Participant ethnography of a hip-hop cypher

In this paper, I discuss a rap cypher held during a session of NYU’s CORE Music Program on March 3, 2018. A cypher is a group performance where rappers take turns performing improvised verses. Freestyling is to rap what jam sessions are to jazz: an improvisational form that demands both technical proficiency and a relaxed, casual confidence. I chose the cypher as the subject of ethnographic study because it crystallizes so much of what I love about rap generally. Freestyle rap in particular is an underappreciated art. While hip-hop is the most popular genre of music in the United States (Nielsen 2018), and possibly in the world (Hooton 2015), the American music academy does not afford it much respect. I have heard a demoralizingly large number of musicians and educators opine that rap is not music at all. While I do not believe that rap needs academic validation, it is important to me that my fellow educators understand and appreciate the beauty of this music, so if they will not embrace it, they might at least do less to impede it.

Few rap haters will admit to being motivated by racial or class animus. Instead, they point to rap’s supposed lack of melody, or the programmed and sampled beats. Along with electronic dance music, rap in its instrumental aspect is the most repetitive popular form in American history, and schooled musicians are socialized to be contemptuous of repetition (McClary 2004). Improvisation likewise has a low status in academic settings, because spontaneous musical expression supposedly has less significance than composed works (Nettl 1974, 3). However, closer engagement with improvised rap quickly reveals its depth. For example, the predictability of the beats is a necessity to support the complex play of text, pitch, rhythm and timbre in the emcees’ flow. Only by evaluating the music by its own value system can we recognize its beauty.Like any culture, hip-hop can be viewed as “ordered, limiting, and pervasive”, or as “fertile, elaborative, and liberating” (MacDougall 1998, 62). The former view resembles social science or Marxist theory, while the latter is more like literary description of individual experience. I will argue that rap is ordered and limited by strict musical conventions, but that these conventions are optimized to promote elaborative and liberating expression. In the cypher discussed below, the emcees make their personalities and identities felt immediately and strongly. In so doing, they deploy impressive musical and verbal skill with seeming effortlessness. “Regardless of thematics, pleasure and mastery in toasting and rapping are matters of control over the language, the capacity to outdo competition, the craft of the story, mastery of rhythm, and the ability to rivet the crowd’s attention” (Rose 1994, 75). I was the only “audience” member present during the CORE cypher, and I was indeed riveted.

A note about terminology: I use the terms ”rap” and “hip-hop“ interchangeably throughout this paper, in keeping with the usual practice of practitioners and fans. Strictly speaking, rap and hip-hop are not the same thing. Rap is a style of music, while hip-hop is a culture or aesthetic, one component of which is rap music. There can be hip-hop music without rapping, for example, in turntablism or the instrumental albums of DJ Shadow. Conversely, many genres of music predating hip-hop have used rap, including blues, jazz, soul, country, and rock. Nevertheless, when referring to contemporary mainstream music, rap and hip-hop are effectively coextensive.

My musical life has taken place within the Afrodiasporic traditions that gave rise to hip-hop: jazz, rock, funk, and electronic dance music. I have produced a little hip-hop, too, and done a very small amount of rapping. I grew up in New York City, and do not remember a time when I was not at least passively hearing rap around me. However, I am very much an outsider in hip-hop settings, due to a combination of my race, class, age, and sensibilities. A first-time CORE participant introduced herself to me at a session by saying, “You look important.” I gave that impression because I was the oldest person there, and the most formally dressed, not to mention the fact that I was one of only two white people present.

There is a degree to which I am perfectly at home in CORE sessions. This is true in a literal sense—they happen in my workplace, sometimes in my shared office. I am less at home in the metaphorical sense. I am knowledgeable enough about rap to be able to have a conversation about it, and enthusiastic enough as a fan to be able to cross social divides. The participants are friendly toward me, and the regulars greet me warmly with handshakes, fist bumps, and hugs. But I am self-conscious about being a novice and a tourist, about being wack and corny. This is no false modesty on my part: I am a very good musician, but I am not a good rap musician, certainly not by CORE participants’ standards. 

I have more privilege than the CORE kids in every respect except in terms of coolness. Without exception, all of the kids are cooler than me, and at least outwardly are correspondingly more confident. For this reason, when I am present for a cypher, I am simultaneously thrilled and terrified by the prospect of getting up and spitting a verse. I did beatbox for a freestyle by one of the CORE mentors during a conference presentation, but I have otherwise kept my own musicality to myself among the participants.

I try to approach the rap musicians of CORE with “positive naïveness” (Madison 2012, 32). Some of this naïvety is genuine, and some is strategic. For an American studying American popular music, “there is no formal beginning or end to our research; our participant observation (i.e., experiencing popular music within the context of American society) covers roughly our entire lives, as do the relationships that we rely on to situate ourselves socially” (Schloss 2013, 8). I am not a naïve participant, but I try to keep my history and opinions to weigh too heavily on observation and interviews.

The CORE Music Program is, per its web site:

an artist mentorship lab, event series, and professional network for young creatives committed to self growth and community engagement hosted at the Music Experience Design Lab (MusEDLab) at New York University. CORE Music NYC is a creative network of support rooted in the shared valuing of freedom, innovation, community, honest expression and the music cultures that inspire us.

The program is run by Jamie Ehrenfeld, a graduate of NYU’s music education program and a teacher at Eagle Academy in Brownsville. The name, chosen by the participants, seems like it might be an acronym, but it does not stand for anything. Each Saturday afternoon, rappers, producers, mentors and friends coalesce in studios and office spaces in NYU Steinhardt’s Education building near Washington Square Park. They write, record, rehearse, listen, study, and socialize. Sometimes there are organized workshops on audio engineering or music business, but most sessions are ad hoc and informal. The program has an ethos of liberatory consciousness, so the participants’ music tends to be more woke than commercial rap, with more focus on social issues and less on partying, guns, or drugs.


CORE participants are young men and women in their teens and early twenties, mostly low-SES people of color. Hip-hop is not the only style of music that they create. Some are singer-songwriters working in a pop, R&B, or rock style. However, hip-hop is the unifying thread. While there is an identifiable group of regulars, actual attendance from week to week is unpredictable. Instead, sessions have a clubhouse feel. Most of the time, no one is really “in charge.” Jamie’s role as director is to provide logistical support, and to be emotionally available and supportive—this sometimes means listening sympathetically, and sometimes means pushing or cajoling the participants.

The CORE working style is low-key, social, casual, and, at times, indistinguishable from simply hanging out. This is well in keeping with the broader norms of hip-hop. Despite the apparent lack of focus, this ad hoc working style is richly generative of original music. After extended socializing, rap artists tend to make their creative choices quickly and decisively.

NYU is a fascinating setting for observations of CORE because it brings racial and class disparities into stark relief. For all its political progressiveness, New York is one of the most racially segregated cities in America (Kucsera & Orfield 2014). NYU students and CORE participants are the same age and live within a few miles of each other, but they occupy very different social worlds. NYU is an expensive private institution, and while not all of its students are wealthy, a substantial percentage certainly are, giving the school a pervasive air of casual privilege. CORE participants, on the other hand, are predominately poor and working-class. The two groups strongly signal their class identity through their respective language, clothing and bodily affect. 

