College Hip-Hop Movement Finds Place at Oberlin

Abby Collier

Hip-hop has asserted its spot in both the academic arena and larger campus consciousness in universities nationwide. Student supporters and performers of hip-hop at Oberlin have been advocating for a larger, more established hip-hop scene on campus.

College sophomore Mike Braugher, a rapper, producer and DJ who will be performing songs from his spring release, Dreamer, this Saturday at Solarity and Royal Thread Collective’s Fracture, said, “As an unknown artist in the age of instant gratification and file sharing, it is nearly impossible to expect to go anywhere without putting any free music out there for people. One would think this unwelcoming environment would have negative effects on the encouragement of college-aged rappers, but general trends would argue otherwise.”

Braugher is part of a much larger movement of hip-hop consciousness, which is spreading virally across college campuses. New York University offers a Sociology of Hip-Hop: Jay-Z course. UCLA’s Hip-Hop Congress celebrated hip-hop appreciation month in February with a mixtape release party, hip-hop fashion show, social issue panel discussion, and concert. According to the Yale Daily News in its article “Yale’s Burgeoning Rap Scene” different campus groups are in the process of “actively trying to form the scattered [campus rap] acts into a full-fledged scene.” Even Jim Yong Kim, president of Dartmouth College, and President Obama’s pick to be the next leader of the World Bank, made a rap appearance at the college’s Dartmouth Idol this past February.

“It’s great to see that hip-hop on college campuses is being studied as a legitimate art form,” said Braugher. “It took much longer for other genres.”

Parker Hall, Conservatory junior, jazz drums major, and drummer for Almost Fly as well as several other campus ensembles, said he is not surprised.

“It makes sense,” said Hall. “It’s definitely a recent thing. We are the first generation that grew up with rap; our whole lives we’ve had hip-hop.”

Citing Common’s visit as the first rapper ever invited to the White House and rapper Bun B’s class at Rice University, Drew Kochman, College junior and MC for Almost Fly, said that “people are coming to appreciate the cultural and educational value of rap.”

Some students, however, are doubting the sustainability of the college hip-hop movement. Miles Serber, Conservatory junior and MC for Almost Fly, said he questions the reality of these ventures. “I think it’s really cool that colleges are doing stuff like that … [but] I would be interested to see what they actually do and if they have been working on music together, how they cultivate sharing of work, and how artists collaborate with each other.”

Braugher said he has also experienced the difficulty of rap collaboration. “But this is the nature of hip-hop,” he said. “Rap is an individualistic art — these are my thoughts, nobody wrote them for me, this is who I am.”

Oberlin, despite its vaunted Conservatory, has not been as involved in this movement as other colleges and universities. Wesleyan University boasts the success of graduate group, Das Racist. NYU caused a commotion with a sold-out April 11 Bun B lecture, and two days later Vassar College brought Wu-Tang Clan member Raekwon to perform at its Throwback Jam concert.

Students have been making an effort to secure a stronger hip-hop scene on campus. Last spring, College senior Andres Feliciano unified over 20 students behind the Wilder Hip Hop Collective for its opening performance, The First Episode. Feliciano wanted to “create a network [and] provide opportunities for all of the talented producers, rappers, MCs and songwriters across the country who had come [to Oberlin] to get on stage and put a show together, rather than rapping drunk at parties.”

But, according to Feliciano, because of a lack of unity, stifled by the demanding nature of Oberlin academics and a lack of technological resources and designated space, The First Episode may have also been the collective’s last. “A lot of the collective has drifted apart and is on hiatus indefinitely because half of the first episode is graduating, and the other half are dispersed doing their own things not necessarily united,” he said. The collective has raised $250 from previous concerts but “nobody has stepped up to the plate to plan.”

Serber and Kochman believe this has something to do with Oberlin’s small student population, campus and isolated location.

“We’re just not New York,” Kochman said. “The reason that NYU has real rappers teaching classes is because they are in New York.”

Hall agreed with this sentiment, saying, “I don’t think Kid Cudi and Bone Thugs-n-Harmony are going to be coming to Oberlin.”

Serber said he believes this all contributes to a mood at Oberlin that does not often cultivate a strong hip-hop community. He postulated that a bigger school or busier location would perhaps provide an “appetite or energy that would fuel things in a different way.”

“There is competitive energy that takes place when music is developed publicly. This doesn’t happen very often for hip-hop at Oberlin,” said Serber.

The college has, however, made recent efforts to support the scene by bringing more underground artists to perform. Hall said that two of his favorite young rappers have come in the last year and cites the performances of Blu, Fashawn, Kendrick Lamar and KRS-One as successful attempts at strengthening the place of hip-hop on campus.

Students assert that the College has been supportive in other ways as well. Braugher said that the Conservatory library has served as “an incredible resource” for him. He also said that Associate Professor and Chair of African American Studies Meredith Gadsby’s hip-hop course focusing on “the study of hip-hop as a transnational art form, its influences and the way it’s evolved today” was an invaluable opportunity and an example of the necessary shift in College academics.

Serber said that he has gained a lot of knowledge from his Oberlin professors, specifically Associate Professor of Jazz Piano Dan Wall, and visiting Assistant Professor of Creative Writing Bernard Matambo.

“[In Wall’s course] we talk a lot about beat-based music, how to incorporate jazz forms, and how to find ways to open up general instrumental form of hip-hop, … [and Matambo] is always willing to take time to discuss different formal aspects of rap in terms of lyrical content,” said Serber.

Quentin White-Westerfield, College senior and MC, said that while he thinks the College is moving in a positive direction, “the best thing would be to help artists by giving access to resources.” He suggested that the hip-hop scene could be furthered if artists were allowed access to the TIMARA studio. White-Westerfield said that the lack of integration of hip-hop and academics at Oberlin has often forced him to choose between them.

“A lot of times you have to make the sacrifice of choosing academics or the thing you love,” said White-Westerfield. “Especially when there isn’t a Con for hip-hop. You can’t major in hip-hop here.”

Braugher said he copes with this by finding his own means of integrating the two. “Anytime I am assigned a creative project I am going to be rapping, it’s the path of the least resistance,” he said. “College is practice for the real world, so why not practice what I am going to be doing in the real world in college.”

White-Westerfield said that while hip-hop is still struggling to fully assert itself on campus, he feels that it has come a long way since he was a first-year four years ago.

“We’ve established ourselves to the point where even freshmen coming in have a community they can join,” he said. “They don’t have to hide their interests.”