Lisa Nolan calls herself "Old-School DJ LeLe," and she studies hip-hop with the fervency of a rookie-league phenom hoping to make it to the bigs. She carries around a thick spiral notebook, just in case she needs to scribble down ideas or album titles. Women are woefully underrepresented on the hip-hop DJ scene, but that doesn't faze Lisa in the least. She wants to learn everything she can about the culture and the craft.
At fifteen she has a pretty good head start.
Still, it's tough to be a DJ when you don't have turntables. "My little brother and nephew broke my turntables," Lisa says. But even as she rolls her wide blue eyes for emphasis, the soft-spoken Soldan High School freshman looks more determined than annoyed.
"I'm about to take matters into my own hands and buy used turntables," she says. "Or borrow them. I've been experimenting with my mom's old record player. I want to keep up with my hand movements until I get turntables."
Since August, Gabe Moskoff, a.k.a. DJ Trackstar, has been teaching Lisa the finer points of scratching and mixing. The lessons are part of the 25-year-old Moskoff's fledgling hip-hop outreach and education program, the Center for Recording Arts (CRA). On this particular winter evening, Moskoff, Lisa, and a half-dozen other kids and hip-hop mentors are meeting in the basement of Washington University's Mallinckrodt Student Center. Three days ago an ice storm knocked out much of the region's power, but it's warm and bright in Mallinckrodt.
"This room is all ours," Moskoff says cheerfully, "until someone kicks us out." He commandeers a cafeteria-style table and arranges bottles of orange soda, bags of barbecue-flavored chips and boxes of cookies.
"Mmmmm, shortbread! Kids love shortbread," cracks Lamar "Finsta" Williams, vice president of St. Louis' Ch'rewd Marketing and cofounder of the Hi-Pointe Cafe, one of St. Louis' best-known hip-hop nights.
"I pay attention to my demographic," Moskoff shoots back. He folds his long-limbed six-foot frame into a plastic chair, pops open a can of Red Bull and asks, "Everybody make it through the storm OK?"
"It was terrible," says fifteen-year-old Charles Jacobs, resting his head in his hand for effect. "Our cable went out just as I was about to watch King Kong."
Moskoff laughs. "I don't want to hear about your cable. I wasn't asking about your channels."
"My DirecTV didn't work," offers sixteen-year-old Derrick "D-Man" Armstrong.
Finsta shakes his head and says, "I have to move to one of these neighborhoods with the good grids. I climbed six flights of stairs holding out my BlackBerry in one hand and my cell phone in the other." He spreads his arms wide to demonstrate. "You know, like headlights."
The kids crack up. They've been meeting at least three times a month since mid-July, and their initial shyness has been replaced by chatty enthusiasm. Moskoff's happy to see the camaraderie. The state approved nonprofit status for CRA in January 2005, and this latest project is his most ambitious: a months-long mentoring program that teaches local kids about the history and culture of hip-hop, the realities of the music industry, and the nuts and bolts of making and performing songs.
Moskoff devotes at least twenty hours each week to CRA, and he counts on the other mentors to take part in weekly meetings and one-on-one sessions. When it's time for hip-hop history lessons, he turns to his friend Scott Woods (a.k.a. Lyfestile), a St. Louis emcee with an encyclopedic knowledge of the music's past.
"All right, we left off with Dr. Dre," Lyfestile reminds the group. "You guys familiar with The Chronic?"
"Parts of it," says fifteen-year-old Myles Jacquez.
"I think so," says Derrick.
"What's it called again?" asks Charles.
Lyfestile, scholar-serious in his wire-rimmed glasses and Brooklyn hoodie, loves to teach hip-hop history and he's not the least bit surprised that these kids don't know much about Dre's 1992 gangsta-rap opus. After all, they were infants when The Chronic came out.
"I've never seen a record hit so hard," recalls Lyfestile, who was attending college in North Carolina when the influential album dropped. "I didn't know a soul who didn't have that record."
Moskoff cues up the first track of the Wu-Tang Clan's 1993 debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). "This is a return to the gritty New York sound," he says. "This is music to my ears. It still sounds different than anything that's ever been made."
