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In summer 2009, a concise little EP with the unwieldy title Representing NYC Presents: Da' Brats From Da' Ville Featuring the Fly Girlz appeared. Five teenage girls from the Brownsville section of East New York posed on the cover with hands on hips or middle and index fingers up; the music harkened back to the boxy beats and group-shouted raps of Run-D.M.C. and Roxanne Shanté, a strain of hip-hop that mostly disappeared well before the girlz were born. Yet it also had an undertow of weirdness to it, the queasy synth drones and fractured beats behind the boasts courtesy of producer Nathan Corbin (better known for his work with inscrutable Brooklyn noisemakers Excepter). Under the hip-hop aliases of Lady Millz, Pinky, Sophie, Princess, and Angel, these five hip-hop initiates were full up with attitude but also awareness; in a Fader TV video, it's endearing to see these outspoken young teens turn shy as they peddle their wares to the clerks at Brooklyn's Academy Records Annex. Here were East New York teenagers ignoring the subjugating fantasies of mainstream rap and collaborating with outsider Brooklyn noisemakers to make something outside their comfort zones, suggesting a bigger force at work.
Representing NYC "pairs Brooklyn public-school students with Brooklyn-based independent musicians," as their MySpace puts it. Reaching out to program director Sam Hillmer about the Fly Girlz, I learn that one had moved south, and the group disbanded. But he quickly mentions that the next project is a Bushwick teen ensemble with the heavy moniker Nine 11 Thesaurus, and that "all eyes" are on them. Soon, I find myself parked in front of Roland Hayes I.S.291 in East Bushwick, a drab brown building with lime-green doors that houses the Representing NYC headquarters, so to speak. I empty my pockets for the metal detector.
His long, reddish-brown hair tucked into a top bun (complementing a thick beard, wooden prayer beads, and a Technicolor scarf), the 32-year-old Hillmer is known around here as Sam; he boisterously greets colleagues and kids alike with forearm bumps. He breaks down the program in his windowless office, his sentences peppered with "cats" and "vibes," a nod perhaps to his outré-jazz sideline (he performs with the noisy neoclassical Brooklyn outfit Zs). "I came to NYC in 1996 to the Manhattan School of Music," he recalls. "I got the opportunity to teach in Bushwick, and that's when I started doing hip-hop projects. It became more important for me to connect with my immediate circumstances in a more radical way. And I noticed the effect it had on people."
Coming up in Washington, D.C.'s politicized mid-'90s punk-rock scene, Hillmer abandoned hip-hop for the most part until he experienced what he describes as "a Wu-Tang moment." With that, he suddenly busts into Inspectah Deck's verse from Chef Raekwon's "Guillotine (Swordz)." "That was where I got the power of hip-hop, the vibe from the inner slums," he explains. "It's metaphorical, taking the violence from the situation and turning it into this thing, this message that's available. That moment for me was it."
Representing NYC collaborates with the Beacon Center for Arts and Leadership (an initiative started under Mayor David Dinkins in the late 1980s to house community centers in existing buildings) on large-scale youth projects that bring disadvantaged students into more professional, real-world situations. At the Roland Hayes building, there are rooms for football, martial arts, and fashion design; in the last year alone, Representing NYC has expanded to include a T-shirt line, a dance team, and an Internet-radio program. In one room, a volunteer teacher shows six distracted tweens how to count off the 4/4 beat, sussing the one on Jay-Z's "Empire State of Mind." A skinny, introverted African-American girl wedges the headphones to her ear to beat-match the two twelves, but focus soon dissipates, with the whole class just singing along instead.
In the main auditorium, its walls plastered with hand-painted Obama portraits, the hip-hop cipher is particularly crowded. One girl gushes as Sam enters, busting out her latest rhyme for his approval. In another corner, two younger boys announce that they're changing their name from "BJ" to "B'n'J," much to their supervisors' relief. (So as not to be mistaken "for the corner deli," the kids explain.) Their style mirrors the current iteration of hip-hop and r&b—half-rapped, half-crooned—with hopes of soon performing live with Nine 11 Thesaurus, the six-strong crew of former students now scattered throughout the space, working with the kids as assistant teachers.
Today, Nine 11 members Shasty, P.Dot, God's Sun, RiDDic.C, and Hollywood (sixth member Tai' Chi was incarcerated at the time) are here. Ranging in age from 19 to 22, folks in this group exchange with Hillmer a more complicated handshake. Among themselves, the group have an even more byzantine greeting, denoting long friendships begun when they'd rap for one another on stoops and in the foyers of their buildings as Nine-11 G.Z.G., which stood for "Ground Zero Generals," as God's Sun explains. "That day opened our eyes to what is really going on in this corrupt nation, and 'Thesaurus' came as a way of explaining something's meaning in different ways. Which is what we do in hip-hop." In the past year, they've shared stages with the likes of underground rapper Mr. Lif and the Rocksteady Crew, carried a recent documentary shot by Wild Style director Charlie Ahearn, and appeared in venues as disparate as the New Museum and Death by Audio.
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."