Hip hop music and culture are powerful. Lakeland Lofi beatmaker and producer, Derick Epps aka Deek Beats, believes so strongly in its power to heal, inspire, and educate that he is doing whatever it takes to make it accessible to the next generation. Epps is working with the Lake Wales Arts Council to bring the Today’s Future Sound music education program to Polk County.
Growing up an only child to a single parent, Deek could listen to whatever he wanted. “We’re talking circa early 90s, so I’m getting exposed to the early hip hop raw and uncut at an early age. It was kind of like mine,” he said. “It was one of those things that I could record whatever I wanted off the radio or take my bike to the Tower Records that was right down the street or Waxie Maxie’s and save up my money and buy the tapes that I shouldn’t have.” Deek didn’t just listen to music – he made his own. He played the flute, cornet, trumpet, drums, xylophone, guitar, and bass before graduating to turntables. “I played everything as a kid, and that turned me to DJing because I couldn’t settle on what I wanted to play.”
Born and raised in Virginia just outside of Washington D.C., Deek moved to Jacksonville in 2012 for a career change while DJing on the side. “As long as I had my turntables, I could find a job,” he said. He DJed the Jacksonville club circuit while going to school to be an educator. Music and education would continue to be a theme throughout Deek’s life. “Music even then… had always been my go-to,” he said.
While DJing in Jacksonville, he was approached to perform at a bar. He was asked to DJ and if he could make it “not as ghetto.” Deek felt he was asked to DJ there because of his lighter skin tone, which may be more “palatable” to bar-goers. Troubled by this and similar experiences while DJing, Deek was decidedly done playing everyone else’s music. His wife, Cathrin, encouraged him to quit his job and start making his own beats.
Deek found a job that afforded him the time to learn music on his own. Working the 2 am to 10 am shift at a 24-hour pool hall, he used his ‘backpack studio,’ the mini keyboard and drum machine Cathrin had gotten him, to start making music. “I was going through the exercises of learning how to process drums, learning how to write a track, learning the software, going through all the motions for two and a half years before I released my own stuff,” he said. “That turned into teaching myself music theory, teaching myself how to play the keyboard, teaching myself scales, teaching myself drum patterns and rhythm.”
The couple moved to Polk County in 2018. Deek started performing at open mic nights in Lakeland and was even approached to host them. He started a concept called ‘BAG Night’ or Beats and Game Night. “Along the way, being a performer in Lakeland, I started to feel the effects of being the new kid in town. […] Hip Hop is not openly accepted or promoted or showcased or played anywhere outside of my open mic nights. That started to bother me,” he said.
He began to think of how a genuinely diverse and inclusive space would look. He wanted a free event that catered to all ages where people of every socioeconomic status, gender, ethnicity, and orientation would feel welcome. Deek thought, “If I’m an artist who is underrepresented and underappreciated, where are the crafters and the makers? [...] Let’s give them a platform. Let’s find other creators. Let’s try and bring the community together.”
Deek organized a series of recurring community events called #ParkChill. “#ParkChill grew into what BAG Night should have been, which was my way of bringing the community together under hip hop music with different people of different ages,” he said. “I felt there was a need as being the new kid on the block and not being openly accepted. [...] Seven times trying it, and we nailed it,” he said. #ParkChill has become a popular event that not only serves to support its vendors but to be a megaphone for Deek’s mission to bring Today’s Future Sound to Polk County.
Today’s Future Sound
“Today’s Future Sound is a therapeutic beat program. It brings everybody together,” Deek said of the Oakland, California-based non-profit. “If we were to bring this program here, in ten or twenty years, the next Deek Beats won’t have to go through what I went through locally as far as the whitewashing of shows because I performed plenty of places where they didn’t include any of my pictures,” he said.
Founded in 2010 by producer and beatmaker Ben Durazzo, Today’s Future Sound (TFS) is a 501c3 organization centered around the transformative power of music. According to their website, “Our beatmaking and music production program have educational, therapeutic, and social components that build confidence, inspire creativity, and help individuals create positive change.”
These educational, therapeutic, creative, and social objectives are accomplished through interactive beatmaking and music production instruction in elementary, middle, and high schools, juvenile centers, mental health facilities, and veteran’s groups. Their website goes on to say, “The artistry and culture of hip hop have significant real-world applications, yet its power to engage, unify, heal, and give voice has often been overlooked, particularly in education.”
