Interview 4080 - Scheme classes us on the Beats & Bars after school program, music industry experience
words by Frank Fernandez
photo by Virgil Solis
Scheme is a 32-year-old Chicago native and well-known name in the local Chicago hip-hop scene. After years of success and building his name throughout rap's underground, he has decided to use his knowledge and skill set to teach the next generation about the art of hip-hop. Through his after school program Beats & Bars at Little Village Lawndale High School, Scheme was able to turn a group of inexperienced CPS students into a polished hip-hop collective. I spoke with Scheme to hear from him on what this new venture means for him and what the future of hip-hop looks like.
Closed Sessions: Where did the idea for the Beats and Bars program originate from?
Scheme: I have a bachelor’s degree in Psychology in the behavioral field, so the school hired me for that reason. Once I started working at the school, one of the kids ran into me and knew the music I’d made through this website. He was interested in local hip-hop and my picture came up on the site, so he naturally told all of his friends. It wasn’t until a couple of months after I started working at the school that they brought it to my attention that they’d found me, but they thought I had a twin because they couldn’t imagine a teacher being a rapper. The way they saw me, I was just a Teacher’s Assistant working with the kids, nothing music related at that point. They approached me and said, ‘Is this you?’ And I was just like, ‘Yeah, that’s me.’
The students told me they rocked with the music and they were playing it in the hallways and they liked it. It was a cool, little thing for them that I made music. Soon after, my boss, the principal of the school, finds out along with the rest of the faculty and they thought it was cool.
To me, it was two separate worlds, my educational background and my music was always totally separated. I never would mention that I made music when I was in that educational realm. Later on, the kids were telling me that I should ‘start an after school program to make music’ and I agreed. It was towards the end of the school year, spring 2015, so we had to wait until the fall semester to begin. That’s when I began Beats and Bars. We got a small room in the school and set up studio monitors, a laptop, and a mic. We got items through donations and that’s how we began the program.
Closed Sessions: How many students are currently enrolled in the program? Males? Females?
Scheme: Currently we have 13 members involved in the program, all males. It began as anyone could sign up, and I had one female student sign up, but she never showed up. So, it became an all-male group, and once After School Matters became involved and helped us raise funds, it went from a two-day [per week] program to three days. The kids weren’t satisfied and they wanted to be there five days a week, which no after school program had ever done since no student wanted to remain after school all week. The members of our club wanted to stay and be there as much as they could, so After School Matters funded the rest of our days. They wanted it to remain an all-male club, which it will be for the foreseeable future.
Closed Sessions: What about your experiences growing up in Chicago and Chicago Hip Hop made you want to teach?
Scheme: I grew up in the Humboldt Park/Logan Square area and I always felt myself, even as a teenager, wanting to work with youth. Within my group of friends, I was always the one to be saying ‘we got to get out of here’ and I had the mindset that the world was bigger than our neighborhood. Early on I knew that I didn’t want to get in the same type of trouble that other youth from my neighborhood were getting into. I had friends who were born and killed on the same block they grew up on, and I did not want to have any part in that because they never were able to get out. I went to school, and as I mentioned before, received my Bachelor’s in Psychology and I was hoping to be a counselor, not even leading a classroom. Given the opportunity, I became the unofficial school counselor because these kids see me as someone they can come to.
Even though I’m almost twice their age, I think Hip Hop has allowed us to connect on a more personal level and my mindset is still very youth driven. I’m paying attention to what these kids are doing, what they are listening to, because Hip Hop is one where you have to know it and stay active to remain involved. The combination of that and having the opportunity to be in the classroom with these kids, they were able to just talk to me and tell me things they normally felt they could not discuss with other authority figures. It gave me a kind of unique role in the school, where I became the go-to person whenever there was an issue between students. They would want to come to me, which helped me to build a rapport with the students. Being able to connect with them more personally allows the students to not act standoffish and respect me.
