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Around the World with A-Trak: Heaps Decent Edition

On one of my days off during the Parklife tour in Australia, I flew to a small town called Wagga Wagga to do some workshops for Heaps Decent. Heaps Decent is an organism that Diplo launched with two of our mutual friends, Levins and Nina Las Vegas. They bring music resources to underprivileged, mostly indigenous kids Down Under and help foster creative environments for them. It's a wonderful cause and I was very motivated to take part in it. The plan for the day was to go to the Riverina Juvenile Justice Centre with Levins and Nina, meet the kids and work on some songs with them.


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We left Sydney at 6am, hopped on a tiny plane (it's a one hour flight) and were at the juvy jail at 9am sharp for the start of our day. I met some of the staff, emptied the contents of my pockets and took part in what they call an initiation, which consists in agreeing to some basic rules and regulations on paper. This is mostly to protect the identity of the boys. By law, I'm not entitled to know both an inmate's name and his crime, I can't take any pictures that show their faces, and so on. They also briefed me on what I was about to see, in terms of the interaction between the inmates and the guards. With a clear picture of what I was embarking into, I was now ready to go meet the boys.

The first activity was a DJ demo followed by a Q&A in the rec room, where they had set up some turntables for me. A crowd of about 50 teenagers made their way into the room, and we were also joined by a few social workers. The first thing I noticed was the uniforms. They all wore the same black jogging pants (no pockets!) and purple sweat shirts. A few of them wore black tops: that meant they were on good behavior. The only personal accessory that they were allowed to wear was a cap, so almost all of the boys wore one, as it was the only way for them to express their individual style. Every object that we brought in the room was accounted for on paper, from my laptop to the smallest things like a pen. Levins and Nina introduced me and I jumped into a DJ routine. At first all the boys were sitting at a classroom-like distance from me, but as soon as Levins told them they could come closer they swarmed right in front of me and observed my every move keenly! When I was done Nina tried to encourage them to show me some of their own talents. Understandably they were quite shy and there was a palpable air of standoffishness between many of them. However there were equal parts of encouragement and eventually a handful agreed. Levins told me to play "Pop Lock & Drop It", that it was their favorite song. Immediately two boys got up, one short and one tall, and busted into an intricately choreographed dance routine. I was impressed! One kid rapped, and there was also a beatbox and digeridoo collaboration. Then started the Q&A. I doubt that many of these kids really knew who I was beforehand, but when they heard I was coming they read up about me online and I was amazed at how much info they picked up. I told them stories about how I originally got started DJing, all the way up to the Kanye tours, and they shared their musical taste with me. They were all hip hop fans. Lil Wayne was probably the most popular rapper there. For the most part these kids were very respectful and visibly fascinated. There was one boy who got a bit testy with me. After I told some Kanye stories he asked me: "Did you ever meet Akon or 50 Cent?" I told him no, that I had also worked with Jay-Z and met many rappers like Nas and Lil Wayne, but not those two. He was unimpressed. "So you only worked with the little guys", he retorted. I laughed it off, of course, and later he came to get his picture taken with me. His personality seemed unstable, switching from enthusiasm to awkward challenges like "Were you scared to come inside the jail? Did you think we would start a riot? 'Cause we could..." But everyone else was kind and thankful, and pretty quickly it was time for them to be escorted back to their respective quarters.

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After a break we moved to the next activity, which took place at the school that is inside the Juvenile Justice Centre. For the rest of the day we were with a smaller group, a selection of 7 or 8 boys who were particularly interested in making music and we started discussing some direction for our new tracks. I had my laptop with Logic plugged into a little PA. Many of them already dabbled in rapping. One of the boys really stood out as the best rapper. He said he was influenced by T.I. and Young Jeezy but to me he sounded like Rick Ross... with a slight Australian indigenous accent. He already had a couple of full songs written, including an uptempo club joint that everyone liked. So we decided to make two songs: a new, slower posse cut with a more stern and conscious subject matter, and then this guy's party track that just needed a beat. I really wanted them to participate in the beat-making process. For both songs I mocked up some quick drums as the backbone and then gave them a mic to make whatever weird noises they felt like making, which I would then sample and turn into loops. They were very shy, it took a lot of encouragement every time we hit "record". But then they really got a kick out of hearing their funny yelps and grunts get processed, distorted, chopped and basically brought to life. They helped each other write raps and Levins jotted some words that rhyme on the dry-erase board. When it was time to record, even the bombastic class clown was petrified and most of them only tried one quick take into the mic. Every time someone recorded the slightest bit, the group applauded them, which I found very touching. Their interaction was constantly oscillating between testiness (two of the boys almost got into a fight before recess) and mutual support. The one who was a better rapper was extremely interested to learn about the music industry. It was him who read up the most about me and he was also one of the kids who wore all black, which meant he had good behavior. Every chance he got, he came to quiz me. What does a label do exactly? Should he find a label when he gets out? Where? Should he start by recording his songs? He was amazed that his friends really thought he could make it. He had been rapping for a year and told me how good he felt when he wrote. I tried my best to encourage him and help him make a plan for his future. By the time we wrapped up the second beat and were ready to track his vocals we only had 5 minutes left. But he was well prepared and we were able to record it all. In the end he surprised us and decided to sing a chorus. The whole group couldn't believe he could sing too -- one of the social workers actually cried because she was so touched!

We had about 2 minutes left so the two boys who showed me their dance routine earlier agreed to do it again, this time wearing masks so that we could film them. Then I promised all the boys I would mail them some Fool's Gold shirts for when they got out and we said our goodbyes at 3pm.




A little later in the afternoon, Levins, Nina and I went to another Community Center where one of the social workers was involved and we did another, more casual workshop. This had nothing to do with the juvy jail, it was just an opportunity to meet a different group of people -- mixed and a bit older -- who had few resources and were thrilled to get a visit. Here, some of the attendees really knew me. We set up some turntables again and I did another demo. Then we had a Q&A and they showed us a painting that one of them made of myself, Levins and Nina! (pictured above) This session was a lot more fluid and casual. To wrap it up we had a BBQ where I tasted kangaroo meat for the first time.

By the end of the day I was exhausted but extremely thankful. I had just DJed in 3 consecutive cities after flying in from Japan so my body was feeling the rigors. However I went to sleep feeling so fulfilled. I hope I can participate in more activities like this soon. Big thanks to everyone involved, this was a memorable experience for me.

Posted:
Around the World with A-Trak: Heaps Decent Edition