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Welcome to The P.R.O.J.E.C.T.S.
Local non-profit releases a youth-made CD to “help change the perception of hip-hop”
Participants in AWOL'S music program The P.R.O.J.E.C.T.S.

THIS THURSDAY AT LAKE MAYER'S PAVILION, local non-profit organization AWOL (or All Walks of Life) —which for the past decade has promoted responsibility, self-respect and hope to our community’s at-risk youth through creative outlets rooted in hip-hop culture— will hold a lengthy party, concert and fund-raiser.

Designed to help finance an upcoming trip to Washington D.C., so that local teenage writers and performers can attend and compete in the Brave New Voices international youth poetry slam, the Summertime Lake Bash also serves as a CD release party for The Transition, a new compilation of tracks written and recorded by six students in The P.R.O.J.E.C.T.S., a 22-week sound design and music literacy program focusing on growth and self-awareness among young people age 12-20.

This is the second official release from AWOL’s sound labs, and once again, the impressionistic lyrical flow and sparse, yet contemporary production values of this disc are impressive by any standards, but even more so considering the key participants’ ages.

Hearing couplets such as this one (from the track “Pain In My Eyes”) come from a very young man’s pen and mouth provides a window into life on our city’s streets not often afforded those of us outside the loop of urban teens: “I got a lotta stuff on my mind, man. A lotta pain and a lotta anger. Losin’ homeboys to the jail cell... Like my momma don’t love me and my daddy don’t trust me.”

Simply put, many will likely find it rather amazing that a modestly slick album of this conceptual density and intricate wordplay could come from six local youngsters aged 14 through 20.

Not to mention the CD’s bold declarations and unvarnished depictions of adolescent stress and strain which ring of truth, yet seemingly never slip into the sort of nihilistic thuggery (or shruggery) one has come to expect from such tales of hardship.

Patrick Rodgers, a local writer, record collector and DJ who also serves as one of the main advisors and instructors of this course, spoke with me at length about the history and goals of this invaluable program.

What was your role in these recordings?

Patrick Rodgers: I am one of three Artist Facilitators, which also include Lloyd Harold, Quentin Smith and Rick Yee. We also have a handful of volunteers who help as well. Lloyd (who raps as KidSyc in the group S.O.L. Essential) and I developed the whole curriculum. It was geared around what seemed important to these young people. A lot of what we do is try to open up the students’ understanding of the cultural and historic significance of not just hip-hop, but other related genres of music that played a role in its development. Radio and TV are so limited these days, that we have to devote a lot of effort just to introduce them to major figures like Big Daddy Kane, Afrika Bambatta and The Wu-Tang Clan — classic artists who people only five or ten years older know about, but are completely unknown to these kids. We also try to show them how a lot of jazz folks have been sampled by people like Dr. Dre and A Tribe Called Quest. That plays a key role in this music, as do poets like Langston Hughes and Gil Scott-Heron.

It’s all about giving them an overview and then teaming that with lessons on figurative language, such as metaphors and similes, and how they can use that knowledge to improve the way they say what they want to. We follow that up with hands-on classes using digital recording software like Reason and ProTools. Then we put them in the studio and give them writing projects. It’s sometimes a real effort to get them to break the habit of only writing about the kind of clichéd stuff they’re bombarded with on the radio.

How would you describe the sort of kids who gravitate to this program?

Patrick Rodgers: Not every kid wants to learn each and every aspect of the program. Some only want to rhyme, some to do poetry and some just want to know how to make beats. We try to bring them together as a whole to cooperate on a common goal. The Artist Facilitators all make music on our own, so we usually donate a couple of tracks to get the ball rolling. Then they come up with some more of their creation. It’s an awful lot to learn in a really short period of time, so we try to give them as sure a foundation as we can. Once they make it through the six-month program, they’re welcome to come back and do more work here on their own.

Did any of the kids have prior experience either behind the mic as rappers, or as musicians recording beats and grooves?

Patrick Rodgers: Some of them had, but it was little more than goofing around and experimenting with friends in little bedroom studios. They all knew somebody who knew somebody who used the Fruity Loops software to make some simple beats, but they weren’t what most people would refer to as substantial recordings.

