Rosetta Johnson’s door stays open to let in a little light and the sound of a neighborhood basketball game. The egg-crate foam draping the walls downstairs insulates her ears from the bass-heavy beats coming from the recording studio in her basement.
Johnson is the owner of Midwest Chocolate Entertainment, a 6-month-old Columbia business whose CEO, producer, engineer and secretary is her son, BeCarr Washington.
Washington wants to put mid-Missouri on the hip-hop industry map. Other areas of the country, such as California, the Northeast and the South, are already well-represented in the urban music scene.
“I’m just going to keep feeding the community. This is my life; this is my nine-to-five,” Washington said. “I’m already living my dream.”
That dream involves recording local hip-hop artists and creating his own beats at the studio, 26 E. Ash St. Since it opened, he’s worked with about 50 low-profile, underground artists in the area. He said these artists are special and sometimes are at-risk kids. He wants to give them a chance to channel their energy positively.
“They can run around here and sell CDs instead of selling something else; you never know who will hear that CD and pick them up,” Washington said. “A lot of the kids I work with are taking penitentiary chances on the street just to live.”
Those chances are what the artists write about. Reggae artist RasTree, who records with Washington, has a radio show on
Lincoln University’s KJLU/88.9 FM . His lyrics explore the daily struggles of urban kids, such as a personal monologue over “whether or not to commit this crime.”
“What I make is real — it’s about how people live and survive and the issues they deal with,” Washington said.
Jason Dawson, 27, also records with Washington. He prefers freestyle rap and is working on translating that into a recording. He performs under the name Revelation “because it’s the truth,” he said. “Whatever I speak — someone has felt it, dealt with it, will deal with it,” he said. “It’s the truth.”
“If he can put the feeling into words, we can put it into music,” Washington said. “You might not be the most educated person, but you can get your point across and make a lot of people feel it.”
Washington and other artists have to find time to work in the studio. Some are still in school and must work around their sports-practice schedule. And because the studio doubles as his mother’s home, he can’t give his artists 24-hour access.
Washington views the project as an opportunity to make great music and give at-risk youth a chance to take a shortcut past the problems he experienced.
Growing up in St. Louis, Washington said he and his friends spent their days imitating rappers. He had started writing music and poetry by the time he went to college, but after graduating he decided he needed to get a real job in the real world. He moved to Kansas, became a concrete truck driver, got married and had a son. But the urge to create music lingered.
In 1998 he got in trouble with the law,and didn’t go to court, he said. When he realized the potential consequences, he came back home to have a talk with his son, DeAndre, about what he thought about his father’s actions. Together, they turned that conversation into a rap song.
Washington said it was his father who finally pushed him to indulge his creative instinct.
“He knew I still loved music. He told me, ‘Whether it’s being an artist or a producer, if that’s your first love, go ahead,’ ” Washington said.
Today, the soundproof room is under construction. The wood-paneled walls are padded with cream-colored egg-crate foam and the floor with a blue mat. A small picture hangs above a desk that holds the cordless headphones and a mixer. A microphone stands in the corner, and a thin wire connects it to the computer in the next room.
Washington said he takes a modern-day approach to the studio. He only uses digital audio — everything is done with his computer. He does production as well as studio work, sometimes selling beat tracks, sometimes recording an artist who already has beats.
He hopes to release a compilation CD in the late spring or early summer called “Taste of Chocolate, Vol. I,” which he hopes will increase awareness of Columbia artists. “Everyone on there is somebody’s brother, sister, niece, uncle, whatever. The more people hear it, the faster it will catch on,” he said.
Getting the music to catch on has been difficult. It’s hard to get local artists’ songs on the radio or their CDs in stores, Washington said. Most publicity comes from public events, like the two shows he organized in Douglass Park and similar ones held in Moberly and Boonville last year. In April several of his artists appeared at The Blue Note and The Music Cafe, and he helped organize a May 1 gathering of local artists in Douglass Park that he hopes to turn into a monthly event.
The family connection continues with DeAndre. The 12-year-old got interested in making music after listening to a young rap artist when he was 7.
“My dad asked me if I wanted to rap, and I said yeah,” DeAndre said.
He has been writing, recording and performing ever since. He said his next CD is going to be called “First Class Flight,” because his dream is for his career to take off.
“I get popular when it gets played around,” DeAndre said of the benefits of being a recording artist in junior high school.
Washington said he’d like — no, love — to have a highly successful artist, especially if that artist turned out to be his son. But if that doesn’t happen, Washington said he’d still be satisfied with what he has accomplished.
“I’m trying to eliminate capitalism out of my life,” he said. “Instead of getting a job just to make money, I want to apply my knowledge to a job I love and be my own boss.”
“What is success?” he said. “Don’t misconstrue me — I’d love to be on the Top 10; I’d love to be as big as Nelly. But success is also being able to give local artists a chance to record.”