Hip-hop as an educational tool goes back to the some of the genre’s most important moments in its first decade. From Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Boogie Down Production’s KRS-ONE bringing political awareness to their lyrics, to Furious Five’s Melle Mel and Run-DMC enlightening listeners about the struggles of inner-city life, there's always something to be learned from listening to rap.
Hip-hop’s grown quite a bit in the three decades since those early years, but what hasn’t changed is its ability to inspire and educate — especially when the chance to create original hip-hop tracks is offered to new fans. One such entity helping children across the country (and right here in Los Angeles) through teaching them hip-hop production is Today’s Future Sound.
Producer/beat-maker Ben Durazzo founded Today's Future Sound in the Bay Area in 2010, and brought in Dr. Elliot Gann, whom Cali hip-hop fans may know as rap battle historian and archivist “Phillipdrummond,” as executive director in 2012. From there, Gann began recruiting the winners of beat-battles as educators and volunteers.
One of the organization's first education programs was Beats 4 Lunch at West Oakland Middle School, which gave children hands-on experience making hip-hop production alongside talented, experienced artists. Soon, Today’s Future Sound began receiving grants and expanding into other workshops, most recently through VH1's Save the Music, which brought Gann and some of his educators to New York to teach in the South Bronx, where hip-hop originated, as well as in Brooklyn and Chinatown with newly integrated Chinese youth.
Today’s Future Sound hit Los Angeles last year thanks to producer Jason Lee (aka Triton Bloom). He and Mario Miranda (aka Asterix, six-time beat battle champion and DJ for Fresno rapper Planet Asia) have been overseeing the L.A. branch of TFS, which held its first classes at Artworx LA for a week. Lee and Miranda now teach weekly classes at Boyle Heights Technology Youth Center.
The week, Today’s Future Sound’s staff presents, as a thank-you to the donors to their Beats 4 Lunch program, a new beat-tape. Odd Nosdam, Slopfunkdust and Freshkils are among the contributors.
According to Gann, the connection children make with creating beats is a kinetic one. “It’s hands-on,” he says. “They’re doing something they have control over. They have a sense of power and control that kids don’t really have these days. They can really take pride in their creation, and the mastery of this set of skills gives them the feeling that they can have an effect on this work and really do something.”
It also doesn’t hurt that the genre has an innate appeal. “Kids are so tapped into technology that it’s something that’s part of their culture. And getting to make something that’s already a part of their culture, from hip-hop to EDM to pop, all music is electronically made these days. It pertains to their culture, their interest and what they know, but it’s also an advanced skill set.”
Gann says a program like Today’s Future Sound is bridging a gap in today’s music education. “You don’t know a lot of kids who are taught or encouraged, especially in middle school, to make beats and compose and perform beats live. We have kids who are doing that. Why are we not using this as a way to teach them media literacy, computer literacy, math and science, and treat it in a common, core-like way?”
While introducing kids to contemporary beat-making production in a classroom environment may seem unconventional at first, Gann has several memories of how the program has allowed for some very special connections. “There’s definitely certain kids that have such a difficult time in general in their life and in school … [but] when they get in the classroom, they just focus. They lock in and it changes them.”