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Pierce Freelon on Creating the International Beat Making Lab


Pierce Freelon on Creating the International Beat Making Lab


I was first put on to the Beat Making Lab through a friend of mine who thought I would find the project interesting. She was right. I was energized, inspired, and straight up wowed by the work professor and musician Pierce Freelon and his partner, co-teacher and producer/DJ Stephen Levitin (aka Apple Juice Kid) had created. 

Founded by Apple Juice Kid and Dr. Mark Katz at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and described as an "electronic music studio small enough to fit in a backpack" Beat Making Lab was first designed as a course for its students to learn the art of beat making. After Pierce took over for Dr. Mark Katz, he and Apple Juice Kid realized their curriculum had the potential to have a global impact. Through a crowd funding campaign, Beat Making Lab set off for Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo working with youth in community settings to teach them how to make beats and songs. 

Currently in collaboration with PBS, episodes are aired every Wednesday and detail the adventures in beat making as youth from Panama to Senegal to Fiji co-create songs using beat making technology as taught by Pierce and Apple Juice Kid. The results are beautifully shot and transportive episodes, dope beats, a real sense of community, and what looks like a whole lotta hard work and fun. 

How did you come up with the idea for the lab?

The Lab started as a class at the University of North Carolina where I've been teaching in the department of African and Afro American Studies since 2009. Over in the Music Department, Dr. Mark Katz (who is currently the chair of the department) and producer Apple Juice Kid founded the class as a 3-credit hour music and technology course in the Fall of 2011. Dr. Katz went on leave the following semester and he and Apple Juice asked me to co-teach the class instead. That's when the seed was planted for Beat Making Lab to grow into something bigger.

On a daily basis, Apple Juice Kid and I discussed the possibilities of taking the class and the curriculum off campus and into a community. We were in the midst of planning to build a community studio when our colleague in the department, Dr. Cherie Rivers Ndaliko, told us about an amazing community center in Democratic Republic of Congo. We had initially thought about building our community Lab locally, in Durham or Chapel Hill, but were intrigued by the prospect of taking the grassroots initiative abroad. There was no money to pay for the experiment, so AJK and I crowd-sourced funds through an Indiegogo campaign, with donations from the Department and the community. Once we hit the ground in Congo - we knew we'd started something that wasn't going to end anytime soon.

Why was this idea important to you? What impact were you hoping to make?

In the beginning, we didn't know what impact we were going to make. Check out our fundraising video. We called it "Carolina to Congo: a beat making lab experiment" because we literally didn't know what to expect. We knew that we had a wonderful resource and curriculum; and we knew we had a community that really wanted to learn how to make beats. Music is a great tool for dialogue, healing, expression and building community. I hope we were able to do some of that.

What has the process been like building the Beat Making Lab? What have been some of your challenges and successes?

Challenges have included cultural sensitivities around sampling, logistics of organizing large groups of students for 2-week sessions, language barriers and political conflicts in some of the countries we've worked. The experience has been humbling. In the past 6 months I've worked with students in five countries I've never been to before. I'm learning Swahili, Wolof, Spanish and French; and making beats with radically different demographics, from groups of all-women rappers, and traditional Fijian musicians. The process has been challenging, inspiring, fun and exhausting.

What similarities and differences do you notice from teaching students at Chapel Hill to students in the DRC or other areas you’ve traveled to? Are there cultural differences to learning these new skills?

Every group brings its own nuance to the table. In Congo, we were surrounded by rappers. It seemed like everyone could spit in several different languages and dialects. Our song Cho Cho Cho features emceeing and singing in English, Swahili, French and a fusion of the three. Panama, on the other hand, was very different. Many of our students were percussion players, and part of a live carnival band called Barrio Fino. They brought a different  atheistic, skill-set and approach to beat making. In Senegal we were working with an all women's ensemble of rappers, singers and producers called GOTAL. Unlike previous groups, they all knew each-other years before the actual workshop - so communication and collaboration was a walk in the park. Chapel Hill groups vary from semester to semester as well - demographically, skill-wise and culturally. You never know who you're working with until the first day of class.

Both of you worked together as co-teachers at Chapel Hill. How did traveling together expand your relationship? How have you two grown in your working relationship and friendship?

I've known Apple Juice for years as a musical collaborator but now we're business partners as well. We have a very different but complimentary skill sets that work well together; ie. I'm a rapper, he's a DJ - I'm a professor, he's a producer - I'm a writer, he's drummer. It's worked very well for us so far. We founded a company called ARTVSM - to merge the worlds of art and activism. This is the soul of Beat Making Lab and a common thread with everything that we want to do in life.

How has the process been of working on BML as partners? How similar/different are your working/creative style?

Great. The most important thing is that we're both on our grind. We both put in work - all the time; and that's exactly what it's taken to pop Beat Making Lab off.

What have you been most surprised by and inspired by in your travels?

Most surprised: the music. We've made some incredible beats and songs over the past several months and I couldn't be prouder of the work our students - many of whom are first time beat makers - have put in.

Most inspired: the model. We're attempting to build a sustainable community space, where the students teach each other and the music funds the workshops. Sometimes when I step back and access the implications of what we're trying to do, I'm inspired. And its not something we came up with on our own. It's been a community effort and we're proud to be a part of it.

A musician we interviewed in the past was quoted as saying, “I was working at a digital production school. It was so technical and digital that there wasn’t too much feeling in the music. They had open lab where students would come and work on their music, but everyone has headphones on. I would catch myself a few times looking around in the room and everyone is staring at their laptop and all I’m hearing are mouse and keyboard clicks. And this is music now!? I’m not sitting in a room where people are actually working together in a circle. There are no string players staring at each other trying to vibe out. Everybody is in their own little box, staring at their own screen, and it just seemed fucked up to me.”

What are your thoughts on this? From the web episodes, you’ve clearly succeeded in building a creative community. 

Two thoughts on this: 1. We encourage collaborative beat making. On the first day of class we make beats with our hands, beatboxing on tables, and creating sounds organically in a cypher. This sets a tone we like to maintain throughout the Lab. Students work in groups, sometimes 3 or 4 to a computer. Its not quite as individualist as he describes. 2. our best friend is the splitter. Five headphones inputs per computer. They come standard in every Beat Making Lab.

In one of your webisodes, you mention you are teaching the students but that you are also learning from them. What have these students taught you about the creative process?

How to improvise, how to listen, how to communicate effectively without sharing a native language with someone, the value of good leadership and collaboration.

How far do you see BML expanding? What is your vision for the future?

We hope to put our curriculum online for free, for anyone who wants to learn how to teach what we do. We want to create our own open source beat making software so anyone with the will can gear up and start making beats without paying for an expensive new software. Ultimately - we want kids everywhere to be able to make beats if they want to. That's the ultimate vision.

Interview by Jahan Mantin

Photo credit: Saleem Reshamwala