In unison Moskoff, Lyfestile and Finsta recite the iconic intro: "If what you say is true, the Shaolin and the Wu-Tang could be dangerous...."
"Man," Moskoff says with a grin. "We are rap nerds."
Hip-hop activism might seem like a strange calling for a white kid from Madison, Wisconsin.
Tell Gabe Moskoff something he doesn't know.
"My background had pretty much no hip-hop in it," he admits. "I didn't have people to learn from or a culture to gain from. My neighborhood was mostly white, but very liberal and down-to-earth."
Moskoff's parents didn't question his fascination with hip-hop culture. In fact, it was his mom who after her typically well-behaved fifteen-year-old threatened to cut class the day Wu-Tang Forever came out bought the disc at Best Buy and brought it to him at lunch.
"I've probably read, like, 300 different histories of hip-hop," says Moskoff, who these days shares an apartment near the Missouri Botanical Garden with his girlfriend, Camille Peace. "I researched very seriously because I didn't have anyone to talk to about it."
Today Moskoff has plenty of people to talk to about it, from his CRA kids to the crowds who pack his weekly DJ nights at M.P. O'Reilly's and the Halo Bar. He can hang out with old friends from Wash. U.'s radio station, KWUR (90.3 FM), where he was hip-hop co-director before graduating with a business degree in 2003. Camille is documenting CRA's progress through her photographs. And at least three times a year Moskoff collaborates with dozens of local rappers for his mixtapes (in 2006 he released six), which have ranked among Vintage Vinyl's top sellers and are also nationally distributed. In fact, the only place in his life where hip-hop doesn't play a central role is at Simon & Passanante PC, the downtown law firm where Moskoff clerks full time.
But Moskoff thinks about the music and the Center for Recording Arts constantly. "I want to get into a situation where I can pay people to do what I'm doing [with CRA] now," he says. "So I'm giving someone a job, and they're giving the next generation the information they need."
So far he has conducted workshops at Fanning Middle School, Maplewood-Richmond Heights Middle School (where he also coaches basketball), Vashon High School and the St. Louis City Juvenile Detention Center.
"But I'm not financially set at all," Moskoff says. "I'm broke, so I have to work all of the time. Right now I'm only putting together CRA lesson plans in my spare time, typing in my BlackBerry and hoping I get to a computer in time to synthesize everything. The vision I had was just so much different, so much more."
"Activism is a very unsupported and lonely place at times," agrees Rolando Brown, the 24-year-old executive director of the Hip-Hop Association (H2A), which since its founding in Harlem in 2002 has facilitated the growth of hip-hop outreach programs worldwide. "But we remind ourselves that we're making something out of nothing. We can have almost anything we want if we stay true to our inherent idea of where the community came from."
Of course, Moskoff's perspective on hip-hop and its significance as a cultural and political force is fundamentally different from Brown's, or Lyfestile's, or Finsta's, thanks to the "unearned privilege," as he calls it, of being white.
"My whole experience [in college] was with the Wash. U. hip-hop scene, which pretty much bears no resemblance to a real hip-hop community mostly in the absence of black people," Moskoff says. "I saw a lot of activism for activism's sake. A lot of misused resources, a lot of waste; it's like you'd see anywhere else where there's a lot of money. It was just kind of depressing to me.
"I have different thoughts about my place in the struggle for racial and economic equality," he adds. "And I have to deal with, 'Who's this white boy?' I've got to prove myself every time: People are like, 'Are you gonna play something good?' They're expecting me to play Lynyrd Skynyrd or something. But by the same token, I also have a lot of advantages. Being white and having a business degree gives me a pass through doors that some of the people I work with can't walk through. I can dress up in a suit and look like all the white guys downtown looked when they were my age."
(That said, it's rare to see Moskoff in a suit. Even at his day job he favors khakis and a polo shirt, his uniform of choice accented by a neatly shorn jawline beard and, nearly always, a well-worn baseball cap.)
