Like rock 'n' roll before it, hip-hop was first written off as a fad, then painted as an agent of social dissonance. Hip-hop, it's critics say, is responsible for perpetuating damaging stereotypes, promoting drug abuse, violence and misogyny.
Jimmy Cunningham sees things a bit differently. The music and lives of artists such as Snoop Dog, Young Jeezy and Lil Wayne provide what he calls a contextual backdrop. For urban youth, hip hop is more than a genre of music or a style of dress, it's a native tongue...it's a culture.
For Cunningham and his company of mentors, hip-hop is a tool for reaching out to the underprivileged, at-risk youth of West Dayton. And they've been doing just that for more than a year now with an after-school youth-empowerment program called K.R.U.N.K.E.D. 4 Life.
"Crunk" is a slippery term. Ask five kids to define it, and you'll get five different definitions. It could be a musical subgenre of hip-hop, a form of dance or a portmanteau of the words "crazy" and drunk" that denotes a state of extreme intoxication. For some it simply means "fun."
In naming his program, Cunningham, who defines the word as "off the chain," a phrase that itself seems to want a definition, has altered the spelling slightly and transformed the slang term into a lengthy acronym: "Keepin' it Real through Unity and Determination."
During his seven years as a violence prevention specialist with the Family and Community Violence Program (FCVP) at Central State University, Cunningham traveled the country visiting Family Life Centers (FLCs), youth development programs designed to curb the growing incidence of violence and abuse in low-income communities. He was amazed by the ubiquity of hip-hop's influence.
"Wherever I went, I saw people were using bits and pieces of hip-hop instruction," Cunningham said. "I kept asking myself what it would be like if we put it all under one roof. I walked around for five years with that idea in my head."
In September of 2006, he secured a $750,000 a year, three-year grant through a cooperative agreement between the U.S. Office of Minority Health and Central State University. With that, he began visiting the classrooms and auditoriums of Dayton high schools to pitch the program. The recruiting response was so positive that he had to create waiting lists.
In selecting the kids, Cunningham looked for those with a genuine interest in hip-hop, but he also sought out kids who faced real difficulties, ones with risk factors such as single-parent households, poor grades or a history of discipline problems. At present, the program serves 25 boys, ranging in age from 14 to 18, from eight Dayton schools.
Each week, Monday through Thursday, they assemble at the top floor of a century-old red brick firehouse at 1500 W. Third St. where they're fed dinner, tutored by students from Central State University and given access to the tools of hip hop: keyboards, mixers, microphones, turntables, and the people who know how to use them.
Tuesdays and Thursdays are the signature nights. Community mentors engage the kids in five hip-hop-related areas: DJing, rapping, business, production and graffiti art.
Each day begins and ends with a cipher, a hip-hop tradition retrofitted for the program as a unity ritual. Mentors stand hand-in-hand to form a circle and then take turns sounding out with affirmations, which are followed by members taking turns rhyming to a beat provided by others pounding the walls or tables.
As with an after-school program, violence and drugs -- the subject matter of choice for so much of mainstream rap -- are off-limits, as is profanity. Gratuitous use of profane language in a song is enough to lead to a suspension.
"When it comes to profanity, including the use of the N-word, or your typical AK-47 violent fantasy, we don't do that," Cunningham said.
"And I'm very adamant about that. But it's a fine line, too, because their art is a reflection of their lives, which haven't always been rosy and pristine. For them it's a catharsis."
Cunningham and his staff have also been using rap to teach vocabulary and language arts. The idea here is that a high school freshman turned off by such dusty composition fundamentals as metaphor, personification and alliteration might be more inclined to learn them if he thought doing so would make him a better rapper.
But the negatives merit as much attention as the positives. Consider violence, a topic with which Cunningham's kids are not unfamiliar. Rappers may use personification and metaphor, but they also frequently allude to criminal acts of violence, at times glorifying them.
But because violence plays so prominent a role in hip-hop and in so many rappers' lives, rap naturally serves as an ideal catalyst for discussions about it. This is where Cunningham's notion of contextual backdrop comes into play.
"If I brought a teacher in here and just said, 'Discuss the ramifications of gun violence in the Midwest.' They'd all be looking at him like he was crazy." Cunningham said.
