The ability to create music and show it to the world is a something most young musicians take for granted. Anytime a middle school producer downloads their first recording software or a fledgling young emcee lays down their first bars in a bedroom, they’re only a few clicks away from sharing their sounds far and wide. But despite a lack of fearlessness about music technology and how far it’s come, the idea of working in a real recording studio still seems like a mythical unknown territory for most young artists. It’s almost as strange as thinking of OC as haven for hip-hop, soul and R&B. However, the line of musicians during open auditions at the OC Hit Factory would suggest otherwise.
Since opening in early 2016,OCHit Factory—started by former pop recording artist Thomas Barsoe at The District Shopping mall in Tustin Ranch—has given unknown local artists a chance to see a recording studio in action through a large bay window directly across from Churned Creamery. It’s an apt location considering the variety of singers that get scooped into the mix—from wide eyed middle schoolers to seasoned vocalists in their 20s and 30s all looking for a chance to be heard.
“I wanted this to be right next to the restaurants and the bowling alleys in the movie theaters,” Barsoe says. “I wanted to be something cool and young where you just pass by and you're like ‘Hey I can sing, can I a try this?’”
But despite the large talent pool at his disposal, Barsoe, a top selling R&B and pop artist from Denmark, says one very noticeable, element was missing from the equation.
“We really need some more black people,” Barsoe says bluntly. “It's too damn white around here. We do so much singer-songwriter stuff pop stuff and country stuff. And I'm as white as can be but I come from a pretty R&B background, I grew up on Motown the Jackson's and Marvin Gaye.”
Obviously, OC’s history as a bastion for white privileged youth is something few can argue with. However, with so much untapped talent in a genres like hip-hop, soul and R&B that’ve become dominating genres for millennial music lovers, it’s not something Barsoe could afford to ignore, but he needed a partner to help build a program that would bring those artists to the forefront of what he’s trying to do with the studio. Enter: Curtis Young, rapper and son of hip-hop legend Dr. Dre, a former Weekly cover boy who currently lives in the area and has a shared passion for bringing more hip hop and urban talent into OC. Recently, Young was tapped by Barsoe to be the director of OC Hit Factory’s Urban Music Department.
“Right off the bat I see that there's a lot of culture here,” Young says. “There’s so many layers of different artists that you can put in these types of professional situations. What I want mainly is something where people can believe in themselves, because a lot of people who do music don't believe they can make it. We want to give them that back.”
When he’s not busy on tour or working on his long gestating album Product of My DNA (out this winter), Young will be hand picking talent to work with his team of producers and artist development coaches to give them the tools they need to survive as both an independent and signed artist.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, the two sit together in the clean, white paneled sound-proof room, looking through the glass at dozens of young performers who’ve come to step up to the mic and audition to become a potential star in the Hit Factory’s stable of singers who they will spend countless hours grooming to make a living off of their music. Performers from all over OC and various outside cities converged on the audition, giving Young and Barsoe more than an earful to consider.
Through these open tryouts, Barsoe says, he figures even if he and Young finds 5 talented rappers or R&B singers out of a 100, that will be a success.
“So much work goes into that process that it has to be someone that I’m really excited about, it's not enough that they feel that I have to believe it too, otherwise my work sucks,” Barsoe says.
Though these auditions will be semi regular for vocalists, Young says another big part of developing the urban division of OC Hit Factory is assembling a team of young producers and beatmakers willing to put in more work than simply posting their work to Soundcloud, they’ll be learning from being in a full recording studio environment working with the talent picked by Barsoe and Young.
“We’re looking for the next Dr Dre the next Swizz Beatz or the next Timbaland,” Young says.
If the idea of a young unknown of OC making it big under Barsoe’s wing sounds crazy, even as a multi platinum selling artist in Europe, consider his work with Brian Lanning, a 27 year old YouTube sensation who recently released an EP produced by the OC Hit Factory owner that debuted on iTunes charts ahead of Justin Bieber and Adele.
“He wasn’t signed but with social media these days, if people like you, you’ve got a shot,” Barsoe says. “That means nothing to Curtis and I can’t do here that the so-called major labels can do. We’re basically doing all the work they used to do when there were people hired to work on the development phase.”
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Through his years of working with artists from the ground up after retiring from show business, Barsoe believes he can spot the difference between a doll-faced OC showkid and a true diamond in the rough.
Midway through the auditions a couple weeks ago, a prime example of the latter came strolling into the studio to belt out some Lauryn Hill. At 15 years old, Carisa Zhavia of Monrovia already had the subtle confidence of a seasoned veteran. Though her head full of died dreadlocks and nose piercings screamed punk rocker instead of soul queen, the moment she opened her mouth to sing the first few lines of The Fugees remake of “Killing Me Softly,” Barsoe and Young’s eyes both got wide, looking at each other in amazement. Having never recorded anything on her own before, Zhavia was immediately invited to work with OC Hit Factory and hopefully jumpstart her on the road to stardom in the soul market. But more importantly, it’s about giving a promising artists the tools they need to thrive once they get to that level.
“As far as starting is concerned I've been there and done that and know how much crap goes along with it, I'm kind of over that part I love the pure part of it right now, where it's creating an talent,” Barsoe says. “My love is the creation part and getting them to the point where they're ready to fly.”
Open auditions for OC Hit Factory’s Urban Division, will be at held on Feb. 25 at OC Hit Factory The District 2493 Park Ave., Tustin Ranch, Sat. Feb. 25 7 p.m. Free, all ages.