Dodging guitars, cords and speakers scattered throughout the room, Noel Perez makes a beeline to the small padded booth in the RYSE center. He squares himself with the microphone, phone clenched in hand, awaiting the go-ahead from his producer.
Music floods the small space, almost bursting from the room. The bass pounds like the heartbeat of the song, while sweeter melodies, ribbons of piano notes and guitar riffs, layer upon the foundation — a fusion of notes, rhythm and beats waiting for Perez to add his voice.
In the room next door Kareem Chadly, the media engagement coordinator of the RYSE center, is manning the computer station, watching as Perez’s words are translated into colored, squiggly waves on the screen.
Chadly is helping Perez record a song Perez has written for his girlfriend as a birthday present.
“I don’t know man,” Perez says after recording the first verse a few times and listening to it played back to him.
“I like it,” Chadly says. “I think it’s strong.”
Chadly’s head bobs rhythmically to the beat, eyes glued to the monitor, a flicker of a smile crossing his face when Perez nails the second verse after a couple of takes.
Chadly, as a member of RYSE’s Media Arts and Culture team, has been helping youth put their voice to a beat for years. One of the fruits of his — and many others’ — labor is “RYSE Mixtape Volume 1” a compilation released last week featuring 20 tracks, a collective body of songs and spoken word recorded at the center.
The mix tape has been a project three years in the making, which began when the RYSE Center opened in October of 2008 and continued as youth members filtered in and out of the center, taking classes such as beat making and engineering, and also booking the studios — which are free to use — to record their music.
The spoken word workshop, part of the local group Raw Talent, and the RYSE center’s LGBTQ club, the Alphabet Group, were creative collaborators on the project.
“What we’re trying to do is help the young adults, the youth, get their voice heard,” said Xavier Polk, a RYSE staff member and lead engineer for the mix tape. “A lot of them are aspiring artists. I think it’s great to get their name on something.”
Polk said he has been coming to the RYSE Center almost since it opened its doors.
Polk mixed and mastered the entire tape, and worked with the artists to determine what song they wanted to submit, which he said meant sifting through a couple hundred songs.
“I learned a lot of skills,” he said. “It basically taught me from the ground up how to build a project.”
The mix tape, which the MAC team hopes will be an annual release, features songs with messages that highlight the stories and experiences of young people in Richmond.
Tiffany Price, who also goes by “T-Krazed,” submitted “So Far Away” for the mix tape.
Written originally she said for a loved one, the song explores intense feelings of love and loss. Mixed and mastered by Polk and Chadly, Price’s sometimes melancholy lyrics – “Night and day I’m missing you/Wishing I was kissing you/Looking at the stars and I’m thinking about your face” — are set to a hip-hop beat, electronic and steady, but you can hear when she smiles.
The track was almost never recorded, she said.
“I lost my grandpa the next day after I wrote that,” she said. “I was so crushed.”
Price said she’s been making beats since she was a little kid, banging on tables and singing along to songs on the radio, but began using software when she was 11.
When she first came to the RYSE center three years ago, she said, she was excited by the access to recording equipment. She said music keeps her sane.
“It always had been hard to express how I felt inside,” Price said. “I would make my beats and I would vent to that. Basically, in every single beat I have a story within those sounds, so it’s like a diary in a way.”
MAC project manager Emily Moldy said the MAC team is still evolving, pushing to reach more young people.
“We’re still growing as a team to be able to support people who want to express their stories creatively,” she said.
Chadly said the center makes a point to train and teach the software and skills popular in the job market, such as ProTools, Reasons 5 and Final Cut Pro. Young people can also take classes on studio production and learn things such as how to work with artists, market themselves and adjust equipment.
But more than just learning pertinent skills, the studios and labs at RYSE serve as an incubator for camaraderie, he said.
Chadly highlighted “Missing You,” a song created for a young man who lost his life in the middle of creating the mix tape.
“It helped with the grieving process here in the center and brought us together,” he said. “Just letting young people in Richmond have a place to get their stories out, have a platform and an outlet where folks will listen, through that process comes a lot of family building.”
Chadly said one of the main hopes in putting out the mix tape is to increase community engagement with the center — to reach out to more young people and increase the diversity of the stories being recorded.
“It lets young people in the communities know that we are here for young artists, for young people that are interested in creating media even if it’s not music, if it’s video that we are here and we want to be a resource for young people to tell their stories,” he said.
By the end of the hour Perez is almost done recording, “What Makes Her,” but he’ll need to book another session to mix and master.
His girlfriend Dalia Ramos, who is a staff member at the center, is sitting in the room and gives Perez a high five when he comes back in.
“Were you listening the whole time?” he asks.
“No, just for part of it,” she says.
Together they sit on the black couch as Chadly, still perched in his chair, plays it back from the top.