Tucked away within a cluttered recording studio in San Jose, Pilarcitos High School Principal Raj Bechar leaned over to dispense a few last-minute tips on hip-hop lyricism to student Ronnie Smith.
“Don’t rush it,” said Bechar. “If you feel like you need to catch your breath, you can take a pause. And we’ll go from there.”
Flanked by dangling cords and control boards from a slew of audio recording equipment, Smith exhaled deeply before stepping up to the microphone. The words tumbled out of his mouth with a practiced, rhythmic cadence.
“I’ve been thinking about my future, I’ve been thinking about my past,” began Smith. “Headed towards a wall; one day, we’re all gonna crash.” Beside him, Bechar nodded along to the steady tempo of the song’s digital drumbeat.
Last Friday’s field trip to Sound Management Studios was a big moment for this year’s “music cipher” class at Pilarcitos. The class blends principles of spoken-word poetry and songwriting with lessons on beat production, sound engineering, hip-hop history and live performance, as well as drums and guitar.
Bechar, who teaches the class alongside Pilarcitos teacher Dudley Hughes and percussionist Jeff Wheeler, said that he’s nurtured his passion for hip-hop since he was 7 years old.
“It’s just one of those things that’s never gone away,” he said. “It’s always found a way to seep into whatever I’m doing. When I became a principal, I knew it was going to be no different. I’ve been making hip-hop music since I was 15.”
Drawing upon his wealth of experience, which included performances across California, Bechar and Hughes launched the music cipher class in 2014. With support from the Cabrillo Education Foundation, they were able to purchase equipment like microphones, a keyboard and guitar.
By the second semester, Bechar and Hughes introduced field trips to a recording studio as the class’s capstone project. For years, they went to J7 Studios in Moss Beach before it closed. Afterward, the class found a new venue for the students to showcase their skills at Sound Management Studios in San Jose.
“These guys are super creative,” said Hughes. “It’s such a great outlet for them. Today, seeing (a student) with only one semester of drums come to a real studio and bust it out and play is a really cool experience.
“It fits right in with the philosophy at Pilarcitos,” he added. “It’s an alternative school, so the idea is to have alternative programs.”
Several years ago, San Mateo County Sheriff’s deputy Shawn Chase jumped on board, as well. After seeing the class for himself, he started writing poetry and performing his own rap ballads. Now, the Sheriff’s Activities League provides funding and transportation for the class’s end-of-semester field trip.
“For the first couple years, I just encouraged them to get behind the mic,” said Chase. “But if I’m encouraging (them) to do it, I should take that chance and write some lyrics and (perform). So, for the last couple of years, that’s what I’ve done.
“I’ve been able to see the benefit of being able to release things that are hidden inside of you,” he continued. “I see the kids do it, and it brings out a lot of emotion and feelings.
“And it opens up avenues for the kids to talk. They can see the struggles that I’ve been through and it relates to theirs.”
This year, Pilarcitos hired Wheeler as a percussion specialist and music teacher for the class.
“The things that makes these students different is that most of them have jobs or are doing something different in life. That’s why they’re at this alternative high school,” said Wheeler. “That makes (their experiences) a little more raw, and that’s where the connection to hip-hop comes in heavily.
Bechar said that his next priority for the class is to set up a recording studio at Pilarcitos. The school is currently seeking around $10,000 in funding to purchase the necessary equipment.
Smith, who is set to graduate this year, said that the class imparts skills and experiences that he can leverage long after his last performance for Pilarcitos fades out.
“It’s the best feeling,” he said. “It’s a good way to relieve stress.”
At last week’s recording studio session, Bechar wasn’t shy about stepping up to the microphone either. From behind the booth’s glass windows, Hughes and Wheeler flashed broad smiles during his rapid-fire performance.
“Five years old, playing pots and pans,
“Life is like a breakdance, head spins to handstands.
“Time has slow hands, but you better have a plan.”