

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."


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