Leroy Ellis composes funky lessons for clean living.
The song is about as steamy as the August afternoon. And in his office, Leroy Ellis reclines in his chair and contentedly bobs his head. Old-school R&B has put his mind at ease. The drums thump. The bass bumps. As the music reaches its climax, a narrator embellishes the mood with this sultry pickup line: “Prostate cancer kills about 37,000 Americans each year. Get information. Know the facts.”
Ellis chuckles and hits the pause button. Then he skips forward to another tune, a hiphop selection reiterating that “AIDS is a terrible thing.”
A line like that might kill the feeling for some guys, but not Ellis. He calls the tune “a necessary step in promoting awareness about disease management and prevention.” Indeed, the 58-year-old producer is banking on listeners’ ability to make the quantum leap from rump-shaking R&B tracks to annual prostate exams.
Last March, Ellis co-founded People’s Productions, a Largo, Md.-based company that uses primarily urban musical genres to pass along information on 25 health issues. Over the past five months, Ellis and People’s Productions President Sherman Hill have worked with several dozen musicians and producers to compile and begin distributing 130 songs, three music videos, and a CD-ROM program about such unusual soul-musical topics as cancer, AIDS, and diabetes.
“Music is unique in its ability to convey messages to people,” says Ellis. “They’ll respond to music differently than they will anything else. They’ll embrace it.” A few of Ellis’ tunes—like the prostate ditty—are straightforward public service announcements. But others are full-length songs with original lyrics, the kind of tunes you could blast on your car stereo or slow-dance to.
It’s just that they might not exactly put you in a mood to dance. “The energy and pace of music profoundly affects the way people respond when they listen,” explains Bennie Carter, chair of the psychiatric department at D.C. General Hospital. “And that includes the way they respond to the lyrics.”
As a doctor, of course, Carter’s fine with the notion of people getting inspired to visit the doctor—as opposed to visiting the disco—after hearing a song. And Ellis says plenty of people are inspired.
During the last week of classes at 16 District high schools in June, 10,000 students received “Safer Summer” packs courtesy of the D.C. Department of Health. Each contained a People’s Productions tape, featuring hiphop and R&B songs that promoted condoms and decried alcohol and drug abuse, plus pamphlets on birth control and drug and alcohol abuse. “As soon as they got the tapes, they flipped them on in their cars and started bobbing their heads,” says Deborah Rowe, a public health adviser at the department’s affiliate Administration for HIV and AIDS, who helped distribute the tapes at several schools.
“People throw out the pamphlets they find at the doctor’s office,” Ellis says. “But they’ll keep those tapes.”
Back in the day, Leroy Ellis was unstoppable. At his high school in Trenton, N.J., he was a two-sport star, an all-American power forward and a hard-hitting first baseman. “What’d you hit in high school?” he asks me, anticipating his own response more than mine. “I hit .472,” he says. “And I could pitch, too, but the damn coach kept me at first base.”
Ellis found something more in tune with his swagger in 1959, when he co-founded Ray Ray Productions. Over the years, he produced nine platinum and 26 gold records. Ellis worked with the studio bands for artists like Patti LaBelle and the O’Jays. LaBelle’s album Gems (1994) went gold, and the O’Jays’ Message in Our Music (1976) and So Full of Love (1978) both went platinum. “I was a star,” he confirms.
In 1982, Ellis discovered that he had diabetes. For 12 years, he ignored it, traveling extensively for Ray Ray Productions and also working for Priority Records, doing promo work on radio stations and checking up on bands. One day in 1994, the flesh from both of his heels came off in Ellis’ hands while he was removing his sneakers. He endured three years of bed rest and was unable to walk until June of last year. Currently, he has no feeling from the top of his calves down to his feet.
While in the hospital, Ellis was told by doctors that if he’d dealt with his diabetes sooner, the high blood pressure and obesity now threatening his life could have been avoided. “I should have known more about my illness,” Ellis says.
So he went to work. While laid up, he got nurses to teach him the basics about diabetes and other diseases. He worked the phones, pestering every musician and producer he could find. He was in his element. “Leroy is very persistent,” says Bruce Brown, a D.C.-based music-video producer who, after two years of prodding, agreed earlier this year to work with People’s Productions on two projects.
Of course, the firm’s idea is not a new one—even if Ellis has expanded it significantly. According to Rowe, local hiphop and go-go acts performed at D.C. AIDS awareness concerts in 1992 and 1993. “Leroy’s work has filled a gap,” Rowe says, “because most aren’t willing to put the effort in.”
It’s not hard to see why. Short on funds, People’s Productions has struggled to get its message out. The group earned 75 cents a tape for the D.C. schools package, its major paying gig. Right now, the firm’s main goal—besides stopping cancer, AIDS, domestic violence, and diabetes in their tracks—is getting a corporate sponsor. “There’s a lot of politics regarding health issues,” says Hill.
What’s also at issue, though, seems to be simple economics. Giant Food, for instance, shot down Hill’s proposal to distribute free health-promotion tapes with the chain’s logo on them. Purchasing tapes, and then giving them away gratis, “is not part of our budget,” says Giant Community Relations Manager Cynthia Terry. So far, the chain has kept People’s Productions at arm’s length. “But I hear from Mr. Ellis every week,” Terry says.
Ellis has finally found the song he’s looking for. It’s a rap tune called “Get It Together,” and it features a mom giving her kids the business about hitting the books: “You wanna save your rep and go to school/Education’s free for all you fools/When the punks are trying to sell you crack/Bust a U-turn, and backtrack.”
Tupac Shakur it ain’t. But the masterminds behind People’s Productions don’t seem to care. “Music is definitely our strong suit at this point,” Hill says.
The message has inherent adversaries. Hiphop’s current maxims generally emphasize fast cars and easy women; People’s Productions’ promote designated drivers and safe sex. “Rap videos today are just free ads for hot cars and tobacco,” Brown says. True enough, but for a teenager on the last day of school, Ellis and Hill’s tapes may seem like an unwanted extra-credit assignment.
Ellis and Hill don’t buy it. “The kids all loved it,” Ellis says. He adds that he has given presentations at several middle and high schools in Maryland. “The songs are about real people with real problems, and they appreciated that.” Hill boots up a diabetes CD-ROM program he’s put together for Howard University Hospital. It features adults and children with diabetes, and medical specialists in that field.
“Ultimately, we’d like to get all our stuff on the Web, so people can access it for free,” Hill says.
“What we really want to do,” Hill says, “is associate ourselves with organizations whose aim is the betterment of the community.” Negotiations with Giant are ongoing. CP