A Rhythmic Ray of Light: Austin Community College's Hip-Hop Production Instructor Ray LaManna

From prisoner to professor, he wants to change people's lives

Photo by John Anderson

Ray LaManna Sr. nods his head in approval while listening to a beat made by a young, aspiring producer.

Two cyan-colored ceiling strips, a multitude of Akai MPK249s hooked up to new Mac desktops, and a large projector light up the otherwise dim classroom. One student attempts to damage his own hearing as his cranked-up headphones bleed loudly, but the empathetic instructor calmly comes over to warn him that everyone else can hear his work. Later, another producer stomps forcefully as he attempts to replicate Kanye West's infamous pose, crouching intensely over an MPC. Again, LaManna shows no frustration.

This feels more like a hip-hop studio than a traditional classroom environment, which is fitting: LaManna's class at Austin Community College, Hip-Hop Production 1372, represents the first of its kind in the state of Texas.

ACC is for everyone: a marketing slogan personified by Ray LaManna's incredible tale of redemption. The Sacramento-born, Texas-cultured leader's resilient reclamation of his life (See: "Collaborations of Love and Pain" from the Christmas 2015 Chronicle) serves as a model example for those desiring to find their purpose after enduring a mountain-high wall of hardship.

While discussing the roads that led him to the classroom, during an epic August interview, the 42-year-old's eyes move from side to side scanning a deep memory bank as old wounds open after years of remaining sealed. Still, no streaks of bitterness linger from his words. He and his mom moved to Como, Texas for his elementary years before returning to Sacramento to live with his grandmother. Later, back with his mother, LaManna spent his middle school and high school years in suburban Arlington long before the city christened itself "Ag-Town." Racist remarks toward the child of Black and Latino descent often ensued during his youth.

He stops to acknowledge that not everyone during his late Nineties suburban adolescence treated him poorly and points to his stepfather as an embodiment of good existing in those years. His parents weren't home often due to work, leaving him to help raise his younger brothers during summer months others reserve for family vacations. In search of a foundation, LaManna turned to sports.

"I played football, ran track, did the whole thing," he says. "I guess I found my place through sports and, looking back, I can say I gave everything to sports because I felt a family feeling. At the house, we didn't really have that. There was no Momma hugging/kissing you and family dinners. We were living in Arlington and my mom drove to Richardson to go to work everyday in an old busted truck.

"We [were] living off hot dogs and chips. I think they did their best, so I'm not trying to come down hard on my parents. I gravitated toward football and really felt like they were my family and I was part of something. I was a team leader."

The standout receiver/cornerback for James Bowie High School one day decided to playfully get goofy during a team photoshoot for a local newspaper. He crosses his arms while connecting his ring finger to his thumb on both hands to form a "V" with his index and middle fingers for his beloved school mascot, the Volunteers. A reenactment of a pose performed with whimsical glee may seem like standard fodder for a throwaway Instagram post, yet this harmless gesture marked a turning point in LaManna's life.

"I came back to school one day – I was driving this old '78 Oldsmobile Toronado," he says, while proudly remembering his first car. "When I pull up, there's cameras and tape recorders out and everything. So I'm like 'Damn, what's going on here?' I start walking to the school and my coach sees me and pulls me by the arm. He says 'Don't say anything to anybody!' I'm like 'What the hell is going on?' He pulls me in and they take me to this little conference room with the principal, and there's two gang unit police [officers] in there.

"Understand I'm in Arlington, Texas. It comes out in the newspaper that we have gang members in the school. I think it's me and this other kid was doing the same [sign], but I can't remember."

LaManna says he felt betrayed by the incident.

"I was in there and I was like 'Coach, you know me!' My mom was there. My mom was never involved in my school life, but she showed up and was standing up for me."

That incident and a subsequent multi-game suspension from the football team soured sports for a 17-year-old who soon stumbled down a dangerous path. He went from leading the football team to leading a group of troublemakers.

"My life changed, but I think it's because I didn't have a solid foundation. If I had a solid foundation, when the storm came, it would've just blown over," he said.

A life-altering prison sentence would soon follow.

Though he originally received three concurrent charges related to felony robbery for a sentence of 65 years, lawyers managed to whittle down his prison time to a five-year term from 1997 to 2002. He read his first book, James Patterson's Along Came a Spider, while locked up and successfully completed his GED. He also started college by taking courses offered via both Blinn Junior College and Texas A&M instructors. His interest in education was inspired by the vivid letters of his future wife, Ericka Marsalis-LaManna. The two had been in the same social circle in high school, but when she began writing him in prison – a near-daily correspondence – their once casual friendship turned into a special union.

"She wasn't living her best in the free world, but she was going to community college and doing her own thing – she would write me letters about her schoolwork," he explained. "She can articulate herself real well when she's writing."

LaManna instructs students at Austin Community College (Photo by John Anderson)

He specifically recalls a letter detailing postpartum depression blowing his mind away.

"She would just send me things like that, which would get my wheels turning and cause me to start thinking about other things [besides jail]," he fondly details. "That's what happens when you've got somebody out there, they give you a view into the free world and what it's supposed to be like or what it can be like.

"Of course, I'm the kind of dude that's not about to be some weak link, [so] let me read some books in here so I can chop it up with her."

Ray LaManna would marry the future film director/elementary school teacher soon after leaving prison in 2002. The newlyweds attended Texas State University despite Mrs. LaManna earning acceptance into the University of Texas. They chose the four-year San Marcos institution due to the former football star desiring to rekindle his old flame for athletics. Though he showed promise during initial squad eliminations for the then-Division II Bobcats, football needed to once again exit his life. As a 23-year-old host at Red Lobster – he emphasizes his age in relation to the position to showcase how much of a struggle he faced out of prison to find work – balancing books of both the financial and academic variety, something needed to go. He eventually graduated from Texas State as an exercise and sports science major due to a longstanding passion for strength and conditioning.