Closed Sessions: How did you use your own experiences in the music industry to relate to and bond with the students? Did you gain insight into what they understand Hip Hop to be in 2016?
Scheme: I’ve always been one to keep an open mind when it comes to Hip Hop. I’m older, which means I came up in a different era, so the kind of music I like might not be the same as my students. The way I looked at it was that they put me onto stuff, especially Chicago artists who I wasn’t up on, such as Lil Bo and Young Pappy (who passed away in May 2015). I was like, ‘alright, this is their rap,’ and they rock with it because it speaks to them and uses the same slang that they use every day. All they listen to is Chicago Hip Hop, sometimes [they] listen to the radio, but to them it wasn’t hard enough or street enough because they’re listening to straight Chicago drill music.
I thought it was dope, but the one thing I learned is that I needed to put them onto stuff too. They were open to listen to new stuff, so I played Nas and other artists, and tried to take elements out of who we listened to. Not necessarily trying to rap like Nas, but mimicking his storytelling ability and being able to turn it into our own thing. The next question was, can we do a story song? Can we break away from the idea that you have to shoot people and sell drugs, and instead just make a dope song? To these kids, they grew up with Chief Keef, Lil Durk, and Fredo Santana, and those were the guys they looked to for Hip Hop. They didn’t have anyone else to put them onto other music, and I became that figure to show them music that they wouldn’t otherwise be hearing. I showed them Mobb Deep and they loved it, and I just want them to understand that it is the same thing. The culture is so youth driven and the kids have to learn about the past in order to appreciate the present. There’s a lot of learning that went down on both sides.
Closed Sessions: Where did the direction come from for the Beats and Bars Vol. 1 project Who They Wish I Was?
Scheme: When we began the program in November, everyone was kind of lost. For the first four months, the students were stuck trying to make the kind of music that they were listening to and I had to work them out of that mindset because this is a school-funded program. This means I couldn’t have them recording tracks about killing people and selling drugs, doing this and that. It took me until I sat with them and held a brief discussion on society and our communities and help them understand who’s the real enemy in all of this and who’s the real victims. It took us to have those discussions to realize that these students haven’t had the opportunity to talk about these kinds of things in the past.
Once it clicked in my head to talk with the boys, they were able to understand what is really going on around us and understand about the school and prison systems, among other things. These kids have parents who have been imprisoned for 30+ years and they don’t know the ins and outs of it, they just saw them as screw ups. Once we got that settled, my next step was to figure out what we wanted to do with the program. This led me to deciding to make an album because once we have a common goal, I can figure out how to tailor it to each student. Even if I have a guy who has never rapped before, but I can help him write a dope sixteen bars, and put it on the album, then that’s enough for him. I have other guys who have experience who may play a bigger role, but at the end of the day, everyone has their hand in it and we have a finished product.
This also helps them to take it more seriously because they aren’t just working on random songs, but creating a cohesive project. We didn’t know what to call the album as we were working on it, but the title actually came from the first song we ever started writing. We took a break from writing it and it actually ended up being the second to last song we finished for the album. As we were deciding for a name, we chose Who They Wish I Was based on the discussions we had and our place in society and the fact that these young men are normally labeled ‘thugs’ or ‘shooters.’ It was clear that these young men were not on that same path because they were choosing to stay after school and take part in learning and working together to create something. I told them that if they wanted to be out in the streets, they already would be, so let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about being in the position where you feel you have to be the ‘shooter’ to make it out but in fact, that’s not what you want to do. Once we were able to make those connections and record the first song, the boys realized that they could really do this, even without swearing or referencing drugs and violence. As one mentioned, ‘I don’t wanna sell crack and end up like my pops,’ that’s real and we can’t ignore that. They were able to make music that they like and their friends would like without talking crazy. With that in mind, we were able to knock out songs and I showed them how to put the album together and make it flow. At the end of the day, I think it’s a perfect title because it’s who society expects you to be, but not what you want to become.
