» PHOTOS: Mindz of a Different Kind at Grizzy Hall
The first time I saw Mindz of a Different Kind was at a 2014 Freestyle Fellowship show at the North Door organized by Russell Manley a.k.a. DJ Notion. It had been about 15 years since the Fellowship had appeared as a full group in Austin, roughly the same amount of time Manley had worked with them, helping solidify a strong ATX-Cali hip-hop connection.
The show felt like an old school Austin hip-hop reunion. I wasn’t exactly working so I’d had a couple drinks while I kicked it with friends. Then MDK took the stage. They were young and hungry. They had the anarchic energy of Odd Future mixed with the unapologetic intellectual activism of Talib Kweli. At the same time, there was something about them that was Austin to the core. I have a distinct memory of that moment. I stopped in my tracks, suspended a conversation mid-sentence and booked to the front of the stage.
After their set I felt ecstatic. “We have so many conversations about who’s going to be the first Austin hip-hop artist to break out,” I gushed to Bavu Blakes, who happened to be standing nearby. “I want it to be them.”
In retrospect, it was a truly tactless comment to drop on an Austin emcee, but Blakes had already begun his transition to rap scholar and he just nodded. “Yes,” he said, smiling broadly.
The emcees were familiar, but it didn’t click til later that I’d met a few of them five years earlier when they were part of the high school hip-hop program, the Cipher.
For a period of about six years, the four emcees grew together. Twice a week they trekked to group meetings, often spending upwards of an hour each way on Capital Metro buses to get there. They were mentored by local artists including Chris “Gator” Ockletree, Saul Paul, Da’Shade Moonbeam and Zell Miller III.
“The most valuable thing about the whole Cipher was that (the young emcees) were introduced to everything that was going on in the city, that other artists and community organizations embraced them,” Shannon Sandrea, the social worker who co-founded the program said last month.
As a crew, Mindz of a Different Kind was nurtured by the ATX hip-hop scene, a phenomenon that continued when Manley’s company MusicNMind took over their management and booking.
From the beginning, Sandrea and Ockletree gave the students a strong foundation in hip-hop culture.
“They wanted to challenge the members to go beyond what was present in hip-hop culture, the negative elements, and they pushed them to be more creative and have a history of this culture,” said Miller, who took over as the group’s lead instructor in 2009. “When I started teaching the Cipher, I wanted them to understand that the gifts they were blessed with could be focused in a positive way.”
These days both Miller says he feels like a “proud poppa” witnessing how the students he worked with in the Cipher have grown into one of Austin’s most vital hip-hop crews.
Sandrea is equally thrilled.
“I’m so excited about everything they are bringing to our community,” she said. “They’re amazing people. I knew that even when they were very young.”
Here’s the original piece I wrote about the Cipher in 2009.
Schooled in hip-hop, changed for life – June 27, 2009
The air conditioning in Shannon Sandrea’s modest, midcentury Allandale home cranks away, but the stifling 4 o’clock heat still seeps into her lime-green living room, where seven members of the Cipher prepare tonight’s CD release show. Six young emcees, four male and two female, are in a circle, some sprawled on couches, others cross-legged on chairs. A third young woman sits beside a home entertainment system and plays DJ, pumping out beats from Sandrea’s iPhone. The atmosphere in the room is casual as the rappers run through their material. The sound is Southern, sparse, grimy beats laced with soulful melody and punctuated by the occasional slowed vocal or heavy artillery metaphor. Many of the songs share a central theme of uprise through struggle, articulated with surprisingly consistent vocal dexterity. These kids, ages 16 to 20, are no joke.
Founded by licensed counselor Shannon Sandrea and poet/rap artist Chris “Gator” Ockletree, the Cipher is a hip-hop empowerment project for East Austin youth.
After seeing the 2007 documentary “The Hip Hop Project” about a New York City nonprofit agency led by a formerly homeless youth who guided underprivileged high school students to write, produce and release a hip-hop album, Sandrea and Ockletree were inspired to re-create the project in Austin. The two drew together community partners including performance poets Zell Miller III and Da’Shade Moonbeam, musician/producer g.LeDaris and hip-hop artist Saul Paul, and developed a curriculum based on the tenets of old-school hip-hop culture.
Referred to the Cipher both through community and school counselors and word of mouth, the emcees have met twice a week for nearly two years. They usually gather after school at the Southwest Key East Austin Community Development Center, which now is closed for remodeling. Along with instruction on writing techniques and free writing sessions, hip-hop related workshops have covered everything from beat production to the Brazilian martial art form capoeira.
The young wordsmiths are unequivocal about what the project has done for them, including boosting their confidence and giving them a new sense of purpose. They began to think of themselves as a family.
“Even thinking about Cipher I went to school every day, never got no more referrals, stopped fighting and all that, ” says Chi-town (now Chi-Clopz), one of the emcees. He graduated from high school this spring and plans to attend Huston-Tillotson in the fall.
One striking thing about the Cipher is the group’s emphasis on gender equality. In contrast to a mainstream rap industry rife with misogyny and under frequent fire for bombastic sexism, this group of young hip-hop artists puts respect for women front and center in their guiding philosophy.
“We’re trying to bring the femcee movement back, ” says T-Fly (now Blakchyl), a tall, slender woman who is both soft-spoken and adamant. “We want the same respect that a male emcee would get. It doesn’t matter what sex you are; if you’re a lyricist, you’re a lyricist. That’s what we gonna change.”
It wasn’t always this way. In the early days of the Cipher, T-Fly and fellow female emcee Aroc kept to the sidelines. But over time the young women gained confidence and began to stretch their skills. In addition, the attitude of the group underwent a gradual transformation. In one class, they watched the documentary “Hip-hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, ” which examines sexism in the rap industry. It had a profound impact.
“This man was explaining what the difference was between a sista and then a b word, a female dog, whatever, and his explanations were so bizarre and crazy ” they weren’t legit at all, ” says Aroc, getting a little heated remembering it. “It was really disrespectful the way they were treating all these women. After we watched the documentary, we had a talk within the Cipher about what was acceptable. How are you supposed to talk to young women and how do you show respect. And what are we going to do about the disrespectful things that are going on right now.”
These kids have mad heart and infectious energy that’s hard to resist. When I ask them how far they want to take this hip-hop thing, they answer almost in unison, “As far as we can.” They’re on a mission to spit the truth, to save hip-hop, to change the game. Sit with them for an hour or so and you start to believe they actually might.