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Songs in the Key of Life

Posted Mar 18 2006

A recent interview featuring yours truly regarding hip hop and education. Also featured here are The DJ Project and David Castillo AKA DJ Chango. This article appeared in the August 2005 edition of the Rasputin Manifesto the magazine of one of the largest independent music stores in the United States. Check out the original version of the article at Rasputin Music. Thanks to Juan "Meat" Gomez for the interview!

“I look into my daughter’s eyes and realize I’m a learn through her
The Messiah might even return through her
If I gonna do it I, I got to change the world through her.”
-Common

What it do

Reminiscent of Regan’s 1980’s, today’s youth (Oakland’s in particular) are once again getting the brunt of all we’ve done wrong for the last 15 years. Cutbacks, teacher shortages, and just plain lack of funding have resulted in any activity that can even be slightly considered “extracurricular” to be given the axe (i.e. music, arts, sports). And just like before, the stage is again set for another monumental shift within these very communities being hardest hit to take action on a grass-root level and help these children rise out of their situations. In the past it was the church that rallied the troops, but more and more music has inadvertently taken that role.


DJ Chang√≥, aka Mr. Castillo, takes a break from math Practically every school kid, it seems, has a pipedream about making a record, while some of their older siblings might even be selling some of their own self-made product out of their cars or on the street. Labels spring up every day and kids are noticing that “doing it-for self” doesn’t necessarily mean being broke. Face it, the Bay knows about being independent, but do these kids really getting the facts about how things work or do they just think it ‘s all about some rhymes and a beat? If the schools are cutting back and their street sensibility only takes them so far, how will these kids get any real understanding of today’s business world while still taking advantages of what little opportunities they have?


Enter Daniel Zarazua and David Castillo; two teachers at Oakland Unity high that share both a love for DJing and genuine concern for the education for today’s youth. Since first meeting about a year and a half ago, they’ve been trying to come up with ways to incorporate the things they love (music, DJing and social awareness) into their curriculum. Then, as luck would have it, Daniel met a person who was looking for a school to host this thing called the DJ Project. Come to find out it’s the director of the program who was looking to expand from the city to the Easy Bay. With a grant ready to be given to selected applicants, both David and Daniel knew instantly that this was what they had been looking for.


Explain the DJ Project.

DANIEL: The program has been around for about 5 years and is based out Horizons Unlimited. They have their studio, are trying set up their own label and all these different activities but have been mostly SF based. Also, they set up this satellite network with Galileo High School [another school hosting the program] in order for the kids to check out each other’s work. In terms of our particular set up, we have this studio [on campus] that has computers, software such as Pro Tools and Reason and everything else you need for pre-studio work.

DAVID: The move to take the Project out of SF was part of the grant we received. It called for a collaboration between two sites (the other is Rapperation in Oakland). Two identical studios with two sets of kids who are making music, writing lyrics, coming up with song ideas, recording and using file sharing software in order to do an on-line collaboration, essentially remixing each other’s work.

What do the kids get out of a program?

DANIEL: One, they get the studio work, the hands-on training. That’s actually what’s kind of nice about David and I teaming up because he has the studio skills and I don’t. He can talk about using the software, making their own beat and producing their own track. But part of it is also teaching them job training skills. I mean, we’re not trying to create this big record label, it’s more like through the process of making music [these kids] can transfer these business skills to any job. It’s also critical thinking skills, academic skills. For instance, the kids have to apply to get into the program, which David and I see as practice for applying for a job or college. It’s not really about making the next big MC.

DAVID: Well, also we want them to be comfortable with the latest professional software applications and knowing how to set up a computer, really just getting the kids used to the technology. That’s a very important part of it; another is giving the kids a chance to tell their story. Because of the collaboration, they’re able to tell their stories and compare their stories, which a lot of the times are based on struggle. And although the kids come from all different backgrounds it’s good for them to see that other youth like them share their same struggles. That’s actually been a big theme this last session and hopefully we can expand on it [outside of Oakland].

DANIEL: Really the DJ Project is just one piece of our approach to education. It comes down to how we can use pop culture and music to engage young people. Especially in a place like Oakland, for a variety of reasons, we need to figure out how to use their interests in the classroom. For instance, we will use a song by Immortal technique in order to teach about international politics. Because the song references things like Scarface and New Jack City it gives the kids instant accessibility. Meanwhile we’re teaching them about the power struggles between countries, global politics and economics through a Hip-Hop song. It becomes a reference point they can get.

What hopes do you have for the future?

DAVID: To build on what we learned this past session because none of us had done this before so it was definitely a pilot. For instance, this last time our kids didn’t meet those from Rapperation until half way through, which was tough because they weren’t able to connect with each other. So improving the collaboration is one. Also, pulling in more guest speakers is another. This past session we had Carlos Mena and Boots from the Coup come through. Another thing would be to hook with kids in places like Chicago since they’re starting a DJ Project out there as well. Imagine how that would look like? Since it’s all file sharing, how about if it was outside of the country? We can really try to create something global by using the same template we have now.


Recently, both David and Daniel put their efforts together to raise funds for their school by putting out a mix CD full of conscious Hip-Hop and even features one of their students from the program. Entitled “Lessons of the Game feat. Young Tone” by DJ Chango and Domingo Yu, the CD works as another tool for them to use with the kids and allows them to continue to incorporate they’re love for music into their teachings. Check for it at Rasputin’s and go out there and support both them and Oakland students.

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