Hip-Hop Diploma

DJ Freddy Fresh slaps a vinyl record on the turntable, cues it up and tells a student, “Remember, the top of the note was there, right? Grab it.”

The student places his hand on the disc. Freddy Fresh sets the tonearm down on a record rotating on a second turntable. He starts the first record spinning as a percolating beat fills the classroom, then twiddles some knobs.

“Bing, bing, boom. There it is,” Freddy Fresh says while showing the student the precise beat where to stop the platter. “Let’s hear it. Scratch a little so we can hear the top of it.”

The student “scratches” the record, moving his left hand back and forth, then lets the disc go.

“Perfect,” Freddy Fresh declares.

A professional DJ since 1992, Freddy Fresh (real name Fredrick Schmid) is among the new teachers brought in by McNally Smith College of Music for a hip-hop studies program that school officials say is the first in the nation.

Photo: AP Photo
DJ Freddy Fresh, right, spins records for students during a hip hop class at McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul, Minn.

The private downtown St. Paul college – where rapper-actor Ice Cube already funds a scholarship for music technology studies – began the hip-hop program in September and hopes the first students, after completing a recorded project and a live performance, get their diploma certificates at commencement next summer.

Even though hip-hop is only 30 years old, McNally Smith officials say the urban culture of rap has become a dominating commercial force and deserves serious study. Students say they enjoy the chance to learn from established rappers and DJs.

“What I like the most about it is there are actual artists teaching us, as opposed to just some guy coming in a suit and tie and being like, ‘This is what hip-hop is,’“ said student Tim Wagner, 19, who came to McNally Smith to learn studio production and polish his MC skills.

“They know what they’re talking about because they’ve done it.”

College classes on the language of hip-hop or how to work turntables are not new. Berklee College of Music in Boston held its annual Business of Hip-Hop Symposium in October and has had visits from pioneering hip-hop DJ Grandmaster Flash and rapper Chuck D of Public Enemy, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison recently hosted a semester-long fall lecture series on hip-hop. Marcyliena Morgan, a professor at Harvard University, founded The Hiphop Archive in 2002.

But McNally Smith is offering a full, 45-credit, three-semester hip-hop program. Courses include “Deejay Techniques,” “Diaspora of African Music” and “The Language of Rap and Spoken Word III.” The school hopes that hip-hop graduates will then enter McNally Smith’s two- or four-year programs, where those students can apply some of their credits, said Cliff Wittstruck, dean of academic affairs.

The hip-hop program grew out of a summer workshop at McNally Smith that attracted 22 young people, mainly of high school age. When it was time to draw up courses for the college program, organizers made sure “that it was not just something that was sort of, ‘Oh, we’re going to have a hip-hop diploma and somebody grab the graffiti font and we’ll be all set,’“ said workshop director Sean McPherson, bassist and leader of the Twin Cities hip-hop band Heiruspecs.

Program coordinator Toki Wright, a Twin Cities MC and poet, says the program aims to teach all the behind-the-scenes roles in hip-hop: promoters, DJs and producers. Classes on hip-hop business practices, music production and history are among the course offerings.

“So you don’t have to be a great rapper to still receive a diploma,” Wright said.

Fourteen students – 12 men, two women – are enrolled in the hip-hop program, which has eight teachers. Overall enrollment at McNally Smith stands at 685, and the school – founded in 1985 by two guitarists – has 118 faculty members.

McNally Smith President Harry Chalmiers says rapping – although it sounds spontaneous – is not easy.

“The best rap is fine art. It is poetry. It is music. It is rhythm. It is color. It is living history. It is of political, societal commentary. It’s significant work. None of that is easy,” Chalmiers said.

Margret Wander, who raps under the name Dessa Darling with the Minneapolis hip-hop collective Doomtree, had been teaching songwriting at McNally Smith when the school invited her to become a teacher in the hip-hop program. She says she could have used some formal training when she was learning to rap.

“I did a lot of my learning in a Festiva parked outside an Old Country Buffet while one of the guys who was my mentor was pounding on the hood of the car. He goes, ‘Nope, you’re not getting it.’ And I continued to rap and rap and rap until I got it right,” Dessa said.

“And I learned it, but I’d loved to have not had to have sat in a Festiva for six hours.”

A hip-hop music industry pro agrees. Ted Lucas, founder and CEO of Slip-N-Slide Records in South Florida, says marketing, promoting and getting your record played are all skills that a hip-hop artist could stand to learn in school.

“I think it’s a great thing. I wish someone would have had something like this for me when I first started,” says Lucas. “It took me a long time to learn this business. It wasn’t something that just happened overnight.”

Freddy Fresh, the McNally Smith teacher, calls DJ’ing – seamlessly mixing songs at a disco, party or wedding reception – an art.

“It’s the knowledge of the music. It’s mapping out the tempos on your songs. It’s the ability to blend smoothly records that have similar tempo ranges to provide a fluid, nice mix during the evening to keep people on the dance floor. There’s many elements to it,” he explains.

Toyosi Duroshola, the student working the turntable in class with Freddy Fresh, says he appreciates learning from a professional. A rapper since he was 13, Duroshola plans to complete McNally Smith’s hip-hop program and sees a possible future as a DJ.

“I’m able to learn this, make some money off of it,” Duroshola says. “This could actually turn into my passion, instead of being an MC.”