It seems as though everybody is trying to sell something on K Street in downtown Washington. Along with the people offering jewelry, hot dogs, cell phone accessories, knockoff purses and sunglasses, there are guys roaming amid the masses hawking "education for children."
Fort Washington-based De-U Records sends its sales team out six days a week to busy daytime locations, whether it's downtown in the District or at the Rivertowne Commons Shopping Center in Oxon Hill. Always parked nearby is a black van pumping the mathematics raps that gave birth to the company nearly five years ago.
Judging from the steady number of people who stop to buy CDs, education that comes in a musical disguise is a hot commodity. De-U Records will host a series of back-to-school events at three Karibu Books stores beginning tomorrow to showcase its music and entertain children with the latest addition to the company, a life-size mascot that represents one of its four characters, Dezmo, named after the decimal point.
Dezmo and friends -- Addie (addition), Frac (fraction) and Divi (division) -- sing in cartoon voices on each of the four CDs De-U Records has produced thus far. Set to hip-hop beats, the lyrics are not complex -- "One plus one is two. . . . 10 plus 10 is twenty."
David Printis, De-U Records' chief executive, says it's a formula that has worked. Since 1999, when the company came out with "Multiplication Hip Hop," it has created a new CD each year, based on customers' suggestions. The recordings so far have focused on the basics of reading, geography, science and math, but Printis foresees hiring an educator to handle more advanced topics. None of the company's 12 musically trained employees, many of whom work part time and are related to Printis, is an educator.
Printis, a bass player turned sound engineer and songwriter, pursued music on the side in his home studio until he was laid off from a job in the information technology field in 1999. With fond memories of growing up with television's "School House Rock" cartoons, Printis came up with a plan to use hip-hop's influence on children to teach. He had intended to look for another job, but when his first educational hip-hop CD came out, he suddenly had too much on his plate. It was far more popular than he had imagined it would be, and people were immediately asking the company to tackle more subjects.
"You got a lot of parents who want their kids to learn. You got a lot of adults that don't remember all of the time tables," Printis said. "I figured parents would like it, but I didn't know if kids would take to it. But they took to it," he said.
Alonzo Powell, a nephew of Printis's who is both a producer and a member of the sales team, said that he has witnessed even junior high school-age children getting down to the hip-hop-infused "ABC Song." He said the beat of the music grabs most kids' attention.
It caught Constance Mitchell's as she walked by the sales crew recently at 17th and L on her lunch hour. She had her 4-year-old son, Asa, in mind when she bought all four of the company's CDs.
"I want him to learn math and science and geography and grammar. I think this kind of thing would be good in terms of his development," she said.
People like Mitchell account for 80 percent of the nearly 40,000 CDs the company has sold to date, although the recordings are also sold at local bookstores and online. No longer in Printis's Fort Washington home, De-U Records' nearby studio also records local artists, though most of the company's efforts are focused on the music of Dezmo and the gang.
"Our goal is to motivate children," said Powell, who added that he is happy to give kids with a fascination for all things hip-hop a positive tool in a sea of negative influences they hear on the radio.
"Kids tend to remember every 50 Cent song by heart," he said. "So we said we'd give them the 50 states instead."
De-U Records will present a free "Back-to-School Learning Concert With Dezmo" at 6:30 p.m. tomorrow at Karibu Books, Prince George's Plaza, 3500 East West Hwy., Hyattsville; at 4 p.m. Saturday at Karibu Books, 3289-B, Donnell Dr., Forestville; and at 3 p.m. Sunday at Karibu Books, Iverson Mall, 3817 Branch Ave., Hillcrest Heights. 301-559-1140.