High School for the Recording Arts gives academia an undercurrent of artistry
By Dwight Hobbes
Visiting the High School for Recording Arts (HSRA) isn’t for the faint of heart. Your senses are bombarded as soon as you set foot in the door by adolescent energy pretty much rampant. Teenagers wind through corridors, racing up and down stairwells at full throttle and generally at the top of their considerably healthy lungs.
Call it contained, if not quite fully controlled chaos. All of which makes it a perfect place to focus this force toward a profoundly productive end: academia cum artistry. In short, HSRA guides students to effectively enter the professional world.
HSRA (www.hsra.org) in 2002 recorded U Have the Right, a ground-breaking CD (partly financed by The Minnesota Lynx) in which artfully crafted spoken word took on teen rape with a disquieting wake-up call. The Next Move, a second step slated for late summer release, segueing to hip hop, lands squarely on the good foot.
It’s excellently crafted — especially the lustrous aural aesthetic provided by producer Javon Shaw, a.k.a. Hazy Burns. Importantly, it is by far head and shoulders above the general fare you’ll find glutting the market by veteran professionals.
Javon “Suvae” Miller, Marcelles “Moe Cash” Lane, Markia Austin, Marqueta “Lady Lucko” Gaines, Chadwick Phillips
Certainly this is so in the quality of The Next Move’s lyrics, which avoid the sort of ghetto sensibility and indelible stigma for which the genre is infamous.
There is no glorifying blood-thirsty, money-mad thugs, no objectifying females for how well they spill out of tight, skimpy clothes. These student artists walk and talk an integrity that escapes most professionals.
There’s an aspect of wisdom in Shaw’s demeanor well beyond his youth. Laid back with an almost solemn look in an HSRA photo studio, he speaks softly and lets his talent carry the proverbial big stick, reflecting, “It definitely is good to be working on something that helps us all as a whole. For the most part, people have this predisposition of thought that hip hop is simply there to corrupt minds.
“[It’s] also powerful enough to uplift us, encourage us to do better things. I feel this is exactly that. [It] empowers us as people.” Indeed, asked why he stepped on board the project, he answers, “I saw a chance to get in on spreading a positive message — that I could help make difference.”
If anything can stand having a difference made to it, the image of young women clearly qualifies. Take the sterling The Next Move highlight “Essence of Woman” by the quintet of Marqueta Gaines, Enjoli Taylor, Corey Watkins, Trawanda Harris and Sha’Nay Miles:
“Motherless child for a minute but I didn’t give up/I didn’t hide from the world, I didn’t put my hood up/I said I rose to the occasion like the queen I am, you’re all queen in my eyes so please take your stance/No black and white, queens no colors/We’re steppin’ out on the scene out the streets no covers/Y’all need to see it how I see it/ Find out what y’all good at because I’m good at being me.”
The creative process was, as creative processes tend to be, a bit unpredictable — especially when you’re dealing with teenagers, the world’s greatest experts at unpredictability. Accordingly, a valuable member of the crew almost wound up falling by the wayside.
Torrie Bingham contributes to “Where I’m Going” the verse, “What’s the next step?/Got a life of regret/With the age of a rookie and the mind of a vet/And the only mission tunnel is to try to get a check/Eyes closed down the road but I know my next step/I ain’t tryin’ to be second, I’m tryin’ to be the next best/And I’m way past y’all something like the next Brett/Tell them haters and them knockers they can hit the exit/And that’s your best bet.”
Bingham recalls, “At first, I got taken off the track, ‘cause I was, as Chadwick puts it, ‘actin’ up.” But, they worked it out. “I was goin’ through something at the time (when, after all, aren’t adolescents always going through something?)” Bingham says of the song’s message.
“Everybody in life should know where they’re goin’. Because, if you don’t, you don’t know yourself.” He adds that part of the process was the competitive camaraderie by which artists challenged one another to each do his and her best.
It’s enough to stop you dead in your tracks when “Where I’m Going” imparts that the rapper ironically has “hella faith in God.” Want to talk profound? He goes on, “I got faith in the Lord, where the hell is yours?” Profound? Try genius.
HSRA staffer Chadwick Phillips, well known for working with youngsters, particularly through his program “Hip-Hop, History and the Arts,” is Music Project Director for The Next Move and enjoys an easy rapport with his charges. “Oh, man, working with these students,” he enthusiastically comments, “is the best, the most incredible thing I’ve ever done.
‘Because of the fact they were able to come together and create [something] that will not only stand the test of time, but is honest. The way they did it, the music Hazy Burns made, the type of rhymes Torrie, that Trey, Cherokee, Enjoli put on the tracks — I can’t even explain it.”
Considering how good Phillips is at talking, that’s a statement in and of itself. The feeling of admiration is entirely mutual. “Chadwick my man,” extols Taylor. “He cool. He just got his own thing about him that make you want to do better. Work harder. Reach for a goal if you didn’t have one. He makes you wanna push.” No hat trick when it comes to motivating teenagers. “I feel that’s what every young person needs.”
Phillips recalls that there was, a bit back, the heart-and-soul-trying moment of truth when the performers, owing to logistics and, what else, just plain being kids, had trouble getting about the most important appearance they’d ever see. But, under pressure, they pulled it together. The Next Move’s crew, representing a public school, smoke prestigious private institutes for a competition presided over by none other than Sha Cage and e. g. bailey, unquestionably the last word in creating and promoting spoken words in the Twin Cities.
Cage remembers, “Two years ago, the students from HSRA grabbed the champion title in the MN Spoken Word Association’s annual ‘Say Word’ Spoken Word Festival, and it was well deserved. Under the artistic guidance of Phillips, the team was stylistically diverse, impressively confident, and just mind-blowingly talented. After their performances, I remember audience members’ jaws dropped and a series of ‘wows’ coming from the crowd.”
It is not, in the least, a stretch at all to call them prodigies. This is the future. Accordingly, there’s hope for hip hop.
The Next Move is available at Electric Fetus, 5th Element and Urban Lights record stores. It is available digitally on Spotify at www.irockthecause.org.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.
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