For a number of semesters, I invited composition students to explore the idea of using the mixtape as a lens for envisioning a writing assignment about themselves. Initially called “The Mixtape Project,” this auto-ethnographical assignment employed philosophies from various scholars, but focused on Jared Ball and his concept of the mixtape as “emancipatory journalism.” In I Mix What I Like!: A Mixtape Manifesto, Ball pushed readers to imagine the mixtape as a counter-systematic soundbombing, circumventing elements of traditional record industry copyright practices (2011).
Essentially, a DJ could use a myriad of songs from different artists and labels to curate a mixtape with a desired theme and overarching message, then distribute the mixtape as a “for promotional use only” artifact. Throughout the 1980s, but predominantly in the 1990s and early 2000s, many DJs used mixtapes as the medium to promote their DJ brands and generate income. It wasn’t long before labels began to give hip-hop DJs record deals to release “album-style” mixtapes where the DJs record original content from artists made specifically for the DJ album (see DJ Clue, Funkmaster Flex, Tony Touch). This idea evolved into producer-based compilation albums, best depicted today by global icon DJ Khalid. Rappers also hopped on the mixtape wave, using the medium to jump-start their careers, create a “street buzz” around their music, and ultimately gauge the success of certain songs to craft and promote upcoming albums.
The assignment revolved around mixtape framework in the earlier portion of my teaching career. Most recently, I began to realize as my students evolve (and I simultaneously age), that the “mixtape” – a sonic artifact distributed on cassette tape or CD – is becoming more remote to students. This thinking led to revising the assignment with a more contemporary twist. Thus, “The Playlist Project” was born: the first in a set of four major writing projects in a first-year writing classroom. The ultimate goal of the assignment was to immediately disrupt students’ relationships with academic writing, and to help them (re)envision the ways they embrace some of the cultural capital they value in college classrooms. Be clear, this was a particular type of mental break for students, a shift that was welcomed yet also uncomfortable for them.
“I Get It How I Live It”: Framing and Foregrounding the Assignment Set-Up
The course started with readings on plagiarism, intertextuality, and the hip-hop DJ’s use of sampling, curating, and storytelling. Next were readings by hip-hop artists describing their creative process and detailing their artistic choices sonically. These early readings helped pivot students from their stereotypical notions of what college writing courses – and writing assignments – looked like, and how they could enter scholarly discourse around composing. This conversation was foregrounded in students’ knowledge that they bring with them into the new academic space in the college classroom. My goal was to really focus on student-centered learning and culturally relevant pedagogy; ideally, if you are immersed in hip-hop music and culture, I want you to share that knowledge with the class. This sharing begins to create a community of thinking peers instead of a classroom with an English professor and a bunch of students who have to take the course “cuz it’s required in the Gen Ed, so I can’t take anything else ‘til I pass this!”
My research is entrenched in both hip-hop pedagogy and culture, specifically looking at the DJ as 21st century new media reader and writer. I liken my role as instructor to that of the DJ: a tastemaker and curator for the ways we understand sonic sources we know, and couple them with new and necessary soundbites that become critical to the cutting edge of the learning we need. I’ve engaged in the craft of DJing for more than half of my life, and use DJ practices as pedagogical strategies in my classroom environments.
The outcome of this curatorial moment was “the Playlist Project.” Students were asked to create their own playlists, which served as mixtapes that either “described the writer as a person” or “depicted the soundtrack to the writer’s perfect day.” This assignment was due during Week 6 of a 16-week semester, and was the first major writing assignment within the course. The assignment called for two specific parts: an actual playlist of the songs and an essay which served as a meta-text, describing not only the songs, but also the reasons why the songs were chosen and sequenced in a specific order. As an example, the guiding text we used was a DJ mixtape I created called “Heavy Airplay, All Day.”
“Heavy Airplay, All Day with No Chorus”: DJ Mixtape by Todd Craig
My playlist was a DJ-crafted tribute to a family friend who passed away in the summer of 2017: Albert “Prodigy” Johnson, Jr. Hearing the news of his untimely death reverberated through my psyche on that warm June afternoon; I remember meeting Prodigy when I was 15 years old. Many avid hip-hop listeners not only know Prodigy as one of the signature vocalists of the 1990s New York hip-hop sound, but also as one of the premier lyricists responsible for a shift in sonic content from emcees in New York and globally. His voice is one of the most sampled in hip-hop music.
