One thing that is pretty evident about my work is that I’m very passionate about hip hop education. Well, education in general, but hip hop is most often the medium in which I personally explore the idea of education. Yet despite all the things I do in the role of educator, for lack of a better word, I still consider myself a student. It’s my intrigue with the music and the artists who create it that feed my passion to learn more, dig deeper, and ultimately share what I know.
I’ve been operating within that cycle dating back to my teenage years. Early on, it was just among my friends and the artists I worked with. I would always want to share my new discoveries in songs or something I read in a magazine or was told from another fellow hip hop fanatic. When I was given my first journalistic opportunity in ’92 with The Flypaper in Chicago, that was the approach I took. I don’t recall it being a conscious choice. It was natural for me to write from the perspective of what I guess I’d call an educated fan. I wanted to show that I could be well written and (arguably) witty, but my primary concern was providing information that I thought people might be missing. I was able to expound on that idea when I launched Time Travel Radio in ’95 and further continued that path on Redefinition Radio and currently with H2 and H2 Local.
In the late ’90s and early ’00s, that idealism started the shift to a more traditional teaching role. First, I started to get opportunities to speak on panels at various hip hop conferences. Then before long I was doing lectures at youth summer camps and some schools. Even before that, at least 15 years ago, I was aware of the popularity of hip hop starting to take effect on the school system. I remember my Mom clipping out newspaper articles that talked about elementary schools using rap lyrics to teach the ABCs, and things of that nature. On one hand, I was happy to witness the ever-growing power of hip hop. Yet, on the other side of it, I was concerned that it might attempt to reduce hip hop to a novelty tool like had been done repeatedly since the ’80s with bad AD campaigns and commercials; it seemed that might be the case again when the only use they seemed to find for hip hop was in elementary schools.
However, just a few years later I started to witness new opportunities for hip hop education take shape. It came in two different forms, both of which were personal. First off, I was starting to get emails from college students who were working on their final thesis or other key college assignments, and they wanted to base their papers in part or in a few instances completely on me. I remember thinking those first couple times, “Man, these must not be very serious college students if they are spending their time writing about me”…ha. Their reasoning was generally the same: they knew I had a head-full of hip hop knowledge and they wanted to tap into it. As this continued to happen more often I started to realize that they were indeed serious students and the topic of hip hop had become an acceptable and valid topic on the college level. That theory was completely confirmed when a couple of my more “scholarly” writings on the internet resulted in me starting to semi-regularly receive emails from teachers and college professors to get info from me for their lesson plans and/or lecture. That filled me with a different sense of pride than the “Rappin’ ABCs” news clippings did, not just because I was involved, but because it appeared that hip hop was starting to be respected in places and from people that previously didn’t extend those same courtesies.
When I moved to Minneapolis I continued lecturing and started doing it more frequently, which eventually resulted in me teaching the Hip Hop Essentials Class (the official Rhymesayers Class) at the Institute Of Production And Recording in 2006, thanks to Shannon Fanth and Chris Strouth. It was then that I was fully able to put the idea of teaching hip hop in complete perspective. At the same time, I was witnessing increased hip hop programs on the high school and college level nationally, internationally, and certainly in the Twin Cities.
The beginning of H2 Local this week somewhat loosely pays tribute to that idea with songs featuring Toki Wright and Sean McPherson of Heiruspecs, who both are heavily involved in the Hip Hop Program at McNally Smith. The first song of the show is “The Other Side,” which is performed by students at the High School for Recording Arts (HSRA).*
I’ve been aware of the HSRA for some time and always been intrigued by it, but it took a few years to actually pay a visit. When I finally did, I was impressed. The students were invigorated and passionate about what they were doing. I got a tour of the school by students and they were excited to share with me the various projects they were working on and the facilities they had access to. I stopped in one class where students were sharing a cappella verses they had written, and when a student used his time to express some of the more typical subject matter found in street-based hip hop (i.e. drugs, violence) he wasn’t condemned for it, but rather challenged to express what also happens beyond that—an approach that I would gather is far more effective than trying to ignore the reality kids see and/or hear around them, and which is often promoted by the same media outlets that condemn the kids for succumbing to it. There’s no doubt my visit there was inspiring, and when time permits I hope to find ways to collaborate with the school and support their efforts.
I got an opportunity to spread the word several months ago when Susan Campion (of Giant Steps fame), in her reoccurring role as a key connector in this city, tweeted @ me with a link to the music video for “The Other Side.” To be quite honest, it was one of those things I was nervous about. You know, you want to be supportive of high school students on a mission to follow their dreams, but at the same time, it’s no secret that nearly everyone in the world thinks they can rap and quality control is like a afterthought lost in obscurity. However, I found all my worries obliterated once I gave the video a view. The track’s production had a great feel that was supported with a strong hook. The four MCs each offered different positive perspectives on life challenges and struggling to stay on track school, as well as how those two are often intertwined.
Immediately after hearing what these students had to say, I requested a MP3 of the track to play on Redefinition Radio. Soon as I knew that Siddiq and I were starting H2 Local, I decided this was a track I wanted to revisit to give the students, the school and what they are trying to accomplish there some more light.
* The last song in the set is by School Of Thought, and it’s a demo of theirs from ’94. Not only did it fit into the set because of their name, but they are a local group who don’t know that much about because they mostly only released demos and did shows before moved here. However, when I interviewed The Micranots for the story on their history, Kool Akiem spoke on their importance to the scene in the ’90s, and Siddiq speaks on that on this week’s H2 Local as well, naming School Of Thought as one of his favorite Minnesota Rap groups.
Catch Kevin Beacham and Siddiq’s hip-hop show H2 every Wednesday night at 10 p.m. on 89.3 The Current. Their all-Minnesota hip-hop show, H2 Local, airs Tuesdays at noon and Wednesday nights at 11 p.m. on the Local Current stream. You can listen to the Local Current stream at thecurrent.org/local, on HD radio in the Twin Cities at 89.3 HD2, and via the MPR Radio app, which is available for iPhones and Androids.