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.

Rohan lays beats

The Ed Sullivan Fellows program is an initiative by the NYU MusEDLab connecting up-and-coming hip-hop musicians to mentors, studio time, and creative and technical guidance. Our session this past Saturday got off to an intense start, talking about the role of young musicians of color in a world of the police brutality and Black Lives Matter. The Fellows are looking to Kendrick Lamar and Chance The Rapper to speak social and emotional truths through music. It’s a brave and difficult job they’ve taken on.

Eventually, we moved from heavy conversation into working on the Fellows’ projects, which this week involved branding and image. I was at kind of a loose end in this context, so I set up the MusEDLab’s Push controller and started playing around with it. Rohan, one of the Fellows, immediately gravitated to it, and understandably so.

Indigo lays beats

Rohan tried out a few drum sounds, then some synths. He quickly discovered a four-bar synth loop that he wanted to build a track around. He didn’t have any Ableton experience, however, so I volunteered to be his co-producer and operate the software for him.

We worked out some drum parts, first with a hi-hat and snare from the Amen break, and then a kick, clap and more hi-hats from Ableton’s C78 factory instrument. For bass, Rohan wanted that classic booming hip-hop sound you hear coming from car stereos in Brooklyn. He spotted the Hip-Hop Sub among the presets. We fiddled with it and he continued to be unsatisfied until I finally just put a brutal compressor on it, and then we got the sound he was hearing in his head.

While we were working, I had my computer connected to a Bluetooth speaker that was causing some weird and annoying system behavior. At one point, iTunes launched itself and started playing a random song under Rohan’s track, “I Can’t Realize You Love Me” by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra, featuring The Harlem Footwarmers and Sid Garry.

Rohan liked the combination of his beat and the Ellington song, so I sampled the opening four bars and added them to the mix. It took me several tries to match the keys, and I still don’t think I really nailed it, but the hip-hop kids have broad tolerance for chord clash, and Rohan was undisturbed.

Once we had the loops assembled, we started figuring out an arrangement. It took me a minute to figure out that when Rohan refers to a “bar,” he means a four-measure phrase. He’s essentially conflating hypermeasures with measures. I posted about it on Twitter later and got some interesting responses.

In a Direct Message, Latinfiddler also pointed out that Latin music calls two measures a “bar” because that’s the length of one cycle of the clave.

Thinking about it further, there’s yet another reason to conflate measures with hypermeasures, which is the broader cut-time shift taking place in hip-hop. All of the young hip-hop beatmakers I’ve observed lately work at half the base tempo of their DAW session. Rohan, being no exception, had the session tempo set to 125 bpm, but programmed a beat with an implied tempo of 62.5 bpm. He and his cohort put their backbeats on beat three, not beats two and four, so they have a base grid of thirty-second notes rather than sixteenth notes. A similar shift took place in the early 1960s when the swung eighth notes of jazz rhythm gave way to the swung sixteenth notes of funk.

Here’s Rohan’s track as of the end of our session:

By the time we were done working, the rest of the Fellows had gathered around and started freestyling. The next step is to record them rapping and singing on top. We also need to find someone to mix it properly. I understand aspects of hip-hop very well, but I mix amateurishly at best.

All the way around, I feel like a learn a ton about music whenever I work with young hip-hop musicians. They approach the placement of sounds in the meter in ways that would never occur to me. I’m delighted to be able to support them technically in realizing their ideas, it’s a privilege for me.

Teaching reflections

Here’s what happened in my life as an educator this past semester, and what I have planned for the coming semester.

Montclair State University Intro To Music Technology

I wonder how much longer “music technology” is going to exist as a subject. They don’t teach “piano technology” or “violin technology.” It makes sense to teach specific areas like audio recording or synthesis or signal theory as separate classes. But “music technology” is such a broad term as to be meaningless. The unspoken assumption is that we’re teaching “musical practices involving a computer,” but even that is both too big and too small to structure a one-semester class around. On the one hand, every kind of music involves computers now. On the other hand, to focus just on the computer part is like teaching a word processing class that’s somehow separate from learning how to write.

MSU Intro to Music Tech

The newness and vagueness of the field of study gives me and my fellow music tech educators wide latitude to define our subject matter. I see my job as providing an introduction to pop production and songwriting. The tools we use for the job at Montclair are mostly GarageBand and Logic, but I don’t spend a lot of time on the mechanics of the software itself. Instead, I teach music: How do you express yourself creatively using sample libraries, or MIDI, or field recordings, or pre-existing songs? What kinds of rhythms, harmonies, timbres and structures make sense aesthetically when you’re assembling these materials in the DAW? Where do you get ideas? How do you listen to recorded music analytically? Why does Thriller sound so much better than any other album recorded in the eighties? We cover technical concepts as they arise in the natural course of producing and listening. My hope is that they’ll be more relevant and memorable that way.

Having now taught three semesters of Intro to Music Tech at MSU, my format is starting to gel. The students spend most of the semester creating tracks. They do one using only the loops that come with GarageBand, one using only MIDI and software instruments, one that includes a field recording they made with their phones, and so on. I started having them remix each other’s tracks this past semester, and it was such a smash hit that I’m going to have future classes do a whole series of peer remixes.