"I always saw Gabe as a guy who's trying to make things happen," says Mike "2600" Davis, a founding member of the local DJ crew Litterthugz who met Moskoff through KWUR. "He's not only interested in taking from the community but in giving back to it. When I met this kid, he had turntables and mixers set up in his tiny little dorm room. Gabe always wanted to learn. He's done his homework."
Jeff Chang, author of the American Book Award-winning Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, has seen programs like Moskoff's sprout up all over the nation, and he has faith in the idealism of young activists. "Hip-hop is all about taking what you've got and forging ahead. It's the most amazing thing in that way," says Chang. "These things happen very quietly, but the impact they have is incalculable. Kids have a place to go to other than the corner. They're being shown a path forward."
In the midst of an impromptu rap battle that broke out during CRA's inaugural open house in July, Lyfestile offered what might pass for a CRA manifesto:
No stoppin' when I pop in the place
Lyfestile, I'm like a cop in your face
I stand in the basement of my man Trackstar
You're not wack, Pa, but you gotta learn
You don't burn, you don't stop
Even if you mess up, you keep goin', you keep flowin'
Don't worry, my little young 'un from St. Louis
In a couple months you'll be able to do this
I'm'a show you how to do this right, how to do this night
Lyfestile and I'm'a treat you right
But I like the way you do it, yo, you got the hip-hop
But one thing to remember my man: You just don't stop
"Lyfestile is one of the minds I admire most," says Moskoff. "He's a fairly radical dude as far as race and social stuff. But he doesn't just say, 'I read this somewhere, so I'm gonna say it aloud.' He's got a lot of perspectives that I really respect."
A fixture on the local scene since the mid-'90s, Lyfestile performs with two crews, Plan B and Altered St8s of Consciousness, and he's well-versed in all aspects of hip-hop culture. Moskoff met Lyfestile at the Science, the legendary, now-defunct weekly hip-hop night at Blueberry Hill that celebrated each of hip-hop's "Four Elements": the emcees, the DJs, the b-boys and -girls, and the graffiti artists.
"The more you learn about [hip-hop], the more you'll love it," Lyfestile says. "I can guarantee you that. It's not just something like, 'Man, I can't play basketball; maybe I should rap.' There's so much more to it than that."
Jeff Chang agrees. "Hip-hop makes things meaningful, relevant and urgent. We can lead [kids] through hip-hop as a way to look at issues of race and gender, poverty and politics."
Chang believes hip-hop can be a far more compelling educational tool than a textbook. "The young folks who are organizing these types of programs are working in an environment in which after-school programs have been wiped out," he says. "The main way the government interacts with young people is to arrest them; it's like the kids have to push a massive rock uphill. These programs add speed and torque to that push."
The enthusiasm the kids bring to CRA is evident. And enthusiasm, coupled with Moskoff's dedication, has kept the program afloat for the past six months.
Jaron Jackson-Craig (a.k.a. "Yung JJ") began actively seeking the advice of St. Louis hip-hoppers more than two years ago, when he first posted on the message board of local label F5 Records (www.f5records.com). Now seventeen, JJ is the youngest participant in the online discussions a fact that's not lost on his mentor.
"JJ [posts] on there and talks about our music; he communicates with a lot of the artists," Lyfestile says. "And it keeps you in check, knowing there's somebody that young who's looking at what you're doing. You want to present it the right way."
When JJ visits Lyfestile's Hanley Hills home on Saturday afternoons, the first thing that's usually on his mind is making beats. As a student in Ladue Horton Watkins High School's invitation-only Music Technology course, JJ works with computer programs like Garage Band and FruityLoops.
"I hate going to Ladue," JJ says, "but I'm grateful for this class. Some people don't like Garage Band because they can't do enough original stuff with it. But it's about the talent, not the equipment."
There are no computers in Lyfestile's large, unfinished basement. Instead there are two Technics turntables, a mixer, a giant MPC 2000 XL sampler and records stacked cartoonishly high. Lyfestile does all of his sampling from vinyl, and he owns everything from Prince to Three Dog Night to Alice Cooper.
"Some cats just have an iPod with turntables connected, so they don't have to carry [record] crates any more," the rapper says with a shrug. "But that takes away from the tradition."
