BEHIND THE SCENES with Aaron Henkin and Wendel Patrick

How did you two meet each other, and where did the idea for Out of the Blocks (OOTB) originate?

AH: I've known Wendel ever since he dropped in as a guest on my radio program (WYPR's The Signal ) years ago. I've always admired his music, and he's also just a really curious and insightful person, a lot of fun to hang out with. The OOTB idea was buzzing around in my head, still a very abstract concept, when I hit up Wendel and asked him if I could borrow some of his beats and loops for the soundtrack. He said: "I'll do you one better than that. I'll create a custom musical score for you." That's when I knew this thing was going to sound amazing.

Why did you focus on the 3300 block of Greenmount? Why not the 3200 block? 3400?

AH: Once I picked a block, I knew the rest would be pretty much out of my control. So I was very methodical about which block I chose. I walked for many miles around Baltimore, block by block, taking notes. I wanted a block that was a commercial block, but with independent, homegrown businesses, not franchises. I wanted a block that was one of those invisible, utilitarian, self-contained, unglamorous blocks that are the real backbone of a city. I wanted a block full of people whose voices would otherwise never be on the public radio airwaves. I wanted a block where people's workplaces would give us a great palette of sounds. 3300 Greenmount has it all.

How did you collaborate with the sound design and scoring? The music/SD are as prominent characters as the people we hear from.

AH: Wendel, I pass the mic..

WP: Aaron conducted all of the interviews on site, usually at the interviewees place of business, so there was a wealth of wonderful audio surrounding each interview at my disposal. As a result, many of the tools our subjects used for their every day work became instruments in the piece. At one point, for example, you can hear a barber's clippers as the musical anchor for his segment.

Coming from different backgrounds (public radio producer v. electonic/hip hop musican and producer) - did you ever disagree aesthetically about production or editing decisions for the final piece?

AH: We only had one problem: The show aired twice over the course of a weekend, and Wendel and I hung out and listened to the first airing together. That's when it became clear to both of us that we'd mixed the music too high – it was drowning out some of the narrative. Wendel was a good sport, though, and we hustled back into the studio and pushed down the music levels to a mutually agreeable level for the second broadcast. I'll admit this, too: I really had to work hard to trim back the interviews (more than I would have otherwise) because I wanted there to be time for the music and ambient sound to have its own place and identity. That was kind of like pulling teeth for me, since as a storyteller I wanted as much ‘story' in there as possible. But it was a great lesson to me that ‘story' doesn't necessarily have to mean ‘words'.

WP: We did remix the levels. The second mix better took into account the compression that took place when the program was broadcast over the airwaves. As far as production decision disagreements, I really can't recall any! I suppose I had to grapple with the same thing Aaron did from a musical standpoint in terms of sometimes allowing for breathing room and supporting certain parts of the interviews with sparser musical content. I do know that at some point I became aware that I was ending up down at the station at the end of many days eager to hear what Aaron had gathered, and how I might write to it. I think Aaron and I very much enjoyed sharing nuggets with each other as they came in, and in my view we both wanted to be sure to not do the block a disservice, or rather, we wanted to have the block tell it's own story without having too much of our own imprint.

Did everyone on the block agree to participate? Did some need more convincing than others? Did any outright refuse?

AH: Everyone was skeptical at first. Wouldn't you be? But once I was able to make it clear that I had no agenda other than to share their stories on the radio, people put their trust in me. Twenty five addresses are in the finished piece. Three addresses are missing. One is a wig shop run by a Korean couple with whom I couldn't get over the language barrier. One is a Chinese carryout run by a nice young guy who always politely told me he was too busy to ever talk to me. And one, ironically, is a non-profit community mediation center whose director was simply never in the office when I'd come by.

How did you gain the trust of the block? Presumably you didn't exactly blend in – walking around with a microphone, headphones, asking questions, etc.

AH: Add to the mic & headphones the fact that I am a tall, skinny, white dude with no logical reason to be hanging out on Greenmount & 33rd, and no, I did not blend in. But I spent every afternoon on that block for 2 weeks before I ever brought a microphone. I made sure to introduce myself to everyone who'd hear me out. I just kept visiting, checking in with people, asking them about their lives and their friends & neighbors, talking about how great I thought the block was and what an excellent radio story it was going to make, and pretty soon, people just expected to see me around. That's when I started bringing the mic & headphones.

WP: After about a month I began to join Aaron down on the block on a regular basis, showing the folks down there some of the photographs that I had taken of them and sharing some of my music which I think also helped to earn trust, and which was reciprocally a wonderful experience for me as well.

You talked with such a diverse pool of Greenmount residents and business owners. Which story is most memorable for you?

AH: I love so many of the stories. I know all those folks better than I'll ever know my own neighbors. Probably the most profound story I heard is from Susan, a young woman from China who worked at her parents' restaurant. I asked her, "What's been the happiest moment of your life?" and it was probably just the language barrier, or a cultural thing, but she said, "Happy moment? What you mean?" When you hear her story, that comment takes on a whole new resonance.

Have you had the chance to formally share the documentary back with the block? If so, what sort of response have you gotten?

AH: Funny thing, every shop on that block always has those little 3-by-5 club flier postcards stacked in their front windows, with ads for parties and DJs and new albums and stuff like that. So Wendel and I got a bunch of those same club fliers done up for the radio show. The fliers had some great photos of people from the block, and all the air date info, etc. When we came around with those cards for everyone, all of a sudden it was like: Whoa, this is for real! And people started getting really excited about being on the radio. Wendel took gorgeous portraits of everyone, by the way, and after the show aired, we went back to everyone on the block and gave them souvenir CDs and framed photos of themselves. A lot of those photos are hung with pride on the walls up and down 3300 Greenmount.

Is this a one-off story, or are more block-docs in the works?

AH: OOTB will definitely become a series. We already have our next block scoped out, down in an isolated part of South Baltimore, on the other side of the Inner Harbor – it's a very different place than 3300 Greenmount.