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Hip Hop Institute Breaks New Ground This Summer

Photo Credit: Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill

On Friday afternoons, Hill Hall, one of three buildings that the Music Department occupies, becomes electric. Behind the doors of Room 109, the sound of pounding bass lines can be heard. But there is no live instrumentation. There’s no band rehearsal scheduled.

Songs from the Billboard Top 40 fill the tight hallway with sound. But the songs don’t sound the way they normally do. At times they feel faster. Sometimes the pitches sound different. However, almost seamlessly, songs transition from one another. This is normal. Everyone’s used to the extra bit of noise.

Cracking open the room’s door leads to a musical (and Carolina-themed) wonderland. Anyone who enters is immediately greeted by a graffiti art mural of Rameses scratching on a turntable, with lightning shooting from his equipment.

Hill Hall 109 is home to the Beat Lab, a project started by Mark Katz, a professor in UNC’s music department. The Beat Lab is part of several courses that focus on hip-hop production and history. This summer, Katz is taking these courses to the next level. Katz will direct a new initiative from the music department: the Carolina Hip Hop Institute.

The summer institute that will run June 3-14 is made up of three classes: Beat Making Lab, Rap Lab and a newly created course, Dance Lab.

“We call it an institute because it’s not just a collection of three classes,” Katz said. “These classes will collaborate. In the Beat Making Lab, students will spend a lot of time [in the beat lab], but the rappers will come here to work with the producers. The beatmakers will make beats for the dancers as well.”

In the institute’s 11 days of intensive workshopping, students will get experience creating their own beats, lyrics and dance routines. At the end of the institute, students will show off everything they have learned in a performance that will be open to the public.

The hip hop program is one of three intensive music workshops offered by the department in summer. The others are the UNC Summer Jazz Program and the Richard Luby Violin Symposium.

Katz started the Beat Lab in 2012 when he chaired the music department. He had taught courses about DJing since he started teaching at UNC in 2006. However, there was no way for students to get actual experience.

“I’d get questions from students asking how they could take classes in rap, beat making and how to create music,” Katz said. “Unfortunately, my answer was you can’t. I knew there was demand and it wasn’t being met.”

In 2011, Katz applied for a grant to create the courses students wanted. He combined entrepreneurship, artistic practices and community artists to create what he believes to be “a new kind of music education.” With the grant money, he purchased equipment for the Beat Lab and hired co-teachers during the academic year. The courses created include MUSC 155: The Art and Culture of the DJ, MUSC 156: Beat Making Lab and MUSC 157: Rap Lab.

“I remember the first time we taught [the Beat Lab course]. I had a huge waitlist, and people were almost harassing me to get in, in a nice way,” Katz said. “It was touching and almost inspiring to see how dedicated they were.”

The summer institute will be taught by professionals from their respective fields. Dasan Ahanu, a spoken word artist and community organizer, will teach the rap lab. Ahanu was an assistant professor of English at Saint Augustine’s University and a Nasir Jones Fellow at Harvard. Junious Brickhouse, the founder of Urban Artistry, an organization that seeks to preserve urban dance culture, will teach the dance course. Kerwin Young, a former member of The Bomb Squad, the production crew that backed Public Enemy, will teach the beat making course.

Jan Yopp, the dean of Summer School, praised Katz’s initiative in developing the summer institute.

“This is all due to the great connections our faculty have with their colleagues and professionals across other institutions and out in the profession,” Yopp said. “The people Mark Katz will be bringing in are people whom he’s worked in other hip hop programs.”

She compared his efforts to the late Richard Luby, the founder of the violin symposium that is now directed by Nicholas DiEugenio, and Stephen Anderson, the director of the jazz program. Both summer programs draw faculty and students from across the country.

Katz said there is a possibility that other guest artists might make appearances as he finalizes contracts. He hopes that students are able to make meaningful experiences out of the coursework.

“I want people to be able to find powerful ways to express themselves through art,” Katz said. “That can be extremely transformative for people. I’ve worked with lots of people who are either artists or students who have had difficult lives and they find ways to heal through art.”

Mu’aath Fullenweider, a senior enrolled in Rap Lab this semester, said he has found himself growing more comfortable expressing himself because of the class. One of his verses written for the class is about forgiveness and love.

“I’ve been able to approach different topics,” Fullenweider said. “Left to your own devices, you get comfortable writing about things you can access. With the class he’ll throw a topic at you that you haven’t thought about before.”

Davis Kirby, a junior also in the class, said he appreciates courses like Rap Lab exist because they bring unique groups of people to the classroom.

“Music is one of the most diverse things,” Kirby said. “Not just diverse in culture, but generally. I went in expecting to see more students of color, a different culture than my other classes at Carolina. It’s lived up to my expectations and because of that, I’m a lot more comfortable.”


–By Brandon Callender

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