El Centro College's New Hip-Hop Studies 101 Explores the Culture and Business of Hip Hop
The students in El Centro's Hip-Hop Studies 101 get a lesson in breakdancing
It's a Thursday afternoon at El Centro College in downtown Dallas, and the guest speaker in the Fine Arts Appreciation classroom is DJ EZ Eddie D. He has long dreadlocks and a baseball hat on backwards, and instead of talking about math or science he's discussing the relationship between DJs and MCs. For most classes, a speaker like EZ Eddie, who has a weekly residency on KNON 89.3 FM, would be highly unusual. But not here. This is Hip-Hop Studies 101.
The room itself isn't remarkable. The gray walls, gray carpet, gray tables and whiteboard at the front of the room are typical of community college. It's so bare that there's almost no indication of teaching going on, aside from EZ Eddie and the 15 or so students who eagerly listen to what he has to say. Before he started his lecture, they were excitedly discussing an upcoming on-campus event they're planning, which will include live graffiti displays, b-boys and a full-on concert.
Sitting off to the side of the room, in a black zip-up hoodie and baggy jeans, is the instructor, Joel Salazar. Usually, you'll find him untangling cords and setting up turntables at clubs around Dallas. Salazar is a promoter and filmmaker deeply involved with the local scene; he hosts beat battles and dance nights like Fresh 45s at Crown & Harp and other venues. But when he's not corralling artists and producers or working the door at one of his shows, he's lecturing to this classroom at El Centro College and grading papers.
Even though he isn't a certified teacher, Salazar has always been interested in helping people learn about hip-hop, especially kids. He's planning an event at Josey Records this summer that will introduce kids to the joys of vinyl records and crate digging, and he's also putting together a hip-hop culture workshop and summer camp with local DJ Jay Clipp. He first learned that El Centro would be offering a hip-hop course from a flyer on a bulletin board on campus.
Now Salazar, along with his co-instructor Vanessa Taylor, teaches Hip-Hop Studies 101, a humanities course that falls into the American Minorities Studies curriculum. This is the first semester that it's been offered. Taylor, a Los Angeles native, was already teaching hip-hop studies as part of her curriculum as a theater and humanities professor, and found that the students were incredibly engaged with the material. She has spent the last 10 years reconnecting with her West Coast hip-hop roots and studying the emerging form of hip-hop theater, which replaces actors with MCs.
"The content opened up all kinds of discussions about race, class, culture and history," says Taylor. "I saw that the campus really wanted more of these kinds of classes, so I decided to build it out into an actual course." With the administration at El Centro behind her, Taylor went to the local hip-hop community to find movers and shakers to involve in her new Hip-Hop Studies 101 course. She eventually recruited Salazar, who had spoken on the subject to one of Taylor's classes the year before.
In its first semester, Hip-Hop Studies 101 has 16 students of all ages and backgrounds. One student is a 69-year-old Vietnam veteran with a lifelong passion for learning. But the students are mostly young and, in keeping with El Centro's demographics, mostly black or Latino. You'll also find aspiring MCs and producers in the mix, along with a few students purely interested in taking a fun elective about their favorite music.
But Hip-Hop Studies 101 isn't a "bird course." "It's an academically rigorous class. We're talking about really big topics like gender and race, and we're always trying to connect it back to the experience of living as an American minority," says Taylor. "I'm not an easy instructor. They're challenged academically, and they enjoy that. They like to be pushed, and they like when we have really high expectations for them."
To teach the origins of hip-hop, the course discusses its evolution from the days of slavery to today, and focuses on the four key elements of hip-hop culture: turntablism, the MC, graffiti and the reclamation of space, and breakdancing. In addition to the technical aspects of the genre, Hip-Hop Studies 101 explores its politics, addressing topics like women in hip-hop, the prison system and who hip-hop belongs to.
Outside of what they're doing in the classroom, each student is required to work at a hip-hop show to gain an understanding of the local scene. Instead of just focusing on the music, Salazar's mini-internship provides insight into what it actually means to envision, plan and throw a rap show.
"They're doing everything from setting up the turntables [to] checking with the sound guy," says Salazar. While they're working, Salazar can impart little bits of wisdom -- like how to avoid creating a "tumbleweed of cords" on stage during a DJ set -- that he's learned in his years of promoting shows. He's even been able to recruit a few students for his own production company, Too Fresh. "I have a couple of students who we've actually been able to bring on," says Salazar, "and they're learning more about how to work with the media, how to build a brand."
For Taylor, that last part is especially important. "When people look at the arts, they often only look at the artists, and everybody wants to be an MC or an actor," says Taylor. "We forget that there are so many people that make these things happen, and as an artist, you absolutely have to look at yourself like an entrepreneur. If you're going into the arts, you're really going into business." To help their students realize just how important all of this behind-the-scenes work really is, she and Salazar are giving a pretty big test: a one-day hip-hop festival on El Centro's campus.
El Centro College Hip-Hop Festival, hosted by Salazar and Taylor's class, will take over the campus with a full day of hip-hop related events. There will be performances by artists including Blue, the Misfit and Buffalo Black, along with hip-hop panels, DJs, breakdancing and graffiti demonstrations, plus an array of other cultural events. Salazar will also host a special screening of his hip-hop documentary We From Dallas, at the behest of the local community. "Everyone has been telling us that they want to see the documentary again," says Salazar. "So before we ship it off to the festivals and everything, we're going to screen it here one last time."
Both Salazar and Taylor are confident in their students' ability to pull off the festival as part of their final project for the class. "If I've been surprised by anything, it's been how hard these students have worked," says Taylor. "The work that we're doing is already academically rigorous, and even though they're really busy in their own lives, they're really committed to making this thing happen. And that's really exciting as an educator."
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