CORE meets and works in spaces belonging to NYU Steinhardt’s music technology and music education departments: offices, recording studios, classrooms, conference areas, and lounge areas. During the week, these spaces host academic work, classes, and presentations, where students and faculty work silently or socialize in low-key ways. While NYU’s culture is informal, it is still an academic institution, and the predominant feeling in the common spaces is businesslike. On the rare occasion when music is played in a room, it is almost always during a class or lecture.

The atmosphere during CORE sessions is very different. Music plays through open speakers, sometimes looped endlessly for long periods of time, and usually at high volumes. Socializing is mostly laid back, but can sometimes be loud and rowdy. Both NYU students and CORE participants are casual in their use of profanity, but there is one conspicuous difference: it would be shocking to hear an NYU student to use the word “nigga”, whereas CORE participants say it frequently. One NYU faculty member had brought his young children with him to his office during a session, and he berated me at length about their being exposed to the n-word. I do not like hearing it either, but I understand the difference between its in-group usage and its being spoken in anger. I am teaching my own children to appreciate that difference rather than trying to shield them from the word entirely. In New York, such a thing would be impossible anyway.

CORE periodically records in the James Dolan studio, named for the owner of Madison Square Garden, himself an enthusiastic amateur musician and at one time the parent of two NYU music technology students. The Dolan Studio is one of the best in New York, with top-of-the-line equipment and immaculate acoustics. The monitor speakers alone cost twenty thousand dollars, and the mixing desk costs on the order of a hundred thousand. The CORE participants like working there, because it makes them feel like “real” artists. For all its luxuriousness, though, the Dolan studio is not an optimal space for hip-hop creation. It was designed to capture live performances using Pro Tools, not for creative electronic production with Logic or FL Studio or Ableton Live. For rap purposes, all that is needed is a small soundproof room with a computer, an audio interface, and a microphone. The program has more regular access to such a space, as well as the computers in labs and offices.

CORE sessions ostensibly start at 2:00 pm, but some participants show up hours earlier, while others arrive hours later. On the day of the cypher I will be discussing, people are still arriving at 4:30, eating, chatting, and listening to music. The session does not really get going until 5:00. The group assembles in a nondescript conference room. There are about twenty people present, including a small camera crew, filming for what purpose I don’t know. No one seems particularly concerned by or even interested in their presence. Certainly no one is signing any release forms. There is a small PA system set up, with music playing a laptop belonging to Brandon Bennett, one of the regulars.

When I enter the room, the song playing is “Everything (Remix)” by G Herbo featuring Chance the Rapper and Lil Uzi Vert (2018). The CORE participants love and admire Chance, but his verse on this song is less woke than usual:

Knew the game, still you gave that bitch a wedding ring
I took her number, gave her NuvaRing and never rang
Never give ’em everything

When I hear this line, I simultaneously feel two strong and conflicting emotions: disapproval of the misogyny, and amusement at Chance’s wordplay. Rap shares many traits with standup comedy, including the use of deliberate offensiveness as a way to provoke laughs. I try to balance my moral indignation with an awareness that white observers of such jokes tend to see the aggression but miss the playfulness (Gates 1988, 68).

Profane and/or violent lyrics go back in black culture as far as the blues and the baaadman tales of the nineteenth century, if not much further.

Irreverence has been a central component of black expressive vernacular culture, which is why violence and sex have been as important as toasting and signifying as playfulness with language. Many of these narratives are about power. Both the baaadman and the trickster embody a challenge to embody a challenge to virtually all authority (which makes sense to people for whom justice is a rare thing), creates an imaginary upside-down world where the oppressed are the powerful, and it reveals to listeners the pleasures and price of reckless abandon (Kelley 1996, 187).

While we should not take irreverent language too literally, it is nevertheless hard on girls and women. Female rap fans and emcees are reclaiming the word “bitch” in empowering and creative ways, but nevertheless, rap’s gender politics are heavily patriarchal.

Black women and girls, who are increasingly “celebrated” in songs and videos as “bad bitches,” are simultaneously rendered irrelevant when it comes to hip hop authorship, video direction, and music production. The same can be said of hip hop’s lyrics and visual themes objectifying black female voices and bodies (Gaunt 2015, 213).

Toni Blackman, a CORE mentor, is deeply politically conscious, but also susceptible to the profane charms of current rap.

I was on a date with my friend [and] that song “All that good kush and alcohol” comes on. It’s one of those songs like [she pauses], I think the music is meditative and trance-like, and I think the melodies [Weezy and Future] use to rap in, they’re just… they’re addictive, you know? Like, literally for two weeks I was waking up singing this song [she chuckles] ya know??! Imagine an 11- or 12-year-old who is not that conscious of how to program their mind and their thoughts, [and] doesn’t have their critical thinking skills yet. And here I am with all of this seasoning and experience, and I can’t control it [she chuckles again] (quoted in Gaunt 2015, 220).

Rap’s gender dynamics will appear in several places in the cypher discussion below.

To begin the cypher, Brandon opens FL Studio and plays one of his original beats. It is a trap beat comprised of a sampled or simulated Roland TR-808 drum machine, a sampled tabla, and a sampled or synthesized bamboo flute. Brandon later tells me that he created the beat in fifteen minutes, beating his previous speed record of thirty minutes. The two-measure beat will repeat for the better part of an hour, with the only variation being the muting and then unmuting of the flute part. 

As is common to trap music, Brandon’s track is slow, with drums accenting fine subdivisions of the beat. Aside from the kick drum on each downbeat, the snare drum hits on the backbeats (beats two and four) are the most stable element in the pattern. The accented backbeat is a characteristic shared by every African-American vernacular music, including jazz, country, rock, funk, techno, and rap. Technically, the backbeat is a syncopation, the rhythmic equivalent of tension or dissonance. However, Biamonte (2014, [6.2]) argues that the backbeat has become a rhythmic consonance through sheer force of repetition. It certainly feels stable compared to the skittering hi-hats in Brandon’s beat.

The tempo of Brandon’s FL Studio session is 140 beats per minute rather than 70. The drum machine interface in FL Studio uses a sixteenth note grid, so to use thirty-second notes, it is more expedient to work in cut time.

Trap beats show the “exaggerated virtuosity of the machine” (Danielsen 2010, 2)–the uncannily fast and perfect drum hits advertise their artificiality. Rap has always been an electronic music, but in earlier eras, there was clear reference to human drumming, either because the beats were sampled from live funk and soul performances, or because drum machines were programmed to have a similar sound to those samples. Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson of the Roots is the best exemplar of an acoustic drummer who plays in a classic hip-hop style. On the other hand, even if Questlove could play trap rhythms, he certainly could not replicate the unearthly timbre of a programmed 808 on a drum kit.

Hearing identical repetitions of a sampled or programmed beat is uncanny to begin with, but hearing those identical repetitions over very long spans is a phenomenological experience with little precedent in music. During the cypher, we heard Brandon’s beat repeat hundreds of times. Tape loops might subtly wobble in pitch, but computer repetitions are perfect. While the experience of endless digital looping may be a futuristic one, it is continuous with the traditions of Afrodiasporic music. The beat is a stable and reliable presence, and “it is there for you to pick it up when you come back to get it… Without an organizing principle of repetition, true improvisation would be impossible, since an improviser relies upon the ongoing recurrence of the beat” (Snead 1984, 67-68). Robert Henke, a musician and co-creator of Ableton Live, points out that the computer is highly amenable to creating stable and reliable beats.