How was the debut CD from last year’s P.R.O.J.E.C.T.S. class received?

Patrick Rodgers: I think it was received well. I know the Mayor liked it! He told (AWOL co-founder Tony Jordan) he really enjoyed two or three particular songs. The kids were pleased with it as well. One of their songs got played on E93-FM’s “Slam It or Jam It” and about two-thirds of those who called in had good things to say about it.

How many of these young people if any do you feel are hoping to seriously pursue a career as either recording engineers, musicians, singers or rappers?

Patrick Rodgers: Pretty much all of them. Probably half of them came into the program with a very strong desire to pursue music as their potential career.

If a student doesn’t have great vocal or musical skills, is there still a role for them?

Patrick Rodgers: Yes. We just did a class in partnership with the Frank Callen Boys & Girls Club. We had 20 kids and at least 12 of them had no affinity for music whatsoever. But we put together a talk radio style podcast and the kids worked as graphic designers doing logos for the show and for the MySpace page. Some were hosts, some were researchers and producers, some were marketing and PR. We want everyone to have some sort of tangible stake in the final result. We help them develop their feelings and get them out on paper — even if that only winds up as a poem and not a verse on a record.

The goal of this whole program is to give kids a better understanding of the music industry. They need to know that even if you don’t wind up being center stage in the spotlight, there are all sorts of different jobs that make up that business. Many of the designers and engineers actually wind up making a better living than the stars they see on TV. They should know they fill those behind-the-scenes roles, even if they don’t have the talent or interest to be the headlining artists.

What do you think most people will take away from hearing this album?

Patrick Rodgers: I think they’ll be surprised. Folks who have heard previews were amazed these are just local kids. Most people may assume this is just stereotypical rap subject matter: cash, money, hoes, or who’s out on the block selling drugs — but this is personal, deep subject matter. Rap has a very negative connotation in general — and specifically in our local community. The shooting of Camoflauge is one example. It has taken away a lot more from this city than it has given back. I think AWOL is attempting to change the perception of rap and hip-hop. It can be much more than what’s on the radio, or kids wearing baggy pants and listening to explicit lyrics. Some of the tracks on this compilation sound comparable to things you’ll hear from major artists, but the big difference is that the subject matter isn’t overly negative.

What happens if the kids get negative?

Patrick Rodgers: Then we won’t record it. We don’t want to censor their subject matter. They can talk about whatever they want to — but they can’t glorify negative behavior. We understand there are difficulties for young people growing up in Savannah, and we encourage them to express that as truthfully as possible. Our mission is to make them realize the bad stuff doesn’t have to be —and shouldn’t be— glorified.

How many of these CDs are being made?

Patrick Rodgers: The initial batch is around 250, and if those sell out, we’ll make more. The album will be for sale at the event, and afterwards through our website and at our offices.

What’s next for the AWOL Music Program?

Patrick Rodgers: The next Music Biz class won’t start until October. In summers, we usually concentrate on our film program, and then we work on the spoken word stuff. Getting the Savannah team ready for the Brave New Voices competition is the main thing right now. HBO is making a documentary about the whole event, and if our group makes it to the finals, they’ll be featured in that. We took our first trip to this event last year. It was held in San Jose, and they weren’t able to compete. But we stayed out there and visited some organizations similar to AWOL, and then went down to watch the competition. It’s very tough. The level of talent at this thing is really impressive.

I think it helped our kids realize the importance of building up their game — both content and presentation-wise. It was also an interesting trip because most of the kids who’ve taken part in our programs have not been able to do much travelling. I think only one out of the eight had ever been on an airplane before, and only a handful had ever left S.C. or Ga. It’s neat to see how the kids respond to such things. Even though they try to play it cool, it helps them to realize the world is a lot bigger than what they’re used to.

The Transition CD Release & Summertime Lake Bash w/Dope Sandwich & S.O.L. Essential

Where: Lake Mayer Pavilion

When: 3 pm, Thurs., June 19