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School of Rap

Creative collaboration in a Wilton basement



Will “Johnny Highschool” Nellis on the left and Rob “RY” Yassky performing “Malibu,” a rap by Willis.

Photo by Jackson Wherli

In recent years, the basement of Will Nellis’s parents’ Wilton home has served as the recording studio for a group of high-school and college-age rap musicians. The local crew of five: Nellis, known as “Johnny Highschool,” Andrew “Dre Scott” Basile, Cole “Koru” Hawthorne, Jack House, and Jackson Wehrli—refer to their subterranean meet-ups as “brainstorming sessions.”

“As soon as you open the door to the basement, sound floats out,” says Wehrli, a junior at Wilton High School and the group’s videographer. “Once you get in, there’s equipment everywhere. The drum machine and keyboard are going, and everyone is hyped about what they’re making.”

“If Will and Cole are making a beat together,” House elaborates, “I’ll be in another room with headphones on, making lyrics, and Dre will be working on his music.” The results get posted to SoundCloud, Facebook, and, on occasion, YouTube. Between meetings they stay in touch via a group thread.

These hometown rappers have been collaborating for more than five years. Dre and House were childhood friends who began experimenting with writing rhymes in middle school. In his freshman year, Highschool heard a song of House’s and messaged the MC on Facebook. House in turn introduced Highschool to Dre. Shortly thereafter, House messaged Wehrli, who was known for his skill with a camera, about making a music video. Wehrli has since shot five videos for the group. In the winter of 2014, Koru, who had been experimenting on his own with production, joined up.

“They love to eat and sit and talk and share their ideas,” says Ann Nellis, Highschool’s mother and the frequent hostess of the dynamic collaborative.

Over time, crew members have evolved in their own different directions. While House is focused principally on rhyming, Dre and Highschool opt for a softer sound, oscillating between rapping and singing. Koru, who seldom steps behind the mic, has departed from his early hip-hop productions to focus on future R&B compositions that he views as melody-driven, soul-infused hip-hop. Besides shooting hip-hop acts, Wehrli is pursuing fashion photography.

Despite these divergences—arguably, because of them—their connection remains strong. House’s video for Wax (Outro), off his album Wanderlust, was shot by and features Highschool. Dre is the cinematographer and Wehrli is credited with “creative inspiration.” Koru’s EP, Petals, features both Dre and Highschool.

Each of the music-making members has by now released debut EPs, which draw an ever-increasing number of SoundCloud plays. Koru’s posts to the website have earned him a following in Korea, where rap is immensely popular. A song of Dre’s, “Remember That,” was featured on the prestigious A3C mixtape, on which many of rap’s biggest names got their start.

For all of the group’s accomplishments, questions about the seriousness of their artistic enterprise loom over them, as they have over other youths who emulate the genre without having experienced the particular struggles fundamental to rap since its birth in America’s inner cities. But House argues that audiences’ negative preconceptions disappear upon first listen. “People are definitely surprised when I tell them where I’m from and what I do. But when they hear my music, their minds change.”

Dre’s father is one such convert. On car rides to and from Brunswick School in Greenwich, where Dre attended high school, Dre gave his father, who works in finance, impromptu “rap lessons.”

Once averse to the vulgarity associated with the genre, Dre’s father was quickly won over and now regards himself as “a bit of a rap scholar,” says Dre. Meanwhile, the working method cultivated in Highschool’s basement is being tested as, one by one, the collaborators depart for college. House entered Rollins College last fall, and Dre left for the University of Southern California in January. Highschool and Koru are scheduled to start college next fall, leaving Wehrli the sole contributor in Wilton.

“We’ve had noticeably less time together,” laments Koru. “The more we have other things going on, the less we can work with each other.” Still, the members’ Internet contact persists, and basement meetings are expected on breaks. Koru remains optimistic. “We’ll be this kind of group forever, even if we’re not seeing each other.”

Dre maintains that he will not be deterred by geographical separation, or by the skeptics. “You get put in a box a lot,” he reflects. “I’ve faced a lot of ‘What are you doing?’  But I’ll always work with music in some way. Some kids cook, other kids draw, but rap speaks to me.” And apparently, people are listening.


THE GANG’S ALL HERE  
Jack House, Cole “Koru” Hawthorne, Jackson Wehrli, Will “Johnny Highschool” Nellis, Andrew “Dre” Scott regularly gather to share ideas and more.

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