[I]n electronic music, there’s a lot of ways to create something that runs—that is static, but nevertheless, it’s creating something. Take a drum computer: you turn it on and it plays a pattern. And you cannot turn on a drummer. A drummer always has to do something in order to work. And the drum computer, you turn it on and the pattern is there (quoted in Butler 2014, 105).

In the analysis that follows, I juxtapose recordings of the cypher with my own sound writing, both prose and notation. There is some overlap between recording and writing—the word phonography literally means “sound writing.” I could simply let the recording speak for itself, but that would not adequately convey the full experience of being in the room. Weidenbaum (2017) observes that recording never sounds like what he heard—listening is a process of focusing and filtering, of selective attention and interpretation, an experience that is quite different from the microphone’s direct transcription. While Kapchan (2017) wants her sound writing to have the full sensual richness of sound itself, Weidenbaum prefers writing exactly because it does not have the rich texture of recorded sound. Recording playback is a new sensory experience unto itself, one that might be far removed from the one the recordist meant to capture or convey. It is more useful for me to think of the recording, writing and transcription as methods of “flat ethnography, where you slice into a world from different perspectives, scales, registers, and angles—all distinctively useful, valid, and worthy of consideration” (Jackson 2013, 16-17). Between these slices, I hope that the reader can triangulate a fuller sense of the experience of the cypher.

A note about my trascriptions: the pitches are very loose approximations, meant to show general melodic contour only. The actual pitches in rap vocals do not usually align with the piano-key notes, and are not stable even within individual syllables. Rhythmically, my notation is closer to being a literal representation. However, there are many nuances of rushed or dragged rhythm that I do not show, because that would make the notation unreadable. So the rhythms should be understood as somewhat approximate as well. One might well ask why it is worth transcribing rap at all. Anyone who wishes to study the cypher can simply listen to tbe recording. My transcriptions are meant in part as an ironic commentary, a way to represent rap in the language of “real” musicology as a way of commenting on that language. I want this paper to be legible to musicologists, but I do not wish to “go native” as a musicologist either.

[P]revious transcribers of hip-hop music, who were acting (implicitly or explicitly) as defenders of hip-hop’s musical value, have naturally tended to foreground the concerns of the audiences before whom they were arguing, which consisted primarily of academics trained in western musicology. This approach requires that one operate, to some degree, within the conceptual framework of European art music: pitches and rhythms should be transcribed, individual instruments are to be separated in score form, and linear development is implicit, even when explicitly rejected (Schloss 2013, 13-14).

As the cypher begins, participants go around the circle doing verses. There is some freestyling, but mostly people read verses out of their notebooks. The energy in the room is low until Jamie prompts everyone to get up out of their chairs. There are some instrumentalists present: a young woman named LeiOra jams on the viola, and a young man whose name I do not know plays jazzy chords on an acoustic guitar.

Eventually the camera crew and their friends leave the room. About twelve of us remain in the circle. Perhaps not coincidentally, this is when genuine freestyling begins in earnest. (This is also the point where my recording begins.) The tone is playful and jokey for the first few minutes. Then Brandon unmutes the meditative flute track on his beat, which changes the mood—a participant remarks, “Oh, time to get serious now.” The freestyle verses after this point get longer and more adventurous. They are still jokey, but a wider variety of emotions appear as well. For example, Brandon raps about his fear of doctors, heights, and needles. While everyone in the circle participates to some degree, there are three dominant performers: Brandon, Roman, and LeiOra. I profile each of them below.

Brandon is a nineteen year old Bronx native. He is tall and thin, with tidy waist-length dreadlocks and a beard that gives him a shamanistic look. He raps and performs as a DJ, but he considers himself to be primarily a producer, and is an extremely prolific one. His style spans trap, hip-hop, RnB, and house, and he favors a lo-fi sound, with thick reverb, vinyl noise, and a softened high end. Brandon produces using FL Studio, Pro Tools, Logic Pro, and an SP-404A sampler. He has been making beats since age 14, and has taught production workshops at a professional level. His SoundCloud and BandCamp accounts are mostly beats, but when he does appear as an emcee, he rhymes with seriousness and vulnerability. His main SoundCloud account has over a thousand followers, and he pays close attention to their feedback. However, since his followers reacted negatively to some his more experimental music, he started a second account to host that material.

In hip-hop and other electronic popular forms, the term “producer” has come to encompass songwriting, beatmaking, MIDI sequencing, instrumental and vocal performance, and audio manipulation (Moir and Medbøe, 2015). Danielsen (2010) asks what word we should use to describe a user of a program like FL Studio: producer, engineer, composer or performer? The answer is all of the above, or none of the above. There are no clear boundaries between such roles in the digital studio context.

Roman is a high school senior. He is baby-faced, and looks younger than he is. I have never seen him without his white Beats headphones on his ears. His given name is Maximus, and he draws his emcee name and iconography from ancient Rome. For example, his crew is called Vongola, the Italian word for clam. (Roman explains that vongolas clean dirty water.) Roman continues to be close to his crew, even though they no longer all attend the same school.

Identity in hip hop is deeply rooted in the specific, the local experience, and one’s attachment to and status in a local group or alternative family. These crews are new kinds of families forged with intercultural bonds that, like the social formation of gangs, provide insulation and support in a complex and unyielding environment and may serve as the basis for new social movements (Rose 1994, 55).

Roman is intensely committed to emceeing. He uses the same learning process as a jazz musician: continually memorizing other people’s verses by ear from recordings, a line at a time. He has even learned a few verses in foreign languages phonetically.

A few weeks after the cypher, Roman gives me an in-depth listening tour to some emcees he admires. He is particularly interested in Midwest Chop, a technically demanding style that crams as many syllables into the bar as possible without sacrificing clear articulation or wordplay. Roman plays me verses by Logic, Joyner Lucas, Tech N9ne, Eminem, and Busta Rhymes as examples. You can get a good sense of the style from Busta Rhymes’ extraordinary verse on “Worldwide Choppers” by Tech N9ne (2011). Roman’s favored rappers span generations—Logic is currently popular, but Busta Rhymes is from my era. The trait they share is dazzling virtuosity. If you think of Rakim Allah as corresponding to Charlie Parker, then Tech N9ne is more like John Coltrane in his “sheets of sound” phase.

Some scholars (e.g. Wilson 2001) compare rap to scat singing in jazz. Listening to Midwest Chop reminds me more of vocalese, where jazz vocalists write lyrics for recorded improvised solos. The best vocalese practitioners, like Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, sing intricate bebop lines packed with syllables. Roman is impressed by sheer syllable count, and is pushing himself on his speed, but he has not lost sight of wanting to be funny, and, sometimes, heartfelt. His favorite artist is Chance the Rapper, who has technical ability but is best known for being vulnerable and emotionally direct. Roman maintains a fan-curated SoundCloud playlist of Chance’s live performances. He particularly admires Merry Christmas Lil’ Mama (2016), a Christmas-themed mixtape Chance created with the R&B singer Jeremih. On these songs, Chance reminisces about his childhood and mourns dead family members, setting an emotional tone that is far removed from his verse about the NuvaRing.

I do not know LeiOra well; she is not a regular, and the day of the cypher is her first time at a session. She is 23 years old and Latina. She is in the building for a recording session in the Dolan Studio with Toni Williams, a singer-songwriter who graduated recently from NYU and is part of the CORE circle. After recording, LeiOra is invited to the cypher, and she joins spontaneously.

