Dessa doesn’t know what to wear. The Minneapolis rapper has plenty of killer outfits, like the tight jeans and tank tops she favors for performances. But what does one wear to teach hip-hop? “A tracksuit?” she wonders, rifling through her closet on the morning of her first class. “Or business-wear?” ¶ By 9 a.m., Dessa (born Maggie Wander) is feeling more put-together, greeting her students for the Language of Rap and Spoken Word in a basement classroom at the McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul. Last fall, McNally Smith formed the first accredited hip-hop diploma program in the nation, offering three semesters of hip-hop composition, performance, and production that comprise a targeted area of study within a student’s associate or bachelor’s degree. Only Howard University offers a similar study—a hip-hop minor—and without the seemingly critical component: getting onstage and rapping.
About a dozen students have chosen the program so far. They are mostly teenagers, and on this first day of class they sit tiredly, the hoods of their sweatshirts pulled low over their heads. Most are African-American men. One student introduces himself as Johnson from Wisconsin. Another sports a tattoo of a music clef on the side of his neck. Half of them wear ball caps, the bills facing any direction but forward.
Dessa sets an iMac computer atop an ancient, upright piano and pulls up her iTunes catalog. The room soon fills with the thump of electronic beats. At 28, Dessa is among the best-known local rappers and has a new album, A Badly Broken Code, coming out this month. She regularly performs with the Doomtree crew, a loose collective of hip-hop artists that comprise many of the genre’s top local performers.
She is long and lean, her arms hard as hammers, her long brown hair pulled away from her olive face into a ponytail, as if she were perpetually ready to work out. Even at this unholy hour for hip-hop, she is energetic—she is on. “If you text in my class,” she jokes, “I will head-butt you.” Dessa is a former spoken-word champion, and she speaks in a rat-a-tat rhythm with the lingo of the street. If something’s good, it’s “fresh.” If it’s really good, it’s “bangin’.”
Dessa was wary when she first heard of the hip-hop program, skeptical that a kind of music born on the streets—and notoriously contemptuous of authority—could be carried into the ivory tower without losing its edge. She wasn’t sure that she wanted in, and she advises her students that the program is an experiment, the results yet to be determined. “Will academia clean up or co-opt or misrepresent hip-hop?” she asks rhetorically. She rattles off a list of words that are ubiquitous in hip-hop lyrics but verboten in most classrooms. “Can we use bitch and the n-word in here?” she wonders. “Is it even possible to teach hip-hop?”
Abruptly, she stands and shows off her outfit. “I didn’t even know how to dress for this,” she admits, revealing that she opted for a sensible, long-sleeved top, gray dress pants, and a pair of black Converse All-Star sneakers.
Not surprisingly, given the contentious nature of much hip-hop music, there is little agreement among its practitioners about any number of issues: Is the n-word appropriate for lyrics? Which is better, East Coast or West Coast rap? Who killed Biggie Smalls? But most scholars of the form agree that rap music (along with the related hip-hop arts of break dancing and graffiti painting) originated in the housing projects of New York City’s South Bronx in the late 1970s. Three decades later, hip-hop is arguably the most popular music in the United States if not the world. Its stars, once men with violent, impoverished pasts, are now more like the members of OutKast, who met at a performing arts school. Kanye West, one of the most predominant rappers today, grew up in the Chicago suburbs, where his mother was a professor of English.
Two years ago, the staff of McNally Smith began discussing the potential of a hip-hop diploma. The college had recently converted from a small school of rock into a four-year institution, where 700 students now pay about $20,000 a year to earn bachelor’s and associate’s degrees in music performance, business, and composition, largely in rock and pop music—the kind that fills iPods and arenas. The school’s president, Harry Chalmiers, was hired at about the same time, having previously served as a vice president of the well-known Berklee College of Music in Boston. “Hip-hop is an important means of expression,” asserts Chalmiers, whose balding, buttoned-down appearance belies his taste for cutting-edge bands like Radiohead. “It’s the highly charged voice of young America. Why would we ignore the form of music that’s selling more recordings than almost every other form put together?”
The job of shaping the department was entrusted to Chalmiers’s assistant, Sean McPherson, who is also the bassist for the Heiruspecs, a popular Twin Cities hip-hop group in which he is known, owing to his large frame, as Twinkie Jiggles. McPherson had little trouble finding the kind of faculty he wanted: hip-hop artists with an academic bent. “People act like rappers aren’t nerds,” he says. “But the majority of hip-hoppers are really students of language.” Perhaps nowhere is this more true than in the Twin Cities, which is a center of underground hip-hop, a sub-genre defined by organic rather than electronic instrumentation and lyrics laced with social and political commentary. McPherson graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in African-American studies. Dessa graduated early from the U, at age 20, with a degree in philosophy, and last year published a collection of essays. Toki Wright, who was brought in to head the program, is a rapper, poet, and community organizer who has performed on A Prairie Home Companion and taught hip-hop to former child soldiers in Uganda.
The team presented a hip-hop curriculum—teaching the skills of writing lyrics, producing songs, and performing them—for accreditation to the National Association of Schools of Music. It was approved, but not without resistance. “A lot of classical musicians were saying, ‘We can’t possibly do this,’” recalls Chalmiers. He had heard this before—when Berklee was proposing jazz education. “Jazz musicians were stereotyped as heroin addicts,” he says. “And then when rock music came along, suddenly the jazz educators were the ones saying, ‘What the hell are you doing teaching this?’ It’s always the same thing.”
A month into the program, Dessa’s students are working on their midterm—a long-form spoken-word piece. The number of students enrolled in what will be the first graduating hip-hop class is just a dozen—a fraction of the hundreds of students at McNally Smith learning, say, rock guitar, drums, and bass. But they are a particularly devoted bunch, cornering Dessa for advice after class and collaborating with each other on related projects, and the question no longer seems to be whether hip-hop can be taught as what effect this will have on the music. What kind of music will these students produce after learning it in such a different context than their predecessors?
Chalmiers argues that tinkering with the form is partly the point of teaching it. “If you stay on the street with your turntable, you might never be exposed to other influences, like Bob Dylan or Frank Zappa,” he says. “I believe it’s always good to stretch your boundaries. Why would we draw a line and say we’re going to stop here?”
But bridging the street and the classroom reveals how far apart the two worlds are. When Dessa reads her students’ work, her most frequent complaint is that the writing doesn’t feature enough conflict—“Good stories have conflict!” she preaches. But it seems the students aren’t all that conflicted. Nor are they particularly versed in hip-hop lingo. To prepare for their midterm, the students are analyzing hip-hop writing, such as these lines: “Makin’ six kabooms, got a baby that’s fixin’ to bloom / And he befits the groom plus grips the spoon / So let me twist the ploom / And inhale and emit the fumes.” The students spend several minutes guessing what the writer is talking about before Dessa helps them out: A girl wants to get pregnant, the dude ain’t having it.
No matter. Making good, meaningful music generally takes years. And if anything, Dessa says, the hip-hop degree program will streamline that learning process, offering young artists a focused forum in which to learn the ropes without having to figure it all out for themselves. “It’s what happens on the street,” she says, “but faster.”
McPherson, when asked what a hip-hop degree will do for students, likes to relate a joke that made the rounds of music schools when the first graduates of jazz instruction were emerging 40 years ago: “The joke was that you’d get a degree and walk up to Art Blakey and say, ‘Hey, I got my degree in jazz, you should hire me!’” He laughs. “You’re still going to have to argue your work—always, whether it’s on the bandstand or behind the mic.”
Tim Gihring is the senior writer and arts editor of Minnesota Monthly.