Right now, we are at in an interesting historical moment in hip-hop. Over the past 40 years, the culture has grown from its grassroots foundations at Bronx block parties, to becoming the most important youth culture on the planet. There have been a wide range of institutional co-signs, from rappers spitting poetry in the White House, to colleges and universities offering classes and degrees on hip-hop.
North Carolina, in particular, has been a pioneer in recent years, offering a wide range of hip-hop courses. In the mid-2000s, North Carolina Central University formed the now defunct Hip-Hop Initiative—teaching production, history and business. At Duke University, Dr. Mark Anthony Neal co-teaches Sampling Soul in the African and African American Studies Department, alongside Grammy-winning producer 9th Wonder. These courses are reflective of an international trend of embracing hip-hop inspired curricula.
At the University of Carolina at Chapel Hill, the chair of the music department, Dr. Mark Katz, has a vision for taking things a step further with the Carolina Beat Academy. His curriculum pairs academics with the community's musician-entrepreneurs to lead courses on beat making, DJing, MCing and more. He started by co-founding an electronic music production course called Beat Making Lab in 2011 with producer Apple Juice Kid—the first class of its kind in UNC's music department.
When I was in college, I didn't have the option of taking a beat making class; and as a hip-hop artist it is mind-boggling to imagine that I could have received college credit, or a degree studying and creating the music that I love.
I imagine jazz musicians must have felt similarly, as their music was gradually embraced by the academy. Even while jazz was at the center of America's vibrant music scene—thriving in clubs, concert halls, and late night jam sessions—it wasn't immediately embraced by institutions of higher learning. Jazz crept in slowly, through the work of several ambitious innovators and educators. In the 1930s, when Percy Grainger became the Dean of Music at New York University, he planted a seed by inviting Duke Ellington on campus for a guest lecture. This was a bold move for a young dean, whose department was primarily focused on classical music. In the 1950s, Lawrence Berk joined dozens of universities by introducing jazz into the curriculum at the Berklee School of Music (now Berklee College of Music). By the 1980s, over 100 institutions of higher learning offered degrees in jazz studies. It's taken nearly a century, but today one would be hard pressed to find a music department that does not embrace jazz. Doctors Katz, Neal, and other visionaries embody the foresight of bold jazz educators who re-shaped curricula in the last century.
If all goes well, by the time my daughter enrolls at UNC, she should have the option of declaring music as her major with a focus on freestyling and turntablism #FingersCrossed.
Beat Making Lab builds studios in cultural centers around the world and trains youth musicians in the art of beat making. This post is part of This Week in Beat Making, a weekly series on GOOD—follow our adventures with new episodes here every Wednesday.
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