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King Britt and The Playback Payback.

December 22, 2014

KingBrittPlayback01Text by G.W. Miller III. Images by Michael Bucher.

Tamara Dill and Joi Ross sit on the second floor of a North Philly rowhome with microphones in their hands as Alicia Keys bumps through the speakers. The two teens, collectively known as “The Queens,” both roll their heads with the music, occasionally singing along.

“Don’t be mad, it’s just a brand new kind of me,” Tamara harmonizes, soulfully sounding like she’s felt the same pain as Keys. “And it ain’t bad. I found a brand new kind of free.”

“Sing it, girl,” Joi offers.

It’s women’s appreciation week on their brand new radio show, called Playback Radio, and this is their first-ever live performance. They’ve played Etta James, Beyoncé, Mary J. Blige, Miami Horror, Amy Winehouse and more. Now, the show is coming to a close.

King Britt, the internationally renowned DJ who has been sitting a few feet away from the duo, interrupts, “After the next chorus, you can say thanks for tuning in and come back next week.”

But Alicia Keys is hitting the crescendo and the girls jump to their feet, bouncing around, emoting and crooning along with Keys.

“I’ve taken one too many excuses,” they wail, “and one too many lies.”

As the song ebbs and then fades out, Joi gives a shout out to the Playback Musik crew, ending the broadcast.

“I feel like it’s the start of a new beginning,” says Tamara, a 16-year old who performs under the moniker Muzical, after they go off air.

“I feel special,” adds Joi, 16, who performs as Classi J.

“You always feel special,” Tamara teases.

“I do,” Joi concedes.

The girls pack up the Numark mixer, fold up the table and put everything in its proper spot in the modest studio that is loaded with professional equipment – Telefunken mics, Akai keyboard, Ableton Push Suite, Critter & Guitari synths and more. They collect their bags full of schoolbooks and dash out to the unpredictable streets.

“It was so perfect,” says King, who remains beaming, like a proud father.

He shakes his head, thinking about the talent he’s fostered while serving as an artist-in-residence here at The Village of Arts and Humanities.

The girls just learned how to use the DJ equipment two weeks ago.

And in a few weeks, the 10-track album that the five-member Playback Musik team wrote, recorded and produced in this studio will be released at a launch party.

“No one knows what we’ve been doing here,” King says. “When they hear the album, they are going to lose their shit.” 

KingBrittPlayback02DJ legend King Britt began working with this select group in June as part of The Village’s SPACES program, which brings artists to The Village to work with youths and other community members on various projects.

The idea wasn’t to have King come and simply create music. He has his own studio in Fishtown for that. The SPACES program envisioned King bringing his experiences, skills and talent to the 2500 block of North Alder Street and to these people, who will then create their own art and invite others to follow their path.

“It’s about discovery and experimentation,” says Aviva Kapust, The Village’s executive director. “The idea is not for the programs to stop once the artists leave. They build a legacy.”

It’s not just about the freshly built new studio, the weekly Internet radio program or even the album. It’s about access to ideas, equipment, knowledge and even power, all of which add up to confidence and leads to potential for careers.

“Exposing them to new sounds opens them up to new possibilities,” says King.

In an area plagued by crime and void of employment opportunities, without access to decent food, a proper education system or acceptable recreational facilities, the SPACES program fits The Village’s overall mission of inspiring people to be agents of positive change through the arts.

The artists-in-residence are tasked with building the infrastructure for a micro-community economy of sorts.

“Instead of fitting into existing systems,” Aviva adds, “we can create our own.”

King, who was raised in Southwest Philly and has been touring the world because of his music for 25 years, was a perfect choice for the program. He knows the music business inside and out.

“What King has brought,” says Aviva, “is how to be a professional.”

The day after the first live radio show, however, King sits in the North Alder Street rowhome studio with Playback members Reggie “Buck” Cooper, 43, and Jovi Cofield, 23, but The Queens are nowhere to be found.

“I gotta go,” he says after looking at his iPhone for about the 20th time.

He has to run to a meeting. Then he’s traveling the next two weeks, with performances in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New Orleans and Houston.

