Playground Poets

(Rachel Wiseman)

On April 10, in the mezzanine of the South Shore Cultural Center, an unusual partnership was formed between Ed Borstein and Noah Emmanuel. Ed is a lanky 25-year-old University of Iowa graduate and drummer for the Chicago punk band T’Bone. Noah is a sixteen-year-old South Shore resident and avid Drake fan. The pair spent over two hours locked in a room with an Akai MPD Midi drum pad controller and a computer equipped with Ableton Live, a music-editing program–they were trying to make a hip-hop song.

“You see the trick to making beats, I think, is finding an isolated instrument and just chopping it up into little pieces,” Ed lectured Noah. “So what we need here is just one little trumpet sound. You ever heard of Arturo Sandoval?”

“I may have heard the name,” Noah replied in a low, slow voice–a stark contrast to his double-timed rap delivery, which has earned him the title of the “new Twista” among his friends.

Ed nodded and pulled up a YouTube clip of Sandoval playing the National Anthem. Slowly, he began to chop up the song into individual notes until it became something entirely new, a blaring four bar trumpet loop.

Noah nodded his head and muttered verses inaudibly under his breath. After a few minutes he pulled out his cellphone and began reading out rhymes he had saved: “I feel/my body is steel/I’m ill/I verbally kill/so tell the cops to stop/ the popped shots/and the crack rocks.”

 

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This musical duo is just one result of a series of recording projects and initiatives currently funded by the Chicago Parks District. The idea of a software-based music composition program, particularly one focused on making rap music, might seem outside the jurisdiction of the public parks. However the program’s organizer, Jayvi, sees no conflict.

“You know I just don’t really make those sorts of distinctions, like, between technology and nature, or musicians and non-musicians,” he says. “Age doesn’t really matter that much either. As long as you’re a sentient being, I’m going to talk to you like I talk to anyone else.”

This last statement is particularly important for Jayvi’s Chicago Mobile Recording Studio project, which seeks to record not only the voices of teenagers, like Noah, but also those of younger children. In the summer, Jayvi loads his recording equipment into the back of his van, drives out to the parks, and records songs made by the kids who happen to be hanging around. His main goal, though, is not to record just any song, but those which are sincere and recount real life experiences.

“Because of all the ‘crap’”–Jayvi’s favored moniker for commercial rap–“you get all these kids talking about crazy stuff. Like, if you find a nine year old boy and give him a mic and ask him to sing a song, the first thing he’ll start singing about is having birthday sex and going to the club.”

Shaking his head, Jayvi says, “I’m just like, man, you’re nine. You’ve never been to a club. Tell me about something you actually know about. And once, you do that, you’d be surprised what they’ll tell you.”

 

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At the studio, Ed plays some of the recordings he and Jayvi made this past season of kids in various parks around the city.

“Every day we would just go out and do these four hour sessions, you know,” he recounts. “And we’d get the kids to do everything: they made the beat, they rapped and they sang. They made whatever music they wanted to make.”

The recordings are enough to make one believe in Jayvi’s principled opposition to age-based distinctions. Despite being planned out by pre-teen children, the music sounds completely professional. The rhymes vary from the playfully mischievous (“this park is cool/I like this park better than school”) to sincerely concerned (“stop, please listen, you’re wasting your time drinking forties with the homies/you could be learning/instead of burning”).

Jayvi himself did not grow up in a musical family and found few opportunities to play when growing up. “I played clarinet for maybe about a year before I got a marble stuck in it and, well, that was the end of that,” he explains. “But later on I bought a toy trumpet and started collecting other small instruments.”

Jayvi went on to study sound at the School of the Art Institute, but later dropped his studies and began working for the Chicago Parks Department. It was around this time six years ago that he also met a group of teenagers who recorded under the name of “the Inferno Mobile Recording Studio.”

“Those guys though, they just wanted to make ‘hot tracks,’ get it, that’s why it was the Inferno,” Jayvi says. “But I wanted to do more than that. I wanted do something that isn’t just about making music, it’s about documenting something. And that’s what just totally made Ed’s wig flip, that you could actually do something like that with music.”

“The project honestly did change my life. It’s the greatest job ever,”  Ed says. While he has been drumming since he was very young, he had never used computer software to create music until Jayvi trained him.

“These kids make me feel kind of out-dated sometimes,” he admits. “I’m used to just making music with drum, bass, guitar, but through this project I realized how much you can make with just a computer.”

 

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Back in the booth, Noah’s rap, for instance, documents a time and a place–“it’s about this neighborhood. It isn’t so bad now, but it used to be real, real bad. I was just rapping about what I remembered from growing up.” But this isn’t his main goal. In fact, Noah wants to be an entertainer, not a  storyteller.

“My guy out in Atlanta,” Noah said, referring to a friend and amateur rapper who goes by the name of Rosco Perrelli, “he’s getting to be real big time. He’s got like, 2,000 followers on Twitter. And he said like maybe I could come down and do a show with him. So I’ve just been telling him like lets stay off the streets for now and in a couple years we’ll just be kickin’ our feet back, on top of this, you know.”

Ed, who has been performing in live shows for over a decade, seemed skeptical of this attitude. “You know, I heard this story on NPR the other day, it was one of those big time hip-hop guys–Jay-Z, I think–talking to Terry Gross. He was talking about why young rappers always grab their crotch when they’re on stage. You know why?”

Noah shook his head.

“It’s because when you’re on stage, you feel naked. If you’re naked, what’s the first thing you’re gonna try and hide.” Ed pointed down and said, “It’s not easy being naked on a stage.”

There were a lot of minor disagreements between Ed and Noah. Ed objected to Noah using words like “murder,” “kill,” and “ill,” even metaphorically. Noah didn’t like having to make “topic songs” like the disabilities PSA rap which they recorded the previous week. Ed was upset that the only rock band Noah knows is Dragonforce, “and that’s only because they had that one song on Guitar Hero.”  Yet despite these differences, the two of them have been making music together, co-operatively, for months, meeting up every Tuesday night at 6:30 to record.

At the end of this particular session, Ed ran out of the room yelling to Jayvi and the kids he was helping edit a loop in the other room.

“You guys hear this track Noah and I just made,” he shouted. “It’s dope!”