These Kidz Are Alright

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Class of ’01 and ’04 | Street smarts is a popular topic in rap music. 

Book smarts—not so much.

That’s not to say that rappers haven’t made intelligent, creative, and poignant statements in their music, but college degrees are rarely part of the conversation. 

Jabari Evans C’04 and Michael Aguilar EAS’01, better known as Kidz in the Hall, wear their Ivy League status on their sleeves—or rather on their crested blazers, like the ones they wore on the cover of their sophomore album, The In Crowd. Even the duo’s logo is a take on Penn’s coat-of-arms, with crisscrossing microphones replacing the dolphin. 

“I’d go out on a limb and say we were the first hip-hop group that gained any traction—that wasn’t afraid to say ‘We went to school and graduated’ … in almost an elitist, snobby way,” says Evans, who handles the rhymes as Naledge. He adopted that moniker growing up in the South Side of Chicago, where he was the No. 1 student in his high-school class.

“I feel like the Ivy League fosters my intelligence, but the South Side of Chicago fosters my experience,” he says. “So at the end of the day, it’s relatable because I’m still of my neighborhood.” He enjoys being in an environment where thinking is viewed as a positive. “Where I was from, being a nerd wasn’t even a positive. I got made fun of for being a nerd.”

Evans caught the ear of his future partner—New Jersey native Aguilar (aka DJ/producer Double-O)—at a talent show for new students during his recruiting visit. What started as a ploy to impress girls became his audition for Penn’s hip-hop community.

Having made his first trip to campus as a high-school sophomore in the Penn Relays—“It was like the most awesome thing you could do in high school”—Aguilar would become quite familiar with Franklin Field, winning back-to-back outdoor Heptagonal championships in the 110-meter hurdles and setting records in multiple events. Three years after graduating, he represented Belize—his father’s birthplace—in the 400-meter hurdles at the 2004 Athens Olympics.

During Aguilar’s senior year, the students’ foray into hip-hop became more serious. 

“I shot my first video in film class,” says Aguilar. “I built a website for one of my friends at the time, and he paid me by buying me Pro Tools, [the production rig] we recorded all the stuff on. I remember renting cameras from school during the same film class and shooting a documentary.”

The bond between the two survived even after Aguilar, who graduated with a systems-engineering degree, spent two years running professionally in Europe. Evans, who majored in communications, graduated in 2004, and six months later they regrouped and began work on what would become their debut, School Was My Hustle.

Released by rap indie Rawkus Records, School introduced listeners to what the Kidz call “extraordinary music for ordinary people,” featuring rhymes like “Got the heart of the street and the eyes of the ghetto, with the brains of a nerd/So insane with the words” on the track “Cruise Control.”

“It’s about finding a genuine thing that we’re all connected by,” Aguilar says. “We’ve all had different experiences, but there are some similar things that bring it together.” 

On “Inner Me,” which appeared on 2008’s The In Crowd, Naledge raps: “Mom say get a j-o-b/Dad say take the G-R-E/My girl whisperin’ like when you gonna marry me?/Thought of a nine-to-five keep scarin’ me.” 

The In Crowd, released on the indie Duck Down Records, put Kidz in the “hipster rap” category, at least in the eyes of some members of the hip-hop media. They also put out a low-budget video for the lead single, “Drivin’ Down the Block,” which landed on MTV’s TRL

They have since branched out, having licensed their music for use in video games such as “Madden NFL 09” and “NBA Live 10” and filming a video promoting Reebok’s Classic Remix collection.

Having released their third album, Land of Make Believe, Naledge and Double-O are now aiming for rap’s upper echelon. 

“I think when an artist reaches a certain level of success, they have the freedom to create what they want to create, when they want to create it, how they want to create it, and people follow them,” Evans says. “They don’t have to follow trends—the trends follow them. That’s the kind of space that I want to get in.”

To Evans, Kidz in the Hall is part of a growing number of Penn alums, such as music executive Sylvia Rhone W’74 and R&B star John Legend C’99, who have set an example for students interested in the music business.  

One lesson they can impart is that for all the glamour and hype surrounding the music business, it also rewards patience and hard work.

“This industry can confuse and contort and very much twist your idea of what reality is,” Aguilar says, so “having that idea of what is real and what isn’t helps.”

—Bill Zimmerman

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