Start 2 Finish participants with the Jacka at United Roots
For up-and-coming artists interested in pursuing career paths in the music industry, it’s hard to know where that road lies. Besides the need to develop their individual talent, there is also a need to develop a professional work ethic. On top of that, there are both economics and politics associated with the entertainment field, as well as situational ethics, which beginning artists cannot hope to know without prior experience. The learning curve is steep, and it’s easy to make mistakes along the way.
Recently, 25 aspiring rappers and producers -- including 8 females, a larger-than-expected number -- got a crash course in precisely the type of skills they’ll need to navigate the obstacles and pitfalls of the music industry successfully. “Start 2 Finish,” a hip-hop version of a band camp held at Oakland’s United Roots youth center, schooled these developing local artists in the basics of songwriting, performance, recording, marketing and promotions. Essentially, the program was not unlike a grassroots version of MTV’s “Making the Band,” with one key difference: participants (who came from both middle-class and ‘hood backgrounds) not only got to hone their craft, but were also encouraged to promote consciousness in their music.
To lend credibility to their efforts, United Roots staffers Galen Peterson and Clemente “DJ Twelvz” Pena enlisted industry professionals to assist with instruction. This volunteer group included such local heavyweights as Hieroglyphics producer DJ Toure, platinum producer Rick Rock (whose credits include Jay-Z, Tupac, E-40, and Mariah Carey), rappers the Jacka (MobFigaz) and Zumbi (Zion-I), and music industry folks Gary Archer (We the West), Sean Kennedy (Moses Music/Ill Trendz), Kerry Huffman (Urbanlife/RapBay), DJ Amen (KMEL), Damon Jamal (In Yo Face Films) and Em Dub (Thizzler on the Roof).
The program started with freestyle rhyming ciphers and articulation drills, then progressed to lyric-writing challenges designed to engage young minds and encourage creative thinking. Performances were recorded and critiqued. By day two, camp attendees were honing their song-crafting abilities and creating their own music in the center’s four on-site studios under the watchful eye of Toure and other professional producers.
“I just came in with game on how to structure songs, how to be effective as a writer, as a producer, and really put your best foot forward to formulate a song. I’m using the knowledge that I’ve gained working with artists from Hieroglyphics to E-40, and just letting them open up and see different avenues and formulas on song structure,” Toure explained.
“It worked,” he added. “I had a few kids show up and say, 'I’m having trouble with writer’s block,' and I showed them how to take words, really open up your mind, and really get your point across.”
Emcee Life, who hails from “the Rich” (Richmond), says he learned how to adjust his lyrical flow to different beats, how to cope with different producer’s styles, and how to cope with other artists on tracks. “I learned so much,” he says.
Day three included workshops on “Consciousness in Hip-Hop” and post-production, which led to the next day’s program, on mixing and mastering. A live performance workshop and a music video planning session concluded the first week’s activities.
The second week began with an off-site music video filming and photo shoot. This was followed by a panel discussion which shared invaluable insider information—including Kennedy’s frank disclosure of the existence of payola (“radio is real estate,” he said), along with Archer’s advice on how to get around that by building personal relationships.
Following the panel, there was another cipher, with The Jacka, who later hung around for a group photo shoot. The sincerity of his interest in young people wasn’t lost on the aspiring artists, especially those from similar backgrounds.
As Twelvz later remarked, “street kids seeing The Jacka, it was like, wow, he’s really here. That was inspirational for them.”
Next, there were workshops on marketing and promotions and web/graphic design—another source of potential revenue—as well as a Q&A with Rick Rock. Despite disclaiming, “if you’re a producer, you don’t like to talk,” Rock shared anecdotes about his rise to prominence (“you never know who you’re gonna find yourself in a room with,” he said), his creative process, and the saga of the hyphy movement (“it was sad” to see it unravel, he noted).
He then played some unreleased slaps off his upcoming solo album, then presided over yet another cipher, during which the up-and-coming emcees freestyled over Rick Rock beats. The camp concluded with a final cipher, a group performance session, a rehearsal session for a live “graduation” performance at Eastside Arts Alliance headlined by Big Rich, and the distribution of a compilation CD—which had been recorded, engineered, mixed, and mastered during the camp’s brief-yet-busy two weeks.
Dyanna “Dyna-Mic” Loeb, who’s previously worked with Youth Movement Records, said the camp was a positive learning experience for her. “One thing I took away from it,” she says, “is the music has to come before anything.”
“I learned you gotta build your own buzz,” said emcee Pretty Dreque. “You gotta promote your stuff in order to get heard.” She also found out about other avenues than radio. “There’s websites that help Bay Area artists, they wanna help you get to the top and bring the Bay Area back together as one. It’s more than just radio. You get known in your own ‘hood, your own environment. After you get known, they might push for you.”
Another emcee, who goes by the name of Niccie Marie, said Start 2 Finish was an “excellent experience. I learned a lot about the music industry,” she said, adding “a lot of these artists out here are very talented, I engaged with them, I did a lot of collabs.” The most important thing she learned, she says, was about marketing and promotions. “It ‘s not just about the Internet, you gotta be involved in the community.”
Twelvz characterized the program as both a success and a learning experience. “To be honest with you, I felt it went even better than I thought it would go… as far as what my goal was, talking to young artists, that really happened.” The camp, he said, “established community,” and also created networking opportunities for the youth.
Putting the young artists in the studio with professionals, “people who have been doing it for a long time,” complimented the developmental work he and Peterson started with, Twelvz says: “It’s not like they went into a studio and didn’t have any direction.” After recording, “we went into promotion, digital online marketing, distribution… now they have the platform.”
Twelvz expressed a desire to make Start 2 Finish an annual undertaking. Yet Peterson says the program’s funders weren’t so sure, and questions remain as to whether it will receive underwriting in 2012.
However, the value of a program like “Start 2 Finish” isn’t difficult to see. Many artists older than the youth who participated could have benefitted from the knowledge imparted—and, just as important, the supportive environment it engendered.
One need look no further than Kenneth Wade Harding, the 19-year-old man and aspiring rapper shot and killed a couple of weeks ago during a police chase in Bayview-Hunters Point, as an example of what happens when youth aren’t exposed to positive programs. Harding could easily have been any one of the at-risk youth from inner-city backgrounds who took part in the United Roots camp, and it’s worth pondering if his life would have taken a different route had something like Start 2 Finish been available to him.
(Full disclosure: Eric Arnold is Communications Director of Community Rejuvenation Project, one of the founding organizations of the Oakland Green Youth Media Arts center, which is now known as United Roots. CRP holds meetings at United Roots, but has no current financial relationship with the center.)
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