It's a cold, dark school night in Hazelwood, on the second floor of the made-over Oliver mansion. The building dates from 1865, an age when industrialists lived across the street from their mills, and it's served by a furnace so ancient that heat is in noticeably short supply. Bundled up in sweaters and scarves, the KRUNK teens are preparing for a show.
Jourdan Martin, tall and slim and twentysomething, reminds his troupe about performance and rehearsal schedules — and about proper attire. "Black slacks," he says, "white shirts, collars and sleeves. Real professional."
"Invite people," he adds. "Tell them to come."
And they will. KRUNK — Kreating Realistic Urban New-School Knowledge — is a popular hip-hop performance program that operates throughout the region. Founded a decade ago by the Rev. Tim Smith at his Hazelwood Avenue Keystone Church, KRUNK is just one of Smith's initiatives to transform the neighborhood. When he first came to Hazelwood in 1980, Smith found a community awash in shootings, drugs and mayhem.
"I can't tell you how many people I buried," Smith recalls. "I saw a lot of people hit the ground."
He pauses. "It breaks my heart to talk about it."
Smith cobbled together programs to help at-risk children, with a focus on homework, sports, music and financial literacy. To participate in his programs, which he dubbed "Center of Life," he demanded that teens have their participation approved by their parents, maintain their grades, and be prepared to work. More than 400 children are now enrolled in the program; more than 200 have already come through the music initiative alone.
"If you put kids in the right situation, they can learn," Smith says. "And it will affect how they live the rest of their lives."
For its part, KRUNK seeks to impart positive messages about mental and physical health. It also teaches discipline. "If you don't practice," Smith is wont to say, "no one will pay to hear you play."
"Hard work beats talent," he adds. "If you want to master music, you have to work at it."
Doing the work on the second floor tonight is Shyheim Banks, who is splayed in front of a computer, looking for a beat. "I call it ‘The Wish List,'" he says of his new piece. "I want the same beat for the start of the show. I want the same beat for the end of the show." He drums on the table. "Just a drum set and a piano. I want ‘The Wish List' to be in everybody's flow pattern."
"We can definitely do that," Martin agrees.
"At one point, we'll need a bass player," Banks adds.
"We got tons of bass players," Martin says with a shrug.
Across the room, two girls practice Banks' lyrics, reading from a sheet torn from a spiral notebook.
Tapping out a hip-hop rhythm, Banks says, "I'm writing about hard times."
Martin nods, adds a computerized track that sounds like wooden blocks, then stops.
"Ladies," he calls across the room, "you like the first half?"
In the basement of the church next door, seven dancers are working out a complicated routine with choreographer Mike Lee and sound engineer Wesley Smith.
"Five-six-and-seven-eight," Lee calls out "Bring it — not up," he raises his arms, "but out." He hunches over, arms thrust forward.
They try the movement. It fits. The dancers try it, and again.
"Teaching hip hop is tough," Lee says. "There's hardly any documentation standards."
The teens line up.
"Make sure you're where you need to be when you need to be there," Lee instructs.
Smith hits a few keys on a laptop, and the sound from two enormous speakers roars like an airplane taking off, accompanied by wooden block beats.
The dancers try the maneuver again until one young man stops.
"I spun wrong," he apologizes.
"Do it again," Lee says.
They take it from the top, and execute a series of rapid-fire, complicated moves, marches, pirouettes, snapping-to attention.
The seven dancers are in sync but imprecise. Lee tells them to go it again.
"The main thing we preach is discipline," he says. "Work ethic. A lot of kids that we deal with are problem kids. We don't reject these kids. Instead, we recruit them. We ask for these kids. We want to make a difference in their lives.
"They come in. We expect them to work."
He turns to his teens.
"Do it again."