Too Cool to Be School

Tri-C's hip-hop camp isn't school -- it's old-school.

The sight of a tattooed twentysomething wielding spray paint on school grounds would normally send teachers running. But on a recent Wednesday afternoon at Cuyahoga Community College's Eastern Campus, the tattooed twentysomething is the teacher, and the only things running are the eye-popping purples and blues on the mural that's taking shape outside the campus tennis courts.

This is the Rhapsody Hip-Hop Summer Arts Camp, a two-week hip-hop seminar open to kids 11 to 15, and the artist is RP, a gifted Clevelander who's teaching a dozen young kids about graffiti art. The kids are predictably cheeky -- "This isn't your best work, is it?" one of them quips -- but when it's their turn to take the spray can, they wiggle in anticipation.

"If they're out with their parents, and they see a mural of graffiti, their parents may go, 'Oh, that's just a bunch of crap,' but from this class, they can go, 'Do you know why it looks like this?'" says RP, a graffiti artist since the age of 15, who works with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Progressive Arts Alliance, a nonprofit group devoted to exposing young people to contemporary art. "It's beyond just using a spray can; it's learning to appreciate art, learning to distinguish different types of art. It's an educational experience mixed in with a little fun."

Back in the classroom, old-school hip-hop is played, teachers pop and lock, and the kids bob their heads. In lectures, the kids learn that Grandwizard Theodore was the man who pioneered scratching; then they take to the turntables themselves. Best of all, by focusing primarily on the formative years of hip-hop, the camp spotlights a time when the form wasn't so commercialized, before its spirit -- of indignation, righteousness, and just plain fun -- hadn't become so diluted with playa posturing.

"The good thing about it is, they're not giving the negative image of rap; it's been the positive image, the fun part of it," says 12-year-old student Alex White.

Of course, some of the kids' enthusiasm comes simply from the camp's structure.

"I don't like to sit down; I like to have fun," says Lannisha Tanner, an exuberant 14-year-old, whose favorite part of camp is the breakdancing lessons.

"We have to wear dress clothes at my school," grumbles a boy named Jaleel. "Here you can wear shorts, jeans."

The relaxed environment lets the kids know that learning doesn't have to be as torturous as the latest Will Smith disc. And clearly, they are into the fact that their teachers look more like them than your average J.C. Penny-clad educator does. Take Cuba, a B-boy from Pittsburgh who dons loose sweat pants, a tank top, and a natty black hat. He's teaching the kids how to do the "Harlem Shuffle." He explains what "get jiggy" means -- "It means you gotta feel it" -- before turning them loose to spin themselves silly.

At the end of each day, the kids do a group-rhyming exercise together. Someone says a sentence, then the next person comes up with a rhyme for that sentence. The results are pretty unspectacular -- "The ocean has waves/Bears live in caves" -- but watching so many different kids, from urban tough guys to bookish Harry Potter types, laugh and goof with one another is a welcome sight.

"A lot of kids are into rapping, and I'll say, 'Okay, you have to write four lines, and one has to have a metaphor, one has to have a simile, and now you have to try and use forced rhyme,'" says the Progressive Arts Alliance's Santina Protopapa, who was instrumental in assembling the Rock Hall's hip-hop conference in '99. "There's so many things that people don't realize that hip-hop has as an aesthetic." For one, there's the cultural diversity: Most of the campers are African American, but there's also a handful of white and Hispanic kids, and they interact well with one another.

"They discover that they're a part of a large culture," says Protopapa, adding that the Art Alliance has plans to hold another hip-hop camp next summer. "It's not a black thing, it's not a white thing, it's not a Hispanic thing: It's an everybody thing."

Tattooed teachers included.