It took the babyish charm of Nick Cannon and the musical direction of Dallas Austin to bring the big beat of marching bands to the mainstream. The movie "Drumline" focused on a Southern collegiate marching band torn between playing songs of tradition and playing the hip-hop and R&B that moves bodies.
There's no such dilemma for the Jackie Robinson Steppers Marching Band, a group of Brooklyn kids who, under the direction of 26-year-old Tyrone Brown, embrace the contemporary bounce of today's pop, R&B and hip-hop. The approach has won them many fans, including Jay-Z and P. Diddy.
"If hip-hop and R&B is the culture here in this community, then let's use that, let's go ahead and use that [in] a very positive way," Brown said. "The kids have a lot of things drawing them — there's gangs, there's hanging out on the street, there's drug dealers here. All of these glamorous things on that end that are drawing them in, we need to put some glamour around this."
The Steppers are a marvel to watch — 180 kids strong, schooled in reading, writing and playing music. Their performances are regal, raucous affairs that find the kids getting crunk to Usher or Outkast, grinding to Britney Spears or blasting the melodies of Jay-Z. "Jay is definitely a favorite," Brown said.
The group is part of a larger program based out of the Jackie Robinson Center for Physical Culture, which provides programs of various disciplines for kids from some of the toughest parts of Brooklyn, from painting to martial arts to dancing. The Steppers are the most visible part of the program because their pageantry and skill has earned them national attention. In 2000 the band was featured in the indie film "Our Song."
The band has an age range that spans from grade school to high school, yet the Steppers compete in national high school-level competitions. And while the marching band tradition is firmly rooted in the South, the Steppers are one of the few bands from up north who can hold their own: The Steppers' drumline won the 2003-2004 national championship.
More impressive than the band's profile is the overall program the kids have dedicated themselves to. Brown, who joined the band as a 13-year-old student, has shaped the program to develop the kids as leaders as much as musicians. To be a part of the revelry of the Steppers, the kids must commit to an overall program that includes improving their grades, their self-respect and their attitude. Practice is three days a week and includes two hours of homework, one hour of leadership meetings, and then the music, which includes learning how to perfect your own instrument and then how to operate in the overall band.
"These kids come in here with horrible report cards ... truants, attendance is horrible," Brown said. "And we change all of that. You give me six months with a child and I'll show you their report cards will be raised."
The results can't be disputed. Graduating seniors earn scholarships to colleges — this year a record 14 students are receiving full or partial scholarships to the university of their choice. And despite how prodigious they are musically, their development as young leaders could be their biggest achievement.
"If you asked a lot of these kids five years ago, 'Did you think you were going to college?,' they'd say no very fast. That's huge accomplishments," Brown beamed.