Some time between 2003 and 2004, a co-worker at Red Lobster informed him of digital recording capabilities.

"I told him I used to rap in prison – there was a class in prison called Creative Writing that was basically just a rap class," the former personal trainer says.

He lightly bangs on a table in a classic tempo recognizable to any witness of a classroom cypher before explaining he compiled a notebook of rhymes to that pace. An interest in studio recording skyrocketed after hearing himself on a beat for the first time at his co-worker's spot.

"I tell my students all the time that they're blessed – there was no YouTube back then showing you how to make beats," he says. "You had to read all these forums and I was kind of new to the internet."

Music soon took over his life as he began to produce beats. When his wife saw that he began to stay up past 4am and skip class, she searched for a music program in Central Texas. Austin Community College had that program available. The LaMannas decided to move to Austin near ACC's Northridge campus after graduating from Texas State to help Ray pursue his passion for music.

He immersed himself into his new craft from 2006 to 2008, which culminated with the release of locally acclaimed debut studio album 5 In 5 Out. The passionate LP packages a life's worth of emotions into melancholy, orchestral instrumentals coupled with personal lyrics. The album pulsates as if Ray Sr., which is the name he releases music under, were placing his heart over the listener's speakers.

“Not everybody is a teacher. You know who’s a teacher when you meet them because they’re willing to share and their ego is less a part of it. I knew that Ray could offer something that we didn’t have in the college besides a hip-hop class.”– Tim Dittmar

ACC's audio engineering classes disappointed him as a hip-hop lover due to veering toward instruction on how to record rock bands. According to LaManna, Tim Dittmar, the current chair of ACC's Music Business, Performance & Technology department, stood out due to a "rock star"-like aura that felt different from most of his other instructors. He also credits instructors Dan Childers and Geoffrey Schulman for consistently helping him when he took their courses. Dittmar drummed in multiple bands before beginning to teach in 2000. Schulman also served as the chair of ACC's MBP&T department before his longtime protégé, Dittmar, took over the role in 2018. LaManna became friends with Dittmar after taking his classes and came to him with the idea of instructing his own class centered around hip-hop production some five years later, but his former teacher beat him to the punch.

As a result of hip-hop's commercial omnipresence becoming undeniable by 2013, Dittmar pitched the class to Schulman, who immediately greenlit the unique course. The first session of 1372 Hip-Hop Production, aka "Hip-Hop 1," took place in 2015.

"He wanted to bring a hip-hop class to the community and be the first one to do that," the former drummer of alternative rock outfit the Murdocks said. "And I wanted Ray to be the first one in a lot of ways because I don't know anyone else who's teaching hip-hop production in a college.

"Not everybody is a teacher. You know who's a teacher when you meet them because they're willing to share and their ego is less a part of it. I knew that Ray could offer something that we didn't have in the college besides a hip-hop class. Just a whole diverse background, a whole different perspective, and I've always thought students could relate to Ray because of what he's done and succeeded with his circumstances. Ray's always been so positive and so willing to share and willing to give with his students. He doesn't have a lot of ego and I just knew I wanted to provide for Ray, and other people, but Ray in particular, at the time, what was given to me."

Schulman still gushes with praise for a man he calls a "dignified human being" as he tries to cram superlatives into each sentence. "I'm one of those guys that still wants to change the world and make it a better place, and Ray does, too," the retired music industry veteran proclaims. "Ray is on Earth to make the Earth a better place. It's one of the things that I did teach, Ray teaches, and many of us teach. One of your missions in life – and we try not to get too spiritual or religious – but if you think there's a purpose in life, here it is: Leave the Earth a better place than when you found it.

"People love him because of the vibe – he's just a caring guy. You feel it from him when you're in there with him. You know he cares about you and, as humans, we tend to react positively to people who seem to have a genuine interest in you."

Back in the classroom at the newly rennovated ACC Highland campus, LaManna speaks in a casual, cool tone that subtly commands respect. This early October visit comes not too long before the course's midterm, yet he states he'll allow the midterm to replace a missing assignment because building a presentable portfolio supersedes numerical grades. His class splits into two portions lasting roughly three hours and 40 minutes. The first part, a two-hour lecture session, tackles all sorts of intricacies involved in creating beats. He goes into extensive detail about basics in the Cubase Pro program, for example: how to save files properly so a prospective future client won't banish you from their contacts, the importance of BPM, choosing between C and D minor for piano samples, and where to properly place a snare.

Throughout each learning step of that day's class, LaManna experimentally creates a beat and, though a couple light chuckles ring out at the slightly awkward-sounding concoction by lecture's end, all 10 students remain noticeably attentive.

The 100-minute lab session showcases a spectacular level of care as the instructor comes over to each student and listens to their work. At times, he sits down next to a student for five-plus minutes before extending advice on the spot. He even offers to extensively Zoom someone if they need additional help. Each class lesson also gets uploaded to the course management website Blackboard in case a student needs to learn at a different pace. There's a real sense of community already present among learners as one student comes over to another and says his beat "was hard as hell ... even though it's not my shit."

As for Ray LaManna, he wants to make a lasting impact the same way a rugged prisoner named Jolivet instilled nuggets of wisdom into him at his lowest point.

"Now that I'm 42 and older, when I pass, I want people to say good things about me," he admits. "Not just like 'Ray was a criminal and he did this and he hurt me here.' I would like for people to be like 'Yo, this dude changed my life'."

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Ray LaManna, Ray Sr., Tim Dittmar, Geoffrey Schulman, Ericka Marsalis-LaManna

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