La PORTE – A La Porte High School business teacher, whose students convinced him to pursue his dream of being a hip-hop artist, now wants to help budding young musicians reach their goals.
Joe Ruiz took his students advice and recorded his first songs in 2018. And now he's getting another big break, opening for a Vanilla Ice show this summer at the La Porte County Fair.
He donated half the proceeds from early song sales to The Pax Center, and now he's offering area high school students a chance to perform their own music during his set at the Fairgrounds on July 14.
"I want to offer local students a unique opportunity for their summer breaks," Ruiz said.
He just announced a contest, sponsored by American Licorice, with the "intention of encouraging budding songwriters of high school age from the Michiana area to follow their musical dreams.
"I want to help budding musicians gain some exposure, and I want to open it up to all high schools in our area, not just the one where I work," he said.
Teens should simply share a video of them playing their original song, he said.
"In a way, it's my own, micro-version of the Tiny Desk contest ... the winner would have the opportunity to play their song during my 30-minute set at the Vanilla Ice show."
While Rhymer/Educator considers itself a hip-hop/jazz fusion, those entering the contest can perform in any genre, Ruiz said.
"In the area we live in it would be difficult to find enough local young rap artists to fill out this contest, so I am accepting submissions from songwriters of all genres. I love all kinds of music, so even though my act in its current incarnation is hip-hop, I look forward to diversity."
A contest for students is fitting because it was Ruiz's own students who got his recording career back on track.
The 34-year-old had been writing and recording songs with friends since he was a teenager, dreaming of the day he'd record an album. But with a wife and three children, and a teaching career, he'd sort of given up on that dream.
Still, those old songs he penned – when he performed as Rez – were stored on SoundCloud, and some of his students found them.
One day a student came to class and rapped one of his songs back to him. It was eye-opening, especially when the student said, “I love that song.”
They kept pushing him to record and he eventually came around, figuring recording a song would not only help fulfill his dream, but inspire his students.
“There is this tightrope we walk – of how honest is too honest, because we don’t want to pull the rug out from under them if they have dreams that we as adults see as hard to reach,” Ruiz said last year.
“I certainly don’t want them to feel like some grown-up said I can’t do this, so I’m not going to even try it. Because I think you should continue to try, even though you might go to college and start a career. If there is something you love doing, like making music or playing basketball, that doesn’t mean you should stop doing those things.”
He launched a GoFundMe page, raised $300 and, performing as Rhymer/Educator, recorded his first professionally made track at Always Be Genius Recording Studio in Crown Point. “Noname Show,” was a personal reflection about wanting to get tickets to a show by Noname, one of his favorite artists at the time.
“It turned out way better than I ever anticipated it could. I loved the way that the song turned out,” Ruiz said at the time.
He's been busy ever since, teaching and making music.
"I released a full album, The Rhymer/Educator Project, on Sept. 28, 2018, and since then, I've released seven additional singles," he said.
And he's not alone anymore.
"When I set out to create the album last year, it was just me. Since then I've acquired a backing band, and Rhymer/Educator has evolved into a hip-hop/jazz fusion band. My bandmates are Dave Farris (keys/guitar), Chris Kribs (drums), and Chris Bendix (bass)."
They entered the NPR contest to try and spread their music to a larger audience.
"The Tiny Desk is a series of live concerts in Washington, D.C. at the offices of NPR. So many amazing artists have played 3-4 song sets in front of the desk in this NPR office."
For the contest, performers record themselves (on video) playing a song with a desk in the shot. Ruiz and crew didn't win, but the local NPR station did a story and video about the band. When he heard about the Vanilla Ice show, he contacted the promoter about opening and gave him the NPR story as an introduction to their group.
"It was a really effective marketing tool, and here we are," Ruiz said.
"So now we're putting on our own version of the contest," he said. "When we found out we'd be opening for Vanilla Ice, I wanted to use the privilege to lift up someone else in our community. American Licorice agreed to be the sponsor, and they will help choose one winner.
"It will be a great experience for the winner," he said. "It'll give them an opportunity to get in front of a lot of people with their music."
Ruiz' songs can be purchased online at mrruiz.bandcamp.com or wherever music is sold – Spotify, Apple Music, iTunes, Google Play, YouTube. He said every purchase helps fulfill his own dream and inspires his students.
The latter is the goal of the contest, and he has high praise for American Licorice for making it happen.
"When I did the album they were with me, donating the cost of one song and helping me donate to the Pax Center through my project. That they are now paying to sponsor this contest to help me lift up a kid in our community means the world to me, because I couldn't do the good work I'm trying to do without them.
"Also, we weren't part of the original [Vanilla Ice] plan, so adding us to the show meant adding crew costs, etc., for the promoters. American Licorice buying into the contest helped me offset those costs."
Entrants must be high school students within driving distance of the Fairgrounds, according to Ruiz. "They could be from La Porte, Michigan City, Penn, South Bend, Valpo or anywhere close."
To enter, students must must record a video of themselves performing an original song, with no explicit lyrics, and submit it to RhymerEducator@gmail.com.
"I will post each video to my social media," he said. "The entrants can follow me @RhymerEducator and share the clip with friends and family, or have them like and comment. I want as many kids as possible to enter, and I want their parents or grandparents to help convince their kids/grandkids to join if they know they've got talent."
Entries must be submitted by June 30.
For the show, gates at the Fairgrounds will open at 5 p.m., with Rhymer/Educator – and the contest winner – performing from 5:15-5:45 p.m., followed by The Boyband Night, Too White Crew and Vanilla Ice. Tickets – from $25 to $45 – are available from any band member, on Ruiz' website or at lpfair.com.
The band gets a commission off tickets they sell, so Ruiz encourages fans to buy from them.
"I want to prove to the promoters that Rhymer/Educator has a strong backing in La Porte County because, while we're small, this community supports each other. With love from my neighbors I think Rhymer/Educator can bring as many people out to the fair as any other act."
He also hopes his success shows students that "there isn’t a time stamp" on fulfilling wishes and dreams, he said. "That when people tell them you can do anything you want to do, it’s not just this motivational saying falling on deaf ears."