By Sara Cardace
Special to The Washington Post
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?"
"I will, I will!" calls KeAnna Blue, 8, KeAndre's sister. She scrambles to Goldberg's side and delivers a hand-clapping, hip-shaking rendition of her rap, which makes good use of sound-alikes such as "twister" and "sister," "math" and "bath." A few more kids take their turns, and soon it's time for everyone to head home.
This year, the club plans to record more songs, improve its raps and respond to its ever-growing folder of MySpace fanmail. And, eventually, graduate and go on to middle school.Grooming Your Lil' MC
Not all kids have access to a group like the Rappers Delight Club, but with a little help from you, your children can express themselves through music at home. Here are some tips to get you started.
DON'T ASSUME YOUR KIDS ARE TOO YOUNG
It may seem as though children would need to know how to read and write in order to generate their own raps, but David Goldberg, the teacher who leads the club, says that isn't the case. "I've worked with 5-year-olds that, with help, can think up and memorize short raps -- about four lines or so," he says. Kids as young as 2 or 3 may have trouble understanding the concept of rhyming, but you can pique their musical interest by playing CDs geared toward children.
Laurie Berkner's "Buzz Buzz" is a big hit with kids, thanks to lyrics that tell a story ("Little red caboose behind the train/Smokestack on his back/Coming down the track"). Grammy winner Dan Zanes makes kids' albums to which children and parents may find themselves singing along. And of course there's always Raffi, whose 1976 album, "Singable Songs for the Very Young," has never gone out of style.
START OFF SLOWLY
Don't rush your kids. Spread out the sessions by having "music time" once or twice a week for no more than one hour at a time. Soon enough, it will become second nature to them and you. Goldberg suggests letting burgeoning Lil' Bow Wows come up with their own MC name. His kids' picks include "MC Incredible" and "Jolyn Googlepuss."
PROVIDE A SOUNDTRACK
Make a loop of one good sample and let it run -- and run -- while the child is writing. Technophiles can use the samples that come with programs such as GarageBand and Logic Express, which come installed on many new computers. Others can look through their CD collections and pick out instrumental versions of songs with slow tempos and repetitive beats. (The Beastie Boys' "The In Sound From Way Out!" is one example of an album that would work well.)
PLAY WITH WORDS
Help your kid think up a couple of things they would want to rap about (interests, people, favorite foods), and then have them try their hand at writing two sentences of any length that end with words that rhyme. Teach or review the concept of similes (What is as hard as a rock? Can they think of things that are as blue as their eyes?), and encourage them to work those concepts into their raps.
Next, collaborate to find ways to make the words go with the music. If the sentences aren't an exact fit with the tune you've chosen, experiment with adding and subtracting words or repeating the first syllable. Most important, whether or not you think your little one has the chops to be the next Common, always be encouraging. If your child is too self-conscious to sing or perform, invite over other kids, Goldberg recommends: "They cheer each other on, and soon those shy kids have the confidence they need." And, as Goldberg stresses, "always remember that this should be about having fun. If the kids don't feel like doing it that day, life goes on!"