‘Hip Hop Hippie’: The opportunities and challenges hip hop presents in the Music Classroom. #MFLearn19

I am one of those teachers who has embraced hip hop in the classroom and was therefore super excited to engage with Ethan Hein’s presentation as part of #MFLearn19. I’m definitely not a native to the music. Whereas Hein at least grew up in Brooklyn alongside the birth of hip hop music, I stand before my students a white, classically trained musician from the north of England. Many a student has shaken their head despairingly at my attempts to ‘spit some rhymes’ and at my jokes about there being nothing quite so ‘gangsta’ as virtuosic recorder playing. But I grew up watching ‘Top of the Pops’ every week on the BBC and listening to the Top 40 countdown religiously each Sunday which presented me with a real diversity of listening material. Run DMC, Salt and Peppa, The Beastie Boys, Busta Rhymes and Nas were all featured. At the school disco we knew the words to Will Smith’s ‘Parents Just Don’t Understand’, ‘Ice Ice Baby’, MC Hammer’s ‘U Can’t Touch This’ and House of Pain’s ‘Jump Around’. I also listened to Classic FM, created dance routines to my parent’s Abba records and the first cassette I bought with my own money was Guns and Roses ‘Use Your Illusion’ so I guess I’ve always been eclectic in my tastes.

I was fortunate to come across teachers unafraid to use hip hop early on in my music teaching career. It was in 2001 during teacher training in the Cambridgeshire countryside that one of my mentors used ‘Rapper’s Delight’ by the Sugar Hill gang in her Y9 music class. She’d also created a little booklet of graffiti art and we watched a Newsround program on breakdancing. There was no music technology suite in the school (definitely no garageband) for us to compose with, just all the beats you’d find programmed into a casio keyboard and the ‘About Me’ poems the students had written in English class. We added chord patterns and other sound effects we could find on the keyboard. Hein says in his video that ‘100% of kids can rap’. They can. It was fun.

During my first teaching gig in West London we had an old set of computers running Cubase. There we were using Coolio’s ‘C U When u Get There’, with its Pachelbel ground bass as the starting point for composition. I asked students to write and rap their own original verse about life in West London. We talked about school appropriate language and I laid down the ground rules. I have no doubt there were more colourful versions performed outside of school (or behind my back in the practice rooms) but the ones they delivered in class were clean(ish) and rapped way better than I could. It was the kids here who introduced me to The Streets and Dizzie Rascal. Hein has a slide in his phd presentation that talks about Hip Hop’s ‘scavenger ethos’. In this school we also used Punjabi MC’s ‘Mudian to Bach Ke’ with its sampled bassline from 80s television show ‘Knight Rider’ (also sampled by Busta Rhymes in ‘Fire it Up’) as a starting point for composition. The tabla and dhol teacher bought his kit in to drum live for us in class whilst we experimented with rap vocals. It was fun.

In Mozambique I had a group of students who wanted to set up an after school group called ‘Word Art’ where kids could come together and write original verse (in a wide range of languages) to rap over whatever backing we could muster from our haphazard collection of instruments. Hein talks in the video about hip hop being created via trial and error. I had an apple mac at home with an early version of garageband so I’d throw some samples together, download the tracks to my ipod and play them for the kids during the session (they were pretty brutal with their feedback). The rap group joined a rock band and my 40 strong cast of STOMPers to provide the soundtrack to our production of ‘Romeo and Juliet’. It was fun.

On my return to London I was thrilled to discover that the rapper Akala had established The Hip Hop Shakespeare Company. Hip Hop dance was also huge with shows like ‘Into The Hoods’ drawing sellout audiences. In my school here (an all boys state school) I was really focussed on having the boys use their voices (all that community singing I’d experienced living in Africa where singing was just part and parcel of everyday life). Rap was an obvious way in and then we all went a bit beatbox (and body percussive) mad. This guy was our starting point and then the students would throw in samples from any song they knew the melody to. Hein in his video talks about ‘keeping it fresh’. I did and it was fun.

My stint in The Netherlands and my foray into the world of baby and toddler music, although heavy in the sheer joy of how tiny people interact with music, were light in terms of hip hop references. So I shall skip forward to the present day in Bangkok where @alisonmusicblog and I have been working Hip Hop with Y9. Here’s an insight. In a nutshell, the kids explore how hip hop emerged, discuss concerns that this culture can raise, sample music they choose themselves and write original rap lyrics about what’s it like to be a teenager in Bangkok (thank you Ethan Hein for the term ‘ speak your own reality’). One of my girl duos took to the stage on International Women’s Day with their original take on girlhood with samples taken from Billie Ellish (Bury a Friend), BTS (DNA) and Black Eyed Peas (Where is the love). ‘Hip Hop Evolution’ on Netflix is brilliant as is ‘The Get Down’. Personally I’m hugely influenced by the work of Kate Tempest . I’m still having fun.

“My whole thing is to inspire, to better people, to better myself forever in this thing we call rap, this thing we call hip hop” Kendrick Lemar.

2 thoughts on “‘Hip Hop Hippie’: The opportunities and challenges hip hop presents in the Music Classroom. #MFLearn19

  1. It has been fun stealing ideas off you for my group of year 9s! You are totally a ‘gangsta’ recorder player 🙂 Given that I will be teaching our hip hop unit again next year, it’s been fantastic having such a positive response from the students, especially hearing/ reading their reasoning for using certain samples and watching them connect hip hop with their own musical sensibilities rather than simply copying rap artists. Although I would argue that not 100% of students can rap, many of them in this part of the world benefit from doing cyphers, practicing feeling the beat and learning to do more vocal inflection to accent words, but it is definitely very accessible.

    Liked by 1 person

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