No one told Pierce Freelon that the chancellor would be here. But early on a Friday evening, UNC-Chapel Hill's newest leader, Carol Folt, walks into the opening reception of the Chapel Hill Community Beat Making Lab, across the street from campus in the town's aging courthouse.
"The damn chancellor is here, man!" the UNC graduate says suddenly, beaming.
If he'd known, perhaps Freelon—an adjunct professor at UNC, the emcee of Durham fusion outfit The Beast and a co-founder of this new hip-hop education space—would've worn a tie or ordered a bigger spread of hors d'oeuvres. But Folt doesn't seem to mind. She is busy relating stories of her Albanian ancestry to Stephen Levitin, the producer known as the Apple Juice Kid and one of Freelon's partners in this endeavor.
Levitin has been showing Folt framed photos on the lab's blood-orange walls of the different countries he and Freelon have visited while conducting Beat Making Labs. That work has already led to a 24-episode web series from PBS and this new space at home, where they plan to teach kids the importance of hip-hop. Think of it as a skate park for rap music.
Folt seems impressed. In fact, before she leaves, the chancellor stops to pose for a photo with Freelon, Levitin and UNC music department chair Mark Katz. She throws up her "DJ hands," as if she's scratching on a pair of turntables, and the shutter closes. Even on opening night, this space is accomplishing its mission: to unite hip-hop and academia in a remarkably hands-on fashion.
Folt leaves just before Katz makes the day's big announcement regarding that goal. During the last two years, Katz has introduced a cluster of hip-hop-related UNC courses—the Beat Making Lab, the DJ Lab, this semester's new Emcee Lab—as part of a program he's dubbed the Carolina Beat Academy. That project has just received a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of State. With the money, the Beat Academy will perennially send a group of local hip-hop artists to six different countries, where they'll share the story and sounds of hip-hop with people in countries largely without it. In turn, they'll bring the lessons they've learned back to this small room on Franklin Street.
"It's just what I expected," says Freelon, proudly.
Several years ago, I enrolled in a jazz theory course at N.C. Central University in Durham. On the first day of class, I plopped into one of the appointed classroom's empty seats. Before long, the instructor informed us all that the class had an unlisted prerequisite—you had to be a practicing musician. I was not, so I dropped the course.
"What you experienced," explains Mark Katz, "is exactly what we're trying to avoid."
Katz is a prim, compact man who dresses a bit like a GQ model—as Freelon likes to tease him, he's "an incredibly fly human being."
He speaks about the relationship between hip-hop and the university with irrepressible enthusiasm, and with good reason: After the success of his hip-hop lab courses last year, Katz's vision for the Beat Academy crystallized. He would turn UNC's music department into a hub where not only hip-hop but also other electronic music forms would be taught from a practitioner's standpoint. With federal funding and a community center, he can spread that goal at home and abroad and turn Chapel Hill, and not just the university, into a lodestar for the influence of hip-hop.
Katz relishes in the distinction between courses such as the one I tried to take at NCCU, ones that simply teach the history and social impact of hip-hop, and courses like UNC's labs, which also "teach the musicianship part of it." In UNC's Emcee Lab, for instance, there's less theory to fret. After all, in its purest form, hip-hop is grounded in rhetoric and poetry; if you can talk, you can rap.
"I would guess that there are very few, if any, [similar classes] that are at well-established research universities like UNC-Chapel Hill," he says.
But hip-hop is metastasizing throughout academia. In 2002, Harvard professor Marcyliena Morgan founded The Hiphop Archive and commissioned a study that found nearly 300 hip-hop-related courses in universities across the U.S. Author Jeff Chang, now the executive director of the Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford University, believes that this has possibly quadrupled in the interim. At Duke, Mark Anthony Neal teaches a "Sampling Soul" course alongside producer 9th Wonder, while local emcee J. Bully handles a "Hip-Hop/Rap Music Appreciation" course. N.C. Central University briefly offered 9th Wonder's "Hip-Hop in Context 101," but they've since discontinued it.
"We're long past the stage of just being in the universities," Chang says. "Now we're at that stage where people of my generation are teaching the stuff on a regular basis without being laughed out of the system or scoffed at."