One of the most anticipated moments of the mid 1990’s was the release of Prodigy’s first solo album, H.N.I.C. P was already shaking the industry with his lethal and bone-chilling visuals in his verses. But everyone knew he was on his way to dominance upon hearing the single “Keep it Thoro.” On this Alchemist-produced record, P basically broke industry rules in regards to typical hip-hop song construction; his verses were longer than the traditional 16-bar count, and the song had no chorus.
He returned to hip-hop basics: hard-hitting rhymes with undeniable visuals served atop a sonic landscape that kept everyone’s head nodding. P ends the song with the classic line “and I don’t care about what you sold/ that shit is trash/ bang this – cuz I guarantee that you bought it/ heavy airplay all day with no chorus/ I keep it thoro” (Prodigy 2000).
It was only right for me to create a tribute mixtape for Prodigy. And it felt right to start the Fall 2017 semester with the Playlist Project that used a shared text that celebrated and honored his memory. It highlighted the soundtrack to my perfect day: having my friend back to rewind all the memories that come with every song.
“I Got a New Flex and I Think I Like It”: (Re)inventing Mixtape Sensibilities in the Comp Classroom
The Playlist Project was aimed at achieving three different outcomes. The first goal was to invite students to use audio sources to envision a soundscape that explains a thread of logic. These sonic sources would hold as much value in our academic space as text-based sources, and would allow them to (re)envision what “evidence-based academic writing” looks like. Thus, students could utilize their own cultural capital to negotiate sound sources of their choosing.
The second was to get students to use DJ framework to think about sorting, sequencing and organization in writing. In our class discussions, one of the critical objectives was to get students to understand the sequencing of divergent sound sources could drastically alter the story one is trying to tell. Overall aspects of mood, tone, and pacing all become critical components of how a message is expressed in writing, but it becomes even more evident when thinking about the sonic sources used by a DJ. Each song – a source in and of itself – is a piece of a puzzle that constructs a picture and tells a story. Starting with one source can create a completely different effect if it is reconfigured to sit in the middle or the end. Explaining these sonic choices in text-based writing would be the second step in the assignment.
Finally, students would engage in editing by joining both sound and text based on a theme they have selected. Again, sequencing becomes a critical DJ tool translated into the comp classroom. Using this pedagogical strategy echoes the ideas of using DJ techniques such as “blends” and “drops” as viable teaching tools (see Jennings and Petchauer 2017). Students would need to critically think through an important question: in creating the playlist, how does one manipulate and (re)configure sound to create a sonic landscape that “writes” its own unique story?
“But Does It Go In the Club?”: Outcomes and Initial Findings of The Playlist Project
The first iteration of the Playlist Project bore mixed results. Students found it difficult to think of this project as one whole assignment consisting of three different parts. Instead, they envisioned each of the three different pieces as isolated assignments. So the playlist was one part of the assignment. They picked the songs they liked, however ordering and sequencing to convey a logical theme or argument fell from the forefront of their composing. The essay then became its own piece divorced from the organic creation of the playlist. Thus, students weren’t “engaged in telling the story of the playlist.” Instead, students were making a playlist, then summarizing why their playlists contained certain songs.
For students who were more successful integrating the elements of the assignment, we were able to have rich and fruitful classroom conversations about both selection and sequencing. For example, one student chose the theme of “the Soundtrack to the Perfect Day.” Within that theme, the student chose the song “XO TOUR Llif3” by Lil Uzi Vert.
In the song’s hook, he croons “push me to the edge/ all my friends are dead/ push me to the edge/ all my friends are dead” (Vert 2017). When this song came up in class discussion, we were able to have a formative conversation around the idea that a perfect day entailed all of someone’s friends being “dead.” This also sparked a conversation about the double meaning of the quote; it didn’t stem from traditional print-based sources, but instead arose from a student-generated idea based in the cultural capital of the classroom community. In this moment, I was able to learn more from students about the meteoric rise in relevance of both the artist and the song which seemed to depict an extreme darkness.
