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Beats on the Brain

Travis Powell drops knowledge with Boise Beat Academy


DJ-promoter Travis Powell taught young rapper-blogger Andrew Heikkila a lot about hip-hop, but neither of them knew it at the time.

"I used to mow lawns in McCall, and my aunt found this iPod," Heikkila said. "It was after the snowpack all melted away, and there was this iPod [on the ground] while she was mowing the lawn. Had all this dope hip-hop on it."

The two men connected years later, after Powell discovered the work that Heikkila was doing on, a website devoted to covering hip-hop in Idaho. At a show one night, Heikkila told Powell about the iPod, which had introduced him to so much new music.

"Wait, where'd you find that?" Powell asked him.

"Greystone Apartments," Heikkila replied.

"That very well may have been mine," Powell said.

Lately, Powell has taken a more deliberate approach to teaching music. For about a year, he has taught a one-on-one class at Boise Rock School called Boise Beat Academy, showing kids how to be a DJ both for hip-hop and EDM. Because Powell adjusts the curriculum to fit a student's particular interests, topics covered in a given class can vary. Examples include turntable scratching, sampling and creating beats on a music production center or MPC.

Powell's experiences working in the Boise School District inspired him to start BBA.

"[Students] would hear I was a DJ somehow or they'd see me somewhere with my setup," he said. "It seemed like everyone was really interested in it, but no one had any access to it or understood how you even do that."

Powell, who performs as DJ Gladwell, wants his students to understand not just how to make beats but why.

"After the kids get really acquainted with turntable-ism and the physical stuff, I try to interweave lessons of history and culture," he said. "Where this whole thing came from and how it can be a really positive thing and bring people together [and] stuff like that instead of just this iced-out counterculture."

Over the years, Idaho-based hip-hop has struggled to gain recognition. As an adolescent in the early 2000s, Heikkila didn't have much to encourage his interest in the genre until he found Powell's iPod.

"The Eminem Show came out [in 2002] and I was like, 'Wow, this is really awesome. White people can do this,'" he said. "And then I got into middle school and everybody was like, 'Nah, dude; white people can't do this.' So I got into a rock band, actually. I was in a rock band for a long time, and then I kind of slowly slipped back into [hip-hop]."

Tim Hammes--who performed as Timbuk2 in the local group Kamphire Collective and now raps under the MC name Exit Prose--also had a hard time acting on his passion for hip-hop as a teenager in the mid '90s.

"It was weird, because hip-hop was in Boise, but it wasn't everywhere," he recalled. "I didn't know much about the production and all that stuff, so I would just listen to rap tapes and rap CDs and then I would use their beats and write to those."

Hammes has seen the hip-hop scene evolve in Boise since those days. He added that Powell "did have a lot to do with ... booking a lot of the shows here and networking."

It helped that Powell had built up a long list of contacts from making beats for the group Whiskey Blanket and booking shows in the Boulder, Colo., music scene. He moved back to Boise in 2004 and started promoting locally in 2005, drawing on those contacts to bring The Grouch and Eligh, Opio, Murs and other prominent underground hip-hop acts to town. He also helped organize the Boise Spring Hip-Hop Fest in 2010 and 2011.

"No underground rap had ever come to this town [before 2005]," Powell said. "That's a huge statement, but it was really true. ... Just a bad, bad reputation; everyone was skipping on the routing and everything."

While Powell won't stop promoting hip-hop shows, he said that he may focus more on children's events and the BBA going forward. He'll play a DJ set on Saturday, May 10, for a show at The Crux featuring Play Date, the children's' music project of Greg Attonito, of veteran punk outfit The Bouncing Souls, and Shanti Wintergate. Eventually, he hopes to expand the BBA classes and bring in guests to demonstrate different methods of beat-making.

If Powell achieves his goals with BBA, the classes could help fill a need that Tim Hammes sees in both local hip-hop and the music scene as a whole.

"[People] give so much credit to other bands that come from out of town that I don't think they hold themselves high enough," he said. "I think they need to get more self-esteem themselves and look at themselves as being greater or at least having the potential to be greater."