Local Spins’ series showcasing eastern Michigan talent focuses today on a Detroit educator, hip hop producer and community leader who leans on collaboration to grow talent and promote education.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of a series partnering with Ypsilanti’s Grove Studios to spotlight artists from the east side of Michigan — an endeavor aimed at bridging the gap between east and west. Today, writer Lori Stratton profiles hip hop producer Rod Wallace who has become a leader in spearheading collaborative hip-hop projects and launching a fellowship program for black artists.
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Fueled by community, collaboration and creativity, Rod Wallace continually breaks the mold.
The metro Detroit educator, hip-hop producer and community leader quickly builds and sustains local partnerships rooted in artistry, advocacy and awareness, including Washtenaw County’s Amplify Fellowship for black artists.
“It’s been a manifestation of all of the work that I’ve ever done involving collaboration, connecting music to the community and involving the education side of music. It’s also included a production, engineering and project management side, and all of those things have played a part in making it special for me,” Wallace said.
Last fall, Wallace co-launched the Amplify Fellowship with Maia Evans on behalf of Ypsilanti’s Grove Studios and Ann Arbor’s Leon Speakers. The eight-month fellowship provides black artists with 40 hours of studio time and engineering and production support.
Three Washtenaw County artists – vocalist-instrumentalist London Beck, R&B singer Kenyatta Rashon and chanteuse-guitarist Dani Darling – won the fellowship, partnered with community nonprofits and released new projects.
“We’ve seen them grow collectively, and they’ve developed such a fantastic kinship throughout this process. Individually, they’ve all grown in different ways, too. We’ve seen London grow into this machine almost while Kenyatta became a mother and Dani just let go of all convention in working on her project,” said Wallace, educational programs coordinator for Grove Studios.
With the inaugural fellowship wrapping up, Wallace and Evans will bring in another class of fellows later this year and continue working with nearly 40 collaborators on the next round of artist projects.
“Our team is even stronger with us being able to work with the fellows who were part of it this year. We have a really great brain trust involving the program, and my hope is to be able to use a lot of our creative and administrative energies going forward,” Wallace said.
IMPACTFUL HIP-HOP COLLABORATIONS
Outside of the fellowship, Wallace has played a central role in spearheading collaborative hip-hop projects locally and nationally.
In 2020, he co-executive produced “Formula 734,” a community-based hip-hop album, with Jamall Bufford and in partnership with Washtenaw County My Brother’s Keeper, the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation and the Washtenaw Intermediate School District.
Together, Wallace and Bufford assembled an intergenerational group of disparate male creatives to write, record and release a compelling album with emerging hip-hop artists, producers and engineers. All 12 “Formula 734” tracks challenge false narratives about men of color and raise awareness about the underlying causes of systemic racism.
LISTEN: “Race Relations”
“We’ve created a historical document for this particular time in history for Washtenaw County that people can refer to. They can gain some primary analysis of what it was like to be here during the COVID-19 pandemic and the unrest related to the death of George Floyd,” said Wallace, who hopes to start another Formula 734 cohort later this year.
Wallace also oversaw two releases last year for Dirty Ol’ Men, an international collective of hip-hop producers, musicians and curators from across the United States and Japan.
In September, Dirty Ol’ Men released the quarantine-fueled album, “Six Feet,” to reveal life-changing conversations, thought-provoking narratives and tenacious tales about social injustice, systemic racism, internal struggles and personal aspirations.
Last February, they also dropped “East Grand,” which was created in a Detroit loft at the corner of East Grand Boulevard and Oakland Avenue during a three-day retreat. The album captures the authentic vibes of the Motor City and features alternative sounds from vinyl purchased at local record stores.
“I’m engineering these projects, so I get the opportunity to take all these diverse ideas and sounds and craft them into a collective vision. It’s almost like albums are my medium, and I study albums on the Zero Noize Podcast,” Wallace said.
This month, Wallace will join Dirty Ol’ Men in an undisclosed city to work on a new project. It will be their first in-person gathering in two years and provide a refreshing change from collaborating virtually over Songlab TV, an online, one-session approach to songwriting.
“Doing ‘Six Feet’ virtually was a great experience for us, and it taught us what we liked and didn’t like. ‘East Grand’ also had a lot of edits and things that were done online after the fact. Not everything was recorded when we were out of town together,” he said.
A DOCTORATE, A PODCAST AND A SOLO ALBUM
In addition to collaborative projects, Wallace is pursuing a doctorate in educational studies with a concentration in urban education at Eastern Michigan University. His graduate coursework focuses on critical hip-hop pedagogy, or how the creation and study of music is a method of interpretation for people interested in hip-hop culture.
“I’ve studied a lot about hip hop as a response to social conditions. I’ve done analyses of public policy as interpreted through hip hop, and I’ve done quantitative studies related to producers and their tendencies,” said Wallace, a former high school teacher and administrator.
“I like to call them mad scientists to a point. The manipulation with technology and alignment with artistic theory as well as the context of what is popular isn’t given enough attention in terms of people and their creative ability.”
Wallace plans to finish his coursework this summer, prepare for comprehensive exams in the fall and start his dissertation later this year. He also leads EMU’s Upward Bound program, a federally funded initiative that provides Ypsilanti Community High School students with academic skills enhancement and motivation to obtain a college degree.
“Upward Bound has allowed me to remain grounded in being an access point for kids. It has given me the ability to expand my knowledge about a lot of different things and my engagement in the state and county when it comes to educational access overall,” he said.
Wallace continues to combine his passions for education and hip-hop through the Zero Noize Podcast, which provides a forum for discussing music analytically instead of comparatively. He explores classic albums with artists, producers, educators and leaders and examines the impact those works have had on them.
“I wondered what it would look like if I brought in people and started talking to them about the music that made a difference. Music has affected all of us at one point in our lives, so I wanted to talk with guests about a project that represented a time in their life that we could really dig into without being too technical,” said Wallace, who’s released 16 episodes since February.
Wallace recently shifted that musical analysis to his latest album, “unfreqdblk” (pronounced “unfreaked black”), which uses the metaphor of a broken cigar to represent finding value in any situation. Co-produced by JB Swift, the project tackles loss, marriage, deception, resilience and growth across seven hard-hitting, introspective tracks.
LISTEN: “321/Frontmatter (unfreqdblk)”
Released in January via Bandcamp, “unfreqdblk” allowed Wallace to hone his lyrics against vintage, hypnotic beats and dynamic collaborations with F13ldz, Snapeasy, Josh Hype and Houston Patton. For Wallace, it’s a matter switching from the producer-engineer seat to the artist chair.
“I wanted to be in a position where I worked on a project and all I did was rhyme. JB (Swift) gave me the tracks and beats, and I worked out things from there,” Wallace said.
The album’s thoughtful, contemplative opener, “321/Frontmatter (unfreqdblk),” pays tribute to Wallace’s late father and reflects on his continued life lessons. Meanwhile, the bouncy, shiny swagger of “Slush” tackles how tumultuous relationships slowly erode one’s self-confidence over time.
“I hope people recognize there’s always an opportunity to redefine themselves and develop an understanding that an ending is a beginning. That’s why the project starts with my father’s funeral because that was a transition for me,” said Wallace, who will add “unfreqdblk” to other streaming platforms later this summer.
“I had to grow from that and the realization that I didn’t have that person in my life anymore to tell me if I was wrong. You have to have that compass in your life, and when you don’t have that compass, you have to become that compass.”
Copyright 2021, Spins on Music LLC