LeiOra has a gift for creating memorable hooks off the top of her head, several of which she repeats in chantlike fashion, both in her own verses and as background for others. She shows remarkable self-assurance in her willingness to freestyle among a group of complete strangers, nearly all of whom are male. Nevertheless, she is less assertive in the cypher than Brandon or Roman, as I will discuss below.

When emcees improvise, “they use words and expressions in the same way as jazz/rock musicians use scales and riffs in their improvisations” (Söderman & Folkestad 2004). The cypher is emblematic of what Turino (2008) describes as participatory performance. In such performances, the audience/artist distinction is blurry or nonexistent. The participants may have widely varying skill levels, so the music has a low floor for core participation (e.g. shaking a shaker steadily) and a high ceiling for elaboration (e.g. playing virtuoso lead percussion). The form of participatory music is open, cyclical and very repetitive. There might be extensive improvisation, but it takes place within predictable structures. Beginnings and endings of songs are “feathered”—unscripted, loose, and sometimes disorderly. The music is game-like, though usually without “winners” or “losers.” People in participatory cultures prefer skillful musicians over inept ones, but the social aspect of the music is the most important one, and it is good manners to keep critical judgment of the performance to oneself. CORE participants enact this participatory value when they are sharply critical of commercial recordings, but rarely criticize each other.

Rap cyphers have less structure than other participatory improvisational forms. Cyphers resemble improv comedy more than jazz or blues jams. In a jazz jam session, solos come in predefined units, e.g. thirty-two bar choruses. In a cypher, by contrast, each person begins and ends whenever they want. The rhymes are not completely unstructured, however; they follow a formal “model” (Nettl 1974, 12) that resembles written rap. For example, emcees almost always rap phrases whose lengths in bars are powers of two. Rhymes usually fall at the end of phrases, though more advanced emcees also use internal rhymes. Rose (1994) points out that for all of its technological innovations, rap music “has also remained critically linked to black poetic traditions and the oral forms that underwrite them. These oral traditions and practices clearly inform the prolific use of collage, intertextuality, boasting, toasting, and signifying in rap’s lyrical style and organization” (84). The subject matter in the cypher is wide open, but the tone is not. Rappers have a very particular affect, which I describe as “fresh.” The meaning of the word in a hip-hop context can refer to any of its conventional senses: new, refreshing, appetizing, attractive, or sassy (Hein 2015). Rappers must be irreverent, culturally attuned, and above all, cool.

In the sections below, I discuss three excerpts of the cypher in depth. The entire recording is available for download here.

Excerpt one: 0:14 – 0:40

The cypher participants form an approximate circle, with the three main emcees at the points of an equilateral triangle. Brandon stands, with his gaze directed at a point on the floor in front of him. He is inward-directed, though still responsive to the room. Roman stands too, with his gaze directed outward. A few members of his crew stand and sit nearby. LeiOra sits on a table, with her gaze also outward-directed. Amid the hubbub of the film crew leaving, Brandon begins warming up, getting into his flow. He lists foods and other things he likes, using a formulaic construction: an eighth rest, “I like” on sixteenth notes, then the object of the phrase:

I like shakes, I like tacos
I like tacos, I like burritos
I like Doritos and Cheetos
I don’t like Fritos cause they kinda too salty
So get up off me
I like, I like schools, I like Snickers
I like Twix and action figures

In many rap songs, “the meaning of the text is often secondary to its interaction with the music” (Adams 2008, 43), and that is certainly true here. Brandon is choosing words for their sound more than trying to convey any particular meaning. Some of his rhymes are direct (burritos/Doritos/Cheetos/Fritos), while others are slant rhymes (salty/off me, Snickers/figures). Throughout this excerpt, other people are shouting out foods they like and joking around, but Brandon gradually draws the focus of the room. He and the other emcees will keep returning to the theme of food throughout the cypher.

Adams (2009) recommends that we analyze rap by examining the metrical and articulative aspects of emcee flow. Metrical aspects include the placement of rhymes and syllabic stresses, the relationship between bar lines or hypermeasures and lyrical phrase boundaries, and the syllable count per beat. You can see the metrical aspects of Brandon’s flow in the way that he varies his simple formula, displacing the phrase forward and backward in the meter, placing it on stronger and weaker beats. Articulative aspects of rap include the use of staccato or legato, the articulation of consonants, and the placement of syllables ahead of or behind the beat. You can hear Brandon’s articulative technique in the way that he slightly drags the timing of “kinda too salty” and “get up off me,” and the way he indicates ironic exasperation by raising his pitch on “off me”.

Excerpt two: 3:11 to 3:40

Like most contemporary emcees, Roman and Brandon use what Krims (2000) calls a “speech-effusive style,” featuring the casual enunciation and loose rhythms of everyday spoken language. By contrast, LeiOra’s style is what Krims describes as “sung,” a schoolyard chant feel with on-beat accents and strict couplet groupings. In this excerpt, Roman also moves into a “percussion-effusive” style, a more rhythmically complex flow that is more free with metrical boundaries and rhyme schemes, but which still has crisp articulation and clearly discernable regular rhythm patterns. You can hear the influence of Midwest Chop in his doubletime phrasing:

Chicken and rice, sofrito with spice
Flip it on my plate, makin’ it nice

LeiOra replies with a parodic singsong, in an exaggerated Nuyorican accent:

Don’t forget Adobo, don’t forget Adobo, cause you already loco

Roman takes LeiOra’s cue, adopting the same accent and rapping in Spanglish:

Makin’ fine desayuno with that queso frito

LeiOra begins chanting “Que wepa! Wepa!” repeatedly. She brings a raucous harshness into her voice, an example of the way that black musics cultivate a wide range of vocal sounds connected to tonal speech patterns, ranging across different registers (Rose 1994, 86). Brandon jumps in over her chant–one of several instances where male emcees interrupt her–and extends the Nuyorican theme:

So when I get chicken, put Adobo and Sazón,
If you ain’t got Sazón, don’t allow me in your home!

The rest of the room yells in approval.

Excerpt three: 3:53 – 4:17

LeiOra’s best hook is this one: “Dab when you cough, dab when you sneeze,” repeated in her singsong cadence. It refers to an internet meme (SchoolMemes 2017). Roman and others do little interjections in between her lines, e.g. “Achoo!” Then, after twelve times through LeiOra’s chant, Roman jumps forward and interrupts with a punchline: “I’m so nice with it, I dab with my knees!” The entire room erupts with laughter. This is an example of signifying, an unexpected satirical twist on a familiar element.

It is as if a received structure of crucial elements provides a basis for poeisis, and the narrator’s technique, his or her craft, is to be gauged by the creative (re)placement of these expected or anticipated formulaic phrases and formulaic events, rendered anew in unexpected ways. Precisely because the concepts represented in the poem are shared, repeated, and familiar to the poet’s audience, meaning is devalued while the signifier is valorized (Gates 1988, 61).

