PICO BLVD — School is over for the day but Eddie Martinez still has his notebook open.
The Olympic High School senior is in the booth at the Pico Youth & Family Center’s recording studio reworking his verses to match a new beat made by one of his classmates.
PYFC is working on its fifth album since the studio opened in 2002.
Back in the 1980s, a recording studio would cost $1.5 million, according to Los Angeles Times archives. Today, Santa Monica has at least four recording studios open to teens.
On top of PYFC’s studio, the Virginia Avenue Park Teen Center has one and the Boys & Girls Club has two.
“As far as recording goes, it used to be you had to invest a million dollars in a console or you’re doing it with a little tape player in your bedroom,” said Greg Wadsworth, who runs the Boys & Girls Club’s John Adams Middle School Music Box studio. “The entry point across the board, within the past decade, has just plummeted drastically.”
Tish Murry, vice president of operations at the Santa Monica Boys & Girls Clubs, said that the studios are popping up at branches across the country.
“They’re big because they draw in teens,” she said.
Building tracks and relationships
At the JAMS Music Box, Chyanne Presley, 11, holds her hands to headphones and sings an original verse in a voice beyond her years over a poppy piano track. To an untrained ear, it sounds great but music stops abruptly.
“Chyanne, you were kind of stressing your voice,” says Raymond Jacob, a volunteer with the program who’s running the computer. “We’re going to do it one more time and make sure to take a nice, deep breath. Remember to breath, good posture.”
Presley sighs and starts again.
“It helps me develop my voice,” she said. “At church we sing certain songs but here we can do it freely.”
When she’s finished, she skips out the door to play with her friends.
Wadsworth — who is employed by Notes For Notes, a nonprofit organization that partners with the Boys & Girls Club — took over the studio at the beginning of the school year. By November, they’d only recorded one original song but now they have six or seven.
The JAMS Music Box is unique among Santa Monica’s recording studios in that it caters specifically to middle-schoolers.
“Their concept of getting recorded was, ‘you play the track in the background and I’ll sing over it,’” Wadsworth said. “Once they saw their peers producing new stuff, there’s this instant understanding that it’s really cool. Every week there’s another girl saying ‘I’ve got this song I just wrote.’”
It’s about introducing kids to music in a time when arts funding is getting cut in public schools, he said. It’s also building relationships through music.
“Music is pretty much a universal language,” he said. “And you have two people of completely different socioeconomic backgrounds, upbringing, race, you bring them together and collaborate on music, and they have a bond that totally transcends. They leave everything, all the baggage, at the door and here’s where they can establish relationships with us and with each other.”
At PYFC, baggage is deliberately not checked at the door.
On the white board is a list of inspirations for songs. “Gentrification” and “violence” are near the top of the list.
While the tracks are clean, the teens curse as they talk about their demons openly in the studio, which feels edgy and cool in a way that’s rare among afterschool programs. It feels genuine and unfiltered.
“It’s kept me off the streets,” said George Daniels, a junior at Olympic. “Because when I was on the streets I’ve had hella guns pointed at me and I got chased by gang members and then I came here. I don’t (mess) with the streets anymore.”
Daniels, under his alias Sticks The Drumma, produces tracks, often with the help of the guy who runs the recording studio program, Julian Ayala.
Ayala, a Santa Monica High School graduate who goes by the alias SoulReal, said that he was once an at-risk youth. He spent all his time in the studio when he was in the program back in high school.
“For the services that the center provides, including the music studio, which was the component that I was really interested in, it helped my development as a person,” he said. “The difference is that we incorporate hip hop culture in our teachings.”
They put on a long track that celebrates the working class.
Ricardo Aquino, 18, sits at the computer nodding his head as he listens to his own verse.
“They grew up in the same community so they can relate to us,” he said of PYFC volunteers. “They can see similar struggles. It’s not like were talking to staff or an adult. We’re talking to an older homie, like an O.G. in a way.”
Aquino, who goes by CO2, said it’s important that he gets an opportunity to express himself and that his struggles are respected, not ignored.
“On the street, we have a lot of options,” he said “We could go post up with these people. We could go handle this. We could go do that. There’s a lot of things to do and the outcomes are not all good. They’re mostly bad but they’re fun. You come to the PYFC and there are more options but all of those options are going to build some type of success.”
PYFC hopes to release its fifth album this summer. Other albums are available for purchase at pyfcallstars.bandcamp.com.
Notes For Notes has a Soundcloud account. To listen to tracks there, visit soundcloud.com/notesfornotes