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Hitsville High: The Unlikely Music Factory at Pinole Valley High School 

Wednesday, Apr 6 2016
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The lunch bell rings at Pinole Valley High School, and hordes of teenagers swarm out of squat, rectangular bungalows.

Since the fall of 2013, Pinole Valley's 1,200 students have been learning out of 83 portable buildings placed on what used to be a baseball diamond next to the school's track. The old school, a one-story building dating from 1967, was torn down two years ago to make way for a substantially larger replacement, replete with palm tree-lined walkways and enough classrooms to house 400 additional students. The estimated opening date is 2019, which means three classes of Pinole Valley students will spend the entirety of high school at a campus that lacks an auditorium, cafeteria, gym — or buildings in general.

But on this Friday in March, aside from the facts that there are no lockers on campus nor hallways (other than the outdoor paths between bungalows), Pinole Valley could be any other suburban high school in California. In the central eating area — a collection of cement picnic tables partially covered by an awning, the main hang-out area for students — students dine on packed lunches or meals purchased from one of the two cafeteria kiosks. Seagulls hover nearby to swoop up stray bits of food as a delighted senior hugs a plush white teddy bear while telling a gaggle of girls how her boyfriend asked her to the prom.

A combination of pop and hip-hop songs play from a lone speaker connected to a cell phone carted out to the lunch area by the student government — a weekly tradition, Principal Kibby Kleiman says, that has rolled over from the old school.

As T-Pain's "I'm Sprung" blares, I wander around the lunch area, dodging wads of discarded bubblegum and piles of carelessly abandoned backpacks. I'm searching for one student in particular: a junior by the name of Laconte Watson, a rapper who released a six-track EP in February.

Unbeknownst to most people — even the teachers, school staff, and members of the school board — Pinole Valley High has a history of churning out professional musicians. Billie Joe Armstrong and Mike Dirnt of Green Day attended the school, as did all four founding members of the Heart Break Gang, the Bay Area hip-hop crew fronted by Iamsu!. So did Larry La Londe, the guitarist for Primus; Jeff Becerra, the vocalist for Possessed; '90s Top 40 pop singer Jocelyn Enriquez; and millennial rapper Young Bari. The list of musical graduates goes on, and, from my count, includes more than two dozen — more than any other school in the area I can name. (Even more than neighboring El Cerrito High School, which counts the members of Creedence Clearwater Revival and the George Kihn Band as graduates.)

This is why I'm here, trolling for Watson. I want to figure out why so many artists have gone to school here — and who is next to make it big out of Pinole Valley.

Watson, widely known on campus as both a rapper and producer, seems the most likely.

Watson grew up in South Richmond and claims to have written his first rap in the third grade. Through an after-school program in middle school — taught by producer Oliver "Kuya Beats" Rodriguez, himself a Pinole Valley alum — Watson learned how to craft beats and produce music.

He grew up listening to early releases from Young Bari and the Heart Break Gang, and was inspired by them. And he still is: When I see a student with short dreads and a goatee wearing a royal blue Heart Break Gang hoodie and ask him if he knows Laconte, it turns out I've asked Laconte himself.

"They're basically my Kanye," he says of Young Bari and the Heart Break Gang.

In fact, it was because of Pinole Valley's musical legacy that he decided to attend the school, even though he lives out of the district in Vallejo. (Like the parents of other out-of-town students who attend Pinole Valley, Watson's mother had to apply for an inter-district transfer.)

"I felt like this was a great place for me to start my career," he says. "And I'm going to make a name for myself, just like they did."

Before 2001, when the high school in neighboring Hercules was built, Pinole Valley was the northernmost high school in the West Costa Contra County Unified School District, which encompasses Richmond and four smaller cities nearby, including Pinole. Around 2,400 students attended the school then, but once Hercules High opened, enrollment dropped by half.

For its first few decades, the school was predominantly white. ("Look through the yearbook," Kleiman says. "There weren't too many black and brown faces.") But as the population in Pinole began to change, and more students from neighboring Richmond and Hercules started commuting to the school, the demographics shifted.

Today, by Kleiman's count, roughly 40 percent of the student body is Latino, 18 percent is African-American, 17 percent is white, and 15 percent is Asian. Over half of the students are low-income enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, according to state data, and SAT scores are below the state average.

While Pinole Valley was never known for academics, it is known for its sports teams — the girls soccer team frequently wins championships, and this year, its girls basketball team made it deep into the state championship playoffs. In the past, the school was also known for its theater department, which produced "big, rousing, crowd-pleasing shows," Kleiman says. But after budget cuts in the mid-2000s, private music lessons funded by the district were cut, and now that the school has relocated to bungalows, its theater productions are much smaller (and sometimes performed in one of the bungalow classrooms).

The school does still employ two full-time music teachers who teach guitar, jazz, piano, marching band, symphonic band, and concert band courses. However, most of the alumni who became musicians never set foot in a music class while at the high school. Instead, they pursued music in other ways.


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Jessie Schiewe

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