Bringing 'Me' and 'We' Together
Black-and-white photographs of Eminem and Mos Def hang on the walls next to gold records. A studio door has a "Do Not Enter--Recording" sign taped to it. But along with street stickers and Lyricist Lounge posters, there are also videotapes of The Muppet Show and Sid and Marty Krofft's The Krofft Superstar Hour, desks covered with American animÈ-like cartoon characters, and child-crayoned letters of thanks.
This New York sixth-floor office is the home of MeeWee Productions, a company started by Danny Klein '96 with hip-hop pioneer company The Lyricist Lounge to bring hip-hop to children. Forget Eminem--this is friendly hip-hop, whose street beat comes with a smile.
Klein, whose post-Duke résumé included three years as a production assistant for The Simpsons, had returned to New York in 1999 to work and write. At the same time, he was already thinking about the project that would become MeeWee. "I was a second-grade teacher in Queens," Klein says. "The children didn't speak English or didn't speak it very well. So, being a hip-hop fan, I would rap to the kids, just so they would get it. And they picked up on it, and they laughed, and they thought it was great, and we continued doing it."
Like Sesame Street or Veggie Tales, the MeeWee universe is thoroughly thought-out, populated with recurring cartoon characters who sing songs, live on the pages of books, and make live appearances for school shows. Through it all, Klein writes the songs and works with a creative team of teachers to ensure that MeeWee songs appeal to children. "We deal with social issues, what kids have to face day to day. It's a very natural flow to get in the class and for a teacher to really discuss a song."
Thirty years ago, Sesame Street's Cookie Monster was learning about "co-op-er-a-tion" and sharing cookies. MeeWee has taken those same social messages and put them to a contemporary beat. One of the first songs on the CD is "Us Bus," which Klein describes as "the mode of transportation in MeeWee Land. The teacher talks about the Us Bus, and that leads to talking about cooperation, and from there it could be a lesson using creative writing or poetry or dance, or on social things like trust, friendship, or guidance."
"Us Bus" is just one of many MeeWee songs, which range from up-tempo to slow, reggae to rap, all with a positive vibe that has been tested with and appeals to children, from Brooklyn to Berkeley. Each song is sung by a different MeeWee character, whether Cacky the Cactus needs a hug despite his thorns or Jenny Guitara is rocking out like a hybrid of Ani DiFranco and Lauryn Hill, "just me and my guitar."
"The goal for each song," he says, "is for the child to befriend the character singing it," a task that should be made easier by the strikingly colorful, engaging, friendly drawings of each resident of MeeWee Land.
Klein is confident and open, and it is clear that MeeWee was born out of his belief in bringing hip-hop to children to help them learn about positive things in life--even in the genesis of the name.
" 'MeeWee' comes from Muhammad Ali," Klein says. "He was at Harvard's graduation address in 1967, and he gave this speech which was kind of wandering, and the kids were getting rowdy, and they said, give us a poem, give us a poem. He just said, 'Me' (pointing to himself), 'We' (pointing to himself and all of them). It's a perfect name for what we're doing."
While Klein is carefully conscious of crafting messages for the MeeWee audience--be yourself, don't let other people make you feel bad, help other people feel better about themselves--he also wants it to be fun. "I wouldn't say that we're an education company. We're an entertainment company. MeeWee is entertainment for children. But it's socially uplifting."
Because of that, he says, teachers should be able to incorporate MeeWee into a curriculum, particularly when the books are released. "The whole theme of literacy is very important to us, and hopefully this will be something fun for them to read," he says.
It's been two and a half years since Klein first brought his idea to The Lyricist Lounge. Since then, the pace has varied from the hard work of producing songs to the footwork of meetings and marketing. Now the tempo is picking up.
With release of the first MeeWee CD anticipated around Christmas, to be accompanied by a Radio Disney road tour, and books and television to follow, the residents of MeeWee Land and their creator will only get busier. The prospect has Klein's eyes sparkling behind his glasses. "We hope to make an impact," he says. "We hope to really make an impact."
Duke Magazine-Danny Klein '92-Mini-Profiles-Jul/Aug 2002
August 1, 2002