Pierce Freelon’s understanding of music is incredibly multi-faceted. He’s the emcee for jazz-infused Durham hip-hop outfit The Beast, which performed at Duke Performances’ Music in the Gardens series last night. He’s also the son of Grammy-nominated jazz singer Nnenna Freelon, a lineage that has opened him up to a wealth of high-profile musical contacts. He’s a hard-working member of the Triangle music scene, but he’s also a professor, teaching classes at UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. Central University.
It’s in his academic endeavors that Freelon has added a new dimension to his musical exploration. This spring he co-taught UNC’s Beat Making Lab with local producer Stephen Levitin, better known as The Apple Juice Kid. The class is designed to teach students about sample-based music production. Freelon teaches about the history of the technique. Levitin handles instruction when it comes to practical application. Yes, these students are actually learning how to make beats at school.
Upping the ante, the professors decided to incorporate the N.C. music scene into their approach. The final project for each student included a requirement for at least one beat sampling a N.C.-related artist. The best results were compiled onto the free digital collection Tar Heel Tracks, which Freelon and Levitin used as publicity to drum up donations for a new venture.
This summer, they will take the Beat Making Lab to the Congo, cooperating with the non-profit organization Yole!Africa to teach their class to local youths. The Thread spoke with Freelon by phone to discuss the compilation and the Beat Making Lab’s ambitious plans for the future.
The Thread: How did the idea for Tar Heel Tracks and the UNC Beat Making Lab come about?
Pierce Freelon: The UNC Beat Making Lab started last fall, 2011. Dr. Mark Katz—at the time he was just a hot-shot young professor in the music department; now, he’s the chair. I wonder if the Beat Making Lab had something to do with that? [Laughs] I’m joking.
Dr. Katz and Apple Juice developed the initial curriculum for the Beat Making Lab, but in the spring semester Katz couldn’t teach it. He had aspirations of making a beat-making academy that had a beat-making lab and an emceeing lab and a DJ-ing lab, so he was going to move on to DJ and asked me to co-teach the Beat Making Lab, replacing him as the professor of record.
I sat down and looked at the syllabus, and I was like, “Oh man, I can work with this.” I started to brainstorm ways that we could take the foundation that Dr. Katz and Apple Juice laid and to build a kind of a new framework that fit my interests as a musician. In the fall, the culminating class project for the Beat Making Lab was a beat battle, and they just got up in the quad and had a beat battle. It was cool, but I knew I wanted to do something where the students weren’t just making beats arbitrarily, but where they were doing something that contributed to and was a commentary on and resulted from the exploration of local music.
So I came up with this concept: “What if for their final assignment the requirement is they sample an N.C. artist?” I mentioned it to Apple Juice and Dr. Katz on the first day of class, and they were all for it. Now, moving forward, it’s an integral part of the curriculum. We’re trying to train musicians. We’re trying to train beat makers. As much instruction as we can give them as professors on the technical aspects of beat making, what’s really important for them, as we’re trying to nurture young musicians in the music department, is that they need to be aware of the music that’s going on around them.
In your other classes, you’ve taught hip-hop on a more theoretical and historical level. How does it compare to teach a class like this, that teaches a hands-on skill?
It’s a huge difference. I got to give Apple Juice and Dr. Katz a lot of credit because they had the foresight to make this a class that wasn’t just “learn about beat making.” There are three core elements to the syllabus; that’s “practical beat-making,” “history and culture,” and then there’s “entrepreneurship.” That’s an entire part of the class as well.
You hit the nail on the head. Pretty much, before this class, my teaching at the collegiate level was kind of historical. It’s history, sociology, a little bit of philosophy. To transition from that has just been awesome for me as an educator. To be able to see these students be able to take the practical knowledge and turn it into something that has legs culturally, in terms of people being able to compete in beat battles and to be able to submit beats for their friends to make music on, it’s definitely a different machine.
