People with Passion — hip-hop JOAT Alexander Fruchter

ALEXANDER FRUCHTER

Interview August 10, 2007

Journalist, teacher, and DJ, all in the world of hip-hop. Fruchter is the founder of online hip-hop mag rubyhornet.com, and has written, developed, and taught a hip-hop based class for middle school-aged children called “You Can Quote Me On That.” Fruchter has also made time to continue one of his first loves, DJing, which he does under the name of Roosevelt Treasurechest.

In this interview from August 10, 2007, Fruchter discusses his passion for hip-hop, journalism, and teaching, and why he values all three.

The backbone of everything I do can be attributed to where I grew up. Hyde Park, on the south side of Chicago, known for its diversity and creativity and the people that live there… It’s really the only integrated neighborhood on the South Side and it’s surrounded by a lot of poverty on one hand or even going up to Bridgeport — that’s not really a racially or ethnically diverse area, and Hyde Park is kind of a Mecca for that.

Growing up there, the majority of the music I listened to was hip-hop and rock. At first I was just watching the Box. I was probably in about 6th or 7th grade… I started with Cypress Hill, and when the Fugee album came out I really liked that, and that’s when I started listening to the words. I kind of faded in and out, and then in high school I went to Dr. Wax with my brother, and they would have imports there, rare bootlegs. I wanted to buy an Oasis bootleg for 30 dollars, because I really liked that band as well. They were probably my favorite group at that time, so I wasn’t just listening to hip-hop. I of course did not have any money as a sophomore in high school, but my brother is a lot older than me, so I asked him, begged him to buy it, and he said he would buy it and then trade me CDs.

The CD he wanted was Ill Communication by the Beastie Boys, which I was ready to give up because I hadn’t listened to it in a while. Before I gave it to him I listened to it again and remembered a lot about what I liked.

At that time I was going from a public school in Hyde Park to a private school, and I think when I went to that private school, some of myself got pushed down, and when I listened to the Beastie Boy record again and looked out my apartment window onto the streets of Hyde Park, the music spoke to me in a different way. Q-Tip is on that album, and I had one Tribe Called Quest record. I went back and listened to that. Q-Tip was on the Lyricist Lounge CD, so I bought that, and that had Mos Def and Wordsworth, and I bought Black on Both Sides when it came out, and that album changed my life. Out of wanting to know the music more and research it more, I got into interviewing. And I’ve been able to interview the Beastie Boys, Dilated Peoples — a lot of the artists that influenced and inspired me.

The purpose of the interviews when I started — and this might sound kinda corny — but I just decided it would be cool to talk to these people, just to see what they’d be like. I did start writing for an organization called Hip-Hop Congress which is a national organization now, a fairly large non-profit. I started doing interviews and publishing them on that website. That then led to someone from a website called Soundslam contacting me, so I published on there. Through that, I got in touch with someone from a company called Bandit Productions, which is a company here in Chicago.

You’re involved in hip-hop — not only from an artistic/creative standpoint, but also from a journalistic and promotional standpoint…

Yeah, I would say I’m involved in hip-hop first as a fan of the music, someone that feels the art and is really into the art. And on a journalistic level and a DJing level, and just the level of hip-hop that makes hip-hop not just exist at a set given time or place on a stage but all around us, where we’re just hanging out with friends and listening to a CD — that’s really where I’m involved. And I’ve used hip-hop in my classroom, so I’m involved in it at an educational sense, and in a sense of community building with Hip-Hop Congress.

The class is called “You Can Quote Me On That.” It is mainly psychology — an introductory psychology and sociology class that goes into life skills and self-esteem type things, all through music, mainly hip-hop.

