One of the ways in which local culture trumps the money and marketing of mass culture is by facilitating personal relationships. No matter how hi-def their television, or how many posters they have of him on their walls, most Portland teenagers will never actually know 50 Cent. On the other hand, young people in Portland can meet and shake hands with one of their city's great contemporary emcees, Vursatyl, of local hiphop outfit Lifesavas. And if they are students at Northeast Portland's Jefferson High School they have the additional opportunity to develop a relationship with him and each other, as he instructs them twice a week after school in Hiphop 101.
The class is an all-too-rare instance of global commerce facilitating local art. Every year, the Portland-based advertising firm Wieden+Kennedy receives a donation from a client earmarked for community development. This year, Desmond Marzette, a Wieden+Kennedy Art Director who had been touched as an undergraduate by a course on hiphop history and culture, used the funds to commission local nonprofit Self Enhancement, Inc. to develop a similar program for Portland youth. Vursatyl was brought on to teach the class, and Hiphop 101 was born.
Vursatyl collaborated with fellow Lifesava, DJ Rev. Shines, and Connie Wohn of the Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls to create a nine-week syllabus covering diverse topics, from the history of beatboxing to the role of women in hiphop. Wohn utilized her sizeable Rolodex, replete with music world contacts, and brought in an all-star lineup of guests from around the country, including Grand Wizard Theodore, the inventor of the scratch. In addition to the history lessons, personal anecdotes, and speakers, each hour-long class includes student-favorite "Beat Jeopardy," wherein DJ Rev. Shines spins various tracks and challenges the 15-or-so pupils to name which artists have sampled them.The class concludes this week with a panel on local hiphop and a performance by Lifesavas, who will surely be in top form with the approaching release of Gutterfly, their much-anticipated new album. Vursatyl, Shines, and Wohn are enthusiastic about the class and would love to see it happen again. Vursatyl explained, "As an artist it helps to impact the next generation and make sure they know the importance of continuing the legacy of good music. Too often we sit back and complain about how music is not what it used to be, but if we get involved with the cats who are going to carry the torch, it might take some of our complaints away." On that note, keep an eye out for State of Mind, a local hiphop crew featuring 16-and 17-year-old graduates of Hiphop 101. I hear they're quite good, and they've learned from the best.