Academics, Arts & Humanities
Hip hop comes of age at Duke
COMES OF AGE AT DUKE
by Alison Jones
Editor’s note: This Wednesday marks the last day of classes for the spring semester. In keeping with that, we take a look at two popular Duke courses that trace the evolution and cultural significance of hip-hop – and offer a peek inside those classes during more typical times.
When André Mego headed to Duke from Texas four years ago, everyone in his family expected him to become a doctor, like his father. At Duke, Mego signed up for pre-med courses, and quickly chose biology as his major. All signs pointed to a pre-med path.
The thing is, though, his heart wasn’t in it.
“People always said to me, ‘You’re going to be a doctor’,” Mego says. “I can do science. But I never liked it. I was never enticed by it.”
Now the Duke senior is moving in a different direction. When he graduates in May, he’ll go to work full time at Jamla Records, the label run by Patrick Douthit – the rap musician and producer better known as 9th Wonder. Come fall, he plans to attend Duke’s Fuqua School of Business with an eye to a career in the music industry.
His new path started in Douthit’s hip-hop production class at Duke. Mego had always loved music, but Douthit’s class gave him his first shot at making his own beats, using the beat-making consoles called Maschines that Douthit donated to the university in 2017. From there, Mego went on to intern at Douthit’s label. He now works at Jamla part-time, running the company’s marketing and merchandising efforts even as he finishes up his studies.
In addition to his active role in the music business, Douthit teaches regularly at Duke and N.C. Central, and has also served as a visiting professor at Harvard University’s Hip-Hop Archive. At Duke, he teaches three courses: hip-hop production, black popular culture and history of hip-hop. He co-teaches the latter course with Mark Anthony Neal, the James B. Duke Distinguished Professor of African and African American Studies who chairs Duke’s highly-ranked Department of African & African American studies.
Douthit is an atypical university presence. A Grammy-winning producer, he has worked with Kendrick Lamar, Drake, Destiny’s Child, Jay-Z, Erykah Badu, Mary J. Blige and many other big names in music. He produced the final track on Lamar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning album in 2017 and was inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame in October 2019.
But if having a hip-hop producer behind the podium remains somewhat unusual, Douthit’s on-campus role reflects how views of the musical genre have evolved. Born in the Bronx in the 1970s, hip-hop began as a street sound that many viewed as a passing fad. Instead, the form has lasted and expanded around the globe. Many of hip-hop’s pioneering artists are now in their 40s and 50s. And as hip-hop and its fans have come of age, major cultural and educational institutions are paying more attention to it, including Duke.
“Now your average 45-year-old is a hip-hop fan, but also has a family, a fantastic job, maybe works in corporate America,” Douthit says. “I don’t think America was ready for that.”
“We can go anywhere on this planet now and I don’t care what country we go to, there’s a kid who’s trying to rap. Hip-hop is as universal as math.”
Douthit’s Introduction to Hip-Hop Production class in session at the Ruby.
AN INNOVATIVE TEACHING PARTNERSHIP
If you travel to the National Museum of African-American History & Culture in Washington, D.C., a branch of the Smithsonian, you’ll find a prominent video display of Douthit discussing hip-hop production – right next to an exhibit about Prince.
Douthit is connected with the Smithsonian in another way as well. He and Neal were advisers to the new Smithsonian Anthology of Hip-Hop and Rap, helping select cuts for the 120-track collection due out this spring. The collection is just the third major anthology produced by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, following similar anthologies of folk and jazz music.
The Smithsonian project is one of several ways Douthit and Neal have collaborated. The two first met during the taping of an episode of WUNC’s “The State of Things,” bonding over their shared love of music and their experiences raising daughters.
Neal quickly invited Douthit to co-teach a course about hip-hop history with him. First called “Sampling Soul,” the course was later renamed “History of Hip-Hop.” Now in its 10th year, the class is one of Duke’s most popular, consistently filling the Richard White Auditorium on East Campus.
