Falling head over heels
IN the meeting hall of the First Unitarian Church on 8th Street, a bird-boned Korean girl, no more than 14 years old, is spinning on her head. She is wearing a look of bliss and a T-shirt that says, “My dog is cooler than your dog.” And when she finally comes to a stop, she smiles mildly, puts her palms on the polished wood floor and does a neat, quick handspring back to her feet.
The crowd, and there is a large one -- people of all shapes, sizes, ages and colors -- hoots and hollers and cheers. It’s another Thursday night in the Rampart district, and J.U.i.C.E. is just getting started.
Founded in June 2001, J.U.i.C.E. (Justice by Uniting in Creative Energy) is what teens dream of when they hear “after-school program.” Dedicated to preserving old-school hip-hop culture, J.U.i.C.E. offers kids the chance to learn DJing, MCing, graffiti art or straight up B-girl/B-boy break dancing. From 4 to 9 p.m. every Thursday, between 90 and 150 students, ages 2 to 25, pass through the towering church doors, to sing, spin or sweat out a long day’s worries.
“The only rule is respect,” J.U.i.C.E. site coordinator Monica X. Delgado says. “We’re trying to create an environment where kids can feel safe, and where they can access their artistic skills in a way that’s exciting for them.”
Founded by social worker and community activist Dawn Smith, the organization was born of a fascination with break dance and fueled by the work she was doing in juvenile rehabilitation.
“At the time she was doing work in juvenile halls and in shelters, and she made the connection between what youth need and what is out there,” Delgado says. “She did surveys with the kids in juvenile hall and they all said they didn’t feel like there was enough youth programming directed toward them. She wanted to create something that responded to their identity.”
Mindful of the dearth of local after-school programs and arts education in general, Smith decided to focus on hip-hop culture’s true-blue roots as a way to lure kids into the program. Born in the West Bronx in the early 1970s, hip-hop sprang from African American oral tradition and schoolyard rhymes. As opposed to most modern rap, with its emphasis on “bling” and gangsta swagger, hip-hop focused on community, identity and artistic expression.
Smith has since relocated to Toronto, but after four years, J.U.i.C.E. is thriving, helping kids “build their skills in the hip-hop arts and simultaneously to build their own creative identity,” Delgado says.
“J.U.i.C.E. came to me by word of ear,” says a 22-year-old who calls himself MIC. “I came up in here and it was live, and I decided to liven it up more by adding my presence.”
Another young man, a 19-year-old with the MC name Dumbfounded, takes in the scene. “I’m glad I found this place,” he says. “I was just passing by and heard some hip-hop activity, so I went inside. I thought I snuck in, but it was free.”
The boys laugh.
“And I’m one of the sickest MCs here, basically,” Dumbfounded adds.
“And the ugliest one too!”
STOP by any Thursday and you’ll find the church bustling. In the pretty stone-paved courtyard kids sit at a crowded table in front of rolls of paper, clutch colored markers and listen, enrapt, as well-known graffiti artist Eric Walker, aka Cre8, waxes poetic on the nuances of graffiti expression.
“We instruct the artists on how to translate their graffiti skills into viable means,” Delgado says. “We warn them of the repercussions of vandalism and encourage them to translate their artwork to canvas.”
In the adjacent meeting hall, 50 or so kids are usually busy defying gravity -- poppin’ and lockin’, spinning gleefully on their backs or practicing handstands.
“Break dancin’ has always been the most popular program,” Delgado explains. “A lot of these kids can’t practice anywhere else, they don’t have the space, or, if they’re on the street there’s the danger of being harassed.”
J.U.i.C.E. also has a working music studio, helmed by established record and soundtrack producer Kenny Segal.
Over the course of the past year, Segal and his students have recorded a full-length compilation album, “J.U.i.C.E. Presents: The Danger Room Files -- Volume One,” to be released in early September. There’ll be a release party at the church, complete with MC battles and graffiti displays.
“The kids wrote songs, recorded beats, mixed everything and got it ready to go,” Segal says proudly, “Hip-hop is one of those things passed down from one generation to the next. It’s hard to get that knowledge to begin with and if you can find it, a lot of times it’s not in the best locations. We offer a safe environment where kids can come and learn from great DJs and break dancers and artists. We’re getting kids with a lot of talent who may or may not be utilizing that talent at school.”
BY the look of things, every kid seems to be harboring some sort of talent. There is not a room in the place where you can’t feel that electric charge that comes with creative endeavor. Markers are squeaking against paper; old soul is blowing from the PA system.
In one corner Jerome Howard, 22, is describing how he first found J.U.i.C.E.
“I was surfing the Internet,” he says, “and I thought it was a good organization, something good to be a part of.”
He smiles broadly and takes in the whole church with one sweep of his arm.
“Now this is a place that I can pretty much say is like a home to me.”
What: Community project emphasizing creativity in the hip-hop arts
Where: Open classes at the First Unitarian Church, 2936 W. 8th St. (between Vermont and Westmoreland), Los Angeles
When: 4 to 9 p.m. Thursdays
Info: (213) 251-9164 or www.rampartjuice.com