"Music Is Just the Method": Youth on Record's Young Musicians Release Album

Youth on Record empowers Denver students through music-making, and the organization is now releasing its first album.EXPAND
Youth on Record empowers Denver students through music-making, and the organization is now releasing its first album.
Andrea Viarrial-Murphy

It’s a dreary, overcast Friday morning, and the windows of the Youth Media Studio are already gathering condensation. The hive of musical activity inside is contained within three storefronts occupied by Youth on Record, which officially opened in this new home last spring. In partnership with the Denver Housing Authority, the education- and social-justice-oriented nonprofit is part of the Mariposa Redevelopment, a mixed-use, mixed-income community in west Denver’s La Alma neighborhood. Although this morning’s rain has kept the usual large crowds at bay, Youth on Record’s Youth Media Studio is still quite busy; Fridays and Saturdays are the nonprofit’s weekly “open lab” times, when anyone can use the recording studio and music-minded workspace.

Two musicians share the bench of an upright piano in the middle of the room, one plinking out scales as the other’s voice crawls up the notes. In the corner, two accordion players sit mirroring each other as “Happy Birthday” wheezes in near-unison from their squeezeboxes. Then there’s the drummer boy at the back who’s banging his way through an impromptu composition, hitting the snare with blunt force. It’s hardly a harmonious landscape, but neither are the sounds competing with each other: At Youth on Record, all grooves are good ones — and they’re being discovered on a daily basis.

“I almost feel like we’re a Denver School of the Arts for the streets,” says Adrian Molina, aka Molina Speaks, an MC, poet and music producer, as well as Youth on Record’s creative director and one of its instructors, or Partner Artists. “The less-polished kids and kids who don’t have any formal arts education are getting that now by being here. A lot of our students found their way here out of necessity; they know that they couldn’t be who they are without music and art.”

Molina’s low-key tone is naturally poetic when talking about the young folks who come through Youth on Record’s doors each day. Even in this moment, with the volume level climbing as the thwap, thwap, thwap of a floor tom increases in intensity, Molina’s delivery remains calm and cool. At no point does an authority figure appear and tell the kids to “tone it down.” After all, this is exactly what this space is for: expanding expression, connection and self-confidence through art. And for some kids in the room, it’s also their ticket to high-school credits that they need in order to graduate.

Working with alternative high schools, charter schools and residential treatment programs, Youth on Record provides credit and what is known as “credit recovery,” a program that involves shortened courses for quicker accumulation of credits. Students from partner schools including Colorado High School Charter, Emily Griffith and Lincoln Respect Academy can receive English, art and history credits based on Youth on Record’s unique curriculum. Classes such as Spoken Word, Emcee School and Social Solutions are offered throughout the school year, along with a rotating selection of other courses. This semester’s focus has been on the music business and non-musician jobs within the music industry.

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“We want schools to treat Youth on Record classes as an incentive,” says Tyler Breuer, director of programs. “If the kids are performing well, they should be in this class if they want to be. Or if they are really struggling in other areas but they are allowed to be in Youth on Record, that in turn helps their progress in other classes.” Like everyone else in a staff or Partner Artist position, he sees students as individuals navigating a complex world with what they’ve been given. Although it’s clear that he’s in a position of authority, Breuer — a Denver musician who plays with the Knew, the Hang Rounders and the Ned Garthe Explosion, among others — maintains a great rapport with his students. He believes in these kids, many of whom attend Youth on Record through school programs because they’ve been deemed “at-risk.”

“We have to use ‘at-risk’ and that kind of terminology sometimes, but only, like, in our formal grant writing,” Breuer says. “We would never use that language here.” As an organization, Youth on Record is able to address issues like rising high-school dropout rates and the school-to-prison pipeline without the kind of confining language or traditional last-resort educational programming that can often further marginalize already vulnerable young people.

“We have the highest academic-achievement gap in the nation,” points out Jami Duffy, Youth on Record’s executive director. “If you look at students of color in Colorado, they are graduating at rates that are 20, 30, 40 percent below the rates of their peers. I think it’s easy for us to say, ‘They’re just kids,’ but I see kids who have experienced severe trauma. We have kids who have lived in refugee camps, kids who have been in and out of residential treatment centers. We have a kid who was given a Class 1 felony when he was seventeen.”

