The Lab: One Of Vermont’s Late and Great Music Schools
PUBLISHED ON CHURCH STREET DJS, BY JOSH KERMAN ON OCTOBER 5, 2017
Just like many of us, this story begins with two college students hustling the downtown music scene. Zack Johnson and Derrick Brown were friends from high school, who both started out DJing high school parties. Zack focused on live events, while Derrick dabbled in live events, but found his niche in music production. After so many years of hard work that had gone into club DJing and bedroom music production, Zack had decided to re-connect with Derrick to merge their passions, skills and knowledge into creating a music school together. Zack was inspired from his experience teaching at Sarah Cover’s dance studio, Urban Dance Complex. They established The Lab in 2007, and within the first six to eight months, their DJ school sparked an interest in communities across Vermont. The Lab was “a safe place for kids to hang out after school, and work with music” says Zack. It was focused around music education, which grew a positive reputation amongst surrounding institutions including Champlain College, St. Michael’s College, and The University of Vermont (UVM). The Lab hosted students ranging from eight years to sixty years old. It generated a diverse environment, and many of the students brought their own material to contribute and teach the class and instructor(s). It was a small and local music school that could have only been in operation with the backbone of passionate people that kept it alive until late 2011.
The Lab was located on upper Church Street, Burlington. It was a convenient location and the space got the job done. At one point, a more preferable space opened up down the hall, so The Lab moved into a more accommodating room with a larger capacity. Zack says that “It was the community that made The Lab what it was… an inviting environment of a diverse group of people that loved to collaborate, learn and teach music”. Derrick and Zack seeked out Instructors from around the Burlington area who each possessed a unique skill that the school was in search for. They taught hour long lessons that were formatted to fit the interests of each student. As long as their was an available and qualified instructor, The Lab encouraged all genres, styles and methods of performing and creating music. They provided private classes and also group classes with up to five or six students per teacher. That chemistry brought a more authentic dynamic between the teacher and the student(s). Even Zack took music lessons. Piano lessons, to be specific. Champlain College graduate, Miles Dean Ewell is a music producer and pianist that spent time teaching at The Lab. It wasn’t just the front end of the business that needed employees, there was the entire back end of the business too. George Mihaly assisted in business logistics, Malik Butler helped Derrick teach and mold the music production curriculum, Nate Cousins helped design The Lab’s logo, and many others who have contributed to keep The Lab successful.
Many of those that were affiliated with The Lab have gone on to pursue greater interests. Between the instructors and students, these individuals have honed in on their strongest skills to center their career around. For instance, scratch-wizards Kyle Anger and Liam O'Neil have become talented scratch DJs who have been rocking New England stages with their group performances. Others too, like David Biral who decided to further his music education at Clive Davis, NYU, and is currently in a production duo called Take A Daytrip. Nate Eaton has also decided to move to New York City to pursue a music career. Cooper Brown, Wyatt Peck aka Vakkuum, Jason Baron, and many more have taken their education from The Lab to pursue greater interests. “Our syllabus was always changing and adapting to the student’s interests” says Zack. One student who started out taking basic fundamental DJ lessons and moved to music production lessons, Chris Shapiro, is now working for Apogee electronics which is a large software and hardware brand headquartered in Santa Monica, CA. Lastly and certainly not least, teacher and dear friend, Andy “A_Dog” Williams helped inspire The Lab through teaching the youth. “I liked to think that we could take credit for being the catalysts for starting their careers, but we really were just there to support the students’ ideas and goals”, said Zack. The Lab created real opportunity for people to connect and unfold friendships.
The Lab’s ability to be creative didn’t stop here. In addition to the school, they also hosted music events around the New England region, but mostly within the state of Vermont. Randall Russell, formerly known as DJ Russell and now as DJ Mashotdon, was the heart and soul that went into managing The Lab’s event production department, which they named Lotus Entertainment. Lotus Entertainment was a Vermont registered company for throwing parties. Whether it was a party on a boat, farm, or music venue, the goal was to give their favorite artists an excuse to come out and perform. Zack and Russell can’t recall every single artist that they’ve booked, but the list starts with Slick Rick and Collie Buddz, Pharoahe Monch, DJ Babu, Wale, DJ Revolution, QuestLove, JR Ried, Digital Underground, Mickey Factz, Rob Swift, Killa-Jewel and so much more. “Each artist that came out had a great time, and told us to call them up again” says Russell. It was a great way for Russell, Zack and Derrick to create relationships with venues, sponsors and artists. “We never really made a profit, if any, the money would go right back into a new show or would help pay off broken equipment at The Lab.... It was a labor of love that made each event so special”, says Zack.
Lotus Entertainment generated excitement in the communities, and especially the venues, for the chance to host a Lotus E. production. Amongst the array of venues across Vermont, they’ve mostly presented at Higher Ground, Spirit of Ethan Allen, Rusty Nail, and Killington Ski Resort. They also created a partnership with The University of Vermont, where they took a role in UVM’s concerts and spring festivals. Lastly, their low hanging fruit, tapping into the majority of bars around the Church Street Marketplace. The Lab and Lotus Entertainment worked together to leverage each other’s brand. The connections that Lotus E. made with headlining artists helped pull them in for an educational lecture at The Lab, which gained a lot of traffic. Zack recalls the time that DJ Babu came to talk, and the time when The Beat Junkies came for a scratch & production demonstration with a Q&A session at the end.
Lotus Entertainment productions stood for a brand of quality music and a good time with friends. The Lab stood for a safe place for kids and adults to learn and teach music. Both businesses were present with good character, experienced and talented people. After six months of operating The Lab, they’ve started receiving free products from big brands such as Red Bull and Skull Candy. This was the general time when Red Bull had been making their mark on the chart for top energy drinks, so they benefited from The Lab by channeling their energy products into the youth’s hands. Red Bull provided The Lab with a generous supply of cans over a three year contract. Then SkullCandy responded with a bundle of studio headphones, valued at $140 per pair. This was a milestone accomplishment for The Lab. Those who sponsored, wanted to help push the movement for music education.
The Lab had a very good run. It wasn’t until 2011 when Derrick, Zack and Russell developed other interests. Zack moved out to Los Angeles to further execute his music production career, and Derrick went back to school for a higher education. Russell continues to live in New England spinning the nightlife scene and is also collaborating with music influencer, K Salaam on a new album. If they were to do it all over again, Zack says that he wouldn’t change much. He’d do it more efficiently and with longer class sessions. All in all, The Lab attracted music enthusiasts from across the Green Mountain State to teach, learn and to enjoy the little things that come with a passionate community of music lovers.