We can look at freestyle rap through “the lenses of containment and possibility” (Hayes 2010, 31). The flows are contained by the unvarying beat and the demands of rhyme and musical structure. Their possibilities include community, humor, and cultural confidence. When a cultural conservative like Scruton (2014) dismisses “the tuneless aggression of rap” (n.p.), he does not just insult a rich musical tradition. He insults the young people around the world who use that tradition for validation, support, and representation. Furthermore, to dismiss rap is to dismiss a valuable set of tools for understanding other forms of music as well. It can be enlightening to listen to Western art music through a hip-hop frame, to hear how much it loses by eschewing repetition, to taste its lack of freshness, to examine its timbres with a producer’s ear, and to question its assumptions. “[O]nly when others are freed to pursue their own trajectories can Western music properly acknowledge the multiplicity of differences lying beneath its authoritarian binaries and become productively other to itself” (Middleton 2000).

Jamie Ehrenfeld once commented to me: “I got a music degree without ever writing a song” (personal communication, April 29 2017). She similarly had no opportunity in her schooling to engage with the creative processes behind popular music. Her experience is a typical one—composition and songwriting are rarities in American music education settings (Beckstead 2001). In an era when any laptop or smartphone can be used as a full-flight production studio, this is a grievous missed opportunity. It has never been easier in recent memory for young people to produce the music that is culturally relevant to them. The only remaining obstacle is institutional lack of respect for the music. 


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G Herbo featuring Chance the Rapper and Lil Uzi Vert (2018). Everything (Remix) [digital download]. New York: Machine/150 Dream Team/Cinematic/RED. (February 15, 2018)

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Hip-hop teaches confidence lessons

I’m working on a paper about music education and hip-hop, and I’m going to use this post to work out some thoughts.

My wife and I spent our rare date night going to see Black Panther at BAM. It was uplifting. Many (most?) black audience members came dressed in full Afrofuturistic splendor. A group of women in our section were especially decked out:

Black Panther audience members at BAM

I was admiring their outfits and talking about how I wasn’t expecting such an emotional response to the movie. One of the women said it was as big a deal for them as the election of Barack Obama in 2008. I know representation is important, but this seems like it’s more than just seeing black faces on the movie screen. Black Twitter is talking about how this movie is different because it isn’t about overcoming historical pain or present-day hardship; it’s about showing black people as powerful, rich, technologically advanced, and above all, serenely confident.

Black Panther is heavily overdetermined, like all superhero movies. But I’m especially interested in the way we could read it as a metaphor for music, with the Wakandans as representing African musical traditions and Eric Killmonger as representing the global rise of hip-hop. I see Killmonger this way not only because he’s American, but because so many of his qualities and mannerisms remind me of the role of hip-hop in the public imagination. He’s stylish, effortlessly charismatic, and seemingly indifferent to anyone else’s approval. He’s funny, too, not in the warm and good-natured way that Shuri is, but in a more aggressive and sarcastic way. He’s both arrogant and vulnerable, using implacable cool to conceal deep hurt. And he wants to remake the world by fomenting black revolution, by any means necessary. The Wakandans, meanwhile, are uncomplicatedly strong, self-possessed, and at ease with their own power. But they are also withdrawn from the world, fearing that getting involving in other people’s struggles will destroy what makes their culture so unique and beautiful.

I want to emphasize that this reading is based solely on my watching the movie and reading Twitter. I have no special insight into the writers’ or actors’ intentions. But they do seem to be saying something about how the African diaspora in America has attained global reach and influence while also showing the malign influence of capitalism and imperialist violence. It’s significant that Killmonger isn’t just a criminal capitalist like Klaue; he honed his murder chops as a member of the US military. The American empire taught him how to kill mercilessly, and now he wants to use that same force to bring the empire down. I’m thinking here about the Public Enemy poster in his dad’s Oakland apartment, the one with the crosshairs. I was terrified of Public Enemy back in the late 80s, as I’m sure was the point of their imagery.

I am not a moralist about hip-hop’s violent content. I don’t believe that portraying something is the same thing as endorsing it, or that listening to music directly causes antisocial behavior. It’s too easy to blame rappers for being bad influences while giving a pass to The Sopranos or Breaking Bad. The only difference between Walter White and any gangsta rapper’s persona is whiteness. But just like I wouldn’t let my young children watch Breaking Bad, I’m not eager to have them listen to Lil Wayne either. And it’s going to be difficult to explain and contextualize all the harder rap songs in my iTunes library when the time comes (though I guess no harder than explaining why I love violent prestige cable dramas.)

I spend so much time defending hip-hop from its detractors that I haven’t given a lot of thought to why I think it’s so beautiful and great. Usually when I do, I point to formal aspects of the music–the grooves, the hypnotic quality of electronic beats, the intertextuality and timbral invention of sample-based production, and the spectacular verbal and vocal virtuosity of the best emcees. But there are more basic emotional reasons why I’m a hip-hop fan. When I listen to the music, I hear effortless cool, the power that comes from strong emotions held in reserve, and a defiant sense of pride.  I hear confidence, and that is a quality I have been severely deficient in for most of my life. As I get older, I have become more confident, but when I was younger I was desperately awkward and socially anxious, and that part of me is never far from the surface. I need swagger lessons, and hip-hop is an excellent teacher. I am not unusual among white rap fans for feeling this way.

It’s totally weird that the wealthiest and most powerful population of humans in history should be so uncertain in ourselves, and it’s equally surprising that we should be looking to the musical expression of our country’s most marginalized and oppressed minority group for help. All of America’s popular music has its origins in the African diaspora, but hip-hop is remarkable for the fact that most of its prominent and commercially successful artists are black. Imagine if the Roma utterly dominated Europe’s musical culture. There are plenty of Europeans who love Django Reinhardt, but not the way that Americans love Kanye West. I’m sure white Americans listen to rap for all kinds of reasons. But I believe that many of us are mostly drawn to it for confidence lessons.

I teach in a couple of music schools, and if I had to pick one adjective to describe the students, “confident” would not be it. Last spring, I was present for two recording sessions in NYU’s James Dolan Studio on two successive days. The Friday session was with NYU undergrads in my Music Education Technology Practicum class, a crash course in audio production for future music teachers. The Saturday session was with CORE (formerly known as Ed Sullivan Fellows), a community mentorship program for young rappers and producers. There were some stark socioeconomic differences between the two groups. NYU music education students are mostly white and Asian, and they tend to come from privileged backgrounds. They are mostly classical musicians, with a small minority playing jazz. The CORE members are nearly all black and Latinx, and are uniformly of low SES. They are almost all rappers or beatmakers, though some also work in the singer-songwriter or R&B idioms. Everyone in both sessions was recording material of their own choice, but while the NYU students all chose existing repertoire (classical pieces, jazz standards, musical theater songs), the rappers’ music was all original. I might naively have expected the NYU students to be confident and the rappers to be nervous, since the NYU students were “on their own turf,” while the rappers were in a new and unfamiliar environment. But the opposite turned out to be true.

During the NYU students’ session, the anxiety in the room was palpable. Recording can be stressful under the best of circumstances—the environment is daunting and clinical, like being under a microscope, and the clock is always ticking. But this was more than performance anxiety; one of the students was on the verge of panic just sitting and listening in the control room. The next day, then, I was surprised to find that the rap kids evinced little to no anxiety whatsoever. They were similarly new to the studio, and under the same pressures, but if anyone felt any nerves, they didn’t show it. The atmosphere was casual and relaxed, even to a fault. A greater sense of urgency might have made for a more productive session. But anxiety was no obstacle. This was all the more remarkable given that they were recording originals. Instead of being nervous about exposing their own feelings and ideas, apparently it added to their confidence.

