Rappers Delight Club
Sunday, March 25, 2007
An after-school program may seem like a drag to 8-year-olds who'd rather be outside shooting hoops or inside watching TV. But to the mini-Missy Elliotts and Jay-Zs who take part in a learn-to-rap project called the Rappers Delight Club, it's a place to let loose and dream big.
Last year, the group, part of the Kids After Hours program at Glenallan Elementary School in Silver Spring, debuted four original hip-hop tracks on MySpace.com: "First Ladies Anthem," "Hum," "Tick Tock" and "We're Not Done." Each features the kids' original raps ("First Ladies Anthem," for one, starts off, "I'm an independent woman/Think I'm wrong?/That's all right/'Cause I know I'm strong") recorded over samples of, among other things, a tune by singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens and the theme music for "Elmo's World" from "Sesame Street."
Now the group of about 10 kids ages 5 to 11 has amassed more than 3,000 MySpace friends. Its page boasts enthusiastic comments from around the world: "This is the coolest thing I've ever heard!" is typical. Even music Web site Pitchfork Media has chimed in, posting one of the group's MP3s on its blog with this uncharacteristically peppy promo: "What do you get when you cross a Sufjan Stevens sample, an empowering feminist message, and 5-12 year-old rapping children? The answer is 'First Ladies Anthem' by the Rapper's Delight Club . . . . And hey, they're talented!"
Talented indeed, but technical skill is only part of the kids' appeal. Their rhymes are catchy, fun ruminations on such subjects as selling Girl Scout cookies and drinking milk. It's tempting to see the club's ringleader, 25-year-old teacher David Goldberg, as the creative force behind the project, but he says the kids have taken the concept further than he ever expected.
"I figured that it would be a fun way for them to learn about rhyme structure and performing, but I would have never given them any rhythms as complicated as the ones they come up with themselves," Goldberg says. "When we have a long break they all work on their rhymes independently, and it's absolutely incredible what they come up with -- all the weird beats and the cool ways of putting words together."
At 4 p.m. on a chilly Thursday, the Rappers Delight Club assembles in its school cafeteria for practice. The group, named for the goofy hit single by the Sugarhill Gang, is Goldberg's way of keeping kids occupied while slyly teaching them about similes, rhymes, rhythm and self-expression. "The club existed before I got here," he explains. "But it really didn't take off until the current incarnation, when we started recording and putting the songs up online."
Goldberg hands out the kids' raps-in-progress, then hits "play" on the looping sample that provides the backbone for their raps. "All right, everyone, you know what to do," he says. And then, more sternly, "I want to hear you practicing."
Some of the kids already have started. Over in a corner, a tall, bespectacled girl named Allie Fascione-Hutchins, 11, is working on writing with her friend Niya Ford, 9. "I'm just here to help," Allie says. "I'm not a rapper." Niya scribbles on wordlessly, too busy for conversation.
The rest of the group is less quiet but no less dedicated. There's 9-year-old Katie Billings, an extrovert with bangs and glasses; Imani Young, a regal-looking 10-year-old with an infectious laugh; and KeAndre Blue, 10, who's hunkered down with a pencil and paper, editing his verse.
A mischievous younger boy ambles into the proceedings, and the gang calls for a performance. He shouts out triumphantly: "My name is Tyler/I like the cold/I like to skateboard/And I'm 5 years old."
The children begin to practice and critique one another -- loudly. They take frequent breaks, erupting into giggles when one kid points to another and announces, "Her backside is showing!"
After about an hour, Goldberg calls the group together. "Katie has an idea for a new rap that I'm not sure I agree with," he starts gently. Katie shares an experimental piece that doesn't technically rhyme. "Do you think she has any rhymes in there?" The circle of heads shakes no, first hesitantly and then more emphatically. "All right, so we'll give that one some more thought. Who else wants to share their rap with the group?"