As a teacher I was teaching in Englewood, which is on the south side of Chicago, through Teach for America. That’s how I entered the classroom. In college I did not have any thoughts of becoming a teacher. I fell into this program — that’s kind of rude, because no one in there would say they fell into it — but I actually fell into it. As I was doing interviews, I would come and tell my students about it, just another way for my students and I to relate, to break down barriers and get them more interested in listening to me. I knew if I could get them listening and hearing me out, I could get them to learn. There was no way I was going to be the best teacher from a technical standpoint, because I’d only been teaching for a year or two, and in the first year not at all. But my goal was to get them to want to fill in the gaps, to want to learn, to get excited and say “I am going to learn and pursue things on my own, and when I get older I can’t wait to learn more.”

I learned early that they were not exposed to the music that inspired me, and I wanted to get them exposed. It started as me taking posters of groups like the Roots, Talib Kweli, Common, Beastie Boys, Jurassic 5, and making a sign with their quotes and cutting it into a design and putting it all around the room. I also had Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King, not just hip-hop figures. Every day would start with the quote of the day. We would also have songs of the week where I would give them a song to help their fluency.

When I finished my Teach for America commitment, I was burned out. I didn’t really think about becoming a teacher so I just wanted to take a step back and figure out what I wanted to do. I did not want to step away from the classroom completely because I love teaching and I feel the kids — this is gonna sound kind of egotistical — but I think they need people like me in the classroom. Maybe not myself but people like me. And this was a way to combine my interests. I picked out songs that matched psychology theories, wrote a curriculum, and showed it to — first I talked with some other people from Teach for America, namely this guy who is now the principal at Kipp Ascend Charter Academy. He gave me the first job. I then went back to Henderson. They have an after school program. They loved the idea. They put it on. That led to another school. I also went to the private school that I went to for high school and they liked it. Just through putting it together and pitching it to schools to get them to believe in it, and the kids reacting to it and the administrations seeing the kids reacting to it brought it through.

What I teach is the theory of self-efficacy, the thought that whether you think you can or can’t, you’re right. That’s as basic as it is. People with a high self-efficacy feel they can accomplish the task, and studies have proven that people that think they can accomplish something work harder to do it. People with a low self-efficacy don’t try as hard, so obviously they’re not going to accomplish it — whether they actually could or couldn’t. Because they thought they couldn’t, they don’t.

A lot of my kids were behind, and because they were behind and had been used to not doing well, they had given up in a sense. Their self-efficacy was low. So I wanted the kids to get that if they switch their thinking and start thinking “I can do this if I work hard,” they are going to see changes. I wanted them to get a sense of ownership, that they can take ownership over their education.

The second thing I want them to understand is that hip-hop music is all around them; it’s not only what’s on TV. And I’m not one of those people terribly against commercial hip-hop or anything like that. I do think some of it is garbage, but that’s just on a musical level. But I also think there’s a lot of good commercial hip-hop. Would I want my 5th grader listening to it? Probably not. And I wanted them to see that there’s this whole other realm that they might not know of, simply because that’s the realm that has inspired me. And hopefully they’ll be inspired to go check out this music and to want to learn and get pushed further.

You said there is certain music you wouldn’t want your 5th grader to listen to…

The content is not appropriate for kids. What are they getting? If you look at music as nutrition for your soul, they’re not getting a lot of nutrition. An artist will be like, “Well, I’m just rapping about what I see everyday in my neighborhood.” Well my kids live in that exact same neighborhood. I teach everyday in that same neighborhood. I don’t need your song to see it, because I can look out my classroom window. These kids don’t have to listen to it, because they live there.

When I take my kids on field trips downtown, when we look past the lake, they go nuts. We might as well be going to Iowa. They would not even know this is their city. So I want them to be listening to something they don’t always see. Let’s expand their world. Not all rappers are rapping about this, and not all hip-hop is like this. That’s one sense: what are they getting? Is it gonna push them, push their thinking?

And two: it doesn’t take a genius to figure out, the cursing, a lot of sexual content — even the sexual content with no cursing, we still know what they’re talking about, and I wouldn’t want, I don’t want a 5th grader listening to that and running that through their mind. If they’re going to be singing and rapping, let’s have them rapping something a little better. You do not have to curse to rap about how good or bad your neighborhood is.