Closed Sessions: Where do you hope to take this program in the future? Are you looking to expand or explore different mediums than music?
Scheme: The idea is definitely to expand. I’ve had kids from my different high schools say to me, ‘Yo, can you do this program at my school?’ The idea and the concept of Beats and Bars would be amazing if it could one day spread throughout the city and be at different schools. If I could have an artist friend with the same vision as I do in different locations, then that would be my ideal situation. Even a non-profit where we can build a community center in where kids from different neighborhoods can come in would be great. In our situation, we may have been able to get kids from various neighborhoods, but they may be too nervous to enter a certain area. They may not be affiliated, but they know that it is hot and they ‘can’t cross this neighborhood or that neighborhood.’ It’s a sad reality and it makes me think that I need spots where kids can come that are on the middle ground, where they feel safe and have a place that they can go with no worries. I know how proud these kids are of what they did and how much work they put in and the fact they came in every day when After School Matters told me, ‘no kid wants to stay after for five days a week.’ I insisted that these kids really wanted it and they made it possible. If we can continue to do this for years to come and give these kids a voice and have leaders in my position to have those conversations with students. I think Beats and Bars was able to help them get a lot of their feelings out of their system and talk about things they’d normally keep to themselves. There are two sides to everything and I want to teach these kids that they can be real and put something positive into hip-hop.
Closed Sessions: How do you feel the music industry has changed since you first came on the scene? Where do you see it heading?
Scheme: Outside of evolving styles and flows, I don’t think there are lots of major changes; hip-hop seems to just constantly be in a state of change. I notice more singing and melody being used, but just because I might not like something doesn’t mean I think it’s whack, I just might not rock with it. I think it will continue to evolve and the biggest thing that I notice is how we get music out there. Kids don’t buy albums anymore, it’s all mixtape sites, streaming, sending zip files to friends, and everything is on the phone. Not everyone has the luxury of a laptop or a desktop computer, but most everyone has a phone to listen and share music. Even a few years ago, when Vic Mensa and Chance the Rapper were coming up they were going out to high schools and passing out physical copies to kids. So I asked my students, ‘Would you listen to someone’s CD if they handed it to you?’ and they told me no cause that meant they’d have to go home and dig up an old CD player just to listen. That was only four years ago when Chance and Vic were out hustling, and we already see changes since then with the use of phones and social media, which caused me to ask the students how they would spread their own music. They told me they would just use purely their phone, and it makes CDs obsolete. I feel face-to-face interaction still matters, but the accessibility of social media makes it easier to spread the music to more people who might not hear it. That’s what interests me most about the future of the industry, how music will be distributed and where that is heading. The culture will always be there, no matter what.
Closed Sessions: With your students’ project out now, are you looking to return to music, and if so, in what way? Were there things you picked up from them and will be applying or playing with in the future?
Scheme: I definitely have intentions of putting out more music. I have at least two projects in my head that I need to flesh out, especially since I got my laptop stolen last week that had stuff I recorded as well as the students’ music on it. Luckily, we had already completed the album and were able to release it with no problem, which would have made me shed a tear if we had lost all of that material the kids worked so hard on. All I lost was my own music, so I’ll be able to work that out and get that back on track.
The two projects would be an LP and an EP, which I will have time to work on during the summer. I hope to release the EP by midsummer and the album by the end of the year. We’re running the program this summer, beginning July 5th, and I’ll be working part-time with that to allow me time to focus on my own work. One thing I learned from the program is I shouldn’t overthink writing my verses, which I tend to do after being in the game for years. I would over analyze my writing and be a perfectionist, but these kids taught me to just go with it. As long as it flows and works well together, then you can make it dope.
Working with these kids also showed me that I am interested in the behind-the-scenes aspect of recording and helping artists grow and expand their horizons and abilities. That’s where I see myself heading in the future, but you can guarantee that you’ll be hearing new music from me.
Who They Wish I Was is available for streaming on Soundcloud