“Big Big Tings a Gwaan”: Future Tweaks and Goals for The Playlist Project
Moving forward with this assignment, I have considered breaking the assignment up into three pieces for more introductory composition courses: constructing the playlist, sequencing the playlist, and writing the meta-text. In this configuration, the meta-text would truly become the afterthought (instead of the forethought) of the sonic creation. As well, more in-depth soundwriting could emanate from the playlist construction, manipulation, (re)sequencing and editing. I also plan to use the assignment with a more advanced-level composition course to gauge if the assignment unfolds differently. Using an upper-level course to attain the trajectory of the assignment may be helpful in walking backwards to calibrate the assignment for students in introductory-level classes.
Another objective will be to move away from just a “playlist” and back into a “digital mixtape” format, where the playlist songs and sequencing become the fodder for a one-track, “one-take” DJ-inspired mixtape. While students don’t have to be DJs, creating a singular sonic moment digitally may imbed students in marrying the idea of soundwriting to depicting that sonic work in a meta-text. This work may also engage students in constructing sonic meta-texts, thereby submersing themselves in soundwriting practices. This work can be done in Audacity, GarageBand and any other software students are familiar with and comfortable using.
Featured Image: By Flickr User Gemma Zoey (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Dr. Todd Craig is a native of Queens, New York: a product of Ravenswood and Queensbridge Houses in Long Island City. He is a writer, educator and DJ whose career meshes his love of writing, teaching and music. Craig’s research examines the hip-hop DJ as twenty-first century new media reader and writer, and investigates the modes and practices of the DJ as creating the discursive elements of DJ rhetoric and literacy. Craig’s publications include the multimodal novel tor’cha, a short story in Staten Island Noir and essays in textbooks and scholarly journals including Across Cultures: A Reader for Writers, Fiction International, Radical Teacher and Modern Language Studies. He was guest editor of Changing English: Studies in Culture and Education for the special issue “Straight Outta English” (2017). Craig is currently working on his full-length manuscript entitled “K for the Way”: DJ Literacy and Rhetoric for Comp 2.0 and Beyond. Dr. Craig has taught English Composition within the City University of New York for over fifteen years. Presently, Craig is an Associate Professor of English at Medgar Evers College, where he serves as the Composition Coordinator and City University of New York Writing Discipline Council co-chair.
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Education is never politically neutral. Many of us advocate for social justice when we’re outside of the classroom but struggle to continue that work inside as well, especially with issues that appear on the surface largely unrelated to our disciplines. This inaction maintains the centering of the white experience, continuing to normalize and prioritize it at the expense of all others. Marginalized voices remain marginalized. We don’t need our own students to be directly impacted by policies to advocate on behalf of those who are. This is work we all must do.
While social issues have made important inroads within musicology and ethnomusicology, they rarely make an appearance in music theory or composition, especially in a classroom setting. To begin these conversations, we must expand the scope beyond the purely technical and examine the ways in which music is a social and cultural phenomenon. Understanding how a triad functions, for example, is only part of the story. We must also recognize that any musical activity involves a network of people who might be engaged in any combination of producing, performing, buying, selling, listening, analyzing, teaching, institutionalizing, and so on. Discussing these networks means discussing their persistent systemic inequalities and power differentials, and understanding that these are social and not just musical issues. Cultivating this awareness is crucial in the development of our students as critical thinkers who can question the society in which they live, who can locate injustice and fight to advance social good. Abstract music theory is important, but music theory combined with a social awareness is vital.
Georgetown University hosts an annual Let Freedom Ring! initiative, a recurring project to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King. “Teach The Speech,” in particular, is a cross-campus curriculum project where interested faculty and staff incorporate that year’s selected work by Dr. King in our courses and workshops, sparking campus-wide conversations rooted in themes of social justice. The first time I joined the “Teach the Speech” efforts, I redesigned my basic theory class to include guiding principles from King’s entire body of work. In addition to covering the expected chords, scales, and other technical material, we discussed the disparity in representation faced by women and POC within music, viable modes of protest in music, and the possible roles of government sponsorship and censorship of artists. We rooted these issues in the real-life examples of the Grammy’s, the Women’s March, and the threats by the Trump administration to cut funding to the NEA and the NEH. Final projects based on these bigger-picture topics provided students further opportunity to reflect on the ways in which these and similar topics manifest in their own lives, transcending a preoccupation with “notes on a page.”
