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Strutting their stuff in front of legends

May 15, 2008|Jeff Weiss | Special to The Times

Despite a star-studded show featuring dynamic performances from Herbie Hancock, Chali 2na from Jurassic 5 and beat-boxer/old-school rapper Doug E. Fresh, arguably the best moment of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz's BeBop to Hip-Hop's hourlong program occurred before the concert even began.

While the students of Westmont's Washington Preparatory High School gathered in assembly on Tuesday afternoon, waiting for their classmates to perform alongside the jazz and hip-hop luminaries, Thelonious Monk Jr., the chairman of the Monk Institute, informed the gathering of news he'd just received. Because of the program's success in bringing in world-renowned jazz and hip-hop artists to tutor musically inclined Washington students, its organizers were in process of exporting the curriculum to New York, Chicago and Miami, with the goal of being "pioneers of a new paradigm for musical innovation and process, spreading far beyond Washington Preparatory High."

One can hope.

After all, with hip-hop elders grumbling about the art form losing its vitality amid a depressed sales environment, the students' thrilling performances pointed toward a way for the genre to break out of the calcification that has plagued it for much of the decade.

Pairing a comprehensive survey of jazz from Dixieland through Miles Davis' ground-breaking fusion work in the '70s to the roots of hip-hop culture, the students rapped, scratching turntables and performed mind-bending break-dance moves all to the sounds of piercing trumpets, wailing saxophones and bass lines as thick as Goodyear tires.

While the professionals elicited the loudest response from the crowd, Monk Institute's 25 students showcased how sharply their prodigious talent had been honed over the last year. When one of the student rappers shouted that "hip-hop isn't in its grave / it just needs to be raised," it was tempting to picture a sample-free hip-hop world with full backing bands crafting complex collisions of sound for MCs to flow over.

Although students showed little stage fright at the prospect of performing with such storied elders, many of them remained a little star-struck.

"It was unbelievable getting to play with Herbie Hancock," Demetri Adderley, a bass player and Washington High student said about performing with the Grammy Award winner. "It gives you a real burst of confidence."

The performers seemed excited to be there, all of them hanging around after to mingle with students and faculty. In fact, for Chali 2na, who thrilled the crowd with his rapid-fire bass-heavy baritone raps, it was a homecoming of sorts. He got his start rapping at the Good Life in Leimert Park just a few miles down the road.

"A friend of mine told me about the program and asked me to spit a verse for Herbie Hancock. I said, 'Of course.' But when I found out what it actually was, I knew I had to come," 2na said. "This validates hip-hop for kids who are able to see things that we didn't see when we were growing up. To get introduced to highly respected people like Herbie Hancock, Thelonious Monk Jr., and Doug E. Fresh is a blessing. I'm honored just to be here and get to play on the same stage as them."

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