Q&A: Mark Katz, professor, on bringing hip hop into academia

The head of UNC-Chapel Hill's Music Department and amateur turntablist discusses taking business lessons from DJs and teaching the world to make beats.
Written by Molly Petrilla, Contributing Writer on

From the moment he heard Herbie Hancock's "Rockit" back in 1983, Mark Katz has been hooked on hip-hop music and DJ culture. He's been listening to and studying it for decades now, writing Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-Hop DJ last year and, as head of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Music Department, creating and teaching classes on emceeing, DJing and making hip-hop beats.

By introducing those classes at a large research university, Katz has positioned himself on the crest of the hip-hop-in-higher-ed wave -- a wave that gained still more height in July when Harvard University established a hip-hop fellowship honoring rapper Nas. We spoke with Katz, who moonlights as an amateur turntablist, about taking entrepreneurship lessons from DJs, reshaping collegiate music departments, and landing a $1 million hip-hop grant from the State Department earlier this month.

It's been a big year for hip-hop in academia. Why do you think we're seeing such a strong surge right now?
Hip hop is now about 40 years old. The genre is maturing. It's been around long enough that more academics are taking an interest in it. It's taken more seriously. It's not so new anymore that it seems like an uncomfortable fit in a university.

The other thing is that as the early generations of hip-hop artists are getting older, many of them are thinking about their legacies. The artists that I've interviewed and worked with and talked to about teaching often say the same thing: They feel that it's time for them to give back. They find it a new challenge and also a new reward to teach younger people about what they did and share their life lessons. Now's the time in the life of hip-hop where it's attractive to academia and where hip hop is attracted by academia.

Are there a lot of universities offering hip-hop courses at this point?
It depends to what degree we're talking about. Lots of universities might offer a survey of hip hop or a history of hip hop. What's new -- and this is something I'm doing and it's just starting in a few other places -- is teaching the creation of hip hop at the university. That's really the next trend: Here's how you create hip hop.

How did you decide to start offering those creation-focused classes like Art and Culture of the DJ and Beat Making Lab and Emcee Lab?
Part of it is that there was a great demand among students on campus to learn how to create popular music. I'd get emails from students asking, how do I take a class on DJing? Or how do I take a class on beat making? I'd have to respond and say it's wonderful that you're interested, but we don't have any classes in those things. There are students who create hip hop on their own and they want some guidance, they want to talk to experts.

It's also about bringing the university music department into the 21st century. The conservatory model is about preserving traditions and passing that on, but we're not a conservatory. We need to reflect the world, and in the world of music, if you're not talking about hip hop or rock or jazz, there's a lot of music you're not talking about. As the chair of a department of music, I feel that we need to reach out to students who have diverse interests and to talk about all types of music.

So will we eventually see music degrees with a concentration in turntabling?
I think so, though it might be more the case that they would have a music major with a track in popular music. We still want them to be broad. You wouldn't see someone with a major in the Civil War. They'd be a major in American History.

What sort of careers might a student who's extensively studied DJing or beatmaking or MCing in college pursue?
They can do anything, really. We're not training people for their first job out of college. We're training them to be good at any number of jobs and careers or to create their own career. Of course, some of the students will go straight into hip hop. A student in my DJ class last semester is now getting gigs and starting to work toward supporting himself that way. Then there are people in the Beat Making Lab who want to do public-relations work with rappers or hip-hop graphic design. If you teach a class on DJing, the goal and expectation isn't that you'll end up with 35 professional DJs. In fact, some of the students are there learning from our DJs-in-residence about entrepreneurship and then applying that to whatever careers they pursue.

What did the DJs teach your students about running a small business?
To be a professional DJ or beat maker requires that you promote yourself, that you are resourceful, that you network -- all aspects of entrepreneurship. The successful DJs always talk about not just being good, but being professional: showing up early, being prepared, bringing extra equipment.