My second time participating in the “Teach the Speech” initiative, I used a recording of Dr. King delivering “I Have Been to The Mountaintop” as part of a module on sampling for my DJing and production class. Students had to create short tracks using this recording as the only permissible sound source. Anything resembling a kick, snare, hi-hat, melody, or harmony had to be constructed from a sample. Using something we don’t typically consider to be music as the sound source for creating music demonstrates the power of the studio and illustrates just how far creative slicing, dicing, and processing can take us. Beyond these important practical applications, though, the use of speech provides us with a framework for discussing why context matters. Do context and history always travel alongside the immediate acoustic phenomenon of sound? Can we identify something as “the music itself”? Through wrestling with these and related questions, students begin to understand sample-based composition as both a musical and a moral undertaking.
The process of sampling is largely a process of curation, involving a responsibility not just for the product but also for the source. If a student chooses to sample a large-enough portion of Dr. King’s speech, so that one can recognize words, phrases, even full sentences, then her choice includes the layers of extra-musical meaning attached to those words in addition to their musical qualities. “Violence,” for example, has a particular sonic profile and meaning that most listeners understand. How we actually interpret this word depends on many factors, including the context in which it is used in the original source, the identity of the speaker, and any audio processing that students might apply. The addition of distortion, for example, will influence the impact of that word on and its reception by the listener. The sampled word might be a fragment of a larger word, “violence” snipped from “nonviolence,” and never appear in its own right in the source. These and other complex issues involved in the process of sampling exist whether or not the student chooses to engage with them.
If the student samples an extremely small fragment of the Dr. King speech, obscuring the source and working with sound on an almost molecular level, then perhaps these questions go away. Can we still discuss the attendant connotations and denotations of indecipherable fractions of words or slices of the ambient hiss between the words? In this situation, is the origin of the sample still relevant for the work being done? When the ties connecting a heavily processed source to the finished product are untraceable, does it matter where we sampled from? Is white noise simply white noise?
Arriving at these kinds of questions is largely the point of the exercise. With a little deliberation, students realize that there is a very clear distinction between sampling the word “violence” from a speech by Trump and from a speech by MLK. There is a context, a lineage, and a history to samples that lives outside the phenomenon of pure sound, and this holds true even at the molecular level. This is crucial for students to understand, and its implications extend far beyond a music class.
We can, for example, ask students to consider the related question about whether or not it’s possible to separate art from the artist. Can we ever listen to pre-MAGA Kanye with the same ears? How do we interpret a post-MAGA Kanye song about uplift and resilience? What does it mean to watch a film where Harvey Weinstein had a major role in producing? A minor role? Moral dilemmas form a part of every media interaction we have, and similar questions comprise other aspects of our lives. Can we continue to allow the misappropriation of Dr. King’s “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” without acknowledging the “radical” Dr. King? Can we reconcile a country built on expropriation, slavery, and genocide with one whose propaganda extolls the principles of equality and freedom? These are indeed crucial lines of moral inquiry, and our pretending otherwise enables current systems to remain in place. Sampling King’s speech enables my students to engage with those lines of inquiry from an angle they have not considered before: at the level of sound.
This is work we all must do. Within academia, we need to combat injustice inside the classroom as well as outside to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice. One way we can engage is through careful attention both to the examples we choose and the way we contextualize them. Students and educators alike need to understand the political nature of education that is too often a means of upholding the power structures within society that position whites at the top, and white males at the very top. These largely invisible systems have very real impacts on our lives, and the only way we can evolve to a more just society is by questioning their seeming inevitability. We must foster dialogue that transcends the classroom. We must engage with social problems. We must look beyond the accumulation of knowledge as an end in itself. We must, in short, to do good. This is work we all must do.
Featured image: “Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial” by Flickr user Cocoabiscuit, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Dave Molk teaches composition and theory at Georgetown University. He’s close friends with producer Olde Dirty Beathoven, a founding member of District New Music Coalition, and a board member of New Works for Percussion Project. Outside of music, Dave is a leader of CCON, an organization devoted to supporting undocumented communities in higher ed in the DMV. Find him online at https://www.molkmusic.com/ and @DaveMolkMusic.
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