Listening Up

Music production has blossomed as a way for young people to tune out of corporate radio and into their own creativity.

By Momo Chang Jun 21, 2006

On a sunny spring day, Abdull Dominguez, aka "Panama," sits inside a black box recording studio at BUMP Records in Oakland, California. On his latest tracks recorded with his cousin, Rico Gilliam, Panama raps in Spanish, reflecting his identity as an Afro-Latino, while Rico raps in English. Together they’re "Los Rakas," and their sound is a fusion of dancehall, reggae and hip-hop.

Panama is 18 years old, and the recording studio is at McLymonds High School. He began writing music when he was 15, a year after he moved to the United States from his namesake country.

In the last five years, music production programs for young people have blossomed. In the Bay Area alone, there are more than 10 bona fide programs, and more seem to spring up each month. At some point in the last 10 years, youth organizers and advocates realized they could address three priorities at once: reach out to urban youth who often disengaged with school, bridge the digital divide and address the ongoing problems in corporate radio such as racism, misogyny and pro-militarism.

"These programs really saved a lot of kids’ lives," says Deangelo Lemmons, or "D.nok," 18, a member of Oakland-based hip-hop group the Faculty Boys. D.nok recently graduated from a continuation high school in Oakland. "Even if not all of them get famous, it’s helped them in some way."

Music production education programs are usually recording studios where young people can bring in their lyrics and ideas and turn them into songs using digital recording and editing technology. Many are youth-run record labels organized like a collective, meaning young people decide what to do with the music and how to showcase their work. 

Like Panama, D.nok doesn’t own an iPod or any other MP3 player, nor does he have a computer at home. They don’t have access to satellite radio, and only shell out cash for CDs once in a while. The assumption may be that all they’re getting in terms of popular music is from urban format radio stations like KMEL or Wild 94.9 (Bay Area) or New York’s HOT 97. But Panama says he limits his dose of this type of music.

"The type of music I listen to most of the time is not commercial music, just for the simple fact that they’re not helping the people uplift themselves," says Panama.

So where does he hear about new music? Where does he get his inspiration?

"DJs talk about all the DJs, MCs talk about all the MCs," he explains simply. He buys some CDs by artists like Celia Cruz, Tego Calderón, El Roockie and Nas. His family in Panama also mails CDs to him.

D.nok says he does listen to the radio once in a while: "We gotta listen to the radio to see what’s up. We listen to hear what people are putting out."

Panama and D.nok, like a growing number of other young artists, are finding ways to create music culture despite the dominance of corporate radio.

In fact, music created by young folks like Panama and The Faculty Boys has become the soundtrack to the growing movement against corporate radio.

The movement against commercial radio is gaining momentum in places like Philadelphia, New Jersey, Chicago, New York City, and Washington, D.C., according to Brooklyn-based hip-hop organizer Rosa Clemente.

She says that though there is a growing movement, organizers are up against a huge industry. "Right now, what’s winning the hearts of people is the corporate media industrial complex," says Clemente, who hosts a show on Pacifica’s WBAI.

In the Bay Area alone, one urban format station, KMEL, boasts 600,000 listeners–70 percent of them young people of color. Clear Channel, the largest radio/billboard media conglomerate, made $9 billion in annual revenue last year.

An example of corporate radio’s content is from New York City’s HOT 97, where radio hosts sponsored a "Smackfest." Two female listeners slapped each other on air, and whoever slapped the hardest won $500. The same station also played the infamous tsunami song, a parody sung to the tune of "We Are the World."

In terms of local music, KMEL plays a very limited amount–mostly of the hyphy genre, upbeat music to dance and party to.

Bay Area hip-hop journalist Eric K. Arnold cites a few local artists who get airtime on KMEL, such as San Quinn, Frontline, EA-Ski, The Federation, Ya Boy and Dem Hoodstarz. He names local artists who can sell out live shows but never get airtime on mainstream radio: Company of Prophets, Ise Lyfe, Paris, The Coup, Blackalicious, Hieroglyphics and Lyrics Born.

"What they’re promoting is going dumb, and in more than one way," says Arnold, referring to the style of dance popular in the Bay Area–going stupid, going dumb, getting hyphy–as well as the mental numbing and dumbing down of hip-hop music.

Both Panama and The Faculty Boys have gotten airtime from community radio stations like San Francisco’s KPOO, 89.5 and KPFA’s 94.1.

Within community radio stations like KPFA, there are programs with very specific formats. Jack DeJesus co-hosts an Asian and Pacific Islander hip-hop show bimonthly on KPFA, called APEX Out of the Box.

"Our show really is the one place at least that you can tune in on an actual radio dial and hear Asian and Pacific Islander hip-hop artists," says DeJesus, who is known as Kiwi, the MC from hip-hop group Native Guns. "In terms of corporate radio, API hip-hop artists might get .001 percent airtime. We felt it was a good time to try to feature some of these folks."

D.nok hopes that building an audience for community radio will make corporate stations like KMEL and WILD 94.9 listen up. "The community radio thing, that’s what’s going to be important for the future of local artists," he says.

And though there is a class and digital divide, young people seem to be getting around it. Panama doesn’t own a computer, but he and his group have three MySpace accounts. In just the six months that he’s had his account, he has 1,000 comments and more than 1,300 friends, including many local artists. Panama uses technology–but doesn’t rely solely on it–to build a community of conscious artists.

While The Faculty Boys have a Myspace account, D.nok prefers the old-school way of getting his music out to the people.

He lugs around a heavy, black backpack every day, selling his album for $5 on the streets in Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco, Los Angeles or wherever he happens to be. He says he sells up to 50 CDs a day to "adults, kids, bums, old people. My music is for all."

Raising consciousness is an ongoing process for young people who’ve fed off of corporate radio for years. At one Youth Movement Records general meeting last fall, the group was rehearsing for a Friday show where they were to open for Planet Asia. When founder Chris Wiltsee asked how many had heard of the local artist, only one person raised his hand. The irony is that unless young people are a part of this growing community, they could know southern crunk music like the back of their hands but may have never heard of local artists like the Hieroglyphics, Zion-I or the Attik, who might live down the street from them–if their only source of music is commercial radio.