Dallas Austin: A Children's Story
HipHopDX: Your charity foundation focuses on youth development, primarily through music. Who were the people who most influenced your own early musical development?
Dallas Austin: It was really my stepfather, Jimmy Nolan, who played lead guitar for James Brown and was one of The JBs. I used to go with him all the time when I was six or seven years old, and thats really where it started. My mother had nightclubs in Columbus, Georgia, and during segregation all the black bands would play her clubs and stay there. I used to go down and see people like Earth, Wind & Fire, George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic, The Commodores and all these other bands when I was little, and I think it just kinda stuck with me.
DX: Your stepfather was one of The JBs? Thats amazing...
DA: Yeah, it was. Its funny, many years ago BMI was doing a tribute to James Brown and asked me if I would play guitar. It was me, Pharrell, Rodney Jerkins and a couple of other record producers who got together and do a little band. I was onstage playing, and James said, Where's Jimmy Nolans boy at? [Laughs] He came over and gave me a hug and said, Boy, I got pictures of you under that red organ, 'cause I used to hide under the organ while they rehearsed and watch em play. It was a trip.
DX: How do you think having an early childhood musical education helped you, whether in your career or just as a person?
DA: Well, I had this little zone I was in. Id always draw keyboards and stages all over my notebooks and stuff, so it was kinda weird. I started off in sixth grade band carrying a snare drum, then went to playing in jazz band in junior high school, and by the time I was in high school I was playing in the marching band. But even in junior high I was in after school bands, playing Depeche Mode, U2, Prince, The Time and all that stuff. It was really important, because I feel like if I hadnt had music in school, I wouldnt have had any connection to the school. Now, if I could go back and understand how English would apply to my songwriting or how math would apply to figuring out my royalties Back then, I figured I was going into music, so what do I need all this other stuff for. I also think it kept me out of trouble, because I never really played sports much. It was also a release for me a way to release the tension of whatever was going on in my life as a kid. Id go home and put on records and just play and play. By the time I got into high school, I was so good that I could play by ear without knowing how to read music.
DX: Why do you think our public school systems put such a low priority on musical education these days?
DA: I think that they just dont understand it. Every child has a gift. If you ask a child when hes five years old what his interest is, nine times out of ten hes gonna end up having similar interests later on in life. But I think adults sometimes overlook the gifts that kids have, and the fact that you need art to nurture another part of yourself. Whether its painting, cooking or music, every person has some form of creativity, and I think its a big mistake to take the arts out of schools or not pay as much attention to them. Thats why I started my music program, because they wanted to take all the music out of schools. If anything, kids need a break in school where they can feel like theyre excelling at something. A lot of time, theyre failing or making bad grades in something, but artistic kids can excel in music or drama or art. If you take that away, they dont have anything to relate to. I think we have to find better ways to teach kids about the things theyre interested in.
DX: So its a self-esteem thing as much as an education thing?
DA: Its very much a self-esteem thing. In the schools weve worked with so far, its given the kids an outlet for expressing themselves that they didnt have before. Teachers tell me that the turnaround rate of children in these programs is unbelievable, but I can believe it because I was one of those kids who didnt wanna get away from the recording machines. Whatever you create, you can take it out and listen to it and say, Wow, I did that! Its also a way to speak your mind, which is what hip-hop and all great songwriting is about. And the kids see it as a potential career, so they think, Im gonna stay in here until I get my songs down, and Im gonna be like Usher. Weve opened 10 recording studios at public schools so far, and its a great feeling to walk around and meet the kids who take the program.
DX: Your Project REMIX seeks to educate kids about the business of music. What would you say is the most important thing they need to understand before entering a career in the music biz?
DA: Because you have a lot of user-generated content today, its easier for a kid to go to his garage band or his computer and make music that sounds like what we used to call digital quality. So I think the bar is switching. It used to take a big budget to make a record, but the setups we have in the schools today is totally professional, so they could go straight from there to mastering if they wanted to. With all this technology, they really should learn that once you create your own package, it puts you in a different position than when someone comes in and pays for you to do it. We also encourage them to learn what the business is about so that, even if you dont want to be an accountant or a business manager or a lawyer, youll know what these people are talking about so they cant rip you off. You can say, This is what I think I deserve for what Im doing, and not get short-changed by people who tell you what they think you should have.
DX: Let's talk about Drumroll: SWD. You covered similar territory in Drumline, so why did you feel the need to create a reality TV show about marching bands?
DA: Because the kids that actually played in Drumline the high school marching band from Southwest Dekalb are disciplined and work hard and have a great structure around them. I was really impressed, because 80% of these kids go on to college, and I felt like this is the real deal of what Drumline was about. People go to this school just to be in the band because it has such a legacy! I also felt like we needed some positive reinforcement, just because TV has so much negative stuff right now. When I was a kid, we had an Andy Griffith and a Cosby Show here and there. I wanted to go back to making good television. These kids could be in the streets and selling drugs or whatever, and instead theyre practicing all day to be in this marching band and be the best they can possibly be. That takes a lot of discipline and respect, so I felt like they deserved it.
DX: What do you think it is that makes the Southwest Dekalb band special amongst the tens of thousands of marching bands in the country?
DA: Number one, the way theyre treated by the teachers and the school board, and the respect the students have for the school itself. This marching band is part of a legacy, and when the legacy has been that strong for that long, it makes you hold your chin up a little bit to be a part of it. So its a whole package. But there are a lot of great marching bands, and once we finish this show were gonna end up going nationwide. Then Ill open it up to all the other schools in the country. If you think you can beat this band and your schools program has integrity and respect, load your clip onto our website and if we think youre great well fly you in and do a Jamboree where you guys battle.
DX: You've conquered the worlds of music, film and now TV. What's next for you?
DA: My Rowdy Clothing line is hitting stores in early 2008. I used to have a Rowdy store in Underground Atlanta, then a Little 5 Points location not long ago, but now its a full salon with jackets, pants and shirts. Then were rolling out records again on Rowdy, with a lot of new artists. Thats been in the works for a long time, so Im excited.