Chasing the perfect beat
Palo Alto teen packs 'drama' into his first hip-hop album
Life as a teen seems to have an indelible soundtrack. There's something about being in high school that makes music more intense.
For Sean Lee, a 15-year-old Gunn High School student, the connection with notes and melodies runs especially deep.
When a friend drives up and screeches the car tires, Sean observes, "That's D-sharp." He's an experienced pianist who plays in the Gunn jazz band. And late last year, he released his first hip-hop album, "Drama Lives On." He wrote all the songs, and recorded the album at his home.
"I printed 100 copies and have sold 50 of them," Sean said with quiet pride during an interview at the Weekly earlier this month. He also tallied about 300 downloads of the album during the month of December, when it was released.
Music has always been huge for this hip-hop artist with perfect pitch. Sean started playing violin and piano at an early age. In junior high, he was writing lyrics and drawing musical inspiration from Kanye West and the Backstreet Boys. By early last year, he was determined to learn the technology he needed to make his own album.
"I had songs in my head. Then I did research on how to put drums, melodies into them on the computer," he said. He borrowed headsets and other equipment, learning the technology as he went.
"He's a perfectionist. He really wanted to make it so perfect," said Sean's mother, Wen Lee, who accompanied him to the Weekly.
"Drama Lives On" is an album that tells a lot of stories, Sean said, with many of the songs about relationships. The first few tracks are "party-club style," followed by songs with more of a rock and R&B feel, he said. Toward the end, the sound turns more melodic.
A few guest singers are featured, including Kelly Milliken, who sings on the last song of the album, "Last Time." The song combines a soft, minor-key sound with gentle beats, telling the story about the end of a relationship. Harder-edged tracks include "Go Get'em," which has a local shout-out: "I was raised in the city P.A. / and now I'm gonna bring the sound of the music into play."
Eric Leroy, a Palo Alto High School hip-hop musician who goes by L-Roy, praised his friend's album and "really good microphone quality."
"It's super-important to get the sound right. You could record a track that will be too loud or staticky, or too soft," he said. "Finding that balance: Sean has definitely achieved that in the whole album."
Eric also applauded Sean's "original" lyrics. "They're more free verses, much like Jay-Z," he said.
Besides his music, Sean also works on video projects. In 2008, he started "The Sean Lee Show," a series up on YouTube that includes parodies, piano, travel and cooking features, and interviews.
Sean is continuing to learn about video and music technology at the Media Center in Palo Alto, where he serves on the Youth Advisory Council. He shot part of the video for "Understand," the first track on his album, at the Media Center, and enlisted fellow council members Suzie Quackenbush and Nicholas Moss to act with him in the video.
Ultimately, Sean said, he'd like to major in film or video in college, and continue pursuing his music.
"I'm working on new melodies and compositions that I can most connect to," he said. And how does one get better at rapping? Sean shrugged and smiled. "Practice."
Info: To watch Sean's videos, go to www.youtube.com/TheSeanLeeShow. His album, "Drama Lives On," can be purchased through iTunes.