THE FUNK SCHOOL
Funk and the Academy
A generation ago, it was still ‘radical’ for black and race-conscious educators to fight to insert jazz into the curriculum in public schools. Now the radical move is to link jazz to hip hop in the Academy, and the natural link for that is of course The Funk.
Since 1997 I have been trying to not only introduce students to the topics covered in my book, but to establish in the curriculum the basic courses that bridge jazz and hip hop sensibilities, through a study of modern African American life and culture.
In 1997, after the publication of Funk, the late dean Philip McGee offered me the opportunity to teach a course based on the book at San Francisco State University in the Black Studies dept. It was originally titled "Black Protest Music Since the 1960’s: Funk, Rap and the Black Revolution"; The course was equal parts scholarly analysis and funked out jam session, where I would play tight videos and tracks and have the class analyze them rigorously, giving The Funk the deep introspection it deserves.
After four years and 8 successful semesters of that class, including an unforgettable visit to the class by GEORGE CLINTON in 1998, the popularity of the course led to some veteran students urging me to start a serious hip hop class.
The Black Studies dept at SF State also suggested that I “upgrade” the class to make it more broadly accessible to students, and to satisfy certain graduation requirements. Thus, the course evolved into “The History of Funk,” Black Studies 456.
While I thought a class about "funk" was cool, the students at SF State were far more involved and knowledgeable in Hip Hop than I expected. (Many deep hip hoppers know that The Asian American hip hop community in San Francisco is one of the most knowledgeable, talented and innovative in the world, and I found myself at ground zero). The students at SF State were on a mission, and convinced me to create the HIP HOP WORKSHOP. This class was by far the most involved, interactive and engaging educational experience I have ever participated in.
The “Hip Hop Workshop” was also the most time consuming and resource draining project I had ever worked on. That was one reason I returned to Cal for a Phd, with the idea of returning to SF State or recreating the “Hip Hop Workshop” elsewhere with the resources it deserves.
Here is The Doctor, George Clinton in my SF State class in 1998!
The “HIP HOP WORKSHOP”
While "The History of Funk" is cool in its own right, the students today come from the Hip Hop generation, and "Funk" is indeed "History" to them. Furthermore, students at SF State are very serious about their Hip Hop. So in the spring of 2000 some of my former"Protest Music" students stayed on my case to develop an all-out Hip Hop class. At the time I was not sure if students would come, or if I had the background to get DEEP into Hip Hop. But I learned a few tricks that may help other educators starting on their own 'hip hop' pedagogy:
HOW TO TEACH A HIP HOP CLASS: "don't!"
The Black Studies Dept at SF State was already interested in the Hip Hop idea, and smoothed my course proposal through the necessary channels. It was set for the fall 2000, whether I was ready or not.
The first serious breakthrough was to convince the new Dean of Ethnic Studies, Thomas Almaguer, that the department needed a SET OF TURNTABLES (!). So I wrote up a budget and the Dean approved the purchase (!). This I knew would draw students once we got rolling. There were over 130 students in the class, by far the largest course in the history of the Ethnic Studies program at SF State.
Then at the first class session, we passed out a "Skilz Survey" and had students RATE THEMSELVES in terms of hip hop mastery of: rapping, breaking, deejaying and graffitti art. Those audacious enough to claim 'mastery' of an element, were recruited as 'student teachers' and 'workshop leaders' later in the course.
The course was then designed with a first unit that discussed an overview of hip hop, and its historical elements, such as Reggae/Jamaican Sound Systems, and of course The Funk. The unpublished work of Davey D, his history of the birth of Hip Hop was invaluable. Hopefully one day he will release "The Hip Hop Chronicles" and get his due as the writer and historian that he is.
The second unit of the course was a whirlwind of presentations, from local and legendary breakers (break-dancers), deejays, rappers and graf artists, as well as community organizers, music producers and educators that were down with us. The most important visitor that first semester was AFRIKA BAMBAATAA.
