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.

"I've probably read, like, 300 different histories of hip-hop," says Moskoff, who these days shares an apartment near the Missouri Botanical Garden with his girlfriend, Camille Peace. "I researched very seriously because I didn't have anyone to talk to about it."

Today Moskoff has plenty of people to talk to about it, from his CRA kids to the crowds who pack his weekly DJ nights at M.P. O'Reilly's and the Halo Bar. He can hang out with old friends from Wash. U.'s radio station, KWUR (90.3 FM), where he was hip-hop co-director before graduating with a business degree in 2003. Camille is documenting CRA's progress through her photographs. And at least three times a year Moskoff collaborates with dozens of local rappers for his mixtapes (in 2006 he released six), which have ranked among Vintage Vinyl's top sellers and are also nationally distributed. In fact, the only place in his life where hip-hop doesn't play a central role is at Simon & Passanante PC, the downtown law firm where Moskoff clerks full time.

But Moskoff thinks about the music — and the Center for Recording Arts — constantly. "I want to get into a situation where I can pay people to do what I'm doing [with CRA] now," he says. "So I'm giving someone a job, and they're giving the next generation the information they need."

Lisa Nolan, a.k.a. Old-School DJ LeLe
Jennifer Silverberg
Lisa Nolan, a.k.a. Old-School DJ LeLe
Finsta: Marketing pro, CRA mentor, cookie fan
Jennifer Silverberg
Finsta: Marketing pro, CRA mentor, cookie fan

So far he has conducted workshops at Fanning Middle School, Maplewood-Richmond Heights Middle School (where he also coaches basketball), Vashon High School and the St. Louis City Juvenile Detention Center.

"But I'm not financially set at all," Moskoff says. "I'm broke, so I have to work all of the time. Right now I'm only putting together CRA lesson plans in my spare time, typing in my BlackBerry and hoping I get to a computer in time to synthesize everything. The vision I had was just so much different, so much more."

"Activism is a very unsupported and lonely place at times," agrees Rolando Brown, the 24-year-old executive director of the Hip-Hop Association (H2A), which since its founding in Harlem in 2002 has facilitated the growth of hip-hop outreach programs worldwide. "But we remind ourselves that we're making something out of nothing. We can have almost anything we want if we stay true to our inherent idea of where the community came from."

Of course, Moskoff's perspective on hip-hop and its significance as a cultural and political force is fundamentally different from Brown's, or Lyfestile's, or Finsta's, thanks to the "unearned privilege," as he calls it, of being white.

"My whole experience [in college] was with the Wash. U. hip-hop scene, which pretty much bears no resemblance to a real hip-hop community — mostly in the absence of black people," Moskoff says. "I saw a lot of activism for activism's sake. A lot of misused resources, a lot of waste; it's like you'd see anywhere else where there's a lot of money. It was just kind of depressing to me.

"I have different thoughts about my place in the struggle for racial and economic equality," he adds. "And I have to deal with, 'Who's this white boy?' I've got to prove myself every time: People are like, 'Are you gonna play something good?' They're expecting me to play Lynyrd Skynyrd or something. But by the same token, I also have a lot of advantages. Being white and having a business degree gives me a pass through doors that some of the people I work with can't walk through. I can dress up in a suit and look like all the white guys downtown looked when they were my age."

(That said, it's rare to see Moskoff in a suit. Even at his day job he favors khakis and a polo shirt, his uniform of choice accented by a neatly shorn jawline beard and, nearly always, a well-worn baseball cap.)

"I always saw Gabe as a guy who's trying to make things happen," says Mike "2600" Davis, a founding member of the local DJ crew Litterthugz who met Moskoff through KWUR. "He's not only interested in taking from the community but in giving back to it. When I met this kid, he had turntables and mixers set up in his tiny little dorm room. Gabe always wanted to learn. He's done his homework."

Jeff Chang, author of the American Book Award-winning Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, has seen programs like Moskoff's sprout up all over the nation, and he has faith in the idealism of young activists. "Hip-hop is all about taking what you've got and forging ahead. It's the most amazing thing in that way," says Chang. "These things happen very quietly, but the impact they have is incalculable. Kids have a place to go to other than the corner. They're being shown a path forward."

In the midst of an impromptu rap battle that broke out during CRA's inaugural open house in July, Lyfestile offered what might pass for a CRA manifesto:

No stoppin' when I pop in the place

Lyfestile, I'm like a cop in your face

I stand in the basement of my man Trackstar

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