Carolina Hip-Hop Institute lets students form own culture and experiences

By Brandon Callender

Where Is It? 

Hill Hall is a quiet space on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s campus. The building is tucked away on North Campus, far behind the yellow bricks of South Building. Continuing past the Old Well, it’s still possible to miss it. It’s not a building most people spend time in, and it is often almost empty. The only sounds are the clack of heels against the tiled floors and students in the middle of rehearsal.

This is true every day of the week except for one.

On Friday afternoons, Hill Hall becomes electric. Behind the doors of Room 109, the sounds of pounding basslines can be heard. But there is no live instrumentation or band rehearsal scheduled.

Songs from the Billboard Top 40 fill the tight hallway with sound. The songs don’t sound the way they normally do, and at times they feel faster or the pitches sound different. However, the transitions between the songs are almost seamless. This is normal. Everyone’s used to the extra bit of noise.

Cracking open the room’s door leads to a musical (and UNC-CH-themed) wonderland. Entrants are greeted by a graffiti art mural of Ramses scratching on a turntable with lightning shooting from his equipment.

What Is It? 

Hill Hall Room 109 is home to the Beat Making Lab, a project started by Mark Katz, a professor in UNC-CH’s music department. The Beat Making Lab is used as part of several courses focusing on hip-hop production and history. This summer, Katz is planning to take these courses to the next level. During the upcoming Maymester, Katz will serve as director of a new initiative from the music department: the Carolina Hip-Hop Institute.

The institute is made up of three classes: the beat making lab, the rap lab and MUSC 286: Dance Lab, a newly-created course. Katz hopes that word will spread about the institute because of its popularity and how quickly the courses fill up during the academic year.

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

The institute is 11 days of intensive workshopping where students get experience creating their own beats, lyrics and dance routines.

How Did It Get Started?

Katz started the Beat Making Lab in 2012 when he chaired the music department. He had been teaching courses about DJing since 2006 when he started teaching at UNC-CH. 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 wanted to combine 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 Making Lab and hired co-teachers to teach for-credit courses during the academic year. These courses 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.”

Who Will Be Involved?

The institute courses won’t be taught by professors, but 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 University. Junious Brickhouse, the founder of Urban Artistry, an organization seeking to preserve urban dance culture, will teach the dance course. Kerwin Young, a member of The Bomb Squad, the production crew which backed the hip-hop group Public Enemy, will teach the beat making course.

Jan Yopp, the dean of Summer School, praised Katz’s recruitment efforts.

“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 that he’s worked with in these hip-hop programs elsewhere.”

Katz said there is a possibility other guests will come through as they finalize instructor contracts. He hopes students make meaningful experiences out of the coursework.

Why Is It Important? 

“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 the rap lab course, has grown more comfortable expressing himself because of the class. He’s able to recite some of the lyrics he memorized from one of his verses 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, is happy courses like the rap lab exist, because it brings unique groups of people together.

“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.”

Edited by Molly Sprecher