Still, Duffy’s a fearless optimist. From a comfortable, built-in wood-and-pillow perch known as the “poetry kiva,” she scans her surroundings and smiles. Small gaggles of musicians are still whittling away at sounds created on laptops and analog instruments, giving the space its continuous, comforting rattle and hum. “It’s like, I look around this room — this is what happens when you go to the heart of, and speak to the soul of, the human being; that is what I think our teachers are so good at,” Duffy says. “They really get to the deeper parts of who these kids — these humans — are. Some of the best art can come out of some of those deep, painful and enriching experiences.”

Some in these scattered musician groups are instructors and some are students, but the line is blurred at Youth on Record: Everyone here has something to teach someone else. Although the social labels dissipate once you walk inside, there is a dedicated team of approximately fifteen Partner Artists who lead classes. Courses take place in classrooms across the metro area as well at the Youth Media Studio, taught by the likes of award-winning poet Suzi Q. Smith, internationally known emcee Kalyn Heffernan and local beatbox superstar Michelle Rocqet. Every day, students get to learn from these Partner Artists — active musicians, emcees, poets, producers, engineers and industry professionals who for the most part come from the same neighborhoods as many of the kids and share similar experiences with them. Ninety-six percent of Youth on Record’s students identify as Hispanic or African-American; 62 percent of Partner Artists identify as such.

“Putting culturally relevant teachers and musicians in the classroom is the thing that makes Youth on Record pretty remarkable,” says Duffy. She says that the program’s “secret sauce” is twofold: The teachers are part of a creative, localized workforce, but they are also individuals who can relate to their students’ lives outside of the classroom.

“Having a group of people who are from similar backgrounds is extremely important,” Duffy notes, “especially when we’re talking about racial and cultural identities. You have to have people teaching and guiding you who are from the same background; it’s extremely important, because you can see yourself in that person.

“For a while, the number-one place where young men of color were getting arrested in Denver was in their own high-school classrooms, because there was a major cultural disconnect,” she continues. “But if you put a Molina Speaks or a Mike Wird or an Ill Se7en in that classroom, that kid isn’t getting the cops called on him, I can tell you that. These artists can de-escalate the situation, because they’ve been there.”

In 2015, Governor Hickenlooper officially proclaimed May 15 to be Youth on Record Day. The day’s inaugural celebration was centered around the opening of the brand-new Youth Media Studio. This year, the organization will honor the fruits of its labor with the release of Y.O.R. Sessions Volume 1, a compilation of songs by national artists recorded at Youth on Record. In collaboration with local radio station KTCL/Channel 93.3, acts such as Arrested Development, Vinyl Theater and HoneyHoney stopped by the Youth on Record headquarters during the past year to record sessions and contribute to the album.

Duffy says that after landing a permanent headquarters for Youth on Record, the next step was for the nonprofit was to become a full-fledged social enterprise. That’s where the recording and selling of the yearly compilation album comes in. Although every compilation going forward will include one song by a student, the hope was that getting national artists involved initially would bring needed visibility to the unique organization and its mission. “I felt like this was a model that could bring in the money that we need and then bring us the exposure that we need, by releasing a high-quality album from a youth facility that’s not a Kidz Bop CD or something,” explains Duffy.

That said, Youth on Record students took part in every step of the album’s creation — from microphone placement in the vocal booth to production, mixing and mastering of the tracks. The annual recording project is an opportunity for them to use the skills they’ve picked up and sharpened, and the creation of a professional album will strengthen their chances at future internships, industry jobs and higher-education opportunities.

This Sunday, May 15, Youth on Record will throw its first-ever Album Release Block Party, a daylong music and art festival featuring performances from students, Partner Artists and more. Youth slam-poetry team Minor Disturbance will also present readings, and musicians of all levels are invited to sit in on jam sessions inside the recording studio. Food, drinks, games and more will all be part of the free celebration. Most of all, Youth on Record looks forward to connecting with the community right outside its front doors and to welcoming anyone who’s interested in being part of the program.

Yes, Youth on Record is about the music, but even more than that, it’s about the life experiences of each person who comes through its doors. “This is a music organization, but that’s just our tool,” says Breuer. “We’re a social-justice organization; the music is just the method.”

Youth on Record's Album Release Block Party is Sunday, May 15, 12 - 6 p.m. 1301 West Tenth Avenue, 303-993-5226.

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