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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Recording the Kids' New Song

Posted By on Tue, Jan 29, 2008 at 6:43 PM

To hear original rap songs by my young 'Music Writing' students, watch videos of their live performances, and to read their hilariously mean album reviews of local artists (as published in Gambit Weekly) visit

This week, my brilliant 2nd graders at Behrman Elementary on the West Bank completed their second song of the semester (the first being their Christmas rap, which you can read about HERE). Or, almost finished it... My fault, definitely. As I’ve stated before, these kids are the best, most with-it I’ve yet taught. Many New Orleans kids I've worked with, even if the activity is fun, they initially project skepticism, doubt and stubbornness. I have to fight them, drag them kicking and whining toward the fun. But these Behrman kids, when we’re sitting in the cafeteria before class completing homework, they ask me “what we doin in rap class today?” and by the time we line up to walk to my room, their new verses are already half written. So different. Truly amazing.

This new song is called “Our New Year”. Because the Christmas song went so well, every time I’ve since asked them to choose a new song topic, they’ve listed the next holiday: “A Mardi Gras song!” they cheer now.

“O.K. Sure. But what’s another topic we could write on?”


“Oh, c’mon y’all…” I gotta get them thinking outside the holiday box.

But anyway, we built this New Year’s song around a chorus, which all the kids recite in a seriously cool, sort of Sir-Mix-A-Lot atonal drone (think, ‘My Posse’s on Broadway’) after each pair of solo verses. Having a chorus means that everyone gets to participate and sing, even if they’re too shy to solo. Said chorus goes:

On New Year’s Day, we pop firecrackers /
And make resolutions to become better rappers /
What will we do with our New Year? /
Listen to our raps and you will hear!

Once any song is written, we document it on a 4-track cassette recorder. Getting these tunes recorded makes the writing part seem like childsplay. With these Behrman kids it’s a little easier though. Of course they’re still kids and have a terrible time sitting still (especially when a beat's rolling), but they do seem to understand that when I press the RECORD button, everyone must remain dead silent, lest every giggle and throat-clearance end up in their song. To start the new song off strong, I placed Becca first in line:


New Year’s just passed / My cousin’s in a cast /
Do you have a rash? / Pick up your trash! /

Get a tardy pass / Give me some cash! /
Take a picture FLASH when I’m in the pool SPLASH!
Then comes Cyrique. Cyrique writes some strange lines, which I wholly appreciate. For example, “I went to the park / it was screaming dark / A man tried to rob me with a spoon and a fork”. His New Year’s rap was almost as interesting:


The rest of the year I will /
Put on my sleeping clothes and rest on the hill /
I wanna go on vacation, and swim in the pool/
And stay in a hotel, maybe Orlando would be cool

The second chorus is then shouted -- followed by Sundiatta. Sunny, as we call her, is quiet enough you'd think she'd balk at the mic. But realizing at an early age that she cannot let the moment pass her, Sundiatta always participates without hesitation:


It’s 2008, there’s nothing I hate /
My family and my friends are all doing great /
Anyway, it’s not about you / It’s about everybody, and that’s cool /
This year I hope my puppy won’t be bad / And I hope he listens to my dad

Not hating, and not being a hater, is a big theme in these kids lyrics. I believe this is mostly because ‘hate’ rhymes with so many other words.

Amhad is not necessarily a hater, but oh man is he difficult sometimes. He writes good rhymes, but then consistently struggles to master the rhythms. As he recorded his tough New Year's verse, the head of my after-school program decided to bring a group of adults in to witness my class. Per usual, I made Amhad do his over-and-over to get the timing right: "Ok, that was almost perfect, Amhad. Don't rush it though, Let's try again."

"Mr Michael! No! I did it good!"

"I know it was good, but you could do it better. Let's go."

By the fifth or sixth repetition -- with everyone watching -- Amhad started crying. He'd had this same breakdown while making our Christmas song. “I don’t want to do this anymore!” he bellowed now. I looked around at the adults, red-faced. “I do it right and every time you tell me it’s wrong!" Amhad bawled, "I hate this class!” I felt terrible. The program head walked Amhad outside into the hall. Minutes later she returned him, big teary smile on his face and suddenly perfect timing:


‘08 is my favorite year /
When I get my ears pierced, sometimes it looks weird /
In my eyes, I have tears /
Cause I wanna be a superstar in this new year

After the third group firecracker chorus, I placed the very prolific Catherine. It was she who'd dictated the chorus’ ‘Posse’s On Broadway’ drone tone, which is Catherine's normal style. Her verse didn’t have so much to do with the New Year, but hey, good is good:


I’m a majorette, I put on my dress /
With all this help, I don’t look a mess /
I might be late, but I’m still great /
Listen up close, cause you know I don’t hate
I made Eric go last, so we could really work on his verse, which also features some complicated rhythmic patterns (I must ad that Eric practiced and practiced in front of everyone, without the slightest frustration):


In this new year when I go around my hood / I hope they don’t beat me up
I hurry up and get on my motor bike / I’m going to take a short-cut
Because they’re truck goes so fast / I run somewhere where they won’t find me
When Orlando comes back from his Disney cruise / then I will be free

Not sure what that last line means, maybe an oblique reference to Cyrique’s Orlando hotel? Often, a kid will hear a word in another kids’ rap, accidentally steal it then just run with it. Normally I discourage this practice, make them start over, but Eric’s verse was so strange and well put-together – not to mention hard-won --that I just let him be.

The punchline to this story is that, once we’d put the whole difficult thing on tape, in playing it back for the kids I accidentally erased the song’s very beginning. Just two seconds. But two important seconds that we will never get back. Unless we record the whole thing over. Which we will start doing today…

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