He cranks up a track JJ has created, and a haunting minor-key piano chord progression fills the basement. Lyfestile asks JJ where he found the sample and looks pleased but not completely surprised when JJ says he composed it himself.
"JJ has so many things going on with his music that you could make a whole new song out of this [track]," Lyfestile says. "We could make three sequences out of this first sequence. I can work with the computer programs, but JJ's like Beethoven."
Lyfestile doesn't mind showing JJ some old-school production tricks. But he emphasizes his mentoring role above all else. He worries that young rappers from St. Louis are too easily seduced by stories about Nelly and Chingy two ordinary kids from the block who shot to stardom in what seemed like record time. He wants JJ and the other CRA students to understand the often-harsh realities of the music industry.
"When you're in the industry, you're definitely playing a game," Lyfestile says. "It's not gonna be about how dope you are; it's gonna be, 'Man, am I impressing these older white dudes in suits?' This is why I encourage people to develop [other] careers. Because nobody's gonna be the man forever."
Charles Jacobs makes more hot beats than some producers twice his age. But while he's preternaturally deft with production software, he wants to learn more about hip-hop culture and songwriting.
"I got a problem rapping about topics," says Charles, who found out about Moskoff's mentoring program via "STL Rap News," the DJ's weekly e-newsletter. "I just always rap about you know, how dope I can rap."
"I would say it's a good exercise sometimes to pick a random subject and just write down your thoughts about it," Lyfestile suggests. "Not even a rhyme, but just like "
"Dirty socks?" Charles offers.
"Make a list of words that have to do with that topic," Moskoff puts in. "When you get to the next line, pick another word off there and base it off that. You can take it any direction you want. You can do a song, it can start out being about dirty socks, and what happened to you "
" because of dirty socks," Charles finishes.
About once a week, Moskoff visits Charles at his family's home in Benton Park West. They talk about hip-hop culture and listen to music. Lots of music.
"Charles is always really, really open to whatever I play for him," Moskoff says. "I play him everything from the Four Tops to [Danger Mouse's] The Grey Album. Charles is like, 'That doesn't sound like a Nitty beat; that doesn't sound like Yung Joc!'" He laughs.
On a breezy Wednesday afternoon, after Moskoff leaves the law office and Charles finishes another day at Metro High School, the pair listens to a mix CD that covers 30 years of hip-hop history in about as many tracks. With every song that blasts from the speakers, Moskoff asks the same question: "OK, who did this one?"
Charles doesn't recognize most of the songs, but Moskoff offers mini-lessons about every artist, from the Sugarhill Gang to Grandmaster Flash, from Run-D.M.C. to Big Daddy Kane, from Rakim to Public Enemy to Talib Kweli. When he comes to a track by 25-year-old Chicago native Lupe Fiasco, Moskoff pauses the disc and says, "Lupe's one of the first rappers in a long time that's made me want to write down all his lyrics so I can read them back."
Charles nods. "I just did that when I was listening to a Nas song!"
"If there's something you like, look up more about the artist on the Internet," Moskoff advises. "And I'm going to start bringing you four CDs each week. You can study them, then trade them in for another four the next week."
Later after he has treated Charles to pizza at CiCi's, after he has dropped the fifteen-year-old back home, after he has had time to think Moskoff is far from satisfied. He sees the potential of his grassroots organization but doesn't feel he's reached it. There's the lack of time, and there's the lack of money. The Center for Recording Arts still doesn't have any funding beyond what Moskoff himself can contribute, and that isn't much. He estimates that he shells out $5 to $10 per week on snacks for the meetings, and he spent $100 on holiday gifts for the kids. He can't afford to pay himself or the other mentors anything.
"Sustainability is a major issue," says Jeff Chang. "Burnout is a major issue. I've seen dozens of programs go under because they can't get the help they need. A lot of the organizers know what's going on in the streets, and they take it very seriously, and they get to a level where they have students coming in every day, but they're running out of resources. That's where foundations and philanthropists have to fill the gap."