The CORE kids are sometimes shy about opening up their material to scrutiny, especially if they consider it to be unfinished. But they will perform or play back finished work with remarkably little hesitation for their age. I wasn’t willing to play my original songs for people until deep into my twenties, and I wasn’t willing to sing them myself until my thirties. Meanwhile, the most proficient CORE emcees are sure enough of themselves to effortlessly freestyle in front of an audience. I have never in my life had the courage to do that.

Shamus Khan’s Privilege is a study of the ease taught by elite schools to their students. He argues that traditional markers of upper class status like tailored suits or a taste for classical music no longer function; in an era of (supposed) meritocracy, the elite must prove that they deserve their privilege because of their talents, abilities, and hard work. “Class” can be learned by anyone, but ease has to be carefully enculturated over time. I bring mention all of this because the third chapter of the book begins with an epigram by Jay-Z, from TI’s song “Swagga Like Us”:

But I can’t teach you my swag
You can pay for school but you can’t buy class

The whole point of Khan’s book is that the One Percent use exclusive institutions like St Paul’s to reproduce its privilege across generations. So what is Jay-Z doing in the book? He might be a member of the elite now, but he certainly wasn’t born to it. Khan talks about the way that white St Paul’s students treat POC as arbiters of cultural prestige, which is synonymous with authenticity. To be a real member of the elite, you can’t be a snob; now you have to an omnivore, in touch with “common people’s” music, and that means hip-hop. You have to both know Jay-Z’s music and be able to emulate his swagger if you want to grow up to run the country.

I’m planning to devote my dissertation research to hip-hop educators, to the ways that they think about preparing the next generation of artists, and to the ways that their approach differs from traditional music pedagogy. In particular, I’m interested in the improvisation-centered approach of Toni Blackman. Of all the mentors involved with the CORE program, Toni has the most unusual resume. She is the first Hip-Hop Cultural Envoy with the State Department, and has traveled to forty-six countries to give talks and perform. She has been a teaching artist for a variety of other institutions as well, ranging from the Soros Foundation to local community groups. Toni has a particular method based on the cypher, a circle of emcees in which everyone takes turns freestyling. Toni uses the cypher as a way to help her students develop not just their flow, but their emotional well-being. In person, she has the calm, attentive affect of a good therapist, which is effectively what she is. I was unsurprised to learn that Toni does public speaking coaching for politicians and businesspeople as her “day job”—she is a professional teacher of confidence, inside or outside the context of hip-hop.

Etymology Online tells me that word “confidence” comes from the Latin word confidentem, meaning ”firmly trusting” or “bold.” A confident person inspires “full trust or reliance.” This certainly describes Toni. At her keynote talk at last summer’s NYU IMPACT Conference, she wanted to do some freestyling, as she does in all of her presentations. She asked someone in the audience to come up and beatbox for her. It was 9:30 in the morning and no one was jumping to volunteer, so I finally raised my hand. I had never beatboxed in public before, but Toni knows how to empower people, even nerdy white dads. It felt great up there, effortless in fact, like all peak music experiences do. I was up there to earn Toni’s approval, while simultaneously feeling like I already had it, just for sticking my neck out and performing. If I ever have the courage to do a cypher, it will probably be under Toni’s leadership.

During the same conference, the CORE participants did a showcase concert. It was mostly the kids doing their own songs, along with appearances by a few mentors and pros. The concert began with a cypher–everyone in the concert came onstage and while the band put down a groove, they took turns freestyling verses. I struggle to imagine a group of conservatory students beginning a recital by all improvising a piece off the tops of their heads, but the CORE kids pulled it off with effortless cool. I still remember one of the entire verses verbatim. It was by Lady Logic, who is a bit older than most of the other CORE participants, but still very young. She rapped:

I’m begging your pardon, ain’t no snakes in my garden
I’m begging your pardon, ain’t no snakes in my garden
I’m begging your pardon, ain’t no snakes in my garden
I’m begging your pardon, ain’t no snakes in my garden

She didn’t come up with this line off the top of her head; I was told later that it’s something she has used in verses before. But she had the audacity to stand up there and just repeat it four times. It didn’t sound like she couldn’t think of anything else to say; it sounded like she knew the right line to use, and that it would only get better and more impactful with repetition. And she was right, it slayed.

Most music educators might believe themselves to be teaching confidence. But very often, they are trying to force kids to make particular kinds of music that are remote from the kids’ own interests and sensibilities. I recently had two white music teachers from a majority-black school visit my music technology class at Montclair State University. My lesson that day was on drum programming, on what makes a good beat. In a semi-joking tone, I warned the class that I was going to make a racist generalization, that Europeans like music that’s harmonically interesting and rhythmically boring, while Africans like music that’s rhythmically interesting and harmonically boring. After class, the older of the two visiting teachers wanted to talk to me about that comment. He leads his school’s chorus, and they sing Christmas carols around the school every year. While they were singing “Angels We Have Heard On High,” the girls in the chorus kept trying to add a beat by stomping and clapping. I was about to say what a great idea that was, when he said, “Of course I made them stop. I mean, “Angels We Have Heard On High” with a dubstep beat?” He meant to commiserate with me about how rhythm-obsessed black students are, and how hard it is to get them to focus on making music the “right” way. A version of this interaction plays out in music classrooms across America every day.

The CORE program is run by Jamie Ehrenfeld, a graduate of NYU’s music education program, who now teaches at Eagle Academy, an all-boys school in Brownsville. Like me, she had a left-wing Jewish upbringing with a strong social justice component. Most of the CORE participants are Eagle students who she recruited, or their friends. One is Keith (not his real name), a tall, quiet kid with a serious demeanor. He raps a little, but his main interest is beatmaking. Since finishing high school, he has been camped out in different studio spaces and computer labs at NYU, assiduously teaching himself Logic and making tracks. I’m interested in learning more about his creative process. One afternoon recently, Keith was hanging out in the Music Experience Design Lab office with Jamie, and I had a chance to talk to him at length.

I have a general idea how Keith learned his musical skills: informally, socially, along with his peers. However, I was curious if he has any more formal experience, in school or church or privately. At first he said no, but after some prompting, mentioned that he played in a steel pan ensemble with his dad, who is Trinidadian. I responded that steel pan counts. But Keith has that side of his musical life compartmentalized; it belongs to his dad, while beatmaking is all his own. I’d love to listen to Keith’s tracks in progress, and ask him about his creative choices at a granular level. But this is going to require building up more of a relationship with him. I figured I would start somewhere less sensitive, by asking about his favorite artists. He immediately mentioned Chance the Rapper, who is popular with other CORE participants too. Keith also likes Kendrick Lamar, but that’s like a rock fan saying they like the Beatles, it’s not a distinctive or interesting preference. Keith didn’t offer any more names until Jamie prodded him to bring up Mali Music (an American singer, not a national genre), and “Bust Your Windows” by Jazmine Sullivan. This is all music that Jamie described to me as being “for the cookout,” songs you play when your grandmother and little brother are present. Chance is perfect cookout music, what with his rhymes about “soil as soft as Mama’s hands.”