Patrick Douthit and Mark Anthony Neal speaking with students in their “History of Hip Hop” class
On a Wednesday night earlier this semester, Neal sets the stage for students in the class, describing hip-hop’s origins in the South Bronx in the 1970s. First the Cross-Bronx Expressway carved the Bronx in half, he said, creating the isolated neighborhood of the South Bronx. Then the South Bronx was plagued with a series of fires. It was in that tattered landscape that hip-hop first emerged, a music created by “black and Latino kids growing up in a burnt-out environment, creating something out of nothing.”
Perhaps it should be no surprise, then, that some of the best hip-hop is shot through with biting social commentary.
“Chuck D of Public Enemy said back in 1989 that hip-hop was the black CNN,” Neal said. “That has not changed. We teach the class with the expectation that there are stories in hip- hop, songs in hip-hop, lyrics in hip-hop that help to illuminate the black experience in this country.”
“We use the history of hip-hop really as a portal to thinking about African-American history in the post-World War II period,” Neal said. “Hip-hop is kind of the framing device for that.”
Neal his been teaching about hip-hop since the late 1990s and has written extensively on the music as a mirror for the African-American experience. His book “That’s the Joint: The Hip-Hop Studies Reader,” co-edited with Murray Forman and now in its second edition, is widely used as a text in hip-hop studies classes around the country.
When he first began to explore the subject, he says, he sometimes heard questions from traditionalists about hip-hop as an appropriate subject for the academy. That’s changed.
“It actually rarely comes up these days, because hip-hop is so prevalent in the culture on so many different levels.”
Maseo (Vincent Mason) of De La Soul talks to students during the History of Hip-Hop course.
The Duke hip-hop history class that Neal and Douthit co-teach has featured guest appearances from artists such as Branford Marsalis, Maseo of De La Soul, Oddisee, Rapsody, MacArthur Award-winner Jason Moran and many artists featured in Duke Performances series. That’s in addition to the practitioner perspective Douthit provides.
“When you can work with practitioners it brings a depth of experience to the class,” Neal said. “Someone who has experiences in the industry he can bring that to the table – something that I couldn’t bring as a scholar.”
THE POWER OF QUESTIONS
For Andre Mego, the combined effect of studying hip-hop through the lens of a scholar on the one hand, and a practitioner on the other, has been powerful. He has taken all of Douthit’s courses, including the course he co-teaches with Neal. From Neal, he says he learned the power of well-considered questions. Neal and Douthit require students to submit discussion questions each week. The students must explain how they developed their questions and must defend their questions’ relevance.
Douthit, meanwhile, taught Mego that he should never stop learning.
Andre Mego teaches a Hip-Hop/Lyricism curriculum to kids at the Boys & Girls Club in Durham as part of their class, “The Critical Pedagogy of Hip Hop,” taught by Kisha Daniels and Mark Anthony Neal.
Mego has taken that lesson to heart. And his family is learning along with him.
Mego’s father, a cardiologist, emigrated from Peru to Texas to practice medicine. Four of his siblings did the same, establishing a powerful family tradition. After finding his passion in music at Duke, Mego has made a different choice.
His family, he says, has come around. In part, they appreciate the hands-on experience and warm welcome Douthit has given him, he says. Mego often has dinner with Douthit and others from the label. And as an intern at Jamla Records, he has been able to gain experience in everything from music production to publicity and marketing.
“9th and the record label have become like an extended family for me,” Mego says. “I can be in North Carolina and my family has no worries because they feel like I have a family here.”
Asked about the summer ahead, when he will go to work fulltime at Jamla, Mego sets down his cup of coffee. His shoulders relax, and a broad smile spreads across his face.
“I love doing music and all aspects of it,” Mego says. “It feels like everything I’m learning, I can give back to the world.”
Patrick Douthit, also known as 9th Wonder, teaches Introduction to Hip-Hop Production at the Ruby.
Reporting by Alison Jones
Photo & Video by Jared Lazarus and Megan Mendenhall
Design by Caroline Pate
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