The TFS program “directly addresses a lack of culturally responsive educational, therapeutic, and social interventions for people of all ages by bringing our mobile music production studio to their door.” The program is in over 100 schools in states across the U.S. and South America, and Australia and serves 5,000 youth annually. Students in the program learn everything from the physics of records, how to operate turntables and DJ controllers, to the underlying math and science of beatmaking. Today’s Future Sound works with over 80% minority and lower-income youth, with 60-75% of their students saying that working with TSF has, “In addition to teaching new skills, significantly improved learning in school and overall quality of life.”
The Lakeland music producer aims to use the program to put the art and creative catalyst that is hip hop music and culture into the hands of local youth. “Let’s get to the end game, which is getting another musical program into our schools so we’re better equipped – at least our kids are – to deal with issues that they might not know that they will be facing that hip hop has already prepared me for,” Deek said. “In a world where black and brown creators are asking everybody to start caring about issues and things that pertain to us, if I can invite you to the culture and you understand it, I’m not asking as hard. I’m not asking as loud. Those are easier conversations that can be had.”
It is a hands-on, student-driven curriculum, giving students the permission and freedom to make music and explore their creativity. “Not everybody wants to play guitar or piano, but the fact that a kid can walk around and make a beat on something the size of this,” he said, pulling out a pocket-sized sampler. “That’s the power of hip hop.”
Having stepped away from DJing to produce his music, Deek knows the power of beatmaking regarding mental health. “Where I’m able to be frustrated and sit down for 20 minutes whereas a writer would write, and a painter would paint, I can make a beat and get it all out and share that art with the world.” Bringing Today’s Future Sound to Polk County would be instrumental for the personal enrichment of its students and the community as a whole. Deek wants to invite the community to a culture that is often enjoyed but not understood.
Lake Wales Takes Lead
Deek Beats first tried to start the program in Lakeland but gained no traction. “Almost all the commissioners knew who I was. I had been trying to get this working in Lakeland,” he said. He remembers thinking, “Will anyone listen to me right now?” He did his best to get information about the program into the right hands, attending networking events and the like. “It seemed like it was in one ear, out the other.”
Serendipity intervened and Deek was connected with Lake Wales Arts Council executive director, Andrew Allen, through Amy Sexson, editor and partner of Haven Magazine. Allen happens to have a history with hip hop music in education. “That’s all I wanted somebody to do was listen,” said Deek. “This is just an idea. Can it work? Can we run with it? [...] I fell more in love with the idea when [Andrew Allen] was like, ‘Not only will it work, we’re going to make it work, and we’re going to do it one better.’”
In college, Allen worked on a thesis about implementing modern music education into failed traditional fine arts music curriculum in K-12 schools. “Classical music and jazz music is not one size fits all. Music of pop culture is what’s really motivating youth to learn about music just the way that jazz did in the 20s and the 30s and 40s,” he said. “A really good art form, in my opinion, is one that is easy to understand and difficult to master, and that’s what hip hop is. When you listen to hip hop, it evokes a feeling – you might love it, you might hate it – but at least it’s evoking emotion, and that’s what’s important about it.”
During their first conversation about bringing Today’s Future Sound to Polk, the two talked for over an hour about jazz piano and hip hop. Allen was confident in the program’s potential to work here. “A good leader empowers the impassioned and stays out of the way,” said Allen. And that’s what he intends to do with Deek and Today’s Future Sound.
Hip Hop Education in Polk
Deek Beats and the Lake Wales Arts Council hope to reach students from an often overlooked, impoverished segment of the community. “Not every child wants to learn in the orchestra, not every child wants to learn about jazz, not every family of four or five or six can afford to come out to a $30 concert. We know that the need is there,” said Allen. One of their main goals is to make the program accessible to everyone regardless of socioeconomic status.
The Lake Wales Arts Council maintains relationships with area public, private, and charter schools. The Today’s Future Sound program will be hosted by the Lake Wales Arts Council and deployed into those area schools that opt into it. It would start as an after-school program, with TFS-trained instructors in which students would work with analog drum machines and digital programs like Ableton Live and Maschine. They would learn lessons like the math behind production, simple scales, and sampling off vinyl records. Vinyl records will be their version of books, said Deek. He notes that this will complement what kids are already learning in their core classes at school. “It’s quite symbiotic. The research out there proves that music of any kind, if taught well, will help these kids succeed in the classroom,” said Allen. The program at the Arts Council would be a larger model of what goes into the schools and available to adults as well.
