Technology has helped hip-hop develop into a critically accepted and widely popular art form. UNC-Chapel Hill, sometimes considered a bastion of Southern culture, opened its doors to the idea of hip-hop in academic study by offering the course MUSC 239: Introduction to Music Technology. The course is geared toward students who want to learn how to make hip-hop beats or electronic music.
Mark Katz, a musicologist specializing in studying the intersections of music, technology and culture, and a professor of what has been dubbed the Beat Making Lab at UNC-CH, knows all too well the importance of bringing the art of DJing to the classroom.
“The hands-on approach offers a very different perspective on the art of beat making or DJing,” Katz says. “Until students try to scratch records or loop a break or compose a verse and chorus, they have little idea of what it takes—physically, mentally, emotionally—to create music and have little appreciation for how hard it is to do it well.”
Julian Caldwell, who heard of the Beat Making Lab through a friend, is currently enrolled in Introduction to Music Technology and explains the rundown of the lab.
“In beat making class we make beats, as simple as that sounds,” he says. “We also talk a little about the history of beat making, but most of it is putting (making a beat) into practice.”
The students learn by going over one another’s beats in class and by discussing what they did well and what could be improved.
“We don’t really turn the (music) beats in, but the teachers hear them either when we share with the whole class or when they go from student to student during class,” Caldwell says.
Caldwell is primarily interested in music, especially hip-hop, because he is a rapper himself who goes by the stage name JSWISS. Although he makes beats on his own, he saw the Beat Making Lab as an opportunity for him to improve his rhythm in creating his own music.
HIP-HOP AS CULTURE
Bringing the art of DJing into the classroom is an important part of learning about music as part of American culture. In fact, Georgetown University was one of the first schools that to offer a course on hip-hop, entitled “Sociology of Hip-Hop—Urban Theodicy of Jay-Z.”
Local music producer, artist and beat battle champion Stephen Levitin, also known as Apple Juice Kid, collaborates with Katz in teaching the Beat Making Lab.
“I think having modern musical genres in university settings is essential to a student’s education,” Levitin says.
Katz says the course acts as a natural introduction to hip-hop music because it does not require students to have formal music training or to read traditional music notation.
“Most musicians in the world can’t actually read a symphony score, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be amazing artists. I want to make sure that all students on campus can get credit for learning how to make music, and this class is a step in that direction,” says Katz.
The idea for the Beat Lab came about two years ago when Katz was teaching an arts entrepreneurship class. As an exercise he had the class develop a business plan for what he dubbed “Carolina Beat Academy,” an independent school specialized in DJing and beat making. This soon evolved into an idea that he wanted to expand to the UNC-CH community.
Around the time Katz was trying to work on expanding the Carolina Beat Academy idea at UNC-CH, he met Levitin, who suggested starting a beat making class instead.
“I did a guest lecture with Mark Katz,” says Levitin, “and approached him about the possibility of a class. He already had some ideas similar to mine, and it worked out. It is my first time teaching at a university.”
Levitin first started playing music when he was 11, inspired by his teacher Pete Crawford, who introduced him to jazz music. As a student at UNC-CH he studied abroad in Scotland, which expanded his interest in music.
Levitin’s biggest inspiration for music came from participating in beat battles, which are competitions for beat makers and music producers. He won eight of them, and he credits his success to crowd feedback and being around other producers.
“I get inspired by social activism, yoga and love,” says Levitin. He has subsequently started a nonprofit organization called Love Propaganda that explores creating peace through music.
“I think (technology) is making the (music industry) a wonderful, expansive place to be,” adds Levitin. “It is like the Wild West, where everyone is discovering new opportunities, and no one knows where it will end up.”
There is a thrill in not knowing where this type of music is heading next. With recent technologies like Google’s new online music store that allows people to access their music library from any computer, the music industry is certainly adapting to the future.
Music making software is also becoming available to more people, changing the way music is made.
Katz says the way technology is changing music is a huge question that is hard to tackle in a few words. He wrote a whole book about his thoughts on the subject called Capturing Sound: How Technology has Changed Music.
“Technology can be good or bad,” he says, “and make life easier or harder for musicians.”
Caldwell explains that in Beat Making Lab students use a program called Reason that allows artists to set tempos, change pitches and sample sounds from songs.
“The new technology basically means that anybody can make beats,” he says. “It’s still not easy to be a great beat maker, but with a little practice anybody can at least make some basic hip-hop or dance music.”
“(Students) seem to love it,” says Levitin. “There is a lot of interest in the class, but unfortunately limited lab room prevents it from being open to a large number of students. The students that are in the class are highly motivated, creative people that I love working with.”
Katz agrees that the demand is enormous. “We could have filled four sections of the class if we had the personnel and resources. The students in the class seem to take it seriously, and many spend hours upon hours working on their beats.”
Caldwell, too, works hard for the class, and enjoys the instruction he receives from Katz and Levitin.
“It’s great to have Apple Juice Kid as our teacher, there for every class,” Caldwell says. “When he has a suggestion, you don’t have to question whether what he’s telling you is just the protocol of what’s supposed to be done, like textbook work. What he’s suggesting is based on what he’s doing to be successful as we speak.”
MUSC 239 has been very popular at UNC-CH, and both Katz and Levitin hope to continue collaborating to make it happen.
Both will also continue working on their passions outside the classroom.
Levitin has a DJ group, Beat Report, with musician Jil Christensen, and is always making beats and sending them off to see what happens. He is also part of Freebass808, a music group with Suede from Camp Lo. Together, they focus on making futuristic music.
Katz, on the other hand, just finished writing two books, both of which will be released in March 2012. One is called Music, Sound, and Technology in America, and is a collection of documents about early 20th-century America. The other is called Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-Hop DJ.
Both Katz and Levitin agree that music is an important form of expression. Any type of music can tell a story to its creator and its audience. The Beat Making Lab provides students the technology to express this story in an exclusive setting.