Montclair is a fairly traditional conservatory. For many students, my class is the only time in their college careers they get to make music according to their own sensibilities and tastes. It’s also usually the only time they engage critically with recordings, or electronic dance music, or hip-hop, or pop song forms, or sampling, or mixing and audio processing. I’m glad to be able to fill these vacuums, but I wish I had more than one semester to do it in.

Aside from creative music-making, the students do a couple of presentations, one on a song they think is interesting, and one on a topic of their choice. They also write blog posts about the process of creating their tracks. This last assignment is a persistent obstacle, since no one seems to share my enthusiasm for process documentation. Next semester I’m going to try introducing some of the cooperative/competitive spirit of the peer remixes by having them write reviews of each other’s tracks. Maybe that will get them to invest their writing with the same creativity they put into the music assignments.

Montclair State Advanced Computer Music Composition

This past fall I got to teach my first advanced class, and it went amazingly well. We used Ableton Live, my DAW of choice, and the guys (it was all guys) banged out tracks at a rapid clip for the entire semester. As with the intro class, I spent most of the time on the creative process, and dealt with Ableton functionality and audio engineering topics as they came up.

Tristan gets his FFT on

Each assignment came with some kind of tight technical restriction, but no stylistic restrictions. As with the intro class, the advanced dudes did tracks using only existing loops, only MIDI, and found sound. They did peer remixing and self remixing as well. The two hardest and most interesting assignments were to create a new track using only samples of an existing track, and then to create a new track using only a single five-second Duke Ellington sample. (These assignments were inspired heavily by the Disquiet Junto.) The more tightly I constrained the students, the more ingenuity they displayed. Listen for yourself:

As with the intro class, I tried to have the advanced dudes document their process with blog posts. As with the intro class, they showed zero interest. In the future, I’ll have to get more creative with the writing component. Also, I’d like to not have the class be entirely male.

NYU Music Education Technology Practicum

This class is meant to be a grounding in music tech for future music teachers. I’m even more time-constrained at NYU than at Montclair, and I teach in a regular classroom rather than a computer lab. While my class time at Montclair is mostly devoted to music-making, at NYU I’m forced to do more lectures, demos and listening sessions. It is very far from ideal. I have no idea how NYU can charge so much money without offering such a basic-seeming amenity as a room with computers in it for the music students. However, NYU does have one advantage over Montclair as a teaching environment, which is that I can hold a couple of class sessions in an extremely fancy recording studio.

Catherine and Joseph in the Dolan Studio

I mostly take the same approach at NYU as I do at Montclair, and use most of the same assignments. The major difference is that the NYU kids do a critical listening project, where they pick a recording and graph out its musical structure and spatial layout. It’s a difficult exercise, but an invaluable one. I did it in grad school, and it improved my analytical listening abilities significantly. We used to do the same assignment at Montclair, but the students were really not into it, like to the point of refusing to do it, so sadly we had to drop it from the syllabus. I hope we can find a way to reinstate it.

This past semester, the majority of my NYU kids were music business majors, which was pretty great. They came in with less musical experience than the education majors–sometimes with none at all–but they had less to unlearn, and they threw themselves confidently into producing tracks. This coming semester I have a bunch more music business kids. I’m attracting them because my class is the only one at Steinhardt that does intro-level creative music making in the pop idiom. I’m clearly filling a vacuum, and I’m hoping that I’m just the thin edge of the wedge, both for my own sake and the future music educators of NYU.

Interface designs

The NYU Music Experience Design Lab is baking education into a suite of creative music making and learning tools. As my friend and colleague Adam Bell likes to say, purchasers of a computer are purchasing a music education. We’re trying to make that education a better and more enjoyable one, whether our users are in formal classroom settings or playing around on their own. You can read about the lab’s various projects here. My own contributions are largely conceptual, though I’ve also devoted a lot of attention to making useful and inspiring presets.

Cold Sweat on the Groove Pizza

The Ed Sullivan Fellows Program

This winter, the MusEDLab is launching a brand new initiative, mentoring a group of young people from challenging circumstances in music and technology. I’ll be teaching the music side, doing a custom-tailored version of my intro class syllabus. Sullivan Fellows will also work with my colleagues in the lab on programming and design projects. This summer, we’ll have a showcase event as part of the 2016 IMPACT Conference. The goal is to help the Fellows get launched in careers in music and/or technology. I’ll be writing a lot more about this in the coming weeks.

Online courses with Soundfly

The MusEDLab is working with a music ed startup on some new interactive online courses. The first is called Music Theory For Bedroom Producers, and we expect to launch next month. I wrote a lot of the materials, and am appearing in some videos. Soundfly has ace designers, animators and programmers, so expect a rich multimedia experience. More on this as it gets closer.

Everything else

For the past few years, I’ve been a teaching artist with NYU’s IMPACT workshop. Below, you can see some participants making beats on an iPad. The workshop is a crash course not just in music, but in theater, dance, video, and the intersection of all of the above. I’m still very much figuring out my role in the whole thing, but so is everyone involved.

Mobile music at IMPACT

I continue to teach private lessons, do freelance production and composition, do some consulting, write for online publications, and generally keep hustling for gigs. If you’d like to have me do any of these things, be in touch.