“These are life lessons, you know?” he says, sounding defeated. “I’m not going to be around next week and we have a lot to do.”

Today was supposed to be about planning next week’s radio show as well as the album release party, which happens in four weeks.

King looks at his phone one last time, shakes his head and repeats, “I gotta go.”

He zips up his warm-up jacket and exits the house, walking to the main Village building, where he keeps his bicycle (King doesn’t drive).

“It’s a blessing to be working with him, “ says Buck as he watches King leave. “He be introducing us to all kinds of different genres of music.”

The son of James “Big Man” Maxton, who helped found The Village with Lily Yeh in 1989, Buck runs the meeting once the girls finally arrive, about 20 minutes later.

“This is our first solo meeting,” Buck bellows as he high fives everyone around the conference table. “It’s on!”

They discuss outfits for their performance and what kind of food to serve after the launch show, and they joke about their pending fame.

“I’m like a real rapper,” Buck boasts. “Imma take a limo home!”

Midway through the meeting, SPACES coordinator Lillian Dunn receives a text from King: “If you aren’t prepared for Monday, I don’t know what to do.”

“Did King doubt us?” Buck asks with a roaring laugh, knowing that the team has been putting in 8-hour days at the studio daily for nearly four months. “He thinks we haven’t been paying attention since day one!”

They start planning the next week’s radio show. The theme will be “Pray for Philly,” with a focus on crime prevention and a dedication to Lil Rob, a teenager who was gunned down on a nearby basketball court over the summer.

The Village of Arts and Humanities is a colorful oasis of creativity in an otherwise bleak, post-industrial landscape at the crossroads of three police districts.

It offers the largest, free after school program within miles, serving around 500 children five-days per week, with courses in everything from fashion design and photography to African dance and stop-motion animation, among other subjects.

Most of the teachers have been involved for years and the students return for session after session.

“It feels safe here,” says Aviva. “It’s like family.”

The surrounding community, however, is rife with violence.

“It’s not the neighborhood,” says Tamara’s mother, Sherita Dill. “It’s the people in the neighborhood.”

From Sherita’s 15th floor apartment in the Fairhill public housing high-rise, she’s witnessed people chasing people, with both sides shooting. The pop pops are heard at all times of day, at all times of the year. There were three murders within a few blocks of her home during the summer.

Two of her daughters escaped from attempted abductions on the sidewalks near their home.

“It’s got to be 10 of y’all,” Sherita says. “If there aren’t 10 of y’all, you can’t go out. I barely let them go outside except for going to The Village.”

Her three children are at The Village nearly every day. Tamara, who aspires to work in music production or become a forensics investigator (if her WNBA dreams fall short), has taken music classes taught by DJ Dilemma for two years.

Where Tamara used to be shy, keeping to herself, she’s now a bubbly teen with an incredible voice and the know-how to create her own beats. The Village gave her a place to explore her talents and build her confidence.

On a larger level, The Village has created an inviting campus and activated it with events, which creates a greater sense of belonging for students as well as area residents. They are now building a network of people who will help with a barter system, taking advantage of the skills taught at The Village.

“The SPACES program brings all the work that we’re doing at The Village together,” says Aviva.

After King’s residence ends, for example, the Playback Musik team will run the studio, producing and recording local performers. Those local performers will pay for studio time and production by helping out at The Village in some capacity.

“It’s an investment, almost like start-up money,” says Aviva of the Playback studio. “We’re creating an alternative currency and doing work for the neighborhood.”

KingBrittPlayback10King returns two weeks later, at midnight, and arrives at the studio early the next day.

“I heard the set,” he says of the show the crew did without him last week. “It was great. You’re always nervous when you let go.”

He’s jet-lagged but as The Queens start their broadcast, King perks up.

Today is Joi’s 16th birthday and she sports a plastic tiara, which she’s been wearing since she had a birthday party at The Village two days ago. She dances next to Tamara, almost ignoring the fact that King sits behind them at the main studio computer.

“They are killing it today,” he says. “I am learning so many new songs.”

The Queens tend to like music they hear on the radio – today they’ve already played Stevie Wonder and Katy Perry – but since King has been imploring them to discover new music, they have been scouring the Internet.

