On Saturday 5th October 2013, I formed part of a collective of educators leading a workshop on Hiphop in Education, at this year’s NUT London Conference. Fun times. As part of the workshop, I presented on a hugely important element of hiphop culture that, I believe, has much to offer to educational practice and pedagogic theory: (drumroll please…)
There, I said it. Below is a rundown of the presentation, broken down, slide by slide, including examples of actual practice in the classroom. My classroom, to be exact. Enjoy!
My first question. Which I presented alongside an original 12″ vinyl pressing of the 1989 classic De La Soul debut, ‘Three Feet High and Rising’.
The answer, is not, as you may expect, 3, but, in fact 67. Why? because that is the total number of samples used in the production of the album.
Let’s focus on the hit single, ‘The Magic Number’, for a second. This one song contains six distinct samples, ranging a selection of records, of various genres, spanning four decades. Now, when you listen to the song, you might not fully and explicitly appreciate each distinct sample, but the song has an undeniable richness that comes from its fusion of borrowed sounds. This, in essence, is what hiphop is: the refurbishment of the old into something new; alluding to various, existing cultural heritages whilst simultaneously creating a fresh new culture.
Now, one of the central samples in ‘The Magic Number’ is a 1967 funk record entitled ‘Different Strokes’ by Syl Johnson. A drum break from the song makes up one of the main loops in the De La Soul record. Not so interesting in itself, but what is worth noting is that the same record is sampled in a string of other hiphop songs spanning the mid-80s all the way to 2012, including Eric B and Rakim, EPMD, Wu-Tang, Kanye West, and, golden child of the moment himself, Mr Kendrick Lamar.
The significance of this is huge. ‘The Magic number’ is clearly part of a musical heritage that pre-dates and succeeds itself, giving the culture a timelessness and depth. All music (all culture in fact) finds itself as part of a heritage, but hiphop, rather than ignoring or denying this, embraces it actively. Arguably, it celebrates the fact by continuing to refer to its roots, with respect.
Going forward, ‘The Magic Number’ has in turn been sampled by various other artists, taking the old (made out of the even older) and turning it into the new. Whilst other artists were taking De La Soul’s original source material and continuing to make fresh new newness out of it. Before your head implodes, my question at this point is: How would you describe this relationship?
Rich? Symbiotic? Electrifying? Osmosis? Organic? All of the above? And furthermore, what has this got to do with education?
Well, simply put, the relationship between students and education should, I think, be akin to the relationship between hiphop songs and the samples they consist of. To be an educator is to invite students into a scholastic or cultural heritage. In my case, I invite students into a literary discourse. I want my students to feel part of a history of language and literature and feel empowered enough to take what has come and shape it into something new. Something relevant to their own lives and resonant with their own experiences.
So, with all that eulogising in mind, you may want to know how I have attempted to implement sample culture into my teaching practice. Introducing, exhibit A:
Jacqueline Wilson. Last year, I taught a year 7 ‘nurture’ group, who included a broad range of special educational needs. After much trial and error with developing their various literacies and confidences, I decided to give them the opening chapter of ‘Sleepovers’, an ‘easy-read’ by J Wilson. The task was simple: to copy and re-write the opening chapter, making any change you want to any sentence. So, after some instruction as to the kind of changes you could make to a sentence (add adjectives, adverbs, synonyms, etc), I let them loose on the original.
One kid, a boy with great handwriting but a wildly uncontrolled writing style, took to the challenge readily. have a look below:
‘Roderick’? ‘Chated’ (sic)? Bed-wetting warnings? OK then! See, the thing here is that having the support of a predefined structure and pre-set content gave this kid the freedom to play. He wrote fluidly and enthusiastically and thus became empowered in his craft. A blank page does not necessarily engender creativity – something which hiphop recognises in its very nature.
Anyway, skip forward a few weeks. We had moved on to poetry analysis and were looking at ‘Brendon Gallacher’, a poem by Scottish poet Jackie Kay that English teachers will recognise from the key stage 4 curriculum. All about an imaginary friend who (spolier alert) dies. See below:
Now, after some analysis on the poem, I gave the class an opportunity to further explore the poem, independently. And guess what happened? Guess what that kid (above) did…?
Blam. He remixed it! I was shocked. With no prompting, my student had taken a poem about an imaginary friend in Scotland and flipped it into a tale of migrant West Africans and Caribbeans, drug dealing, low-level crime, bus drivers, urban ills and extended families… all sorts of elements that his actual universe may consist of. Here’s the rest of it, in case you’re interested:
The importance of this cannot be overstated. First, he had done this of his own volition. The act of sampling and remixing had clearly opened a door of literary play to him, giving him license to write and enter a poetic heritage, on his own terms. Second, he brought to the poem his own experiences and understanding, creating, like all good hiphop, something fresh out of something established. Evolve or be extinct.
This final slide alludes to a fundamental tenet of hiphop education as a theory: that there is a discourse between the identities of the School, the Home and the Road (street) that is often ignored or overlooked. You can add to this the language of the Self, ie: the truest identity of a person; the voice they speak to themselves.
What struck me about the remixed ‘Brendon Gallacher’ is that it clearly demonstrates a conflation of these identities. The student in question had taken the poem and used it as a canvas to say something about his life and world view. And the fact that it sampled Jackie Kay’s original gave it a stability and depth. It also led to some very interesting conversations regarding his creative choices.
Now, in all of this I’m not simply saying that educators should encourage creative theft, or that sampling is a panacea for disengagement in education. What I am saying is that the spirit of critique, homage and innovation that typifies hiphop is the exact same drive that will lead to creative, living educational relationships.
And that’s where the presentation ended. Any teachers (still) reading, I would invite you to open these ideas up to colleagues and experiment with sample culture in your practice. Feel free to reply to this post and keep tabs on the #hiphoped hashtag on Twitter for educational debate in this vein, soon.
Related post: Top 10 Things Formal Education Can Learn From Hiphop