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Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Bringing Hip-Hop to the Music Room

I have been focusing lately on strategies for better reflecting, respecting, and responding to traditionally marginalized people and perspectives in the music room. Today we're tackling a specific musical genre that has been largely ignored by mainstream music teachers in the United States: hip-hop. It's pretty mind-blowing to think about just how little we even reference hip-hop in music class compared to how widespread its popularity is outside of the school setting. My hope is to give music teachers some simple entry points to help us at least begin to scratch the surface.


Let me start by saying I am in no way, shape, or form an expert in hip-hop music. I am a white woman who grew up in East Asia in a conservative missionary family. There's not much that's more foreign to my upbringing than hip-hop. That being said, for the last 6 years I have been teaching in a school where the vast majority of the music my students (and the wider community) listen to is hip-hop. No other genre comes close. So I have spent a good amount of time and energy over the last few years familiarizing myself with the genre and exploring ways to incorporate it into my teaching. Please understand that these ideas should by no means be the end product, but rather the starting point for those of us who are just beginning to learn!

School-Appropriate Songs

Because one of the characteristics of most hip-hop music is hard-hitting social commentary, it is notorious for being laced with vulgarity, violence, and adult themes. I am certain this is the number one reason music teachers avoid the genre in the school setting. So let me start by offering just a few examples of hip-hop songs that are appropriate to use in class (this list starts with the most recent):






General Music Lesson Ideas

For general music there are lots of ways to use hip-hop to teach concepts and skills we already teach. Here are just a few!

Music History: Hip-hop should be a focus of any discussion of modern music within any music history lessons, whether it's a "composer/ artist of the month" or an overview of music's development through time. The Netflix series Hip-Hop Evolution has lots of great information and interviews with a wide variety of artists.

Syncopation: Use examples from songs or even just loops to demonstrate syncopation- here's a loop you can download for free that accentuates the "1-syncopa-4" rhythm pattern. You could also use those same song excerpts and loops as accompaniments for students to play along with as they read and/or perform syncopated rhythms.

Contrasting Sections: One of the easiest ways to incorporate hip-hop into general music is through the study of form. Many songs have a clear distinction between the chorus, which is often sung, and the verses, which are often rapped. Use a song like "I'll Find You" (above) to identify contrasting sections and label the form, or use the chorus from a song as the "A section" and have students create new sections to go with it.

This is a good place to incorporate songs that as a whole may be questionable for use in the classroom but will immediately connect with students: "I Like It" by Cardi B (instrumental version here) is definitely not something I would use in class but the chorus would be an excellent starting point for having students create their own raps about things they like. "I Can" by Nas (instrumental version here) may actually be OK for high school age but the verses are probably too adult for elementary. The chorus, though, has an excellent message that would be the perfect starting point for contrasting sections.

Composition: One way to incorporate some of the skills hip-hop musicians need into our teaching is to give students opportunities to create music using online MPC's and apps that allow students to manipulate loops and create their own tracks. Here are some free ones:

Sampulator
Drumbit
EasyBeats Drum Machine
Splice Beat Maker

Ensemble Music Lesson Ideas

For instrumental and choral teachers, the obvious answer is to use hip-hop songs in the literature the students are learning and performing. But there are other ways to incorporate hip-hop into everyday lessons beyond performance literature as well:

Practicing New Notes: When beginning instrumentalists are practicing a new note on their instrument, have them improvise with that note (or a small set of notes) over a track. Use any drum track you have (you can download for free here).

Playing a Concert Bb Scale: It is fairly standard practice for bands to begin rehearsals with some version of a concert Bb scale. Mix it up by having the ensemble play along with a drum track (see above) or use a pitched loop that fits the scale (here's a free one).

Vocal Warm-ups: As with the scale example above, choirs can sing their warm-ups with a drum track. Another way to incorporate hip-hop into warm-ups is to take a phrase from a familiar song and sing it (going up or down chromatically) as the warm-up. The last phrase of the chorus from "I'll Find You", with the words "hold on and I'll find you" (see above), is sung on do-re-mi-fa-mi-re-do-re-do and would be perfect for a choral warm-up.

Simply adding a drum track may not seem like much but it can be a powerful way to begin to infuse hip-hop musical practices, especially if you can have some conversations to contextualize it for your students. Compare the addition of a track to your warm-up to DJ's pulling a loop off of a record to mix with another on their turntable. Talk about the emphasis on the backbeat and syncopation in different genres (this article by Ethan Hein gives a great, more in-depth explanation of this). Making these connections conscious for your students will get them thinking and exploring hip-hop in meaningful ways, just from a simple warm-up practice!

Resources

As I have said from the beginning, the ideas I'm presenting here are merely a starting point. As always, finding local experts with whom you can have face-to-face conversations (or maybe even have them come to your classroom as guest artists) is the best way to learn more! Here are some other great places to look for further study:

Very Sick Beats
Hip Hop Music Ed website
Hip-Hop Music Ed facebook group
Hip-Hop Evolution Netflix series
Ethan Hein Blog
Hip Hop Resource List from Ithaca College (this page has a HUGE list of more websites, books, and articles on a wide range of topics related to hip-hop)

I hope these ideas will help to make the idea of using hip-hop in music class less intimidating and more accessible, but I also hope they will spur further study and exploration. The genre of hip-hop deserves more than a box to check off in our teaching! I would love to hear more ideas from you in the comments section as well.

Special thanks to Jamie Ehrenfeld, Gerard Langley, Jarritt Sheel, and others for sharing their thoughts and helping to inform my writing for this post.

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