You don't need to know that there are 2,000-plus miles between Hollywood, Calif., and Stone Mountain, Ga., to see they are two completely different places. Nor should you sweat the fact that Hollywood's hill has nine white letters that spell opportunity and stardom to most, while Stone Mountain's rock has three white guys carved into it who represent oppression to many. It really isn't that deep. All you need to remember is that one is fake and the other is real.
Hollywood has fictional schools such as Ridgemont High – where Oscar-winning actors Forrest Whitaker, Sean Penn and Nicholas Cage roamed the halls in Fast Times; and the imaginary Shermer High – where Emilio Estevez, Molly Ringwald and Judd Nelson goofed off in detention all day in The Breakfast Club.
But Stone Mountain has the very real Redan High School – where Grammy-snatching producers Danger Mouse and Swizz Beatz dressed out for PE, La La from MTV served on the student council, and Brandon and Brian Casey of R&B quartet Jagged Edge got all the girls. In the last 10 years, the trendy, suburban school has coincidentally cranked out some of the most recognizable names in urban music.
"The school was basically a black '[Beverly Hills] 90210'," laughs former student Hannah Kang, who is now general manager of rapper T.I.'s Grand Hustle Entertainment.
"The school was a big fashion show when I went," adds Cydel "Prynce" Young, who left Redan in 2003 and is currently signed to hit producer Jazze Pha's Sho'Nuff Records as a member of the rap group Hoodlum. "We had the prettiest girls and the flyest dudes. It was like going to the mall every day."
Though it may be more realistic to see a 16-year-old riding a yellow school bus than driving a yellow Corvette, Stone Mountain, 30088, is still pretty well-off. The predominately African-American area where Redan High rests is one of the most affluent in the country, boasting a median household income of $98,603. So with most of the students living fairly stable lives, it leaves room for creativity to seep in.
But unlike East Point's Tri-Cities High School, where numerous artists including OutKast, Kandi Burress, LaTocha and Tamika Scott of R&B group Xscape, and comedic actor Kenan Thompson attended, Redan has no specific concentration in performing arts. Aside from occasional talent shows and a respectable marching band, nothing about Redan fosters music.
"Over the years I've noticed how many people from Redan are in the industry now," says class of 1995 alum Brian "Danger Mouse" Burton, one-half of international phenomenon Gnarls Barkley. "The thought of it all is weird because it's not like we had any kind of music program there."
But that could soon change. "We're aiming towards making the school the premier performing arts and magnet school in DeKalb County, now," insists Redan band director Lorenzo Moore. "I've got a number of students that are producing and making beats now. Hopefully we'll become known for music just like we are for sports."
If anything, Redan's claim to fame is the athletic program. The school has churned out two Super Bowl champions (former Chicago Bears kicker Kevin Butler and current Pittsburgh Steelers punter Chris Gardocki); 18 Major League Baseball draftees, including rising Cincinnati Reds star Brandon Phillips; and former Atlanta Falcon Terrance Mathis. Somehow though, the school also became a breeding ground for big scorers in the music industry – which makes one wonder what exactly is going on inside RHS, often remembered by students as "the school built with no windows."
"Creativity is always gonna be where kids are at," urges Bronx, New York, native Kasseem "Swizz Beatz" Dean, who attended Redan when he moved in 1996 and got a reputation for DJing at many of the school's functions before going on to become one of the most successful rap producers of the past decade. "Plus, I know around the time I was going there, we were growing up right when Atlanta was on the verge of becoming a music Mecca. So I'm not surprised by the coincidence."
MTV personality Alana "La La" Vasquez shares similar sentiments. "I always had an idea that the school had a lot of talented people," says Vasquez, who planned various school events and trips as a member of student council before graduating in '97. "Our talent shows were great and we were able to get good judges from record labels to come through."
Aside from Swizz (who occasionally got picked up from school by then-unknown rapper DMX) and La La (who started working at then-Hot 97.5 during her senior year), most of Redan's star students did little to nothing to showcase their talents at the time.
"The only people who knew we could sing were people who went to our church" says Brandon Casey of Jagged Edge, who graduated from Redan in 1994 with his brother Brian. "We never put it out there at school. I was just focused on playing basketball. If it was an aspiring artist community there, I didn't know."
In many cases, their budding talents didn't flourish until after high school. "I used to write raps in class but I never really told anybody," says former student Jeff "J-Bo" Grigsby of the chart-topping tandem YoungbloodZ, known for their smash hits "Damn" and "85."
Meanwhile, other students explored their music-making potential by engaging in extracurricular activities. "Most of the time I just wanted to go to school, play my horn and go home," shrugs 1998 grad Marcus "Big Marc" Thomas, one-half of Rowdy Records duo Da Backwudz, which released its debut album, Wood Work, last year. Thomas played saxophone in the school band and earned the coveted drum major position as a senior, but all of his musical training wasn't scholastic in nature. "I actually got more into my craft skipping school with my friends to go make beats," he admits.
With so many students becoming stars and a handful of others managing talent, Redan's alumni roll call reads like a VIP list at Club 112. While they may enjoy the lavish life their careers have afforded them, Redan's star students haven't forgotten where they came from. Some even plan to share the wealth with their alma mater.
"I'm with it, I'd like to give back. I've always been a positive guy about school-related stuff, even though I got kicked out," Swizz laughs. "But I plan on helping out a lot of high schools in the near future, regardless."
Hopefully such good intentions will help the school garner the same star treatment a handful of other Atlanta-area schools have received lately. "That's why I respect Dallas Austin so much for the time and money he has been donating to these high school music programs," adds Big Marc, who still occasionally visits Mr. Moore. "I'd like to do the same thing when I'm able to."
Maurice G. Garland is also a graduate of Redan High School (class of 1998), who makes his living covering urban music for publications such as Vibe, XXL and Ozone.
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