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For Ahearn, the band evokes those early days of hip-hop: "Nine 11 reminds me of the Cold Crush Brothers or the Fantastic Five, in the way they flow with each other and bounce off each others' rhymes and energy," he says. "Remember that the central audience of those early rappers was playing for their local high schools—the hip-hop world had not grown far beyond that in 1980." Ahearn's half-hour video, which captures the group spitting lines on the steps of I.S.291, recalls such halcyon times. "We inspire a lot of children—the whole youth here, they look up to us," says 20-year-old Frederick "P.Dot" Aldeco, his rosary shining brightly on his chest. Maurice "Shasty" Douglas, sharp in a navy polo, credits P.Dot for bringing him into the group's fold, and recalls that "as a 14-year-old, I woulda wished for this program. I sat in them same seats, and now I teach kids how to make music." The kids in the class perform their works-in-progress for each other, giddy and glowing; as the session ends, they're visibly crestfallen as they pack up, sign out, and head home.
It's only the halfway point for Hillmer and Nine 11 Thesaurus, though: Now they head to a South Williamsburg recording studio to put the finishing touches on a full-length set for joint release by Social Registry and Sockets Recordings later this year. As we walked past the warehouses near the waterfront, Hillmer chats about, of all things, Mims's "This Is Why I'm Hot." "The thing that really struck me was Mims claiming to 'represent' New York," he says. "But if you ask these kids what they feel represented by, they would talk about fucked-up shit: social disasters, domestic violence, drug abuse, mass incarceration. They talk about serious things. Kids age up so quickly in the hood."
Despite this being their first time in a studio, the members of Nine 11 exude professionalism and exuberance in equal measure. While the Fly Girlz harkened back to the earliest days of hip-hop, Nine 11 evoke another bygone time, that of hip-hop's consciousness-raising era, in the lineage of Rakim and Talib Kwali, but with off-kilter beats courtesy of former Gang Gang Dance member Tim DeWit and Skeletons' Matt Mehlan—the sitar-buzz on the sparse "Stressin'," in particular, recalls El-P circa Funcrusher Plus. As their voices emerge on the playback, the tracks thundering about them, heads nod and slight smiles emerge. Soon, everyone is rapping along, finishing each others' recorded lines in solidarity.
Intent in the studio, God's Sun brightens in conversation: "I don't want to say hip-hop is dead, but it's at a state where I can't even listen to it," he says. "It's just what sells. And I was like everyone else, blinded by society and looking to people like 50 Cent. I thought that was the way you supposed to go. All I knew was the streets. I turned to the streets for love. My older brother, Hollywood, was really out there." He pauses. "It took a while, but I can say hip-hop saved his life."
Of the five Nine 11 members I interview, Kaymel "Hollywood" Matos is the last one to open up, speaking in a slow, quiet meter, his eyes obscured under a navy-blue cap. While still young at 22, he realized he was running out of options. "My brother, God's Sun, was on his poetry, and he showed me the program. I went once, but I wasn't rapping; I was on the corner selling drugs. I didn't see no other way. I had to put money in both our pockets." Hollywood served six months for a robbery bid, then did another eight months on another charge. Around the same time, he became a father as well, and struggled to make a change. "I saw how my brother and Nine 11 rapped. And instead of thinking with my head, like, 'You know how much money I lost that day?' I went with my heart." While Hollywood is perhaps the most uncertain of his rapping abilities, he's grateful for the chance to strike out on a different path: "I seen the same route Sam gave me, and every day I take that to the kids."
Without the Representing NYC program, making music would remain only a pipe dream for these kids, something nearly unobtainable. Shasty admits it's a long shot for Nine 11, but he has accepted that: "It might not be much, but it's something. I can open this door that had been locked for a long time." And whether or not their CD crosses over, it is a crucial step in bringing the program to more people's attention. Hillmer sums up the after-school experiment as an attempt to take back hip-hop: "The game is fucked up, so get in the game."