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Photography by Whitney Curtis
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Web Exclusive: Scroll down for a peek inside th ex'treme Institute by Nelly, which includes a top-of-the-line recording studio, a beats lab, and a student-lounge loft.
Today’s tour begins in the lobby of the ex’treme Institute by Nelly, an expansive room that exudes both the building’s historic character and the over-the-top sensibilities of its current occupants. Everything is exposed: brick, ducts, pipes. Flat-screen TVs share wall space with modern art in bright, primary colors. Above the reception desk, which was once the front bar of the rapper’s departed nightclub, dozens of microphones hang upside down, rappelling from the roof. Blue light radiates from overhead. Nelly’s face peeks out around every corner, on posters, decals, and signs.
“At night, our studio turns into a commercial recording studio, and this is the artists’ lounge,” explains Carl Nappa, the school’s executive director and an accomplished recording engineer. He met Nelly while working at The Hit Factory in New York, and they’ve worked on several albums together. A tall man with curly, graying hair, Nappa sports sleeves of colorful tattoos and speaks with a thick Boston accent.
We head down a long hallway, past a kitchenette, another lounge space, and a small classroom, to a computer lab. Each station is outfitted with two keyboards, one with QWERTY keys for typing, the other with piano keys for dropping beats. The instructor of the school’s beatology courses is Wyshmaster, a composer and producer who worked on the spoof single “I’m on a Boat,” which was nominated for a Grammy Award. Nappa says that when Wyshmaster agreed to teach at the school—despite the threat that revealing his creative process might rob him of his “mojo”—“everybody freaked.”
The floors in the classrooms all slope toward the front of the building, a remnant from its past life as a slaughterhouse. Nappa jokingly calls it “ballpark seating.” Next we come to Studio B. It’s an unassuming space, a claustrophobic black room with a computer and some speakers. The sound traps on the walls are made from materials available at a hardware store. “There’s nothing particularly special about this room,” Nappa says, “and that’s the most important part about it.” The idea is to show students that you can record commercial-quality music from a humble home studio, if you know how to set it up.
The room next door, Studio X, resides at the other end of the spectrum. “If that little room was what you would find in your basement, this room you would not find in St. Louis,” Nappa says. Conceived by New York studio designer Francis Manzella, it’s completely cut off from the rest of the world, with 3-foot-thick walls and a hardwood floor floating on 800 isolation pucks. The control room’s analog console comprises hundreds of dials and knobs, with wires connecting to compressors, subwoofers, and other gear. Nappa says the speaker towers cost as much as a “medium-size Mercedes.” Windows reveal a vocal booth and the live room, where a grand piano and a drum kit sit idly. Another set of windows looks out into the hallway and lounge, so passersby can gawk and maybe learn something from watching a classmate work.
Opened in late 2011, the school is growing, with a second-floor renovation soon to be completed. It will include a dance studio, a listening library, and yet another lounge, complete with the obligatory ping-pong table. Add it all together, and you’ve got a recording studio that could hold its own in L.A. or Nashville.
But an important question remains: How much substance is there to back up all of this style? Is this a shiny hall of creative learning that will put people on the path to musical careers, or will it be more successful at taking money from students (and, through loans, the federal government) than educating them?
It’s too early to tell. Thus far, the ex’treme Institute has offered only stand-alone continuing-education courses, some for as little as $25. Classes for its recently accredited associate’s-degree programs just started in February, with a price tag of roughly $30,000. It will be about a year and a half before the first students graduate and a few years more before their outcomes can be evaluated.
As a whole, for-profit colleges tend to be controversial. A congressional report last year criticized the industry for its “exorbitant tuition, aggressive student recruiting, abysmal student outcomes…” Vatterott College, which owns and operates the school in conjunction with Nelly, has a three-year loan-default rate of 25.5 percent, among the state’s highest.
But the ex’treme Institute is such an unconventional concept (in advertisements, Nelly uses the terms “groundbreaking” and “innovative”), it’s difficult to find apt comparisons. Vatterott president and CEO Pam Bell is a passionate supporter of the school and for-profit colleges in general. “I’m a firm believer in that industry, because everyone needs a different avenue,” she says, adding that her company works with students to build résumés and land interviews.
Bell met Nelly a few years ago, when he performed at one of her scholarship fundraisers. Perhaps an unlikely pair, they hit it off and began discussing the possibility of starting a music school. “We became good friends,” Bell says. Nelly flew Nappa to St. Louis for the interview, but it was Bell who convinced him to take the job. “The first thing I noticed with her is her passion,” Nappa says. While Nelly makes only occasional appearances at the school, he played an active role in the creation of the concept and curriculum.
Nappa sees audio engineering as a trade. “Recording has been a black art since the start of it,” he says, noting that the skills have long been passed down from masters to apprentices. When Nappa was still learning, he spent years observing before he was given the keys to the console. “The way we used to train was by sitting in the back of a control room for two years, and when you opened your mouth, they’d throw something at you,” he says. When he finally got to take the controls, he was “scared out of my wits.”
As Nappa sees it, a student with a degree from the ex’treme Institute will enter today’s market, where artists also need to be entrepreneurs, versed in every aspect of the music business, with several advantages. He will have confidence, music-industry connections, and a CD of material that he recorded, the program’s capstone project.
Nappa says that last part is the key. When he was starting out, people would ask him, “What have you done?” He’d list off all the famous artists he’d hung out with, but they’d repeat the question, wanting something tangible. Someone with an ex’treme Institute degree can say, “This is a little record I made.”
Nappa smiles. “I love the way that sounds.”