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Pierce Freelon of Beat Making Lab

As apart of their Beat Making Lab project, Pierce Freelon, a professor at UNC Chapel Hill and MC of hip-hop band The Beast, and Apple Juice Kid, a producer who’s worked with Camp Lo, Mos Def (Yasiin Bey), Wale, and Azealia Banks among others, have been bringing beat making labs—backpacks filled with musical equipment—to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Panama, Senegal, and Fiji.
http://youtu.be/WDhFyjrnvIk

In What’s in the Backpack?”, one of several videos released in conjunction with PBS Digital Studios, Apple Juice Kid and Freelon are in the studio, where the former is making a beat out of the looped voices of youth musicians in the Congo. In this case, the studio is not a cushy area replete with amenities; there’s not a leather couch, microwave, or tabletop plant in sight. Instead, the studio consists of a MacBook Pro, portable speakers, a keyboard, and a USB microphone. The atmosphere is electric and purposeful. The time restraints—a mere two weeks at this site in Goma— produce an the immediacy that is palpable as Apple Juice Kid begins work on a song following an improvisational jam session or cypher. His transformation of the staccato sounds into a syncopated rhythm seems representative of the Lab’s transnational journey. The proposed results of the project are like the song, merging separate voices and relatively short experiences into something mellifluous and utilitarian.

The Beat Making Lab started as a class at UNC Chapel Hill by Apple Juice Kid and Dr. Mark Katz, and soon evolved into something far more ambitious. Eventually, the founders would like to go from providing what they call sustainable studios to creating open-sourced software accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. I talked with Freelon and learned more about the project.

Niela Orr: For those out there who don’t know: what exactly is a beat making lab?

Pierce Freelon:  A beat making lab is a modern mobile studio small enough to fit into a backpack. We outline some of its contents in our 3rd episode, “What’s in the Backpack?” but it’s basically a laptop, software, headphones, speakers, midi keyboard, USB microphone, etc. We bring these studios to community centers around the world and for two weeks, teach youth how to create hip hop and electronic instrumentals, record vocals, and produce their own songs with them.

NO:  Despite the recent popularity of hip-hop curricula in academia, did you find any resistance from UNC’s administration in creating the first beat making lab?

PF:     None whatsoever. It all started when Apple Juice Kid was invited to do a lecture at UNC by Dr. Mark Katz, the author of Capturing Sound: How Technology has Changed Music and Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-Hop DJ. They immediately clicked, became racket ball buddies, and discovered a mutual desire to bring beat making to the college classroom. During the Fall 2011 semester, Dr. Katz and AJK co-taught the first Beat Making Lab class in the music department, with the enthusiastic blessing of then-Dean Dr. Terry Rhodes. The following semester, Katz went on leave and I was brought in from the African and Afro-American Studies Department to co-teach the class, in part because I was a professor who had taught several classes on hip hop, and was also a practitioner – an emcee in the hip hop and jazz quartet, The Beast. The class was insanely popular. The very next semester, Dr. Katz was promoted to music department chair and Dr. Terry Rhodes became a Dean in the college of arts and sciences – so we’ve been lucky to have institutional support from the very beginning.

NO:     In what ways is the beat making lab your team has put together more useful to the musicians you work with than other computer-based production tools?

PF:      Our Beat Making Lab is useful because it’s versatile. It’s mobile. We can make a beat in a hotel lobby, a garage, or a professional music studio. It’s also resourceful. In places where intermittent electricity would shut down a desktop or PC, we work on laptops, with USB-powered keyboards, microphones and MPCs. So when the power shuts off, we can keep rocking until they spark up the generator. That’s very useful in the developing world, where we put in a lot of work. We also encourage collaboration between students. We recruit diverse groups who have skills in various backgrounds in music and production – emcees, live musicians, engineers, etc. and encourage beat making in groups.

NO:  What are some of your favorite beats? Favorite producers?

PF:  Hmm… I love Diplo, Robert Glasper, Pete Rock, 9th Wonder, Kanye, Jake One, Munchi, KING…the list goes on. Those are just a few off the top of my head.

NO: Who are some of your favorite hip-hop artists from the Continent?

PF:   Blitz The Ambassador, Darra J Family, Zakee, Nneka, GOTAL, K’naan, PPS – again, just a few off the top of my head.

NO:  Could you name a few records that you’d particularly like to sample?

PF:      The easy answer would be Fela, ET Mensah, Miriam Makeba – one of the major artists, but I’m really into the most obscure stuff. I’m interested in sampling the songs that introduce Senegalese Bure’ wrestling matches; a 50 piece Saber drumming family; West African Sufi praise singers and griot chants; Kenyan wedding songs and funeral dirges; on the way to a market in Senegal I once heard groups of 20 Muslim men, screaming Afro-Arabic religious chants at the top of their lungs while stomping rhythmically in a circle; this is the kind of stuff I’d like to sample—the music of the streets, and communities.

NO:  Tell me about the moment Apple Juice Kid and the leader of The Beast came together to advance the concept of the lab into a project with global reach/implications.

PF:    It probably happened over lunch a Vimala’s Curry Blossom – a farm-to-table, organic, fair trade restaurant in Chapel Hill, which refuses to deny anyone (homeless, sick, etc.) a plate. During our first semester teaching together we would chop it up over curry and dosas every day before class. That’s where a lot of our brainstorming took place. Apple Juice Kid is an ambitious dude, and a hard worker. We really clicked in terms of grind and vision. After a few months working together on the class, we formed a company called ARTVSM—to merge the worlds of art and activism, by any medium necessary. Our first medium was Beat Making. We wanted to take this art from off campus, and into community centers, and see what it did for youth who wouldn’t normally have access to the resources and instruction we were providing. We crowd-sourced the money to make it happen in DR-Congo, where a colleague in the music department had connections to a vibrant cultural center called Yolé!Africa and the rest is history.

