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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Most mainstream hip-hop artists rap about bling, money, canoodling, and guns. The MCs of Da HipHop Raskalz have a different set of interests, including dinosaurs, fractions, and most of all candy. The Da HipHop Raskalz are grade-school students in East Harlem, and their producer is an acclaimed classical musician with a rather unusual day job.

From member station WHYY, Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE reporting:

About once a month for the last two years, producer Dave Soldier has set up a portable studio in the library of the Amber Charter School,

Mr. DAVE SOLDIER (Music Producer): Try playing the piano and see if you like this sound.

(Soundbite of music)

ROSE: Soldier works with four kids at a time, ranging in age from five to 10.

Mr. SOLDIER: Who here can play piano?

(Soundbite of a child singing)

Mr. SOLDIER: Everybody? Okay. First you try and then Savion tries. Okay? You ready?

The kids write all the words. They write all the melodies. They play all the instruments.

ROSE: The kids tell Soldier what to program into the drum machine and come up with little melodies on his portable keyboard. And of course they handle the vocals.

(Soundbite of kids singing)

ROSE: Ten-year-old Jaliah Cobbs says she listens to hip-hop but she's never tried to record before.

Ms. JALIAH COBBS (Student, Amber Charter School): That's nice because you get to hang out with your friends and make music. It's like so many different kinds of beats you can make up, and make it your own kind of beat. Funky fresh.

ROSE: Soldier records for about two hours, then he takes the material back to his apartment in Tribeca. After hours of careful editing and mixing he has a finished cut.

(Soundbite of song)

DA HIPHOP RASKALZ: (Singing) Listen to the children on the radio. They're very important for the show. And we'll send you $100 in the mail. (unintelligible)

ROSE: This is a far cry from the music for which Soldier is best known.

(Soundbite of classical music)

ROSE: Dave Soldier is an accomplished violinist and composer who founded the Soldier String Quartet. He's composed chamber music, written string arrangements for David Byrne, and played with Guided by Voices. He also co-founded a rock band with former Velvet Underground drummer Moe Tucker, called the Kropotkins.

(Soundbite of music)

ROSE: Dave Soldier does all of this in addition to his day job, where the sign on his office door says David Sulzer.

Mr. SOLDIER: They want a better (unintelligible) with the GFP.

ROSE: Sulzer has an office at Columbia University, where he's a professor of neurology and psychiatry. His lab studies the synaptic processes in the brain that are involved in learning and memory, as well as drug addiction. Sulzer, aka Soldier, is also interested in the creative process.

Mr. SOLDIER: People are always saying, what makes a genius? I often think it's not that somebody is a genius because they can write a fantastically good book that's much better than every other book out there. The amazing thing is so many of us can write at all. So many of us can speak, you know. And almost anybody who loves music can write music.

ROSE: Or at least make music, an ability that's not restricted to humans.

(Soundbite of chimes and drums)

ROSE: In 2000, Soldier flew to Thailand to record elephants. He'd seen abstract paintings created by artists working with elephants. He wanted to know if the animals could make music too.

Mr. SOLDIER: The first time I went out there, I had no idea if elephants even could be trained to play instruments. But it became apparent really fast that they can, especially the smarter ones. I mean they can really - by the second or third afternoon of showing them what to do, they do it. And they can improvise.

(Soundbite of chimes and drums)

ROSE: Soldier built over-sized musical instruments and recorded the pachyderms playing them. The Thai Elephant Orchestra CD became an underground hit on college and community radio stations like WFMU in Jersey City, New Jersey. FMU music director Brian Turner says what ties many of Soldier's projects together is his willingness to let his collaborators - human or otherwise - take the spotlight.

Mr. BRIAN TURNER (Music Director, WFMU): The way Dave does it, I think that it's a very selfless approach to it. Whereas, you know, being a composer can be a very egocentric kind of thing. But I think that he sort of puts things in front of all that and is more interested in introducing people to new connections.

ROSE: Soldier's project at the Amber Charter School in East Harlem started two years ago, when a friend asked him to teach an after-school music class. Soldier brought salsa instruments, but he changed his plans when he found out the kids were more interested in hip-hop. Soldier says his latest collaborators come up with ideas he never could.

Mr. SOLDIER: The funniest thing is often they improvise together and come up with the same words. Now, that's wild. I mean, I know that one of them is kind of up in front of the other one, and the other one is catching up. It's like so seamless.

(Soundbite of song)

DA HIPHOP RASKALZ: (Singing) I want candy but I have to be good. I won't be allowed unless I could. Sometimes I think I'm mad, but I shouldn't be because my mommy's here.

Mr. SOLDIER: They're making up stuff for the first time, and they're doing it two or three of them together, all with the same words. Now that's just amazing. I mean, adults can't do that anymore.

(Soundbite of song)

DA HIPHOP RASKALZ: (Singing) Sometimes I think I need smaller things, but I think I need only one thing.

ROSE: Soldier says he took his first lessons from a traveling music teacher in Carbondale, Illinois, where he grew up.

Mr. SOLDIER: I wish every kid would have that kind of experience, to learn an instrument, but that's just not happening these days. You know, many of these schools just don't have any resources for instruments. They don't have instrumental teacher and all that. You know, here's another way the kids can start making music right away. And they learn that they can make really good music, stuff that's as good, you know, as, you know, what they're listening to on the radio, right away. I suspect that can have a real profound impact.

ROSE: At the moment, Dave Soldier is putting the final touches on Da HipHop Raskalz' CD, which comes out later this month, and a two-CD set of his own chamber music. David Sulzer's lab is studying dopamine neurons in its search for possible treatments for Parkinson's disease.

For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.

(Soundbite of song)

DA HIPHOP RASKALZ: (Singing) Sometimes I think I need small things...

SIMON: You can see and hear Da HipHop Raskalz at work on our Web site, npr.org.

And this is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

(Soundbite of song)

DA HIPHOP RASKALZ: (Singing) I wish I can reach out to all of the stars, but I have to wait until I'm able to and I could. Sometimes I want to be in different places...

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