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With Grammy nominees, DASH program aims to develop Philly's next entertainment leaders

DASH, a program that gives students opportunities to learn about a variety of fields within the entertainment industry, partners with the school district to present "Songwriting 101."

LINC H.S. senior Teo O'Brien makes music during the "Songwriting 101" class at the Philadelphia School District headquarters.
LINC H.S. senior Teo O'Brien makes music during the "Songwriting 101" class at the Philadelphia School District headquarters.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

Music executives Michael McArthur and Jerome Hipps have worked with the best — Mariah Carey, Kanye West, and Jay-Z.

Their newest clients might just be the next generation of industry heavyweights. Many may be sitting in a Philadelphia classroom.

Inside the Philadelphia Schools TV (PSTV) studio on North Broad Street,  20 high school students are producing their own tracks.  It is a lower-floor music studio housing the weekly after-school sessions taught by DASH (Destined to Achieve Successful Heights), a free program founded by McArthur and Hipps that gives students opportunities to learn about a variety of fields within the entertainment industry.  The high school students are quiet, headphones strapped on and focused with MacBooks open to the digital audio workstation, Logic Pro.

When the Grammy-nominated songwriter and DASH master instructor Kristal Oliver asks them to share their music, the students look hesitant. Except for Jelani Green, a senior from the Philadelphia High School of Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA),  who stands up confidently.

"I was actually really nervous," Green said later. "The only thing holding people back is that they second-guess themselves. The purpose of this program is to help teach you."

His track was smooth with a traplike beat. The room was impressed.

"What does this make you feel?" Oliver asked.

"Froot Loops on a raft," said Teo O'Brien, a senior at the LINC High School.

The class laughs, but O'Brien continues, "It makes me feel like I'm having Froot Loops while floating on a raft."

As the beat plays, O'Brien sings a melody to accompany the track. Oliver asks if anyone rapped. A third student gets up and begins to rap with a fast cadence.

It was a lesson in collaboration, one that stuck with O'Brien.

"I've been making music by myself," O'Brien said. "I'm learning it's good to work with other people. It will get you through something faster, but you'll do more because you're working with more than just yourself."

There's the day you're born and the day you die. In the middle, there's the dash. That's the premise behind Linda Ellis' popular poem, and it's the catalyst behind the DASH program.

Both McArthur and Hipps were in midcareer when they experienced the loss of people close to them. It made them think about legacy.

"We were touring the world, making records and doing our thing, but what does it all matter if we're not giving back?"asked McArthur.

The program began as one class in their studio on Delaware Avenue. The studio was for their clients under their management company, Mama's Boys Entertainment Group.

"We wanted to create something that wasn't there for us," McArthur said. "Most of us had to learn the hard way, which was trial and error."

Now, after 12 years of bringing hands-on industry training to classrooms across the East Coast from Baltimore to Chester, the DASH program is collaborating with the Philadelphia School District to present "Songwriting 101″ this fall.

Oliver and the Grammy-nominated producer/songwriter Ivan Barias are leading the 12-week program and have been master instructors of the DASH program since its inception.

During the class, Oliver encouraged the students to trust their instincts and to not overthink the music they create. In the next class, they went  over the structure of a song and feeling out what kind of lyrics go with the mood of their music.

"I remember when I  started out in music and how hard it was not having guidance," said Oliver. "So the biggest thing for me was to give back and knowing how much faster I would have progressed if I would have had that." Diddy, Estelle, and Enrique Iglesias are just a few of the artists she's worked with.

She and Barias assisted the students with taking abstract concepts and turning them into sonic art.   Barias, who along with Carvin Haggins, has produced and written music for Musiq Soulchild, Jazmine Sullivan, Justin Timberlake, Mary J. Blige, and others, wants the Philadelphia students to learn all aspects of the music industry. Not only the entertainers but the entertainment ecosystem.

"There are a lot of careers in the music business that people tend to overlook because there's no glamour," Barias said.

In fact, in previous classes students learned about marketing, management, videography, choreography, entertainment law, and the many different fields that make up the entertainment world. They discussed royalties and publishing,

"[They'll] put a mix tape out, but not think of the business model that exists that will allow you to create and put it out through the proper avenues," Barias said.

For Brandon Pankey, it's full circle.  He was a student at the  University of Pennsylvania in 2005 and began interning  for Mama's Boys Entertainment Group. Pankey went on to lay a lot of the groundwork for DASH, including founding the acronym.

"There's no one that is self-made," said Pankey. "I have about five to seven mentors that I lean on. I'll never take the credit for where I am. There's no reason for me not to help others who are younger than me."

Pankey, a Philadelphia native, is now not only the executive director of the DASH program but also the vice president of business development and operations for Live Nation Urban. He's called on his professional contacts to speak with the class.  In the past, students traveled to New York and  visited the set of Men in Black III, where Will Smith offered advice. This year, Pankey surprised students with suite tickets to  Power 99's Powerhouse concert at the Wells Fargo Center.

Frank  Machos,  executive director of the Philadelphia School District's Office of the Arts and Academic Enrichment, has known about DASH since its inception and was there the night the students went to Powerhouse.

"There's a major  disconnect between the music industry and music education. [It] was something we needed to reimagine," said Machos. "We needed to  expand what we're teaching our kids."

One of the attributes of the DASH program that  intrigued Machos the most was the increased level of student engagement. The engagement  that the arts seems to foster then trickles into all fields of study. They're now hoping to implement a  districtwide music-industry curriculum, and DASH plans to go national.

"When you sit with these kids,  you get to see their faces light up and you realize they know that they can really do this," Oliver said. "We're setting down roots. We're in these kids for the rest of their lives. We're in their veins."

For more information on DASH, visit: