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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

TRUE Skool Celebrates 10 Years of Helping Kids through Hip-Hop

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Photo credit: Dave Zylstra
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It’s something of a cliché to talk about how music changes lives, but the good folks at the Milwaukee hip-hop nonprofit TRUE Skool, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, have watched it happen time and time again. Providing at-risk youth from underserved communities with the tools they need to express themselves creatively as well as the life skills to make the most of their talents, TRUE Skool’s expansion in those 10 years has been nothing short of remarkable, but now, with a long-overdue move to a sprawling, perfectly suited new home in the Shops of Grand Avenue, they’ve got even more room to grow.

“At our previous location off of 48th and Fond Du Lac, we started in a small office downstairs and grew to take over the whole second floor,” remembers Executive Director Sarah Dollhausen, “and then we outgrew that space as well, and it really limited the amount of young people we could serve.” With the Grand in need of tenants, and other local arts groups already taking advantage of it, the Downtown mall was proposed as an affordable option. “This space had been vacant for three years, and we came, along with Reproductive Justice Collective, to have a look,” she says, “and as soon as we walked in we just knew: ‘This is it.’”

Touring the space, it’s not hard to see why they were taken with it. Not only is it much larger than you’d expect being tucked away under the staircases surrounding the statue of John Plankinton, more than big enough to allow TRUE Skool to at long last have dedicated areas for each of their art and music classes, but, by serendipity, one of its many rooms was already outfitted to be used as a recording studio, courtesy of previous occupants WUWM. Here, as a cumulative, collaborative final project, the 2014 students will assemble a 10th anniversary mixtape, from start to finish, using the skills they’ve learned in their respective classes.

“We have ‘Music Production,’ ‘Art of the MC’ and then DJ classes, both beginner and advanced courses,” explains Music Director Tyrone Miller, also known as DJ Bizzon, half of WMSE hosts and JSOnline bloggers Those Hip-Hop Guys and an all-around rap scene staple. “The main goal of the classes is to, first, let the students express themselves in the ways they feel most comfortable with, and that’s basically what TRUE Skool is all about in general, but then to also give them the knowledge and skills that, if they actually want to take this on as a career, they can.”

Through a curriculum that meets MPS Learning Targets and the stringent National Standards for Arts Education, students learn the ins and outs of the music business, from writing and recording material to marketing a completed album and presenting yourself professionally, all imparted first-hand from a who’s who of Milwaukee hip-hop talent, including Viva Fidel, SPEAKeasy and Dana Coppafeel. Local DJs have even donated a vast vinyl library, which the students excitedly volunteered to sort, shelve and maintain. “They just came up to us and said, ‘Can we reorganize these 5,000 records?’” laughs Bizzon, “and they actually came in every day for two straight weeks and just did it.”

That gesture by the students, many of whom entered TRUE Skool with serious behavior issues and other challenges, speaks to the pride they have in their new home away from home, which, with its centralized location and proximity to other arts nonprofits, will only allow TRUE Skool to serve youth even better in the decade to come. “In the end, it’s all for them; they have something to say, and we provide them an outlet to say it, and that’s all you really need sometimes, to get it all out,” says Bizzon. “They’ve already got the talent, we just help them figure out what to do with it.”