Around the Corner, a Rap Studio of Their Own

Around the Corner, a Rap Studio of Their Own
By Geoff Boucher
Times Staff Writer

September 17, 2005

Hip-hop was born poor. In the 1970s in New York, the kids who couldn’t afford drum kits settled instead for two turntables and a microphone. Their vinyl invention would go on to become an enormous commercial and cultural force, and there is very little that seems ragtag about its diamond-studded superstars today.

But on Friday, in a corner of the Imperial Courts housing project in South Los Angeles, the music seemed to have gone back to the spirit of its earliest days as hundreds of residents cheered the ribbon-cutting of their very own recording studio built through a novel teaming of city government, corporate America and hip-hop stars. The organizers are hopeful that the studio, built into one of Imperial’s 485 units and free for its residents to use, will be a prototype that will be copied by housing authorities around the nation.

The studio for aspiring stars to professionally record their demos was the brainchild of Jonathan Hart, a 20-year-old who since middle school has aspired to be a rapper. His idea to convert a unit in Imperial was met with a dizzying amount of red tape — “There was 22 meetings and then all this crazy paperwork” — but the proposal clicked with Elenore A. Williams, chairwoman of the city Housing Authority’s board of commissioners.

“We like to have our hand on the pulse of the residents, and it was clear they really wanted this,” she said. “We have to be open to ideas, and this was a good one.”

The proposal also resonated with Benjamin F. Chavis, the former president of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, who has become a prominent figure in hip-hop after his collaborations with rap mogul Russell Simmons and their shared mission to give the genre a political voice.

Two years ago, Chavis rushed to the defense of the rapper Ludacris, who had lost his endorsement deal with Pepsi-Cola after conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly called on his audience to “punish” the soda maker for the rapper’s raw lyrics about sex and crime. Ludacris didn’t get rehired, but Pepsi agreed to support community hip-hop projects. That led to $25,000 in seed money for Hart’s studio from Pepsi and Chavis’ Hip-Hop Summit Action Network.

The studio is about 600 square feet with wooden walls and a raised floor, insulated to muffle the music. It’s on the west end of one of the project’s cinderblock buildings, and it’s next to a room used as a residents’ meeting space. That is designed to limit the potential of noise complaints.

Rudolf Montiel, executive director of the Housing Authority, said police have been consulted and they have a security plan in mind, although he did not give more details. He also did not want to speak in specifics about any resistance in government offices to putting a stamp of approval on a rap-related project.

“There was some resistance, yes, but the important thing is it has been accomplished and that it’s going to be a positive part of the lives of the people here,” Montiel said.

David Dunson, project director for the studio, said the neighborhood young people who come to use the studio, which will be open 3-9 p.m. Monday through Friday, must show him their lyrics to gain access to the microphone. Hard-core rhymes that glorify violence are not welcome, he said.

At Friday’s event, there was no keeping street topics off the stage. One young speaker at the microphone laughed at the police officers on the periphery of the crowd and declared that they were not in charge for once. A rapper who performed for the crowd finished his song with a scowl about tough conditions in the neighborhood. “Yeah,” Demetri Williams said sharply. “I was born right here in this mess.”

Some of the police officers on hand Friday said privately that they were worried that the studio might become a magnet for trouble.

But for the crowd, the opening mainly was a time for backslapping, not hand-wringing.

“This started as the dream of one child here at Imperial center,” Blanca Martinez, president of Imperial’s resident board, told the audience in Spanish at the start of the event. “This is the first dream to come true. There will be many, many more.”

The occasion had residents giddy — young girls with volunteer stickers handed out fruit punch and cookies while boys in baggy pants bounced their heads to the Lil’ Kim song blasting from speakers that could be heard up and down 114th Street.

Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who represents the area, was applauded enthusiastically when she waved a wish list of audio gear she pledged to get for the new studio. “And air conditioning too,” she said with a laugh.

Cynthia Mendenhall, one of the key community figures who pushed for the studio, acknowledged her frustration with the community’s many tribulations.

“We have struggled to get this done…. We got a lot of fake politicians here in California,” she said. “And we got a lot of fake people among us.” She went on to say she didn’t care whether anyone was offended. “I’m fighting for families now.”

A gymnasium built adjacent to Imperial’s 1950s buildings has an entire bulletin board devoted to the photos of local youngsters who have died. “There’s 20 of them, but not all of them were murdered,” recreation volunteer Darlene Merriett said. “Two of them committed suicide.”

The bulletin board includes the memorial program from the funeral of Norman Kennedy, a cousin of Hart who was 19 when he was shot.

“He taught me about music and how to use the type of equipment we have in here now,” Hart said, nodding toward the studio furnished with a mixing board, a computer and a nest of other gear. “He would have loved this. This will keep other kids from being out on the street where they can get shot. And everybody here loves rap. It’s our music.”

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