“I never heard of a lot of the people he talks about,” Tamara says with a laugh.

They play Solange’s “I Decided” and King says, “I did a remix of that and it went to number 3 on the Billboard dance chart.”

He’s getting into the party now and he adds J.J. Fad’s “Supersonic” to the show’s tracklist.

“This is the original party mix!” he says.

Then he adds Daft Punk’s “Around the World.”

“You never heard of Daft Punk before Pharrell?” he asks Tamara.

But Tamara is already introducing the next song, which features her and Jovi from their soon-to-be-released album.

Afterward, King says, “Yo! That show was so good! Y’all picked some heaters.”

The energy is high but the girls pack up their stuff quickly and leave. Jovi takes the helm at the computer and starts blasting some new beats he’s been working on. Buck enters with his daughter and King eases toward the couch.

“This place is going to live forever through them,” King says while nodding his head to Jovi’s music.

King James Britt, 46, grew up near 56th and Litchfield in Kingsessing and music was integral in his life from an early age.

His father was a barber at Roseberry’s, near 40th and Market streets, and vinyl was always spinning there. King controlled the record player as a child. His mother, who loved jazz, was friendly with Sun Ra and his crew, so King spent days there, surrounded by avant-garde artists. When he was 6 years old, his parents took him to see James Brown at the Latin Casino.

“My parents never believed in babysitters,” King recalls, “so they always took me to shows.”

Thirty years later, he learned that famed producer Larry Gold played cello that night with James Brown.

Because of the access to all sorts of music, King’s interests ranged from jazz, funk and soul, to what he heard on the radio, to what he discovered by reading British magazines. When he was at Central High School in the mid-’80s, he was in a Depeche Mode cover band called The Red Team. He also began experimenting with a Minimoog synth.

He became friends with Chuck Treece because they kept running into each other at punk shows. He met DJ Cosmo Baker and his sister, artist Zoe Strauss, while commuting around the city.

“We were the weird kids on the trolley,” King says with a laugh.

After finishing high school, he worked at Tower Records on South Street and that’s when everything came together. One day in 1989, he sold a few records to Josh Wink, who was getting into production with his Roland R5 drum machine. King had just signed to the brand new Strictly Rhythm house-music label that week and he asked Josh to work with him.

They created “Tribal Confusion,” which became an international dance hit. King dropped out of Temple University and traveled to England to perform.

That seed that was planted by his parents when he was young has carried King throughout his life – touring with Digable Planets, spinning around the world to massive audiences, performing at Carnegie Hall with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and constantly pushing boundaries in terms of sounds and dance music.

Working with the Playback Musik crew has been his first experience giving back directly to the community, providing the same level of access his parents offered him.

“I just never had the time,” he says. “Now I want to take this model to different cities and set up labels, studios, and bring communities together in ways they never had before.”

On the night of the album launch party, the Philadelphia Film Society’s sound stage is full of family and friends of The Village and the Playback Musik crew, as well as some of Philly’s top DJs. Before the Playback crew performs their debut album live, Nas’ “Time is Illmatic” film is screened.

And right before King steps behind the turntables, he says, “This means so much to me. I can’t even put it into words.”

The Queens jump in front of the audience and sing their hearts out, strutting in unison to moves they choreographed and practiced for weeks. Jovi and Buck take their turns on the mic and Jamar Dorsey (aka J Harmony), who recorded with the crew over the summer but left in the fall to pursue dancing, belts out his tracks.

The audience roars throughout the entire set, waving their hands when they aren’t snapping pictures. After performing all 10 tracks, Tamara, Joi and Jamar lead the audience in a giant dance party. Jovi autographs copies of the album, titled Strong and Independent.

“They killed it,” King says humbly. “They were so good.”

The Playback Musik team is already putting together their second album, which they hope to release in early 2015. They are selling the beats they create in the studio. They record artists and run production.

King’s residency is officially over though he’s agreed to meet with the crew weekly, when possible. He still texts the members nearly every day.

“It was awesome,” King says of his residency. “I have a whole new family now.”

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