Amid troubled times, Pico Youth & Family Center releases its fifth album created by local teens

By Slav Kandyba

Julian Ayala, right, and the young hip-hop artists behind “Down to Earth”

Julian Ayala, right, and the young hip-hop artists behind “Down to Earth”

The room in the back of the Pico Youth & Family Center (PYFC) is small, but it doesn’t feel cramped — the set of turntables, keyboards, consoles and a couch fit snugly inside. The sound-proofing foam on the walls and the sizeable vinyl collection, not to mention the recording booth, are a giveaway that this is a place where music is recorded.

Even though the center isn’t open, PYFC Music Director Julian Ayala, 26, is here prepping for a big event.

On Saturday, the PYFC hosts a barbecue party to celebrate the release of a new CD recorded by youth at this very studio, the fifth album of its kind since the center was founded in 2002.

Not too long ago, Ayala was one of those kids.

“I went from being one of the youth on the older albums to being the one that’s teaching how to make a beat, teaching them how to record,” Ayala says. “It’s a full-circle kind of thing.”

Ayala started dropping by the PYFC with friends while a freshman at Santa Monica High School and has found his calling as a music producer and director here.

“I was a really shy kid, then I seen folks in the studio. I really love music, always had a CD player with hip-hop, but I chilled in the studio for like a good year. I was too shy to have the courage to get up, and finally I got up.

“I actually made my first beat on this Triton keyboard,” Ayala said, pointing to the instrument.

This latest compilation of PYFC music, produced by Ayala under the alias “Soureal,” is fittingly titled “Down to Earth.” With song titles such as “Rigoberta Manchu,” “Immigration Laws” and “Fathers Stories,” this is music with a powerful social message, not the pop or commercial hip-hop played on urban radio. That’s by design.

Oscar de la Torre, a member of the Santa Monica – Malibu Unified School District Board of Education, founded the Pico Youth & Family Center after a spate of gang violence in the 1990s as a way to deliver public services to families as well as to give youth a voice and a creative alternative to violence.

“Every CD is like a time capsule that tells a story of what’s going on with young people’s lives,” de la Torre says.

This latest compilation arrives on the heels of a major setback for the PYFC. Earlier this year, Santa Monica officials discontinued grant funding that had for years kept the center open.

Without that money, the PYFC has had to lay off two full-time staffers and implement a 13% salary cut across the board.

“We have to raise more than $100,000 to keep the doors open,” de la Torre says. “If the government closes one door, we hope the community opens two.”

The PYFC is hoping to raise additional funds by renting out the studio space, recently named Beachside Studios, with Ayala working as the recording engineer.

The latest CD compilation was not meant to be a fundraising tool, but Ayala says the center hopes to raise money by selling the CDs for $15 apiece. There are also plans to make it available on iTunes.

“This is not a project that’s going to generate a lot of income. If it generates a lot of money, it’s a cherry on top,” Ayala said.

The PYFC is hoping to raise additional funds by renting out the studio space, recently named Beachside Studios, with Ayala working as the recording engineer.

The process of recording writing and recording at PYFC has been a cathartic experience for Esteban “Chabs” Ramos, 19, who appears on the latest compilation.

“We talked about things we wouldn’t casually talk about with just anyone,” Ramos says. “I play back the music, and each [song] reminds me how much I can grow from simply gathering thoughts and releasing them to fill my mind with new things that will help me become a better man.”

It was a meaningful experience for Ricky Aquino as well. The 19 year-old, whose artist alias is “CO2,” attended elementary and middle schools in Santa Monica and has been coming to PYFC for about three years.

Working on music at the center has helped Aquino understand the responsibility that comes with being a voice that can uplift his community and preserve culture.

“Not only are we speaking from our perspectives, but we’re to keep the culture alive and speak to generations after us,” Aquino said. “It has been a transformative experience. Before I was into PYFC, I was just a hip-hop head. It opened up my mind up to not just be a hip-hop artist, but to represent my culture, represent my community and family.”

Ayala didn’t want to delve into the politics surrounding the PYFC and its programs — “there are some people who don’t believe in what we do,” he said — but is moving forward with plans to shoot music videos for the current compilation and to start work on the next one.

“We want to expand in terms of this next album,” he says. “We want to incorporate live instruments and we’re thinking of topic ideas, trying to get the artists to be involved and looking for musicians and producers.”

The “Down to Earth” album release party happens from 6 to 10 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 8, at the Pico Youth & Family Center, 715 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica.  $10 at the door. For more info, call (310) 396-7101 or visit