The problem comes — and I’m not pointing this out; this is not new — the problem comes when that’s the only thing that is most readily available. And that happens in any area. When you are eating all fast food, you’re gonna have health problems. “Hustlin’” by Rick Ross, the beat is really catchy and I like the chorus and I did a lesson using one of his songs where we talked about social-stratification and what does it mean to actually hustle, and can someone who is a teacher — is that a hustle? Is any job a hustle? And we compared his song to a song by Talib Kweli in which he says “Life is a beautiful struggle/people search through rubble for a suitable hustle/some people using their noodle/some people using their muscle/some people put it all together/make it fit like a puzzle.” After comparing those —

That was Talib —

That was Talib Kweli. Rick Ross just says “Every day I’m hustling.” And I gave them the lyrics to each. Every curse word I put all stars or something so it wasn’t printed. And I had them look at the Talib Kweli lyrics verses Rick Ross. Both songs are pretty much the same subject: “This is what people are doing to survive.” But Rick Ross’s thing is almost all curse words, and he repeats the same words at the end of the line. Talib Kweli is just much more expressive. Even though they’re rapping about the same kind of thing.

There’s a difference between writing a song that deals with the ills of the inner city or ills of wherever someone’s from — the problems with government, problems that everyday people face — that use curse words… that’s fine, because everyday life, people curse. People have so much anger that they express it that way. Nas — he has some crazy, ridiculous songs — vulgar. But he does it in a way that is not just stating facts. Nas could say the same thing: “I just rap about where I grew up,” but I don’t think he would categorize his art like that. People who are negative role models, their content has no other purpose — I don’t even see the purpose. I don’t have people to name exactly, because quite frankly I don’t even remember their names. And soon no one will remember their names. The world has become very evil in so many senses because people will do something just for the money.

The way this street culture has been, just, put up, has not been really responsible. When you actually go into ghettos, it’s nothing nice. There is a lot of actual pain, a lot of suffering, and I don’t think that is communicated in a lot of this music that glamorizes gun talk. If you’re really rapping about what you’re seeing everyday — from my experiences teaching in various neighborhoods, inner-city neighborhoods that are the same kinds that these rappers are rapping about, I have not seen a lot of gold, a lot of jewelry and great cars and shit like that.

So, yeah, I’ll listen to it, but I just think there are better alternatives. It’s not a valid excuse to say, “I’m just rapping about what I see.” That’s great. I don’t have any problems with you rapping about what you see. But I can have a problem that I don’t think it’s good enough. That your actual rapping is not creative — that’s a valid criticism. Those billboards that created a controversy that said “Stop listening to trash” — I like some of the artists on those billboards, but I agree in theory with the billboards. Some of this music is just trash. When someone says their music is their hustle, that’s bogus too, because art is not meant to be just a hustle, to make fast money. That’s not the purpose of art, or music.

When I was growing up I knew of it as working hard, like with the baseball term: even when you’re gonna have a groundout, you hustle to first base. You always run and do your best. That’s what hustling means to me: doing your best, working hard, trying to make something happen. Everyday I wake up very early in the morning. I go teach. That’s not just some easy shit I can just wake up and go do. It’s hard. And teaching in Englewood is extremely difficult. I’m working extremely hard, and making my own opportunities.

Now it’s used kind of differently, like “this is just my hustle,” and I think that takes away from the value of art and music. Mr. J. Meideros from The Procussions, he’s another one of my favorite artists and people in general. He has a line, something like “It’s a sad time/when a poet has to hustle rhyme.” And that’s really what it’s come down to.

You talk about hustling, and what that word meant to you, and you talk about role models…a guy who may fall in line with both is Jay-Z. How do you approach the idea of the artist as role model with your students?

