Hip Hop in Hungary

Sorry I’m a bit late. Just as things were starting at #MFLearn19, I was swamped with grading final hip hop assignments. I just watched Ethan Hein’s video from week 1, and I identified so much with what he had to say.

A bit of background first: I’m an Australian teaching at the American International School of Budapest. I currently teach middle and high school music, and I begin my non-traditional program with grade 7. My students are a mix from all over the world, but many are into the global Youtube/Instagram/Spotify culture. As well as doing a blues unit, 7th graders learn the basics of Garageband and produce a remix of a popular song (I cut up songs of their choosing into interesting 1 or 2 bar loops and give them a set of Apple Loops). 8th grade does a whole quarter of rock band or music tech. Music tech kids produce their own original piece of music using Garageband, and rock band kids form a band and present one or two covers at a concert. In the high school kids can take a year of music tech, based around Ableton, and starting next year I will offer a year-long rock band course.

The hip hop unit was an amazing learning experience for me. One of the parts of Ethan’s talk was the part about getting to know your students’ culture and staying current. I am also 43, and I come from a blues and rock, and electronic music background. In addition to learning about so many artists I would never have heard of, and being really impressed with a lot of what is going on right now, I also learnt so much about the mechanics of the music.

This was the first year I have taught this unit – it came about because when the students were asked what they were into at the start of the year, hip hop and rap was the overwhelming majority response. It was important for me to do all of the assignments with the students so that I can anticipate problems and articulate my ideas more clearly. I can also model for them the learning journey that I have undertaken – this was helpful for students who weren’t into rap.

Our first lesson was an introduction to the 808 and an in depth look at the general ideas behind drum programming and the fundamentals such as kick on the downbeat, snare/clap on the backbeat. And what about those hihats… I made a bunch of different two bar loops from the last few decades and had the students copy them using the 808 kit on Ableton. It was great to copy the patterns myself to really get inside the ideas and see what things were coming up the most.

At a later period, I brought in a bunch of records and students had the opportunity to sample from records -ACDC and Led Zeppelin were quite popular. I also provided them with a bunch of (illegal) mp3s from a Youtube and Spotify playlist I made. Students went down the Spotify and Youtube rabbit hole and found a bunch of amazing samples. Then I showed them how to cut/loop samples and manipulate them on Ableton. (more on this later)

I also took the opportunity to sneak some music theory in there. They composed chord progressions, mostly using i, iv, and v in aeolian. I got to teach them about compression, we talked heaps about copyright. They also did a research project which involved comparing tracks from different eras.

A few kids rapped, most found vocals using on Loooperman, CCMixter or other places. One challenging aspect of the unit was the language. Staying contemporary is important. Grandmaster Flash and Run DMC are history lesson for these kids. The past iscertainly interesting and valuable to know about, but the kids want to know how Smokepurpp is getting that effect on his voice. So bad language is unavoidable. My principal was supportive in the whole thing, suggesting that we come to an agreement in the classroom about what is acceptable and what is not, and no one actually used profane language in the classroom, though there was certainly a bunch in some of the examples used (N.W.A. was referred to in a video project as “African American Gentlemen With Attitude!). The students who did their own rapping avoided profanity for the most part. ‘Bitch’ snuck its way in, but it was a female rapper saying ‘Wikipedia says I’m a badass bitch’. Pretty badass, actually!

But a few of the downloaded, free to use for non-commerical raps had some profanity, even without misogynism, drug references etc. Some tracks couldn’t be included on the album. One thing I would like to make time for next year is how to make clean versions of songs. On the one hand, some of the language and topics are unsavoury and not school-appropriate. But on the other hand, I believe that authenticism and creating opportunities for students to engage with music an authentic and relevant way is of paramount importance. I would also like to find ways to encourage more students to do their own rapping. I like Ethan’s suggestion of the cypher.

Another potential issue that we dealt with was copyright. We bumped into some irony: I wanted to make sure that all of the vocals that students used had some kind of permission or license attached to them. And it was important to credit the artists. Yet just a few weeks earlier I had been sharing downloaded mp3s and bringing in my records for people to sample. We watched some old videos about the early days including various lawsuits, yet we also talked a lot about the cultural significance of turntablism and sampling. I shared this excellent discussion of the whole thing, but I don’t think anyone watched it! At the end of the day, we discussed publishers and seeking permission if you plan to release a track in any commercial way. We talked about the supposed educational exclusion and the very real possibility of a cease-and-desist order from a publisher whose work has been repurposed by the kids.

TL;DR – I just finished my first hip hop unit for high school and it was an amazing learning experience. All in all it was a great unit. Listen to the kids’ records here and here.

Anyway, I am so glad I got into this course, even at this late stage. I can’t wait to do some more catching up, especially as so much of the content relates to popular music and informal learning, two of my favourite topics in my masters. I am also excited to catch up on blog posts and chats so I can meet some like-minded souls 🙂