A different kind of drug rap: `Yo, don't crack up'
THE limo was modest by MTV standards: a mere 22 feet long with a small television and Oriental rug in back. But for the five kids who piled out of it Memorial Day weekend, it was fair warning to the music video business that they had arrived. The aspiring stars, locally known as One Nation, had come to a Boston subway station to film their rap song, ``Stand Back From Crack.'' Fourteen television cable stations plan to air the anti-crack video as a public-service announcement, including a station in Los Angeles and another in Philadelphia.
By 8 a.m. the waiting area in the station has filled up with kids from various neighborhoods in the city to act as extras in the video. The boys in One Nation bluster about, saying, ``I'm not wearing that stuff!'' when two girls approach with stage makeup in hand. A group of middle-aged commuters sits on a bench at the edge of the crowd, looking dazed.
Although rehearsals for the video weren't extensive, the kids take on their parts naturally. Dark glasses and lead guitars transform two boys into David Lee Roth act-alikes. They strut around, striking poses and mugging for the camera. Or jump onto anything immobile, including each other. When young ladies join the group of commuters watching the show, the guitarists call time out, in true Roth tradition, to meet the public.
Occasional yells of ``Hey, Emmett!'' compete with the rap tape that played continuously.
Emmett Folgert is director of special projects at the Dorchester Youth Collaborative (DYC), where One Nation got its start. DYC is a place where local young people come to talk, rap, dance, and, if their timing is right, get a late-afternoon ham-and-cheese sandwich. The drop-in center is in an inner-city neighborhood where kids don't read about drugs and gangs in the paper, they see them on the street. When a van from the center takes them home at night, housing projects are part of the route.
Inspiration for creativity seems scarce in the rooms at DYC. Kids wearing designer-label tennis shoes sit on top of beat-up office desks and talk. But then you notice how the lack of furniture leaves so much more room to dance - the reason that James Marshall, a 16-year-old rapper in One Nation, came there five years ago.
``I was breaking [dancing] and they had space to break,'' he says. When the excitement of break-dancing faded, James and some friends at the center started rapping.
Mr. Folgert encouraged the kids to write a anti-crack piece in 1986. Doing the crack video ``was my idea,'' he says, ``but that didn't mean they'd do it. About a half a year ago I suggested they do AIDS, and they wouldn't touch it. A younger group of kids just finished a piece on AIDS.''
Robert Sampson and Dana Johnson rap with James in One Nation, with Jo Anne Reed and Tshombe Core providing backup vocals. The group fielded several live performances - from a school talent show to a United Way pep rally - before work on the video began.
But pulling off a music video was different. It was a full-blown production that would test their music in the new dimension of visuals. It took months for Folgert to pull together funding from State Street Bank in Boston and work out production details and a storyboard with a local organization that produces a cable show with news and feature segments of interest to teenagers.
The video features 19-year-old Michael Donahue, acting the part of a crack user, running scared from something the audience never sees. All three rappers lip-sync a verse from ``Stand Back From Crack'' to Michael as he runs through the subway station filled with kids and an alleyway decorated with graffiti done by DYC kids. The final dramatic scene is filmed in a bedroom. It comes from the lyrics ``Yo, don't crack up. But after a while you will erupt!'' as special effects make it look as though Michael is blown up, to show the violence of the drug.
Alan Michel, director of Home Inc., which does the teen TV show, put together the story for the video. He chose a subway setting because ``people with all kinds of backgrounds go through it.'' That way the message to leave crack alone comes from all sorts of people, he says.
Matt Macchi takes his role as newspaper salesman very seriously. Throughout the 11-hour day of filming, he practices his choreographed moves for hawking Boston Globes. Holding a paper over his head, the 14-year-old from Dorchester waves it from side to side as he steps back and forth to the music.
Matt's older brother, Mike, stands at an easel in the video and sketches the waiting area.
Kids came wearing clothes popular in their neighborhoods. Towana Slayton wore a backless denim dress. Reebok and Adidas sportswear was de rigueur. Gina Broeten and Janne Kjonno, who are Norwegian girls working as au pairs in the United States, look like tall blond Californians in knee-length surfer shorts.
A cameraman, strapped into a leather harness to support the camera he carried, walked through the group on a first filming attempt. Swirls of white clouds were waved around the kids by an electrician holding a fog machine. MTV hopefuls complained about the smoke getting in their eyes.
When the song ends, everyone - including commuters - crowds around the TV set that plays back what's been filmed. Folgert gives a pep talk: ``OK, you've got to exaggerate it or else the camera won't pick it up. You're not happy with it, we're not happy with it, nobody is.''
``You can be excited, anything but cool,'' chimes in Alan. ``Cool doesn't come across. If you want to be cool, be intense.''
As the day goes on, creating that excitement and intensity becomes a group project. Since the sound for the video will be the song, nobody worries about background noise. When 16-year-old Tshombe is featured making his special dance moves in front of the camera, everyone surrounds him and shouts his name over and over. ``Te-shom-bay. Te-shom-bay.''
Thomas Braxton performs kung fu, spinning a long pole, in another camera close-up. As he makes an unbelievably high kick, almost out of the lens's range, the kids yell wildly.
Thomas, who grew up in Boston's South End, is working on a career in drama at Salem (Mass.) State College. The rap lyric ``don't crack up'' means something to him, because he had a friend who died from drugs.
``I know kids who do crack,'' says James of One Nation. ``Nothing would make them stop. We're trying to reach the ones that aren't doing it.''
As the day of filming wears on close to dinner time, Mike Hawkes waits patiently outside the subway station with his limousine. Folgert has hired him on several occasions as a special treat to take One Nation to performances.
``I just hope these kids realize what they have. It's a chance for them to get out and make it,'' says Mr. Hawkes.