The classroom doors swung open, releasing the sounds of a propelling, booming beat as Jason Raymond stepped outside to meet with a reporter. He is the instructor of the Digital Media Lab at the Burlington Technical Center and the founder of the Make Music Club, an after-school program for aspiring student music producers. His attempted greeting was lost in a swell of synthesizer samples.
“We’re in the thick of it right now,” Raymond said as he walked into the lab.
Inside, groups of student producers, their faces illuminated by the glow of computer screens, were scattered around the room working on their projects. In a recording booth, a student banged along to a freshly created beat while several others wearing headphones listened outside the booth through a computer. Dimly lit, the Digital Media Lab resembles a recording studio, but also a clubhouse, which is exactly what it is.
“It’s so cool to see the process unfold,” Raymond said.
Raymond’s students come from high schools in Chittenden County. They’re here to learn the ins and outs of digital music production and, in some cases, create backing tracks that will be used by real rappers. Some of the local MCs who came to rap at the Make Music Club booth include North Ave Jax, Kami OK! and HakimXOXO. The program has also attracted national collaborators.
Like most technology center programs – including Digital Media Lab programs in film, photography, and other mediums – the club aims to give students the basic tools to pursue a professional career. Equally important, the Make Music Club provides students with a safe space in which to be creative, be themselves, and connect with other like-minded children.
“You can see the agency it gives them, the purpose and the direction,” Raymond said. “Especially after being closed during COVID, these opportunities for students are so important.”
However, Raymond didn’t start the Make Music Club with any of these lofty goals in mind. It started in 2018 as a kind of compromise between him and Burlington High School Principal Noel Green.
“We realized a lot of kids were skipping class to attend the Digital Media Lab,” Raymond recalls with a sardonic smile. “And some students were really just hanging out while their friends were recording beats or shooting music videos.”
Raymond created the Make Music Club so that these children, along with other students in the area, could attend after school rather than skipping class. The program was an immediate success, and in 2019 Raymond won a Voya Unsung Hero Award – a national program for K-12 educators – for his outstanding teaching.
Raymond grew up in Buffalo, NY where he was immersed in hardcore music. After graduating from Bennington College, he moved to Portland, Oregon in 1997 and witnessed the rise of the riot grrrl scene. Her housemates played in bands that shared the stage with Sleater-Kinney and Miranda July.
“I saw this thing created,” Raymond recalls, “this scene built with a DIY sensibility, which knew the importance of building an inclusive community, and it really resonated with me. I wanted to create something like this for my students.”
He returned to Vermont in 2016 — fittingly, the year Burlington’s Memorial Auditorium and its all-ages concert hall, 242 Main, closed. Raymond immediately recognized the need for something to fill the void and give budding young musicians real opportunities to connect. But where 242 Main nurtured generations of punk and hardcore kids, Raymond worked with students who were more into hip-hop and electronic music, as well as kids from refugee populations with a whole different set of people. influences.
“I knew a lot of students were into hip-hop, especially Chicago drill and trap, but there are also kids who have spent a lot of time in Tanzania and are rapping in French,” Raymond said. . “There are kids rapping in Bhutanese, but also influenced by Thai music.” When kids with such diverse influences collaborate, Raymond continues, “you can see the gears spinning in their heads as they are exposed to new sounds.”
“This place has changed my life,” said Essex High School senior Isaac Dodge, praising Raymond and the quality of the lab’s equipment, much of it donated by local sound engineer Justin Gonyea. . “I’ve met so many other people here who make music that inspires me. Everyone builds on each other.”
Dodge, who records as Isaac and the Brain, is moving to Chicago next year after graduating to study audio acoustics. While the idea of leaving the lab and the Make Music Club saddens him, he knows what the program has made possible for him.
“Pretty much everything I showed in my portfolio in school was from the lab,” Dodge said.
Helping budding artists take the next step is one of Raymond’s main goals. He established the lab as an affiliate program of Full Sail University and has seen his students enroll in places such as Berklee College of Music and Drexel University’s Music Industry Program, as well as in regional schools such as Champlain College and the University of Vermont.
As he was showing a reporter around the lab, Raymond gestured to another room, where a group of students gathered around a television, watching a football game and snacking.
“They’re here creating and socializing with other kids,” Raymond explained. “But at some point they have to learn how to turn this stuff into a business venture, if that’s the path they want to go down.”
To that end, he works with other local nonprofit organizations such as the Vermont Small Business Development Center to help teach his students how to work for themselves. And local musicians, including DJ and rapper Fattie B, DJ Craig Mitchell and rapper Konflik, have visited the program, giving students a taste of the challenges that professional music can present.
“They need to understand what they’re getting into and how to market themselves and their music,” Raymond explained.
He already sees part of his tutelage bearing fruit. A host of students who passed through the lab and the Make Music Club started releasing music and playing in local clubs. Program alumni Bilé, HakimXOXO and Deluxe recently opened for Chicago rapper Smokepurpp at Higher Ground in South Burlington.
Raymond wants his children to have more opportunities to perform live.
“That’s the one part of the process that we can’t yet offer here, which is a safe place for young people to perform,” Raymond said. He noted that spaces like 242 Main not only give young artists the chance to get stage time, but also to learn about other aspects of gigging, like creating commercials and merchandise. “Without it, we are missing a key ingredient,” he continued. “We have all these producers collaborating, but they need a place to showcase their work.”
While Raymond was talking, one of his students came out of the vocal booth after composing a few pieces. A group of aspiring producers gathered, congratulating the student on a good take and comparing production notes.
“They really support each other, man,” Raymond said proudly. “It’s, frankly, beautiful to see.”
The Make Music Club will be stationed at the Burlington Tech Center for another three years until the planned opening of the new Burlington High School. While Raymond hopes the new facilities will work for the club, he knows it’s all about giving his students the right environment in which they can be themselves.
“With this age group,” he said, “if they have a focus for their creativity, the sky’s the limit.”