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Monday, November 16, 2009

Hip Hop Academe

Aspects of Hip Hop culture has long been a popular dissertation topic for doctoral candidates at the university. Academics like to climb down into the trenches and analyse new and emerging musical trends and patterns. It's a great source of unexplored raw material for contemporary musicologists.

Now Hip Hop music is finding its way into the formal classrooms of traditional conservatory programs. The once radical art form is becoming institutionalized, codified, and presumably formalized into mainstream text-books. Hip Hop music can be studied for college credit, and is approved for Title IV funding from Federally guaranteed financial-aid programs. The antiestablishmentarianism of Rap is history as the academe fully embraces the Hip Hop genre.

The McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul, Minnesota is now the first school in the nation to offer an accredited diploma program with a focus on the performance of Hip Hop music. It's the brainchild of their college President, Harry Chalmiers (who happens to be a former classmate of mine at Berklee and the New England Conservatory).

Chalmiers recently held a press conference for CNN and made the point, "This is a very important art form that is not going away." Chalmiers then went on to stress...

There are people who might say, 'If you have hip hop in a college, isn't that almost a contradiction in terms? It's a street music, it grew up in the neighborhoods, how can you have it in the college?'

When we look at hip hop closely, we see that we can study its impact on people's lives, on society. Where does this music come from? When it's angry, when it's sometimes vicious, vile or rude, why is that? What are people trying to say? These are important questions to ask.

I have to give credit to Harry - my old classmate - for keeping up with the times and staying current. Back in the days of our undergraduate and graduate training as composers, we explored a very different world of music. I recall Harry's excitement after hearing Spanish guitar master Andrés Segovia (right) perform at Boston's Symphony Hall. Harry once also confided in me how a a particular recording Schubert's piano sonatas transformed his musical thinking.

Now, three and a half decades later, Harry is leaving me in the dust with his ambitious foray into the cutting-edge of sound. I'm a classicist at heart - a hopelessly traditional musician with old fashioned values and archaic musical aesthetics.

I guess I would not be well equipped to teach music in academia today. I wouldn't know where to begin when it comes to explaining, performing, or analysing the structure, form, and functional mechanics of these new art forms. It's new music for a new generation, one that I regrettably don't belong to.