The Los Alamos Teen Center is not your average teen center. Along with the usual staples, like computer workstations, a pool table, and art classes, it has a program that lets participants rap about what they’re really feeling, even when the result might be labeled NC-17.
“I guess it’s kind of a way for them to express themselves and have something to show for it,” said Dain Daller, who runs the class. “We mostly just record songs. They bring in lyrics and choose from some of the beats I’ve written, or sometimes they’ll write something to an instrumental, and we can record to that.”
Daller lives on a remote plot of land in El Rito, where he’s building a passive-solar Earthship out of tires and discarded building materials with Amanda Speer, who teaches an art class at the center. When not embedding animal bones into the Earthship walls or composing rap beats for his class, Daller collaborates with Speer on electro/analog music and releases it under the names Single Moms and The Tirehouse Tapes.
Rap class, as it’s officially known, “is not really much of a class,” Daller said. “I just try to encourage them and coach them a little. I never say like, that verse is terrible — redo it. It’s more like, maybe there’s one word that doesn’t work.” The noncredit class takes place every Thursday between 3:30 and 6:30 p.m., depending on interest.
“Sometimes at first they’re kind of nervous, because when they first record, they hear the music only in the headphones, and there’s a microphone and some people just sitting there. They have to rap a cappella to everyone else. It’s maybe a little embarrassing if they’re not real confident, but now most of them are pretty used to it, so they don’t think twice.” Besides, he added, “I think kids who want to rap are usually pretty confident.”
During the two years that Daller has been running the program, interest has grown such that the participants have formed a sort of hip-hop crew of their own: Atomic Children. This summer they released a 12-track album under the same name, subtitled Real Rap From the Teenagers of Los Alamos. Several songs and verses focus on the experience of growing up in the town that gave birth to the atomic bomb. “I think everyone takes where they’re from seriously,” Speer said. Daller agreed: “Because they’re in high school, most of them haven’t really been anywhere else. All rappers rap about where they’re from. In the songs about Los Alamos they just kind of lay it all out there — the good and the bad.”
Speaking from the center, Dunce, aka Lyrical Villain (who contributed two tracks to the album), remembered when Daller first began the program. “I was just chilling and he came in. Now it’s pretty cool coming here and rhyming and stuff on his mic. You just show up and get in line, pick a beat, and throw down on it. He’s super-supportive and does what we want, which makes it pretty cool.” Asked about his musical influences, Lyrical Villain listed Jedi Mind Tricks, Ill Bill, Necro, and “a lot of that really underground” music, before adding, “I think I have to go now. I have stuff to do.”
Rap (both mainstream and underground) often covers violent subject matter, and rappers like Ill Bill and Necro are notorious for the extremity of their lyrics. For instance, Necro’s song “Bury You With Satan” lists a number of graphic ways to inflict pain or death with tools like meat cleavers, hydrochloric acid, and chain saws. The influence can be seen in Lyrical Villain’s song “Atomic Children,” co-written with fellow participant Mac Tire. Its chorus speaks to growing up in Los Alamos: “You know we spit ill because our name: Atomic Children/Youths of Hiroshima, it’s a mass killing/The Atomic Children: Mac Tire and the Lyrical Villain/Pillaging villages like a militant hopped up on stimulants.” Subsequent verses discuss making use of an arsenal that includes grenades, assault rifles, and cyanide.
In the case of that song, the “write what you know” adage seems to be tempered with a “write what you listen to” approach. One of the song’s closing lines is: “It’s like a movie, yo” — a sentiment encapsulating the idea that violence can become caricaturized when taken to its most extreme in the interest of shock value. Daller acknowledged that the teens sometimes gravitate toward “songs that are kind of on a touchy subject.” However, he sees censorship as an approach that would undermine the openness of a voluntary class that is not academically affiliated. In his eyes, it offers teens a rare outlet to express themselves without stipulating how they’re allowed to do so.
The program has faced occasional resistance from the center’s parent group, the YMCA. “The Y didn’t want to fund the CD, because it was uncensored, and because there are drug references.” Rather than tone it down, however, Daller affixed a parental-advisory label to the CD’s cover art and got the students to fund it themselves. “There are 10 or 11 kids [in the class], and it cost about $300 to make the CD, so we all just kind of pitched in. Nobody had to pay that much money. It was independently funded. We made 100 copies, and each kid got five. But we haven’t really tried to sell them, because it doesn’t seem like anyone’s really going to buy them. So pretty much anyone that wants one can get one, which is cool.”
Reflecting on his own path to the classroom, Daller said his musical journey began when he got hooked on rap as a teenager. “I grew up in Iowa — there wasn’t a scene or anything. We were just skaters, and we all got into it. I don’t know who got into it first. It must have been some guy who was a little older and was like, ‘Check this out.’ And now I’m that guy.” ◀