“There is no wrong way to beat box,” says Terrell Woods (aka Carnage) to his young hip-hop students at the Capri Theater, “the only wrong way is not to try.” Woods, along with Tish Jones, Desdamona, and Truth Maze worked with youth in North Minneapolis last week at MacPhail’s Hip Hop camp. The week-long all day camp culminated with a performance on Friday evening showcasing work the youth have created themselves.
In Woods’ beat boxing class, he taught the teens rhythm and how to use their body and their voices to make different sounds. The class started out with a beat machine, where everyone gathered in a circle, making rhythm with their voices while the person in the center acted as a conductor. Woods started out as conductor, showing them how it’s done, and then gave his students a chance to try it out.
His students surprised him. One of them figured out a technique to group the sound, and not only brought himself in, but conducted the others to come in and out of the rhythm. “I’ve never done it that way,” Woods said with a big grin on his face.
From there, Woods reviewed “body boxing,” where the beat boxers make rhythms with their bodies, like drumming their hands on their chests in a syncopated beat. He also taught them to make different percussive sounds with their lips and tongues. He demonstrated a kind of raspberry sound, blowing air through his lips. “We make these kinds of sounds when we are babies,” he said, “and somewhere along the way we’re told we’re not supposed to do that.”
“When we were babies, we were uninhibited,” Woods said later in an interview. “We did whatever we wanted to do…if it sounded stupid we’d do it and we’d laugh at it, and we’d keep doing it until somebody told us—probably our parents—‘don’t be doing that, it sounds dumb’ or somebody told is it’s not okay to be doing that anymore and started being shy about the things that we naturally did when we grew up. I believe beat boxing is one of the most uninhibited things you can do because you have to really be vulnerable. I learned beat boxing by being the geek, by being the nerd, by doing the things no one wanted to do, but now I have a career in it.”
After beat boxing on the day I visited, the students gathered with all the teachers to discuss what was going to happen on Friday. One student asked if they could do a cover of a hip hop song, rather than something they’d written themselves. The answer from their teachers was yes, but they also had to show something they’ve created themselves.
“I think young people’s voices need to be honored and need to be heard”, said Jones, who coached the students in writing and also production.
Most of the teachers were self-taught, and didn’t have the advantages of someone teaching them how to make hip-hop. “I basically learned it on my own,” Woods said. “I learned it off of people who I thought were good at what they were doing. I just took what I learned from them and transformed it into my own form of expression.”
Desdamona, another teacher guiding the students to write their own poetry, said that even for students who don’t end up as musicians or poets, the skills are valuable life skills. “It builds social skills, communication, and public speaking,” she said. Plus, she added, the young people learn how to deal with fear, by getting up and performing.
Hip Hop Camp is in its fourth year at the Capri. Melissa Falb, who has taught classical piano at MacPhail since 1998, also lives in North Minneapolis and used to ride the bus a lot. One day she was on the bus and she wondered, “Why aren’t these kids coming to MacPhail? Music is for everybody.” She thought maybe part of the reason was that MacPhail wasn’t teaching the music that kids wanted to study, and that the organization might have success teaching music that was more appealing to a wider audience.
Falb had connections with the Plymouth Youth Center, who introduced her to Tish Jones. The basic goal of the camp, Falb said, is to get the kids to create their own work. While some kids may gravitate toward writing words, others are more skilled at rhythm, or producing, so the camp emphasizes collaborations. MacPhail brings a mobile computer lab, where the kids learn how to produce beats on computers using a program called Reason/Record.
The camp is $25 for students who qualify for free or reduced lunch, which is the case for about 2/3 of the students, Falb says. Otherwise the cost is $235. There are nine students in the program.
“I’m always amazed by the young people we get in the program,” said Jones. “They are talented beyond measure. It’s ridiculous.”