That’s a good question and it’s also something I bring up in class. We had a whole week when the quotes of the day would correlate with something we were reading or something we were talking about, whether that be freedom or kindness… whatever theme was going on. So I did talk about “Are rappers role models?” And I had some come into class. A guy Juice who’s a famous Chicago artist came into my classroom. And then I also have a friend who I grew up with in Hyde Park that’s on Rawkus Records. His name is Naledge. He came in, and kids got to ask him about those things.

All the artists I bring in and give a quote to, it’s because that music has touched me. Some of them, I have been able to develop a personal relationship where I can call and talk to them. Many of them, I have a relationship at least with their work, where it has meant something to me and I know how to frame it, and I have no problem with that kid taking what they read in class and showing it to their parents. If their parents ask, “What did you learn today?” I want them to be able to say “Well, we had a discussion about knowledge” — not the rapper but the word knowledge — “after hearing a Mos Def quote I’m harder than y’all/cuz I’m smarter than y’all. We talked about how intelligence can make you tougher.” And their parents will say, “Oh, how did you get that?” And they’ll say, “Mos Def said it.” So if their parent is gonna think, “Who is Mr. Fruchter putting in my kid’s face?” — if they want to research Mos Def, I have no problem with vouching and saying “This is someone your kid can benefit from knowing.”

Now, I also think it’s dangerous to show kids in the inner-city — and put up as role models — rappers, because it doesn’t show a wide range. And my whole point of teaching as I said earlier was giving them a sense that their world is wide open. So I agree that some of these people are role models, but in such a large world there are so many other role models, that while Jay-Z is a great role model for some people, he’s not the best role model in America, and he’s not the best role model in the whole world. Even if you want to look at it from someone that goes from nothing to something, there’s tons of people that never rapped a day in their life that do that everyday. Even my parents — my dad grew up very poor in Humbolt Park, and he’s not super rich right now but he’s raised a successful family, worked hard, and has built something from nothing.

Jay-Z is not the best role model in the country, in the world. Is he the best role model in hip-hop?

That depends on what you want. There’s a lot of people who would say “Yeah, he is,” because he’s elevated himself — the president of a record label, his own clothing line, sports clubs, he’s one of the best actual rappers known for his actual art. So he’s a great role model. But some people don’t have that goal. What if I would say that Afrika Bambaataa is the best role model? Or the Beastie Boys? Or Mos Def? Or Talib Kweli?

Jay-Z, it’s hard to knock that guy, but there is a lot he did that you might not want someone to do. He even says it in his songs: “Hov did that so hopefully you don’t have to go through that.” In terms of his position now, he’s great. Study Jay-Z. But I wouldn’t want my son or even my students doing the exact same thing that Jay-Z has done to get where he is: selling drugs, and getting caught up in crime and things like that.

And again, there are other people in hip-hop — why not Little Brother? They’re great role models. If you just want to be known as an artist with a great fan base that can put out quality music. The Beastie Boys aren’t on anyone’s Best MC list, and none of their albums are The Best, but as a whole package they’re one of the best groups. Talib Kweli, when I interviewed him he was on tour with the Beastie Boys, and I asked him: “What do you think of them? Some people think that they’re really not cool.” He said, “The Beastie Boys are on a level where they can do anything they want, and they’ll have a fan base ready to receive it.” And he said he would love to be in a position where the Beastie Boys are because their fans don’t box them in. They have created great, great work that — again, when you have such a strong fan base, you are actually touching people. People like you. They want what you have. They’re great role models. So I don’t know if Jay-Z — back to your original question (chuckles) — I don’t know if Jay-Z is the best. He’s definitely near the top. But again, it depends on what is someone’s definition of success and happiness.

Jay-Z says, like I said earlier: “Like actin’ that I told you to sell crack/no, Hov did that so hopefully you won’t have to go through that” — he has to spell that out. I don’t think a kid is able to make that leap on his own. Just the same way you wouldn’t show them GoodFellas…a kid cannot appreciate that, so by showing it to them you’re opening a can of worms. This actually came up in class. I showed a movie about Emmitt Till. It’s called The Untold Story of Emmitt Till. It’s a documentary. And the kids were really interested in Emmitt Till when we got to him in history.

