Young Emcee

Kids don't listen to what teacher's putting down? Gabe Moskoff, a.k.a. DJ Trackstar, wants to reach them through rap.

Lisa Nolan calls herself "Old-School DJ LeLe," and she studies hip-hop with the fervency of a rookie-league phenom hoping to make it to the bigs. She carries around a thick spiral notebook, just in case she needs to scribble down ideas or album titles. Women are woefully underrepresented on the hip-hop DJ scene, but that doesn't faze Lisa in the least. She wants to learn everything she can about the culture and the craft.

At fifteen she has a pretty good head start.

Still, it's tough to be a DJ when you don't have turntables. "My little brother and nephew broke my turntables," Lisa says. But even as she rolls her wide blue eyes for emphasis, the soft-spoken Soldan High School freshman looks more determined than annoyed.

And you don't stop: Gabe Moskoff devotes at least twenty 
hours each week to the Center for Recording Arts.
Jennifer Silverberg
And you don't stop: Gabe Moskoff devotes at least twenty hours each week to the Center for Recording Arts.
Straight outta Defiance: Myles Jacquez
Jennifer Silverberg
Straight outta Defiance: Myles Jacquez

"I'm about to take matters into my own hands and buy used turntables," she says. "Or borrow them. I've been experimenting with my mom's old record player. I want to keep up with my hand movements until I get turntables."

Since August, Gabe Moskoff, a.k.a. DJ Trackstar, has been teaching Lisa the finer points of scratching and mixing. The lessons are part of the 25-year-old Moskoff's fledgling hip-hop outreach and education program, the Center for Recording Arts (CRA). On this particular winter evening, Moskoff, Lisa, and a half-dozen other kids and hip-hop mentors are meeting in the basement of Washington University's Mallinckrodt Student Center. Three days ago an ice storm knocked out much of the region's power, but it's warm and bright in Mallinckrodt.

"This room is all ours," Moskoff says cheerfully, "until someone kicks us out." He commandeers a cafeteria-style table and arranges bottles of orange soda, bags of barbecue-flavored chips and boxes of cookies.

"Mmmmm, shortbread! Kids love shortbread," cracks Lamar "Finsta" Williams, vice president of St. Louis' Ch'rewd Marketing and cofounder of the Hi-Pointe Cafe, one of St. Louis' best-known hip-hop nights.

"I pay attention to my demographic," Moskoff shoots back. He folds his long-limbed six-foot frame into a plastic chair, pops open a can of Red Bull and asks, "Everybody make it through the storm OK?"

"It was terrible," says fifteen-year-old Charles Jacobs, resting his head in his hand for effect. "Our cable went out just as I was about to watch King Kong."

Moskoff laughs. "I don't want to hear about your cable. I wasn't asking about your channels."

"My DirecTV didn't work," offers sixteen-year-old Derrick "D-Man" Armstrong.

Finsta shakes his head and says, "I have to move to one of these neighborhoods with the good grids. I climbed six flights of stairs holding out my BlackBerry in one hand and my cell phone in the other." He spreads his arms wide to demonstrate. "You know, like headlights."

The kids crack up. They've been meeting at least three times a month since mid-July, and their initial shyness has been replaced by chatty enthusiasm. Moskoff's happy to see the camaraderie. The state approved nonprofit status for CRA in January 2005, and this latest project is his most ambitious: a months-long mentoring program that teaches local kids about the history and culture of hip-hop, the realities of the music industry, and the nuts and bolts of making and performing songs.

Moskoff devotes at least twenty hours each week to CRA, and he counts on the other mentors to take part in weekly meetings and one-on-one sessions. When it's time for hip-hop history lessons, he turns to his friend Scott Woods (a.k.a. Lyfestile), a St. Louis emcee with an encyclopedic knowledge of the music's past.

"All right, we left off with Dr. Dre," Lyfestile reminds the group. "You guys familiar with The Chronic?"

"Parts of it," says fifteen-year-old Myles Jacquez.

"I think so," says Derrick.

"What's it called again?" asks Charles.

Lyfestile, scholar-serious in his wire-rimmed glasses and Brooklyn hoodie, loves to teach hip-hop history — and he's not the least bit surprised that these kids don't know much about Dre's 1992 gangsta-rap opus. After all, they were infants when The Chronic came out.

"I've never seen a record hit so hard," recalls Lyfestile, who was attending college in North Carolina when the influential album dropped. "I didn't know a soul who didn't have that record."

Moskoff cues up the first track of the Wu-Tang Clan's 1993 debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). "This is a return to the gritty New York sound," he says. "This is music to my ears. It still sounds different than anything that's ever been made."

In unison Moskoff, Lyfestile and Finsta recite the iconic intro: "If what you say is true, the Shaolin and the Wu-Tang could be dangerous...."

"Man," Moskoff says with a grin. "We are rap nerds."

Hip-hop activism might seem like a strange calling for a white kid from Madison, Wisconsin.

Tell Gabe Moskoff something he doesn't know.

"My background had pretty much no hip-hop in it," he admits. "I didn't have people to learn from or a culture to gain from. My neighborhood was mostly white, but very liberal and down-to-earth."

Moskoff's parents didn't question his fascination with hip-hop culture. In fact, it was his mom who — after her typically well-behaved fifteen-year-old threatened to cut class the day Wu-Tang Forever came out — bought the disc at Best Buy and brought it to him at lunch.

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