Also as a student, you will not see “beat-maker” on my resume. I’m an emcee, and half the class to me is sitting down with the rest of the students and figuring out this software. Apple Juice does all the practical beat-making instruction, and as soon as I’m done with my portion of the lecture, and it’s time for him to teach, I’m one of the students. That more than anything else has been what’s made it this a radically different learning experience for me.
The compilation is incredibly diverse in it samples. There’s the pop-rock of Durham’s I Was Totally Destroying It and also the time-tested soul of Lee Fields. Was that diversity something you pushed the students toward? If so, why?
There were a couple of guidelines. One general rule that I made was, “We don’t want you to make a beat in the same genre that you sampled from.” There was a student early on who sampled a Foreign Exchange beat—not the one that made the record but a different Foreign Exchange song. They were trying to make a neo-soul song sampling some Nicolay, and I was like, “Nicolay already did that, and he did that well. Not only did he do it well, he did it Grammy-nominated well. What do you hope to accomplish that’s really breaking the mold here? We’d rather have you take that Nicolay beat and turn it into some trance, just a completely different genre.”
As far as diverse scenes, I can’t say we intentionally drove them towards, you know, “Make sure everyone does something different.” It wasn’t like that. We just spent a couple days exposing them to the local scene, and we said, “Well, here’s a good starting point: look at Merge Records.” The assignment was artists or labels based in North Carolina, so they were eligible to do anybody on a N.C.-based label, even if the artists themselves weren’t based here. We were like, “Here’s +FE Music. Here is Merge Records. Here is Trekky Records. Here is Yep Roc.” We gave them a bunch of labels.
A lot of times they came to us asking for genres. One student was like, “I’m looking for some jazz influence,” so we were like, “Here’s Nnenna Freelon. Here’s The Hot at Nights.” They kind of used us as almost like a Wikipedia of local music.
How did you decide what to put on the compilation?
There were 19 students in the class, so there were at least 19 N.C.-sampled beats. When we were selecting what was going to make Tar Heel Tracks, it was Apple Juice and I. We took a look at the portfolio of beats. We went through, listened to them all. There were a few that we knew wouldn’t be appropriate for the album. There were a few that were kind of in the middle. And there were a few definites.
The exceptional beats from the class made it onto Tar Heel Tracks. We were really transparent in the process, and we even involved the students in the process. We gave them our top picks. If anybody felt like they really wanted to be on Tar Heel Tracks, and they didn’t get it and they felt like they got snubbed or whatever, then we gave them a couple rounds of opportunities and suggestions of things they could do to get their beat to a level where we could include it on the final project.
Why did you decide to take this class to Africa?
There is a new professor in the music department named Chérie Rivers Ndaliko. Her husband is based in the Congo, and they do an annual cultural arts festival in Goma, which is in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. When she heard about the class she was really excited because they had wanted to add a musical component to their festival, which is primarily a film festival. Initially, it was just like, “Oh, we’ll go set up a beat-making lab. It’ll be a cool thing that the students will enjoy. We already have the curriculum. We just have to get the equipment.”
It was initially just sort of an opportunistic, serendipitous coincidence that they were looking for something just like this. And Apple Juice speaks French, and I took Swahili at Carolina. Those are the two major languages in the Congo, so even the region made sense.
As the semester went on, we learned that we wanted the curriculum to be bigger than the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. We talked about, early in the semester, trying to set up a section of the class that takes place in the community, not have it be something that’s just relegated to this kind of privileged university space. We talked about starting a lab in the Northside community of Chapel Hill.
With the Congo, it was a similar thing. It’s great that kids who can afford a Chapel Hill tuition get this awesome opportunity, but our aspirations for sharing this knowledge were beyond UNC. It ended up being a really cool opportunity in the Congo to start the kind of open-source curriculum model that we’d been dreaming up. We’re at a point right now where we really want to develop the class to kind of be available for anyone. The Congo’s going to be our first remote site experiment. We’re initially going to be working with the bigger group, but really we’re trying to train a couple beat makers so that they can take this equipment and continue to train and nurture skills and aspiring beat makers out there after we leave.