While small kids run around the Cambridge Community Center’s main floor—laughing and stomping, sneakers squeaking, chased by adults who strike a balance between fun and authoritative—a very different noise is blaring out of a small room deep in the building’s basement. Down here, syncopated drums, digitized strings and confident vocals boom from a Mac monitor in a baby blue studio. The room’s walls are covered with graffiti and spray-painted silhouettes of figures in action—rappers and breakdancers abstracted, watching over the teenaged emcees, producers, promoters and DJs who have crowded inside these cramped quarters over the last three summers to hone their skills and learn about hip hop.
This is the home of The Hip Hop Transformation (THHT), which Darrin Korte, director of the Community Center, and local producer and engineer Janos “The Arcitype” Fulop founded in 2013 under the Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment Program. Today, they work with the Cambridge Police Department’s Safety Net program, which emphasizes collaboration and outreach between police, schools and youth programs to reduce and prevent juvenile delinquency. As the program enters its fourth summer, it is itself transforming, adding more students to its roster and preparing to move to a new home.
Korte couldn’t be more excited about the way the program has grown over the last few years. While the small, makeshift studio next to his office has its charms, the group’s expansion from 15 to 20 students—and plans to add a dancing track to the program—means that more space is needed. It’s a tight fit with just Korte and two other THHT members in the room. Joining him in the basement are Marquis “Tashawn” Taylor, a former student and current co-director of THHT, and Andrique Fleurimond, who is entering his second year.
“We firmly believe that if you engage a kid you can teach them any skill, and we think hip hop is a great way to engage the kids initially,” says Korte. “And once we get the kids in here, we teach them a lot of valuable lessons, those 21st-century skills that we value: leadership, accountability, creativity, collaboration.”
Kids don’t just start writing rhymes and making beats. They begin with a history lesson on the roots of hip hop. THHT teaches authentic hip hop steeped in the culture that sprang up in the 1970s from Bronx block parties in the 1970s—gatherings that empowered marginalized people, one celebration at a time. It can try the kids’ patience, but it works.
Taylor, who started rapping his freshman year of high school, says he noticed a huge artistic improvement during his time at THHT. “I didn’t even know what I was rapping about. I just knew that I had the lyrical ability to put a whole bunch of words together that rhymed and make it sound good on GarageBand.” Now, he realizes that “there’s a reason why I’m given all these opportunities. It’s not because I have the ability [to rap], it’s that I’m supposed to do something with it. There’s supposed to be a message to it.”
THHT has released three mixtapes, each of which is dense with sociocultural messages like the negative impact of local violence, police brutality and domestic violence. There are also messages of empowerment and community—messages often embodied by older peers’ leadership and stories of personal and artistic growth.
Fleurimond calls students like Taylor and Brandon “Lotus” Lewis, THHT’s lead engineer and other co-director, role models for participants. In fact, Lewis recently opened for the Nappy Roots, and a few months ago he performed at the Middle East alongside underground staples Cormega and Roc Marciano. (Korte manages both Taylor and Lewis’s rap careers.)
And it’s not just about rapping. The program welcomes kids who love hip hop but don’t know what they want to do yet. Currently, THHT teaches DJing, production and promotion. Soon, Korte hopes to add visual art and dancing to the roster.
“THHT exposes your talent,” says Fluerimond, one of the program’s standout non-emcees. Teens start out on vinyl turntables, true to THHT’s old-school, authentic values. This makes the initial learning curve a bit steeper, but the payoff is worth it in the long term. Fluerimond says this enhanced his skills once he made the jump to digital, and it encouraged him to continue improving. “I’d DJ from 12 to 6. I still practice every other day.” He’s since started his own company, DriqueSides, which offers DJing, promotions and videography.
“These are things he didn’t do before, and now that he can DJ it’s opened all these doors,” adds Korte. Fleurimond will also spin at the Middle East Upstairs soon.
There are also stories of at-risk youth—including Lewis—who have found a second chance in the program. Korte says those are the kids he tries to keep most involved in THHT, where someone can keep an eye on them. Participation in the program also counts as a job for these young rappers—20 hours a week, $10 per hour—and the teens meet local artists, including Boston legends like Edo G.
“I was stuck in the studio all summer instead of the streets, and it’s made all the difference,” Lewis says. He’s performed for the mayor and opened for acts like Cormega and Roc Marciano. “Why would I go back?”
The Bridge Sound Stage and Studio is a brief drive away, just outside of Porter Square. While The Bridge is THHT’s new home, it’s a familiar venue for the program. The students will finish their summer with a performance on The Bridge’s main stage, a space that can pack an audience of 70. The Bridge is owned by The Arcitype, who also heads AR Classic Records.
Arcitype says the program now needs to prepare kids for a career after THHT. “It’s almost doing a disservice to these kids” by not showing them how to book studio time, find an engineer, get beats or promote their shows, says Arc, sitting in the middle of The Bridge’s control room. “We arrange it and make it happen, but we’re not always gonna be there.” They also hope to get more teen girls involved.
This summer is bittersweet, as Korte will hand control of THHT over to a coworker as he focuses on the Center. But he’s clearly proud of all the program’s work so far.
The kids are more blunt: “We’re the best program in the Mayor’s Program,” says Fleurimond.
Taylor agrees. “We do so much for the community,” he adds. The group performs at an array of local events, from neighborhood block parties to awareness rallies to fancy brunches. Korte calls these public performances “outreach events.”
“People look up to me and Tashawn,” says Fleurimond. “Kids stop me in the hallway asking how they can join THHT.”
“Everybody who has been in The Hip Hop Transformation has been transformed,” adds Taylor.
This story originally appeared as “Hip Hop and You Don’t Stop” in our July/August print issue, which is available for free at nearly 200 locations throughout Cambridge (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.