NO: Apple Juice Kid provided the score for a project called Poetic Portraits of a Revolution, which featured poetic and musical renderings of the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. Did you have in mind places with a particular history or trajectory when it came time to selecting the sites for the Beat Making Lab trip, or were there other reasons you found the Congo, Senegal, Panama, and Fiji most amenable to the project’s goals?

PF:  Poetic Portraits of a Revolution was an initiative by another group of ARTVSTs (artist-activists) called Sacrificial Poets. Their goal was to capture the oral histories of Egyptians and Tunisians as they were in the throes of a historic revolution; and interpret it though spoken word, theatre and music. Apple Juice Kid was inspired by the process, and composed the score the play. This fit within the ARTVSM model – they just use a different medium (spoken word instead of beat making) to connect to the community.

Selecting Congo was serendipity. We had friends there who were already connected to a vibrant youth-community, which was exactly what we needed for a Beat Making Lab. Senegal, Panama and Fiji were more deliberate. We cast a wide net, reaching out to international community centers, and with a shoestring budget did our best to select the best partners and youth groups to collaborate with.

NO:  Are there any recurring artistic and/or musical motifs you can identify during your trip across the Diaspora so far?

PF:   There are a few motifs. We always like to engage communities in an interactive, improvisational cypher, wherever we go. It’s a great exercise in creativity, and it doesn’t involve one electronic instrument. However, it can often inform and contribute to the electronic production process – if we come up with a hook, a riff, melody or lyric that inspires a beat or song.

NO:  Are there any particular musical characteristics you find evident in the Congo, Senegal, or Panama?

PF:   Several. In Congo, there was a vibrant dance community, so the two songs that came out of that Lab were very danceable, party-rockers. There was also an endless line of emcees in Congo. Almost every youth knew how to rap – and rap well. We took advantage of that passion and talent pool in our song, “Cho Cho Cho”. In Panama, the rappers were much fewer and father between but you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a percussionist. The local music school, La Escualita Del Ritmo (rhythm school) bred an entire community of people who knew how to keep time, create polyrhythms, and rock a beat, instrumentally. This really influenced our production in Panama, as we infused the local carnival rhythm – Comparsa, into our beats. In Senegal, we were working with an all women rap collective called GOTAL. We infused the local sabar drumming and kora (harp) instrument into our beats, and our women really took ownership of the Lab. In Senegal, where most studios are male-owned, it was a real resource for them to have their own space and they took full advantage of it.

NO:     How did you guys achieve the partnership with PBS Digital Studios?

PF:      PBS saw our video on Good Magazine’s digital portal GOOD.is – and it was love at first sight. Here’s a quote from PBSDS producer Matt Graham: “Beat Making Lab is a perfect example of what PBS has always been about: community, art, education and a global perspective. We are thrilled to be working with such passionate and creative partners, who share our mission to inspire, enlighten and entertain.”

NO:     What are your ultimate goals with the open source beat making software and mobile app?

PF:      Ultimate goal: we want to create free, user friendly beat making software for everyone, everywhere who wants to learn how to make beats. We have the resources and technology to do it. There are open source alternatives to Microsoft Word, to Photoshop, and iTunes—there needs to be an open source alternative to the major beat making software and we’re going to create it.

NO:     Do you have any interests in putting together a beat making lab tour of the U.S. (or elsewhere for that matter)?

PF:      Absolutely. We’re already bringing Yomira, an artist from the Panama Beat Making Lab to the US to perform several shows in North Carolina. We hope to get Toussa, one of our Senegalese students involved with a music program that tours up the east coast. We don’t currently have a budget to fund a tour, but we are seizing opportunities as they present themselves.

NO:     The videos coming out of the Beat making Lab project so far are really visually rich and feature compelling cinematography. Who are you working with to help document the journey visually? From following the team on social media sites, I’ve seen Pierce’s dispatches from the trip that feature a burger joint in Senegal, an awesome billboard that says “Black is Beautiful,” and an image of traffic stopping to accommodate a group of praying men. What are some of the most striking images you can relate from your journey?

NO:      Our videographer and visual wizard is Saleem Rehamwala, aka KidEthnic. He is obviously a super-talented filmmaker, but he is also a brilliant and creative producer, with a sharp mind and kind heart. He’s fluent in English, Spanish and Japanese and he has been with the team from the very beginning. As far as striking images, one of the most touching for me was when we visited Goree Island, a site of historical significance to the Black Holocaust aka Atlantic slave trade. My camera ran out of batteries before I could snap too many pictures on my phone, but it was a spiritually significant landmark nonetheless.

NO:     Do either of you anticipate this project informing your music?

PF:      It already has. Every stop has resulted in new creations. Apple Juice Kid’s favorite song he’s ever produced is part of the Panama Beat Making Lab – the genre-bending electronic dance jazz song, “Portobelo” featuring Yomira, The Beast and Barrio Fino. He has had to adapt his beat making to fit the context of the places we’ve embraced. Same for me. I have recorded verses in Swahili and Wolof, in Congo and Senegal, respectively, and hope to continue expanding my vocabulary on tracks as we continue to move around the world.

NO:  What’s the next stop on the tour for the Beat Making Lab?

PF:      Next stop: Fiji. Want to come with?

The question is tempting, of course, and is meant for every reader and viewer of the media coming out of the project. Fortunately, for those of us not directly apart of the immensely cool Beat Making Lab there are always the videos, which air every Wednesday on PBS Digital Studios and YouTube, which can transport us to Fiji and the other locales. And for those who want to sponsor a lab or its components, more info is available here.

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