In the final exam, I asked students to talk about entrepreneurship. Some of them came back to me and said, 'I'm a business major and I learned more about being a successful entrepreneur in this class than I did in any number of business classes I took because it wasn't just theory.' Every week we had people coming in and talking about how they succeeded or failed.

Do you ever hear from people who are against bringing hip hop into academia?
I hear people worry about that, but I actually never hear that from the practitioners themselves. They genuinely enjoy teaching and they find it valuable. They don't see [teaching] as selling out at all. Selling out is compromising your integrity or values. Getting paid is being compensated for something you do that other people can't.

You've studied, written about and taught courses on DJing. It's certainly had its ups and downs over the years, but where do you place its popularity right now?
It's been huge now for a couple years. I'd say either it's at its peak now or it's just coming down from its peak. You have DJs who are making more money a year than any other musicians. You have huge festivals, stadiums selling out. It's also just permeated our culture. DJs are everywhere.

I've heard people attribute the rise of DJs to the economic collapse a few years ago. Do you think that's accurate?
I think there's a lot of truth to that. A lot of venue owners here have gone from having bands coming in to having DJs coming in. Part of it is that DJs are popular, but part of it is that they're also cheaper. They have less equipment. You're paying one person instead of four. But it's hard to really pinpoint why DJs have become so big. Often it's just the cyclical nature of music. There's always this pop/rock tension. If things get too grunge-y, then you have people like Lady Gaga emerge and the return of disco. No one says it's disco anymore, but if you think about Lady Gaga and house music, they're really an extension of disco. And disco is all about the disc, so it's a DJ-centered genre.

The American version of dubstep also has a lot to do with the rise of DJs. It's dance music that guys can dance to. It reached out to a demographic of people who were not into dance music and might have looked down on it before.

How does the soaring popularity of DJs impact the music industry?
It affects all sorts of areas in the industry: booking, agents, promotion, TV. All of these areas of the music industry are looking at DJs and can make money off of them. They are maybe putting their resources into that rather than in other areas.

You started the Beat Making Lab in 2011 to teach UNC students. Now the lab has been traveling around the world with PBS filming. How did that come about?
That sort of happened by accident. A faculty member who studies music of the Democratic Republic of the Congo was telling me, 'It would be great to have you come over and bring some DJs or beat makers.' I talked to the people teaching the Beat Making Lab and they really liked the idea of bringing their art and music beyond the college campus and making an impact in communities around the world. In addition to Congo, they've now been to Senegal, Panama, Fiji, Ethiopia and Kenya.

It's also part of the broader mission of the Music Department. It's our goal not just to teach students but also to have a positive impact on the world through our music making. They're going places where hip hop is known but where the people might not have had access to equipment or opportunities to learn or be taught by professionals. Part of the Beat Making Lab model is to leave equipment at every site and to train the students to teach others so it can be an ongoing experience for the community. They don't just jet in and leave.

Where are you hoping to go with all of this -- the emcee and DJing classes, the Beat Making Lab.
All the things I've talked about are part of this bigger picture of reimagining the Music Department and what it could be. In my mind, this is all going toward the Carolina Beat Academy -- an entity within the Music Department that focuses on these beat-based forms and is outside of the Western classical tradition. In a sense the Carolina Beat Academy is already here, but I want to form an advisory board of some well-known musicians who would want to support it and get the word out. We need to do some fundraising. It's all on the verge of becoming reality.

Speaking of broader plans, I hear you just received a $1 million grant from the State Department.
Yes, it's a grant that's meant to fund cultural diplomacy through hip hop. A team of hip-hop artists representing UNC will go to six countries in various regions around the world and teach the various hip-hop arts -- rapping, breakdancing, DJing and beat making -- and will use those courses to teach young people not just hip hop, but about American culture and using hip hop as a tool for conflict resolution. I'm really excited because this allows us to take what we're doing to a new level and to represent our country and hip-hop culture. I feel really honored to do that. I'm not going to get grandiose and say we're going to change the world, but it's person-to-person diplomacy. You can certainly make a difference that way.

Photo: Beth Jakub

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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