The final unit of the class involved the student teachers breaking down the class into 'lessons' on the four elements, with students rotating through every "workshop" over a span of a few weeks. Then of course was the time for 'presentations' as EVERY STUDENT had to perform or present some creative production of their own. While there were some well established students, some of the most entertaining stuff was from students brand new to hip hop, who tried their first 'scratch mix' or their first rap in front of the whole class. This experience also motivated me to try and get all of my music oriented classes to have a 'student performance' element, even if it is just optional.
THE HIP HOP WORKSHOP CREWs
I would have been completely useless without the help and knowledge of serious students who knew the deal about Hip Hop, and were ready to coordinate this monstrous class project. The first Workshop Crew consisted of Michelle Brito, whose contacts legitimized the whole enterprise. Nishat Kurwa, who is a radio producer with Youth Radio, and at news station KCBS in San Francisco, among many other things, and Karma B. Sweet, who is part of local hip hop act "Kemetic Suns" and whose experience helped us design and legitimize the 'rap' and 'Reggae' units of the course. Many other students helped out, and became part of the 'crew' the following semesters.
Here is my fall 2000 crew with special guest Afrika Bambaataa! (l-r) RV, BAM, Nishat Kurwa, Michelle Brito, Karma B. Sweet.
“Funk to Hip Hop” at CCSF
In 2001 I was asked by Glenn Nance, chair of African American Studies at San Francisco City College (CCSF) to lecture for him on “Funk.” Prof. Nance was so enthusiastic about the possibilities that he coaxed me into developing a course for him at CCSF. During 2002, as I was preparing to enter UC Berkeley again as a graduate student, the CCSF class was approved, and I could not say no to such a rich opportunity. The class began fall 2002 and has been growing ever since, with a regular meeting time Wednesday nights.
As with most courses at CCSF, the class is open to all California residents, and is offered each fall and spring semester.
For more information, check the link: AFAM at CCSF.
“Bebop to Hip Hop” at Cal
In October of 2002 Percy Hintzen, chair of African American Studies at Cal, asked me if I was interested in teaching a "Special Topics" course the following summer, 2003. The honor was a great opportunity, and I’m grateful to Prof. Hintzen, and to Prof. Charles Henry for looking out for a mug. The previous course was taught by Cecil Brown, which he titled “Black Popular Music and Culture; From Ragtime to Hip Hop.” Since my focus was more on The Funk, and specifically, on African American life and culture since the urbanization of WWII, I retitled the course “African American Studies 159 : Black Popular Music and Culture; from Bebop to Hip Hop and stuck to the bulk of my usual game, The Funk.
At a major university, I chose to upgrade the reading lists, and required four books for a six week session, and as usual, got even more out of the class as a result of the rigorous workload. Also, in what has become a pattern in my classes, toward the end of the course, I allowed students to perform their final reports ‘live’ if they wished. Some of these take the form of oral reports, some become pantomimes of classic performances, and the ones this term became involved historical skits and solid musical expositions.
The class as been offered during every Summer Session since 2003. You do not have to be a Cal student to take the class during the summer. If you are interested in taking the class one of these summers, check the UC Berkeley Summer Session page.
In 2002 I returned to UC Berkeley, the site of my undergraduate exploits, to complete an Ethnic Studies Ph.D. It took the inspiration of my homeboy Scot Brown, local journalist Sylvia Chan (who entered a year ahead of me), and my wife Tess for me to see the opportunity to get some "papers" to do my thing.
It took a couple of years to go through the required courses and learn all kinds of new approaches to the field. Special thanks to my homies Jordan Gonzales and Deborah Nyere DaSilva, who kept me sane throughout the process. I finally branched out my own, researching what-I-like, in this case a funk band the Black Panthers created in 1970, called The Lumpen. That led to the dissertation Music on the Front Lines of the Black Revolution, and graduation in May 2007 and final submission of the diss on May 12, 2008!!!
Here I am with UCLA History Professor Scot Brown at a talk at University of Connecticut that he put together. He is working on a book about Dayton Funk due out soon. We are both soldiers for the Funk in the academy!