"I've thought about fundraising," responds Moskoff, whose father works as a management consultant for nonprofit organizations. "Thought about it, thought about it. But I've got this aversion to things I don't enjoy. Planning events just plain sucks."
Not that he hasn't given it a shot. In March 2003, when he was attending Wash. U., Moskoff went to a talk by graffiti-artist-turned-social-activist William "UPSKI" Wimsatt, whose books Bomb the Suburbs and No More Prisons are practically holy writ for many young grassroots organizers, Moskoff included. Also in the audience was University City native Aaron Berkowitz, who was planning a huge hip-hop battle for charity in his hometown.
Moskoff approached Berkowitz and offered to help stage the event.
"We just clicked," says Berkowitz, who today serves as the national public-relations chair for Hip-Hop Congress. "He helped me find DJs; he was coming up with everything."
In the months that followed, Moskoff was inspired to throw several battles of his own. But despite their popularity, the events left Moskoff, who'd rather be mentoring and DJing than securing permits and setting up PAs, exhausted.
Still, he knows CRA needs money to flourish. Or, at the very least, to survive.
"I don't know if I'm better providing education and outlets to young black kids who need the opportunities," Moskoff says, "or if that'll be an uphill struggle for me because I've got to prove my legitimacy. Maybe by taking time to go teach black kids stuff, maybe that's more self-affirming for me, like, Hey man, you're cool, you're hip-hop.
"Part of me says: I've got the education; maybe I should just get super-rich and give all the money away."
Despite its tough-sounding name who wouldn't want to be "straight outta Defiance"? Myles Jacquez's hometown is a sleepy, bucolic place. Known for its Pioneer Days festival and picturesque bike trails, Defiance is to St. Louis what most any rural town is to its big-city sibling: quieter, slower-paced, less racially diverse. But ever since he was nine years old and heard Eminem's Marshall Mathers LP ("an edited copy," he clarifies), Myles has been a dedicated hip-hop head. He writes new verses to go with popular beats. He makes new beats to match popular verses. Sometimes he surprises his fellow CRA students by creating stellar mash-ups like when he matched a Ludacris track to a Charles Jacobs beat.
"I see hip-hop playing many roles in my future, from providing a hobby to providing a career," says Myles, who received his first turntables four years ago and makes frequent trips into St. Louis to buy vinyl. "It's my thing. It sort of defines who I am."
These days Myles' taste runs more toward the smart, tough rap of Virginia duo Clipse than toward, say, the booty rap of Yung Joc.
"Myles is going through the same listening patterns that I did," Moskoff says. "Myles is me ten years ago, different atmosphere." He pauses to consider. "Sometimes I think it might be better if I spent all my time with the Myleses of the world, explaining to them, 'All right, you're white, can't help that. And this is your history and your culture. This is what was perpetuated, whether you like it or not, and this is what you can do to accept that and move past it.'"
Skin color might be the most obvious similarity between Moskoff and Myles, but the fifteen-year-old also shares his mentor's sense of altruism. When Moskoff asks the CRA kids what they'd like to do with hip-hop, Myles doesn't miss a beat before saying: "I'd like to do something with the music that helps somebody out, gets them out of a bad situation. That would be tight."
That could have been Gabe Moskoff ten years ago, too.
Says the Hip-Hop Congress' Aaron Berkowitz: "CRA is reaching much further than what people know. The kids are coming from out of the woodwork, not just from the inner city but from the suburbs. These are kids who are disenchanted with big money and big business. CRA is so down-to-earth, so not about money and greed. Gabe is exposing people to the culture. It seems like success is only a matter of time."
In the world of grassroots activism, "success" isn't always easy to define. But a big first step would be financial security. Moskoff hasn't written any grant proposals. He hasn't found a benefactor. But if he had to explain CRA, he might sum it up as he does on a rainy afternoon during a quick lunch break downtown:
"What this program is about is me seeing artists and saying, if they had a program like this, they wouldn't have come out and fucked up the first three opportunities they had just because no one taught them stuff that they can't know on their own, things that only experience teaches you. I didn't get serious about DJing until I was 21. I would have killed to have someone teach me to DJ when I was thirteen."