This is Hip-Hop 101: Its teacher, Marlon Irving, is better known as Vursatyl of Portland's most visible hip-hop outfit, Lifesavas. The group's DJ, Rev. Shines, is the man at the turntables behind him. For the last eight weeks, Vurs and Shines have traded in stage lights for the classroom, teaching these kids, many of whom bus over to Jefferson from Grant High. The predominantly white students make their way across town in order to learn about hip-hop's four elements (MC-ing, DJ-ing, graffiti and breakdance) and to hear Vurs trace the culture's movement from its origins in New York City ghettos to its current place on the global stage. Raw, unedited music—as well as CDR "look up that tune" homework—is the foundation of the course.
With help from local ad firm Wieden & Kennedy and Connie Wohn (of Stylus503 and the Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls), among others, Vurs turned an after-school curriculum into a hip-hop education that one would be hard pressed to find in any college course. Among the program's notable guests: Wild Style director Charlie Ahearn, graffiti artist Fab Five Freddy and hip-hop historian Jeff Chang.
Vurs says Chang, who wrote the definitive hip-hop history book Can't Stop Won't Stop in 2005, "was mind-blowing. He had tapes of house parties where [Zulu Nation founder] Afrika Bambataa was spinnin'." In this class, even the teacher gets schooled.
While students clearly appreciated the guests, it was Vursatyl's deep-seated love for the subject that kept them coming back. The best part of class comes after the bell rings, says Grant High junior Cooper Paradise. "We have a good hour and a half of just talking, and that's when you learn more than anything else." A few other Hip-Hop 101 students already have their own hip-hop crew, called State of Mind.
The last of the free, not-for-credit classes came only weeks before the April 24 release of the Lifesavas' Gutterfly, an album that could help earn the group itself a mention in some future Hip-Hop 101 class.
Gutterfly is an exercise in hip-hop history of its own, featuring appearances from such dissonant talents as slang-heavy late-'90s hustlas Camp Lo and revolutionary MC Dead Prez (as well as George Clinton, ska-funk outfit Fishbone, and Living Color guitarist Vernon Reid). All these guests are folded into Gutterfly's central fable: a blaxploitation spoof that uses the limitations of the guns-'n'-cash genre to point out the limitless possibilities available to youth, regardless of race, class or geographical region. The word "gutterfly" itself surmises that sentiment: Work with what you got, be yourself, and the sky is the limit. It's exactly the sentiment Vurs says he wanted to get across in Hip-Hop 101, which was the brainchild of W&K Art Director Desmond Marzette, who approached Vursatyl to teach the class.
"We all have a level of creativity and originality of our own, which is mostly what [hip-hop] lacks now: the welcome mat for artists to show that side of themselves," Vurs explains. Learning the rebellious, creative history of hip-hop, from outlaw sampling to teaching a generation the "Humpty Dance," not only makes for more informed fans, but more complete people, says Vurs. "[Hip-hop] was unlimited at its inception...that's what I want to inspire in these kids," he adds. "Not to be inhibited by circumstance is the kind of life lesson that I hope can come out of a class like that."
It's the last day of Hip-Hop 101 and the lesson plan is simple: The Lifesavas will perform and then the microphone is open. A few kids lower their guard and rap in front of the class. One of them, MC "Harry Mac," goofs his pre-written verses and starts rhyming "off the top." He looks nervous at first but hits his stride with references to the class, its teacher and another MC's Air Jordans. In the back row, Lifesavas' Jumbo and visiting Portland MC Libretto are busting up, their mouths agape. "Cut it!" Jumbo says before demanding a hearty high-five hug from the young MC. "It's over!" The students try to persuade Jumbo to take the microphone, but he refuses. "Nobody is gonna beat that."
Lifesavas Performing "Gutterfly" live at Jefferson High:
Organizers hope Hip-Hop 101 will return next year.