"Now when rapper T.I. got arrested on weapons charges, that was a big deal. You come in here, and you talk about here's the deal on T.I.'s arrest, now everybody's got an opinion. It's the same discussion."
Within the program, it is also up to mentors to address the question of reality versus image and the wide gulf dividing them, a pervasive problem in the fame-driven world of hip-hop, where rappers, producers and moguls continually struggle to establish and maintain their street cred.
"So many kids buy wholesale into generic, manufactured commercial images and try to act out these dramas of their heroes on the streets," Cunningham said. "What we try to figure out and explain is, 'Where's the hype?'"
While rap instructions has predictably emerged as the most popular component, the one with the most draw and longest waiting list, the program can serve only so many kids, and not all of them can be prospective rappers.
A soft-spoken boy, quick to laughter, Antwan Hunt has been with the program from the beginning. He chose music production.
"Everybody wanna be a rapper and everything," Hunt said.
"It's not for me. My mom, she sang in a group and my grandma did, too. Growing up, going places with them, I just found a love for music. Now I can hear errors in music, bad notes. I can hear when a beat's skipped in a song."
In 2006, Hunt was a freshman at Arise Academy with more than a few friends in jail and poor marks in his classes. One dat then-Principal Shane Floyd approached him out of the blue in the school's computer lab and told Hunt he had something he might be interested in.
"They had a little room off the school somewhere," Hunt said. "He sat us back there. I didn't know until they told us about it. I thought it was something that would keep me out of trouble a little bit."
Those first weeks in September when Hunt and eight others in the first group arrived at the firehouse, unpainted walls and empty rooms greeted them. There was no staff, no equipment to be found, nothing to indicate anything hip-hop-related would be going on there anytime soon. At least that's how Sean Carter described it.
"I thought it was a scam," Carter said. "We had one table and some chairs. Brother Jimmy had all these receipts and papers. It was just him. He was showing us he had paid for all this stuff. We just had to have faith it was really gonna happen."
Cunningham said it wasn't as bad as that. The equipment hadn't arrived as quickly as anticipated, but he got the group started right away on lessons and evaluation testing designed to measure the efficacy of the program. He kept the kids busy, taking them bowling or out for pizza and tried to reassure them.
A few weeks later, the program gained momentum. Equipment started trickling in. Today the walls are papered with posters, adorned with paintings and murals, the rooms filled with spray-paint cans, vinyl records. One room houses a nuts-and-bolts music studio with a tall wooden vocal booth that everyone calls the furnace.
Under the direction of Dominik Jackson, aka DJ Illness, Carter is working toward his goal of becoming a battle DJ.
"We just go through different routines and drills, scratching and mixing and different stuff," Carter said. "And there's different tricks. Some DJs spin around, go under their legs. This one dude was using his chin with the fader."
Both Hunt and Carter say their grades have improved, and they plan to go to college, an option neither had given much consideration before the program. Carter, with characteristic audacity, said he plans on one day becoming a judge.
"I'm thinking about going to Florida," he said when asked where he wanted to attend college. "Go to college in Florida; then go to law school in Florida; then be a judge in Florida. That's where they got all the girls."
During the course of the program, the kids have gone on Antioch College for a hip-hop conference, to the Underground Railroad Museum in Cincinnati and to the Newport Aquarium. Every summer, Cunningham takes them on a trip to explore different manifestations of hip-hop. The last was a trek to New York City for the Rock Steady Crew 30th Anniversary Festival.
"You can imagine how amazed and excited these kids were," Cunningham remembered. "Some of these kids really don't get out of the Dayton area. For some, just going from one state line to another was a big deal.
In the near future, the group hopes to put out a CD titled "We the Best" and hold a party at which the boys will perform their music. All areas of the program are working in concert, with the business side putting together the venue and logistics; DJs, rappers and producers working on the music and performance side; and the artists producing the CD cover and graphics work.
"A lot of what has meaning for these kids is dismissed in other circles," Cunningham said, explaining the need for the program. "Hip-hop gives us an entry point into their lives. We meet them where they are. They teach us how to teach them."