Grammy-winning sound engineer and producer Young Guru recently joined the faculty of the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music as an artist-in-residence instructor. That news came after music moguls Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre announced their $70 million endowment to USC, which will create the USC Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy for Arts, Technology and the Business of Innovation.
"Visionaries like Mark Katz and Mark Anthony Neal are pushing these stoic institutions to be more progressive," says Freelon. "But what can you learn from them that is of more value than from practitioners like 9th Wonder or Apple Juice Kid? Those two don't belong on campuses because they don't have the Ph.D.s and the credentials. There are these institutional barriers that prohibit them from occupying this space."
There has been some opposition toward such hip-hop-based curricula. Some academics view it as a perversion of traditional music studies, while hip-hop purists think it misappropriates the culture and the context from the urban communities that created it. Katz says he hasn't noticed much Beat Academy backlash at UNC. In fact, he says, its groundswell of activity raises the profile and funding of the entire music department. Chang says that this is where this music ultimately belongs.
"The greatest justification for hip-hop being in the academy is hip-hop itself," Chang says. "Hip-hop was about being a liberatory culture that would free people's voice and allow people to speak, to be visible where they were invisible. A lot of folks who make that argument are arguing that hip-hop is déclassé, and that it doesn't belong in the space of the ivory tower. But we're here now."
As those barriers erode, students are finding these classes to be more than meaningless, easy-A electives. In a classroom on the third floor of UNC's Kenan Music Building, more than a dozen pupils are battling through a four-team, four-round session of Taboo. It's the first day of this year's fall semester, and the game serves as an icebreaker for UNC's Music 286, or the Emcee Lab.
The game of synonyms also forces these upstart rappers to think about language in a different way. By course's end, the students will have completed a "metaphor workshop," participated in N.C. State's weekly Monday night rap battle cypher and read texts such as M.K. Asante's It's Bigger Than Hip-Hop: The Rise of the Post-Hip-Hop Generation. Throughout the semester, they'll keep a running book of rap lyrics.
"I don't want to go into an orchestra or a band, which is kind of the centerfold of the rest of the music program, classical music or jazz," says Holland Gallagher, a UNC sophomore from New Orleans. Gallagher raps and makes beats under the name Gentleman Contender. He wants to be a professional musician, and he says this is one of the few national programs suited to his interests.
"I make rap and electronic music, which is usually overlooked in an academic setting," he says. "These classes are tailored for kids like me, whereas 10 years ago, they were written off as not a viable option for a career path."
But these classes, Freelon and Chang agree, are about more than a career path. With the game of Taboo over, conversation shifts to Compton emcee Kendrick Lamar, who lit up the rap world just days before with a devastating verse on another rapper's single. Freelon and his co-instructor, the rapper Median, use Lamar's controversial chest-poking as what Freelon calls "a teaching moment." It's important for his students to know that the art of emceeing is rooted in one-upsmanship—criticizing and embarrassing the competition. Freelon wants the attitude of hip-hop and not just the skills required to be a lasting lesson of this class.
"We talk about hip-hop in the larger context of people finding jobs and careers in the arts," says Chang. "But we also talk about it in the context of people trying to make change in society. Learning about hip-hop is not just learning about an artform in a formalistic sense. It's about engaging youth, older folks, and the politics and context of right now."
Fifth-year senior Alace Weiss gets that. She transferred from Sandhills Community College to pursue a music major in opera at UNC. Her plans have changed, but her fascination with vocals hasn't. She's one of two women in UNC's Emcee Lab. Each Tuesday afternoon, Weiss morphs into her Lewis Carroll-inspired rap-student alter ego, Mad Hatter. She joins the class discussion and even sticks around for Freelon's weekly, after-class freestyle session.
"I love things that put me outside of my comfort zone, and this definitely does," says Weiss. "With my classical background in violin, I understand a lot about rhythm, but hip-hop lyrics are so much more intricate than what I've thought about them before."
"Fuck whether she's dope enough to be the next great female emcee," Freelon says. "She's never emceed before. She's improvising. She can take that into whatever her next job is. She's more well-equipped to be a journalist, in advertising, a scientist."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Lab raps."