Beat Making Lab: Behind-The-Scenes Blog

Jul 7, 2014

Two of the teen participants in the chapel Hill Beat Making Lab
Credit Beat Making Lab

Beat Making Lab is a project where where music artists (producers and emcees)  travel around the world teaching young people to make hip hop and electronic beats. It's run by Pierce Freelon and Stephen Levitin aka The Apple Juice Kid.

The two pack a tiny studio in a backpack - there's a music keyboard, a laptop, a microphone, and headphones. And they go all over the world to donate music-making labs. They've gone to Congo (DRC), Panama, Senegal, Fiji and Ethiopia. They've even partnered with PBS Digital Studios to document their work around the world.

Now, there's a Beat Making Lab in Chapel Hill at the Street Scene Teen Center, 179 East Franklin Street. This spring and summer, many teens have been using the musical equipment and computer software to create original beats. But they've been doing more than that. They've been listening carefully to WUNC news stories, and thinking about how their own original music could add a fresh soundtrack to the stories.

Staff member Ryan Levin documented some of the action for us:

June 10

DJ True (left) with his friend Joshua
Credit Beat Making Lab

Today we had a philosophical Beat Making Lab session. We were joined once again by True, and this time by his dance crew teammate Joshua.

The story we heard was about cleaning coal ash out of waterways across North Carolina - a story our beat-makers were quick to associate with emotions like worry, shock, and anger.

But when we started to discuss ways to evoke these emotions in our own beats, we ran into a problem that's becoming very familiar: although reacting emotionally to a piece of music is immediate and automatic, it's not always clear (without serious and deliberate thought) why the music in question makes you feel a certain way!

We tried to get to the heart of it by listening to examples of music that produces certain emotions, and identifying the elements that elicit the strongest reactions.

True and Josh keenly pointed out that some instruments have different emotions associated with them just because of our culture: certain organ sounds, for example, never fail to connote "creepiness" due to their association with haunted houses and the Phantom of the Opera.

This conversation gave us a new mental tool for crafting emotion through beat-making: thinking about  instrument choices and their extra-musical associations.

May 20

One beat-maker thinks deeply about what would make the best soundtrack for a story on test anxiety.
Credit Beat Making Lab

We had a diverse group of beat-makers help us Remix the News today. The story in question: test stress for third graders. Since so many of our beat-makers are students, they often identify with the students featured in WUNC stories and frequently have strong opinions about pieces dealing with education.

This story offered a lot of inspiration for beat-making. We considered highlighting emotions like these in the story:

  1. the stress of testing (of course)
  2. the calm, reassuring manner of the teacher interviewed in the story
  3. the frustration of implementing new programs

Beat-maker Tyler brought his usual high-energy approach, and DJ Bounce pushed boundaries by including a wide array of sounds and melodies. Of course, some people were just waiting patiently for a chance to use the recording equipment!

May 6

Today DJ True came by for a Remixing the News session. True is one of our first students at the Beat Making Lab, and besides having gotten quite skilled with his use of samples through practice, he is also part of a jaw-droppingly talented and entertaining hip-hop dance crew.

DJ True
Credit Beat Making Lab

Jacinta White, Poet

The story we listened to was an interview with a poet, Jacinta White, who works with the Word Project, using poetry workshops to help with personal and community healing.

The story has a lot of parts, so we talked about some of the different emotions we could extract and bring to life in our remix:

  • the solemn tone of voice the poet uses when delivering her poem
  • the emotions evoked by the words of the poem
  • the excitement the poet feels when she identifies a student that will benefit from her workshops
  • and the vulnerability of sharing a poem or other creative work with other people.

Perhaps the conversation about vulnerability hit close to home - True wouldn't let me listen to his piece at the end of the session!

April 29

One of the Fusion Youth Radio teens, Alissa, participates in a Remixing the News session
Credit Beat Making Lab

Today it was a Fusion Youth Radio takeover at the Beat Making Lab! Fusion Youth Radio is an initiative of the Marian Cheek Jackson Center. They feature young people making their voices a part of history through youth-produced media. The whole crew came down for Remixing the News today.

We listened to an interview with one of the survivors of the tornadoes that struck the coast of North Carolina.

It was a very emotional story - it gave us plenty to think about as far as trying to produce emotion in the beats that we make. Some beat-makers tried to evoke the intensity of sound that the interviewee described, others took a more cinematic approach with a suspenseful soundtrack feel.