Keith and his friends also like a lot of music that’s not suitable for the cookout, that’s full of guns, drugs, and sex. After he left to go make beats, Jamie told me about some other rappers that he and his friends listen to, like 22 Gz and Nas Blixky. This is the most commercially successful kind of hip-hop at the moment, and it’s the kind that cultural conservatives blame for corrupting our nation’s youth. Some hip-hop heads are dismayed by it too. Tricia Rose blames commercial pressures for emphasizing the most destructive aspects of the music, and suppressing its consciousness-raising aspects.

By ignoring the extraordinary commercial penetration of hip-hop, and I use that word advisedly … what we’ve allowed to happen is to render meaningful criticism of the commercial takeover of a black cultural form designed not only to liberate, but to create critical consciousness and turned it into the cultural arm of predatory capitalism in the last thirty years.

Toni Blackman isn’t thrilled about misogynistic and violent lyrics, either, but she understands those songs’ appeal. She has described a particularly appalling Lil Wayne song as being “meditative”, “trance-like,” and “addictive.” I feel the contradiction too, feeling both attracted and repelled by the hardest edges of rap. For example, I feel equal amounts of awe and horror about “Got Your Money” by Ol Dirty Bastard, which includes this lyric:

I don’t have no trouble with you fucking me
But I have a little problem with you not fucking me

I choose to find that line funny, which helps me feel better about the fact that I walk around involuntarily repeating it to myself on a regular basis. Hip-hop has mostly been a youth music so far, and like all American youth musics, one of its purposes is to shock authority figures. As authority figures get harder to shock, musicians have to up their rhetorical firepower. It takes confidence to defy authority. There’s a ridiculous amount of cognitive involved in a privileged white person like me listening to music that was designed to help non-privileged non-white people cope with being oppressed by the likes of me. I’m hoping to use my dissertation to get out of my own head on these issues, and learn to see them more from rappers’ own perspectives.

A participant ethnography of the Ed Sullivan Fellows program

Note: I refer to mentors by their real names, and to participants by pseudonyms

Ed Sullivan Fellows (ESF) is a mentorship and artist development program run by the NYU Steinhardt Music Experience Design Lab. It came about by a combination of happenstances. I had a private music production student named Rob Precht, who had found my blog via a Google search. He and I usually held our lessons in the lab’s office space. Over the course of a few months, Rob met people from the lab and heard about our projects. He found us sufficiently inspiring that he approached us with an idea. He wanted to give us a grant to start a program that would help young people from under-resourced communities get a start in the music industry. He asked us to name it after his grandfather, Ed Sullivan, whose show had been crucial to launching the careers of Elvis, the Beatles, and the Jackson 5. While Rob’s initial idea had been to work with refugees who had relocated to New York, we agreed to shift the focus to native New York City residents, since our connections and competencies were stronger there.

Ed Sullivan Fellows

The Ed Sullivan Fellows program is run by Jamie Ehrenfeld, a graduate of NYU’s music education program, a founding member of the Music Experience Design Lab, and a music teacher at Eagle Academy in Brownsville. Like many members of the lab, she straddles musical worlds, bringing her training in classical voice to her work mentoring rappers and R&B singers. Participants are young men and women between the ages of 15 and 20, mostly low-SES people of color. They meet on Saturday afternoons at NYU Steinhardt to write and record songs; to get mentorship on the music business, marketing and branding; and to socialize. We had originally conceived of ESF as a series of formally organized classes, but it became immediately obvious that such a structure was going to be impractical. While there is a regular core of attendees, their lives are complicated, and there is no way to predict who will show up week to week or when they will arrive and leave. Instead, sessions have taken on a clubhouse feel, a series of ad-hoc jam sessions, cyphers, informal talks, and open-ended creativity. Conversations are as likely to focus on participants’ emotions, politics, social life and identity as they are on anything pertaining to music.

There is a “core squad” of nineteen regular ESF participants, and an additional thirty occasional attendees. Many are students at Eagle Academy and members of their social networks. This group is mostly black and Latino. Another smaller group attends City-As-School. Only three Fellows total are white. The Fellows are mostly male, partially because many of them attend an all-male school, and partially because of hip-hop’s skewed gender dynamics generally. There are six core mentors (including myself) and another sixteen peripheral mentors. Some are young black men and women from the Fellows’ social networks, and the rest are NYU people, or are socially connected to the lab. All of the mentors are musicians, but otherwise come from a variety of backgrounds: education, business, software development, design.

The ethnomusicologist Thomas Turino draws a distinction between “participatory” and “presentational” cultures of music performance. Presentational performances include all of the music you would hear at a professional concert: classical, jazz, rock, and so on. Participatory performances include campfire singalongs, jam sessions, and drum circles, where there is little to no distinction between performers and audience. We tend to regard presentational performance as “real” music. Turino argues that we undervalue participatory music subcultures, because they are some of the few cultural spaces in America where monetary profit is not a primary value, and where our jobs and economic status are not our major identifying characteristics. While the ostensible goal of ESF is developing young artists professionally, the actual music-making that takes place is highly participatory in nature.

Hip-hop is not the only style of music that the Fellows create. Some are singer-songwriters in a pop, R&B or gospel style. Still, hip-hop is the default, the unifying thread, and the common vocabulary. Among the forty-six Fellows, there are twenty-three emcees, nineteen singers, eighteen producers, thirteen live instrumentalists, and twenty-nine improvisors who are comfortable participating in a live jam. (These categories are not mutually exclusive.) Among the nine more mentors, there are three emcees, four singers, four producers, six live instrumentalists, and eight improvisors. Of the twenty-three Fellows who self-identify as rappers, sixteen of them can freestyle, improvising lyrics on the spot, a formidably challenging musical practice. Participation in cyphers and jams is a core part of the ESF ethos.

The Fellows are familiar with the drug-influenced mumble rappers who currently dominate the charts, but their sensibilities are more clear-eyed, narrative, and direct. For example, Rashad cites Chance The Rapper as his major musical inspiration. Chance has a densely intellectual flow with an irrepressible sunniness, and raps about his life, his community, politics, and his relationship with God. Other Fellows express outspoken admiration for Kendrick Lamar, who is less cheerful and optimistic, but who also has a strong social and political conscience. Like most current hip-hop artists, ESF participants favor beats that are extremely slow and sparse, with electronic drums playing stuttering subdivisions of the beat accompanied by disjointed samples or soft textural ambience on top. I try to keep current with hip-hop, as much as a 41-year-old white dad can, but this music continues to surprise me with how futuristic it sounds. It has a science-fictional dystopian quality, but for all its iciness, the funk heartbeat remains.

ESF meets and works in spaces belonging to NYU Steinhardt’s music technology and music education departments: primarily a conference room and recording studio, spilling over into various labs and classrooms as needed. During the week, these spaces host classes and presentations, and are otherwise occupied by NYU students, who socialize in low-key ways or work on their laptops. While NYU’s culture is informal, it is still an academic institution, and the predominant feeling in the common space is quiet and productive. On the rare occasion when music is played on the conference area PA system during the week, it is part of a class or lecture. During ESF sessions, by contrast, the PA plays hip-hop beats, sometimes looped endlessly for long periods of time, and usually at party volumes. The Fellows have an unreserved social style, and the feeling when they occupy the space is more one of play than of work.

