It’s the third day of class, and my 15- to 16-year-old students are divided into two groups. One of them volunteers to share his newly written raps with the class, and after his third shout-out to “BDP,” I ask him where he first heard KRS-One. He gives me a puzzled look and tells me that “BDP” is his crew. I stop the class to ask my fellow teacher if he’s ever heard of BDP, and he responds “Oh yeah, Boogie Down Productions.” After the student’s jaw drops, he regains his composure and laments, “Man, hip-hop’s 40 years old, how’s my crew supposed to have a name when all the good names are taken?”
Growing up, I was always skeptical of mixing hip-hop with academia. At an age where hip-hop was largely overlooked in the classroom, the only vestiges of a presence of hip-hop in a classroom setting were the occasional inaccurate “got’cha!” instructors who spewed garbage like “Bob Dylan was the first rapper” or pretentious cultural studies majors with their theses on how 2Pac’s lyrics “represent the other deconstructing the masculine gaze” or something. That’s why when I was first offered the chance to co-teach a hip-hop class whose mission statement I agreed with in fall 2008, I jumped at the opportunity.
For the past six years, I’ve had the pleasure of teaching a class called the Hip-Hop Academy for high school sophomores and juniors as part of the Liberty LEADS program at Bank Street College in Morningside Heights, New York. Liberty LEADS serves underrepresented youth who reside in the Harlem, Washington Heights, and South Bronx neighborhoods. The HHA was originally started in 2004 by Graham Arthur Mackenzie, a local hip-hop artist and one-time sign-language stage interpreter for KRS-ONE and other hip-hop greats.
The core of the class is teaching the students how to make their own rap songs, through making their own beats from scratch on an MPC and then writing and recording their own lyrics. Every year’s a good mix of hip-hop fanatics and students with a passing interest in rap who thought it might be fun. From there, we match up the technical aspects with as much of a history of the culture and sense of a hip-hop community as we can. Granted, there’s no way to cram 40 years of history into a once-a-week class, so instead of painting with the type of broad strokes that would cause a lot of important details to be overlooked, we try to focus the educational elements on hyper-specific artists or regional movements to help give the students a diverse array of influences to pull from when finding their own voices.
Time moves especially quickly in hip-hop, and looking at the landscape of 2008 to now feels like four lifetimes in rap years. Kids today have changed quite a bit too. It is in retrospect I look back at five things I learned teaching a hip-hop class.
5. Teenagers Will Always Love To Argue About Music: Traditionally at the start of each year I like to go around the room and have everyone share their favorite artist, to find out what people like about hip-hop and give the group an idea of what draws people to music. Usually I mention an MC I’m fond of and am met with a student saying something to the effect of “What? They suck!” From there I play a song I find exceptional by the artist and explain why I like it. The vocal student may or may not enjoy the record, but it begins the critical thinking about evaluating music.
4. Teens Are As Nostalgic As We Are: We hear complaints about how much better things “used to be” from fans of all genres of music, but to hear six years of students, no matter how excited they are about artists today, lamenting how much better things were a mere three years ago, it really puts the designation of hip-hop as a “youth culture” in perspective.
3. The ’90s Could Be Mistaken for One Big Prank: In spring 2013 when Chris “Mac Daddy” Kelly of Kris Kross died, my students who were born the year their last album hit stores had no idea who they were. I played the “Jump” video in class, and a few students thought I was playing an elaborate prank on them, trying to convince them the idea of wearing clothes backward was ever popular.
2. Hometown Heroes Always Win: I’ve found the easiest way to introduce these artists and make a meaningful connection is by playing the old school videos in class (thanks, YouTube), and along with today’s need for a visual element, my students always find it really exciting to see a place from a KRS-ONE or Gang Starr video shot in their neighborhoods. It really captures the fact that hip-hop came from where they are, and the city is rich with its history.
1. Teenagers Today Will Pay for Music...if They Like You: This has probably been the biggest shift over the past six years. I first started teaching the class while I worked at the last Virgin Megastore in the country. The announcement of their closing was met by my students with an almost matter-of-fact “of course.” These particular students were 7 or 8 when Napster hit, so they’ve spent their entire lives with an entitlement best summed up by one student a year later who threw shade at a classmate asking “why would you ever pay for music?”
I’m happy to report that today that is not the case. While there are fewer music stores than ever, my students have made no secret about their enthusiasm for supporting their favorite artists. There’s a certain zeal they exude in buying merch or counting down for official releases with the passion normally accustomed to sports teams. While you could say there was a generation who, monetarily speaking, didn’t consider music worth much of a financial investment, my experience has indicated these tides are turning.
It’s great being the person to tell a new year of students that there’s more to Ice Cube than just the reluctant character in all those family movies. Each class brings a new group of tremendously gifted and hard working MCs and producers who are not just making great music, but can explain why it’s great and put it in a proper context. Just don’t try to steal their rap names.