The Arts Council currently partners with AdventHealth, the Lake Wales Care Center, Circle of Friends, and the Family Literacy Academy of Lake Wales. They want hip hop education to be an option for the adults served by those programs and anyone else interested in learning more about hip hop culture and music. Allen and Deek have discussed having an open studio time at the Arts Center to serve as a creative incubator. The program would take form there year-round.
Beyond the framework that TFS provides, Deek has a vision for courses in creative writing, dance, history, and the like – all centered around hip hop culture. “My mind started going as far as cultural film, hip hop talking classes, presentations, lyrical breakdowns of songs so we can break it down as poetry. We can talk about why this song meant so much in this era so we can hit it from all different angles because it’s so powerful.”
Deek discussed showing prominent hip hop movies and explaining the historical significance behind them. He is working with his podcast co-host and Florida Southern associate professor of philosophy, H.A. Nethery, on curriculum ideas.
“This is the vehicle to reach kids of a new generation. That is what’s important because we can help them get through whatever stresses that they’re going through and identify with the music they hear on the radio and that they hear in commercials and movies all the time. I think that’s what’s powerful,” said Allen. The executive director believes this could lead to an appreciation of other fine arts like jazz and classical music as the students work with them within the context of hip hop. “They’re going to be exposed to all genres of music through this program, and I think that we’re going to help foster a whole other generation of classical and jazz enthusiasts.
“It’s going to be fun to see the creativity that sparks from the kids and the adults,” said Deek. “It’s got to be hands-on, it’s got to be loud, it’s got to be visual because that’s the way hip hop is. So, that’s the only way it’s going to work. Whatever you think a hip hop classroom looks like when you close your eyes – that’s exactly what it’s going to look like.”
Making it Happen
To fully realize the program, from training and equipment to educator fees, building overhead, and additional classroom materials to bring into the schools and community outreach programs, Deek and Allen would like to raise $75,000. “The technology is so important. The kids need to get their hands on beat machines, and we need to get computers and all the things that are necessary to create hip hop music we’d like to have at the Arts Center,” said Allen.
According to Allen, the program could take flight with around $20K-$30K in initial funding, but $75K would secure its ongoing advancement. “This is not a one and done. This is not a publicity stunt. It’s not something that we want to do because it’s trendy at the moment. This is something that we want to do for a long time,” he said.
Eventually, the program could expand to cities around the county and beyond. “Having the Arts Council be the home base for this program is what we envision, and then we want to have satellite programs around the county that are offering these experiences to kids that are at risk as well as some of the adults,” said Allen.
In addition to Deek Beats’ #ParkChill events, he says BAG nights are coming back along with Beats and Brunch to raise money to bring TFS to Polk. He received the first sizable donation at the April 3 #ParkChill of $2,500 from The Poor Porker.
The primary fundraiser for the program will take place at the Lake Wales Arts Center on June 19. A People of Color Emerging Artists exhibit will open that day along with a live mural painting by those artists on a tapestry that will eventually be moved inside the gallery. The executive director described the Juneteenth event as a major block party at the Arts Center highlighting Black artists and Black-owned businesses in the area. Asked if they plan to continue the event in the future, Allen said, “I would love to do this on a regular basis. I don’t want to pigeonhole people of color into one month or one event. I don’t want to run the Arts Council where we’re only featuring people of color in February and June 19. […] I want to make sure that we celebrate this culture year-round.”
Not only will the TFS program cater to an often overlooked and underserved portion of the local population, but it will also have positive economic impacts. “It will create jobs, it will create volunteer opportunities, it will create community outreach opportunities for those volunteers. We’re going to buy local. We’re going to do as much as we possibly can locally. Economically, it makes sense,” Allen said. “Community-wide, we’re going to reach kids that we don’t currently reach, which is a big plus for us. We want to provide these kinds of opportunities that keep children out of trouble, and we want to bring these opportunities to them.”
To stay up to date on Deek Beats and the Lake Wales Arts Council’s efforts to bring Today’s Future Sound to Polk County, sign up for the LWAC newsletter on their website listed below. To bring positive change to the community, you can donate on the website by selecting the ‘Donate’ tab and specifying ‘Today’s Future Sound’ or ‘TFS’ in the donation description.
“It makes sense for the program to be at Lake Wales [Arts Council] for the 50th anniversary to not only celebrate the work that they have done but also to showcase to the county and the state that this is how serious we are about change. […] It will be groundbreaking,” said Deek.
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The next #ParkChill event will be May 22 at The Poor Porker located at 801 E Main St., Lakeland.