Across the street from the ashes of League Park in Cleveland’s Hough neighborhood, the future of the block is beginning to blossom. Dee Jay Doc hastily sets the stage for his graduating class of young rappers at the Fatima Family Center. He runs from one corner of the gymnasium to the other connecting cables to his turntables and sound equipment.
“Mic check, mic check. One, two. One, two.”
Despite the small crowd of supportive family members and representatives of sponsoring organizations, Doc seems as if he’s preparing for a gig at the Beachland Ballroom. And it’s clear in his students’ eagerness to take the stage that they appreciate his efforts.
After a brief intro, Doc’s thunderous beats roar throughout the gym as his five students take center stage with smiles from ear to ear. They were set to perform “Our Swag Defines Our U-neek-ness,” a song crafted by the students and produced by Doc. Still years away from adulthood, these students have already cut a record in their own name.
Offstage, Doc could be seen jamming along with his students, following every beat and cheering the young rappers. It wasn’t entirely unlike a father coaching his kid's little league game -- except Doc wasn’t just coaching the youths in sport; he was changing their lives through the power of music.
This Is Hip-Hop
Born David Harrill in Mayfield Heights, Doc, 35, describes his younger self as quiet and shy. That is, until he was introduced to hip-hop in the late '80s.
“I was at my cousin’s house and he said, ‘You gotta hear this, man! You gotta hear this! This is hip-hop,’” Doc recalls. “He put on 'Paul Revere' by the Beastie Boys. When I heard that, the beat just captured me. It caused me to look inside and say, ‘What do I have to say that’s worth sharing?’ It really helped me find my voice.”
Doc purchased a drum machine, practicing his newfound craft every night as he assembled a recording studio. By 20, he was a full-fledged producer, earning $5 per hour to lay down tracks by his friends. He was also performing.
“When I was 21, my hip-hop crew -- the Fearless Poets -- used to go up to the park in South Collinwood to practice [break dancing]. We'd always do little clinics for the kids. Everyone would be break dancing on our cardboard.”
The rewarding experience of encouraging Cleveland’s youth to express themselves through art clicked for Doc, and his impact in the community didn’t go unnoticed. Seven years later, Doc was asked by the Progressive Arts Alliance’s Rhapsody Hip-Hop Summer Arts Camp to become the DJ instructor, a position he’s held ever since.
“This Is Our Neighborhood”
Doc and his wife purchased and renovated a home in Glenville, drawn by the historic neighborhood’s prime location, ethnic diversity and affordable housing. But Doc isn’t blind to the tragic realities of suburban sprawl, white flight and economic hardships affecting his beloved neighborhood.
“There’s also a lot of poverty and abandoned buildings falling over and there are a lot of committed people trying to say ‘this is our neighborhood and we’re going to make it good.’”
Doc’s contribution to the neighborhood’s well being began when he joined the block watch, further embedding himself into the community. It was through his experiences in the group that led him to his grand epiphany. By helping area kids write and record a song about making the neighborhood safe, Doc was able to merge his talents with his passion to cultivate a better future for the children.
Finding Your Voice
Last summer, Doc launched a pilot project called FRESH Camp. The idea was to lend a voice to the neighborhood kids through music. The camp program would culminate with a CD release written and recorded by the students themselves.
“What in our neighborhood is fresh?” Doc would ask the kids. “Fresh can be what’s unique about our neighborhood. It can be something that’s new in the neighborhood or old and renovated or refurbished. It can be new ideas. It’s also a way to talk about food. Where is fresh food in our neighborhood?”
Among the 13 kids who met regularly at a freshly renovated house provided by the Famicos Foundation was nine-year-old D’Angelo. While Doc is somehow touched by every single student, it is this boy who stands out as the most inspirational. Despite a mental disability that makes it nearly impossible to understand his speech, D’Angelo still managed to find his own voice.
“My first day at camp, I had no idea," says Doc. "No one warned me or said anything to prepare me that a student had some special challenges." But there was no stopping D’Angelo: “He wanted to be involved so bad.” And his fellow students were happy to have him. “All the students were so patient with him.”
Along with his classmates, D’Angelo brainstormed lyrics to go into the final recording. Because of his speech impediment, it proved difficult and time consuming to make out what it was he was trying to say. But Doc insists it was always worth the effort. Despite his enthusiasm behind the mic, D’Angelo found his true passion behind the turntable. “He just goes crazy," says Doc. "He loves it!"
In the end, Doc struggled with whether or not he should include D’Angelo’s sessions on the final track. In the belief that it would make for a better end product, Doc muted out the enthusiastic boy's audio in the chorus. The result was less than satisfying.
“When I put him back in, his voice added 75 percent of the energy in the song," explains Doc. "There was no way I was going to take it out.”
FRESH Camp 2012
Doc hopes to build on the success of last year’s camp by upping the class to 40 students attending four, two-week classes. He’s currently on a fundraising crusade that will allow him to offer additional programs throughout the year, giving the students more opportunities to create music. The camp for Glenville residents ages 9-16 runs July 16-20 and 23-27.
Among the items on Doc's wish list are iPads equipped with custom beat software, so students can experiment with their own unique sound. Future curriculums might include lessons in entrepreneurial skills to help the kids market and sell their music if they choose to go pro.
Meanwhile, a Neighborhood Connections grant will be providing funds for turntables, mixers, studio time and food for the young campers, the latter of which has become a focal point of the program. Making healthy eating decisions, Doc believes, is of prime importance. Fortunately, more fresh food options are springing up.
“There are a lot of urban gardens being created in our neighborhood," he says. "We are using the FRESH Camp to help educate students and families about what's available and how to use it. Brian Doyle of Sow Food will be doing a cooking lesson where students take fresh produce picked from our own neighborhood gardens and create their own lunch.”
“We'll be trying things like maple syrup, raspberries, dill and squash that are grown here in Ohio and even right here in our own back yards.”
Empower Youth, Change A City
Cheryl Waggle, a teacher at Orange High School, has had the pleasure of working with Doc. She says that among his vast toolkit of skills are patience and the ability to relate to his students.
"He makes those who are shy feel comfortable in coming out a little bit with their singing," explains Waggle. "He does it time after time and say, 'Oh, this group will be tough' and somehow he just makes it happen. The greatest stuff is what happens in the process and watching kids move in and out and what experiences they're having and how it just becomes such a positive event. My goal is to have every child experience him at least once."
Many may wonder how Dee Jay Doc gets by. Paying the bills as an independent artist and community activist surely is no easy feat. But Doc wouldn’t have it any other way. Giving back to his community and city is his living.
“I've dedicated a large part of my career as an independent artist to creating special programs for youth," Dos says. "My art form is not only turntablism, emceeing, and recording -- it's cultivating youth voice. I want to give them the same gift of hip-hop expression that I was given when I was a teen. I believe in our youth. I believe in our city. I believe in the power of the arts to empower youth and to change a city.”
- Images 1 - 4: Dee Jay Doc by Bob Perkoski
- Images 5 - 9: FRESH Camp - photos Brittany Schenk for Redkite Photography