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 got a problem rapping about topics," says Charles, who found out about Moskoff's mentoring program via "STL Rap News," the DJ's weekly e-newsletter. "I just always rap about — you know, how dope I can rap."

"I would say it's a good exercise sometimes to pick a random subject and just write down your thoughts about it," Lyfestile suggests. "Not even a rhyme, but just like —"

"Dirty socks?" Charles offers.

“JJ’s like Beethoven”: Jaron Jackson-Craig raps, produces 
and plays three instruments.
Jennifer Silverberg
“JJ’s like Beethoven”: Jaron Jackson-Craig raps, produces and plays three instruments.

"Make a list of words that have to do with that topic," Moskoff puts in. "When you get to the next line, pick another word off there and base it off that. You can take it any direction you want. You can do a song, it can start out being about dirty socks, and what happened to you —"

"— because of dirty socks," Charles finishes.

About once a week, Moskoff visits Charles at his family's home in Benton Park West. They talk about hip-hop culture and listen to music. Lots of music.

"Charles is always really, really open to whatever I play for him," Moskoff says. "I play him everything from the Four Tops to [Danger Mouse's] The Grey Album. Charles is like, 'That doesn't sound like a Nitty beat; that doesn't sound like Yung Joc!'" He laughs.

On a breezy Wednesday afternoon, after Moskoff leaves the law office and Charles finishes another day at Metro High School, the pair listens to a mix CD that covers 30 years of hip-hop history in about as many tracks. With every song that blasts from the speakers, Moskoff asks the same question: "OK, who did this one?"

Charles doesn't recognize most of the songs, but Moskoff offers mini-lessons about every artist, from the Sugarhill Gang to Grandmaster Flash, from Run-D.M.C. to Big Daddy Kane, from Rakim to Public Enemy to Talib Kweli. When he comes to a track by 25-year-old Chicago native Lupe Fiasco, Moskoff pauses the disc and says, "Lupe's one of the first rappers in a long time that's made me want to write down all his lyrics so I can read them back."

Charles nods. "I just did that when I was listening to a Nas song!"

"If there's something you like, look up more about the artist on the Internet," Moskoff advises. "And I'm going to start bringing you four CDs each week. You can study them, then trade them in for another four the next week."

Later — after he has treated Charles to pizza at CiCi's, after he has dropped the fifteen-year-old back home, after he has had time to think — Moskoff is far from satisfied. He sees the potential of his grassroots organization but doesn't feel he's reached it. There's the lack of time, and there's the lack of money. The Center for Recording Arts still doesn't have any funding beyond what Moskoff himself can contribute, and that isn't much. He estimates that he shells out $5 to $10 per week on snacks for the meetings, and he spent $100 on holiday gifts for the kids. He can't afford to pay himself — or the other mentors — anything.

"Sustainability is a major issue," says Jeff Chang. "Burnout is a major issue. I've seen dozens of programs go under because they can't get the help they need. A lot of the organizers know what's going on in the streets, and they take it very seriously, and they get to a level where they have students coming in every day, but they're running out of resources. That's where foundations and philanthropists have to fill the gap."

"I've thought about fundraising," responds Moskoff, whose father works as a management consultant for nonprofit organizations. "Thought about it, thought about it. But I've got this aversion to things I don't enjoy. Planning events just plain sucks."

Not that he hasn't given it a shot. In March 2003, when he was attending Wash. U., Moskoff went to a talk by graffiti-artist-turned-social-activist William "UPSKI" Wimsatt, whose books Bomb the Suburbs and No More Prisons are practically holy writ for many young grassroots organizers, Moskoff included. Also in the audience was University City native Aaron Berkowitz, who was planning a huge hip-hop battle for charity in his hometown.

Moskoff approached Berkowitz and offered to help stage the event.

"We just clicked," says Berkowitz, who today serves as the national public-relations chair for Hip-Hop Congress. "He helped me find DJs; he was coming up with everything."

In the months that followed, Moskoff was inspired to throw several battles of his own. But despite their popularity, the events left Moskoff, who'd rather be mentoring and DJing than securing permits and setting up PAs, exhausted.

Still, he knows CRA needs money to flourish. Or, at the very least, to survive.

"I don't know if I'm better providing education and outlets to young black kids who need the opportunities," Moskoff says, "or if that'll be an uphill struggle for me because I've got to prove my legitimacy. Maybe by taking time to go teach black kids stuff, maybe that's more self-affirming for me, like, Hey man, you're cool, you're hip-hop.

"Part of me says: I've got the education; maybe I should just get super-rich and give all the money away."

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