Had they heard of him?

Some had, some had not. But being from Chicago and on the south side of Chicago, some of them had known about it. We went to the DuSable Museum, and they actually talked about it there. I had the documentary, and we did the backstory, and I told them “This is a documentary, and anytime you feel uncomfortable and wish to leave, you can leave.” And I had kids walk out of the room at certain points because they just could not handle the emotions that it brought up in them. Even though it’s a really well-done documentary, they’re just not ready for it.

Your class uses hip-hop to teach certain skills…you were saying self-efficacy…

Self-efficacy, yeah, as a theory in psychology.

Okay. But you could just as easily use baseball. You could teach kids about work ethic through Cal Ripken. You could teach them about overcoming racism through Hank Aaron. What is it specific to hip-hop that makes that worthwhile for a classroom?

You gotta meet the students where they are. Hip-hop was something that they all knew, and they all listened to, and when I passed out a survey “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I got a lot back “I want to be a rapper.” If all the kids in the class were wearing Cal Ripken jerseys, I would use baseball. Hip-hop spoke to these kids, and I wanted to take that love they had for the music, and go into writing, go into self-expression. Hip-hop lends itself to that, also, because of the wide-range of subject matter. The depth lends itself perfectly — political rap, people who rap like Del tha Funkee Homosapien, Q-Tip, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, those artists that rap where they’re not even making sense. It’s all metaphors.

If you define hip-hop as an industry, as the music videos and all that, that’s different than hip-hop as a culture that’s built on forms of self-expression for empowering yourself. You don’t need anything to do it, like football. All you need to play football is a football and people that want to play. Hip-hop, all you need to make some music is your mouth. Those are positive things. When you hear a rock song, and you really like that rock song, you really get into the music. You hear a song and you’re like “That song describes how I’m feeling.” You might sing along to it, and when it’s over you feel better — that happens with hop-hop. That’s a tremendous positive. That’s maybe the best: it transmits feelings and helps people work through their day and get through life.

So why work with kids?

I just felt a sense of responsibility. If everybody who has these really big dreams goes into other fields, what are our kids left with? (leans forward) The future, right? That’s what one of my 7th grade teachers said to me, and it’s just stuck in my head: if everyone leaves, who is teaching our kids? Teaching takes a lot of time to perfect. But if someone’s taught 30 years, that’s really great, but they also haven’t done a lot of things. I see a really concrete value in putting someone in the classroom that is 24 or 25 and has done these other things and has aspirations to being involved in politics, or being a business man, or being a police officer, or a lawyer, or a DJ, or a writer, and training them and getting them certified so they can be in the classroom, and exposing youth to people like that. Someone that may be 40 that used to be a top lawyer and wants to get away and comes to teach — there’s a value in having them in there.

My most memorable teachers, I don’t remember them because they were technically the best. They were my best because they got me to learn. Got me to do the homework on my own. Got me to listen while they were talking. They might have been saying the same exact things as other teachers, but for some reason they got me, a kid who wants to go home and play video games or go out and play baseball, they got me to see the value in learning. Those are my favorite teachers, and that’s what I want to be, and when a kid thinks of me, my goal is for them to think of me as their favorite teacher because of those reasons.

They are our future. Seriously. They are our future. Things are not constant. It’s not like America can stay like it is. People our age are gonna be in control soon. People younger, in grammar school, they’re gonna one day be where we are now. They need to be trained. They need to know what’s going on. That’s why I chose to work with kids.

For more on Fruchter, check out djrtc.com and rubyhornet.com.

RTC’s latest mixtape Closed Sessions, Vol. 1, featuring GLC, Bun B, Kidz in The Hall, and Rhymefest, available to download!

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