ESF periodically records in the James Dolan studio, named for the owner of Madison Square Garden, himself an enthusiastic amateur musician and at one time the parent of two NYU music technology students. He noticed that the school’s recording facilities were old and run-down, so he essentially gave Steinhardt a blank check to build a state-of-the-art studio. Ten million dollars later, NYU boasts one of the best studios in New York, with top-of-the-line equipment and immaculate acoustics. The monitor speakers alone cost twenty thousand dollars; the mixing desk costs on the order of a hundred thousand. When the Fellows record, they are assisted by well-trained and highly competent student engineers. I always feel like more of a “real musician” whenever I work in there, and clearly it has a similar effect on the Fellows. For all its luxuriousness, though, the Dolan studio was designed to capture live performances using Pro Tools, not for creative hip-hop production with Logic or FL Studio or Ableton Live. The Fellows would be better served by a group of smaller, less grandiose spaces equipped with the software and hardware designed specifically for their methods.

For all its progressiveness, New York is one of the most racially segregated cities in America. NYU students and ESF participants live within a few miles of each other, but occupy very different social worlds. Nearly all of the Fellows are black or Latino, and all are of low socioeconomic status. NYU students are ethnically diverse, but this is because of the prevalence of international students; the students of color are predominantly Asian. NYU is an extremely expensive private institution, and unlike Ivy League schools, it does not have a large endowment that it can use for financial aid and scholarships. While not all NYU students are wealthy, a substantial percentage certainly are, and an air of casual privilege pervades. NYU music technology students know hip-hop, and some are aficionados, but their tastes center more on indie rock, electronica, and experimental music. Music education students mostly inhabit the self-contained classical world, or the similarly insular subculture of musical theater.

The ESF working style, in or out of the studio, is low-key, social, casual, and, at times, indistinguishable from simply hanging out. This is well in keeping with the broader norms of hip-hop. For all its apparent lack of focus, this ad-hoc working style is richly generative of original music. After extended socializing, the Fellows tend to make their creative choices quickly and decisively, and for the most part are confident and relaxed performers. The same is broadly true of other hip-hop musicians I have worked with.

While the music emerges seamlessly out of playful fraternizing, this is not to say that it is always effortless. The Fellows are not all expert musicians, and they sometimes show dissatisfaction or frustration with their music. Also, they vary in their willingness to share their ideas, especially the unfinished or insufficiently polished ones. That said, I can not recall seeing anyone in ESF display anxiety. This is a conspicuous difference from NYU’s music students, for whom anxiety is a dominant emotion in their creative spaces, especially the recording studio. During one session I led for some of my NYU undergraduate students, one woman came close to a panic attack from simply sitting in the control room listening to her peers recording. Classical music students face continual and strict scrutiny, and the studio represents the harshest scrutiny of all—an error that might go unnoticed in a live performance is painfully obvious on a recording.

Due to family obligations, I am not able to be a regular participant in ESF. When I can attend sessions, I teach audio engineering, work with the Fellows on mixing and editing their tracks, give creative feedback, or most commonly, make myself available and see what happens. Today it will be the latter. I arrive at 2 pm, the session’s scheduled start time. Jamie is there, as is another mentor, Amber, an NYU music education student. There are only two Fellows present, Juan and Marcus, and no one is making any music yet. Most of the Fellows will arrive late, and while the session is supposed to end at 6, Jamie tells me that “they’ll still be kicking it at 6:30 or 7:00… You can’t fight their body clock.”

Juan and Marcus join me at the table where I am sitting with my computer. They talk about the new Kendrick Lamar album and other recent developments in the rap world. Then Juan mentions that he is presently homeless due to a fight with his mother. (He is not the only homeless ESF participant.) There was apparently some police involvement, and a restraining order was issued. As a result, Juan missed a performance, so now on top of everything else, he will not be able to get booked at the venue again. He tells us this with the same wry detachment he used to talk about the new Kendrick. Either this happens to him routinely, or he is putting a brave face on a very bad situation, or both. The subject changes to whether a mutual friend is gay. Then Juan sings something, and Marcus asks, “You know the guy who sings that song?” Juan replies, “Who, Chris Brown?” Marcus says, “Yeah, you should let him sing it.” This is just friendly trash talk; Juan sings beautifully.

Three more Fellows drift in at 3:00 and gather in a far corner of the room. They plug a laptop into the PA and play a beat they’re working on. It is a four bar loop, endlessly repeating, with jazzy major seventh chords on piano over a drum machine. The three guys let it run while they shoot the breeze. As other Fellows arrive, they make a point of greeting me, shaking my hand firmly or fist bumping me, whether they have met me before or not. They look at their phones, noodle on the piano, and talk. It appears that nothing whatsoever is happening here, but I know from experience that it is all part of the process. After spending 45 minutes just letting their loop run, the group in the corner begins scrolling through different drum sounds. Then they quickly lay down a synth bassline on the MIDI controller. A notebook is produced, and songwriting begins in earnest.

Jamie and I are the only white people present. She and Amber continue to hang out, since the Fellows presently do not need any guidance. Amber complains about NYU’s music curriculum, that she is forced to study serialist composition. “I take all these music classes and only one involves me writing songs.” Jamie responds, “I got a whole music degree here and have never written a song.” She is committed to making expression the center of ESF; she wants everyone to write songs, to manifest themselves as creative and empowered beings. Kigan, another mentor, listens to us critique the Eurocentrism of the music academy, and is appalled to learn that universities did not begin to consider jazz an acceptable subject of study until decades after its peak cultural relevance. Kigan says that trap music now is what jazz was in the 1930s, that it’s where all the creativity is happening. He is not even referring to rap when he says this; he means the instrumental component of the music. He recommends a producer named Flosstradamus to me, and I make a note to look him up on SoundCloud later.

At 4:30, there is another beat looping on the speaker system. This one is in a minor key, with a mysterious vocal sample that sounds like aliens chanting. The beat is trap style, an extremely slow tempo with hi-hats stuttering in doubletime. Juan begins freestyling effortlessly over it. Another Fellow plays a line on the upright piano. Amber begins writing out a song structure on the whiteboard. Kigan and Jamie eat pizza and continue chatting. The energy in the room has picked up undeniably, even if it still seems unfocused.

Jamie and I talk about a grant proposal she is working on. She tries to articulate the value of what is happening here. “Saturdays are not the program. The space is not the program. The interactions are the program.” She wants to give ESF a sense of “accountability,” though she knows that this goal will run up against the chaotic reality of the Fellows’ lives. Rather than imposing some kind of discipline, she wants to foster intrinsic motivation from the sense of community: “Oh man, I saw on Facebook Live that you guys had a great session.” She ponders doing a “reboot” after Labor Day. Until then, the periodic recording sessions in the Dolan studio will continue to be natural anchor points. Jamie has also been bringing the Fellows to hackathons at Spotify and Splice–she wants them to imagine themselves someday working at those kinds of companies.

Alex Ruthmann, the director of the Music Experience Design Lab, is on the Steinhardt music education faculty, and has already started thinking of ways to integrate ESF with the official curriculum. The worlds of ESF and NYU have much to offer each other. NYU has its facilities and equipment, its expert faculty, its glamorous central location, and the accumulated expertise of all those well-trained musicians and composers and engineers. ESF has none of the material wealth or the privilege. But the Fellows are part of hip-hop, the single most important driver of America’s musical culture. A recent study conducted by Spotify concluded that hip-hop is the most-listened to genre of music on their service, not just in the United States, but everywhere in the world. It is astonishing to me that our country’s most marginalized young people are producing its most valued music. I hope that the academy learns to value their ideas as much as mass culture does.