Dave Soldier & Da Hip Hop Raskalz:
How we did it (and how you can do it too!)

by Dave Soldier, August 10, 2006

First, I suggest finding out what music the kids listen to. I had thought that kids in East Harlem would like what the little Dominican kids listen to in New York in West Harlem, but I was wrong...otherwise I would have attempted to help them make a different kind of style. For the Tangerine Awkestra a few years ago, an analogous project, the kids were mostly home schooled from Fort Greene and Brooklyn, and were familiar with jazz and rock; the music they made and the instruments we selected were very different.

Since the kids at Amber Charter School almost all said they listened to hip-hop, we (Elana Langer and me) experimented a bit with a portable studio. The goals were:

  1. 1. instruments the kids can learn to play quickly
  2. 2. the sounds should be ones they are used to and like
  3. 3. the setup should be fast to set up and break down and be easily transported
  4. 4. make anything the kids operate nearly non-breakable

For the last point, I quickly learned to not use more than four kids at a time. Otherwise, they start wrestling, which can damage the equipment, and lose interest in the music.

I thought of using old style drum machines and a turntable, as the early instruments of hip-hop, but they were even hard for me to manipulate. The setup that worked best can be fit in one shopping bag and is:

  1. 1. a laptop computer: I use a Mac G4
  2. 2. a USB MIDI keyboard: I use one from MOTU (Oxygen 8) that costs about $100
  3. 3. a cheap microphone: I use a condenser type that costs about $60 that has been dropped without damage many times. Another virtue is the cheap condensers distort, lending an authentic and warm sound to the vocals. You CANNOT tell kids to hold mics a uniform distance away from their mouths: they will just imitate what they have seen with people mouthing lyrics on videos - but these mics seem to work anyway. Sometimes its good to have one kid hold the mic for another.
  4. 4. an A-to-D converter for the mic: I have been using one by MOTU, which is only about $100
  5. 5. a couple of small powered computer speakers that cost about $20
  6. 6. an assortment of easy-to-play real instruments: a thumb piano, slide whistles, plastic toy guitars, and several drums including a conga
  7. 7. an extension cord

For software, I initially preferred Digital Performer "slaving" Reason. Performer is superb for mixing, and Reason has a fantastic drum machine module that you can teach yourself and kids quickly. Unfortunately, the combination was unstable and for "reasons" unknown would sometimes crash my laptop. You simply can't afford the downtime with little kids, who will run off somewhere as soon as they become impatient.

I then used GarageBand, the Apple program, still slaving Reason. GarageBand is more stable on my laptop and in some ways good for this sort of project but has major problems. The first is that there is no drum machine module - I would steer clear of the GarageBand premade drum loops, as one of the most interesting things with Da Hiphop Raskalz is the kid's decisions on making drum grooves on the Reason drum module, coming up with beautiful and unconventional idiosyncratic music.

Another problem with Garage Band is how the software manages the recorded files - if you accidentally record over a good track, you will never find it again: infuriatingly, the software makes the files invisible. Also, sometimes GarageBand simply stops recording, and we occasionally lose our best takes: keep your eye on the tracks!

Another infuriating feature is that to put the files (which after all are already in AIFF, which any program can read) in a form that can be accessed, they have to be downloaded TRACK BY TRACK to ITunes. This is a big waste of time, and can add hours of unproductive labor. Finally, editing the tracks requires many cut and paste steps, in contrast to Digital Performer, which is fast and intuitive. Since these bad programming choices are so simple to fix, I wonder what Apple software engineers are thinking... they must have some evil bureaucrats at the company making Microsoft-like choices designed to make sure their program is incompatible with others.

BUT on the positive side, GarageBand (and Reason too) has great soft synth modules, and digital processing that you can use on voices - for instance the squeaky vocals on Ghosty was done using GarageBand's "Helium" on one of Isabella's vocal tracks. Kids enjoy hearing and choosing from these options.

Here is what worked best for me with a recording session:

Tell the kids that first we will come up with a drum groove. I say the easiest drum beat in the world is a solo bass drum -- that's the one you play with a foot pedal like this - on every beat. One, 2, 3, 4 - then I put a bass drum sound on each beat in the Reason drum machine. I tell them to choose which bass drum sound they want by cycling through the different sounds, and they reach a consensus. Then ask them to sing their own rhythm for the bass drum - it doesn't have to be on every beat. If they come up with one, I will change the programming to match what they are making up.

Then tell them the snare drum - which you play up here like this and sounds like "thwack" - is most traditionally played on the 2 and 4 LIKE THIS. Ask them to choose their favorite snare drum sample - this can take a few minutes - and then sing or tap on the desk what rhythm you would like.

Now ask how fast it should be - you can change the tempo until they all like it. Then add other drums like hi hats, etc., in the same way: have them choose which sounds they like, and where the beats should be. By now the kids are dancing around and some of them have some very firm ideas of what the drums should sound like.

Now one of the most fun parts: who can make human beat box sounds? Record them on a GarageBand vocal track.

Tell them the next traditional element to add is the bass, which they can imitate with the synthesizer. Who can play the piano? They will all say they can. Show them how to hold their hands and press their fingers on the piano keyboards, and have them choose a bass sample. Then they can improvise while you record the tracks into GarageBand. I tell them to listen to the music for a while before they play so they will be in time: also if they find something they like, play it a few times! It is good to have alternate takes of a good line when it is time to mix.

Then tell them that there are other sounds we can use like strings, cellos, guitars, organs, and let them which instrument modules they like in either Reason or Garage Band. I tend to use Garage Band because it is simpler to control for this use, as you just hit record - however the sound choices in Reason are really nice as well.

At this point the music is getting pretty dense (remember to save the files), and I tell them to take a break, meet at the table and come up with a name for their band. This can take a while... both here and with the lyrics, try to figure out when they are simply copying a song or band name they know from TV or the radio. Actually, all composers write songs based on other songs (maybe Harry Partch was an exception), but we all know the ways of the world well enough to keep changing and disguising it until it sounds original (if you don't believe my claim that all songwriters copy models of other songs, I want a better explanation of why almost all pop songs use only about 3 or 4 structures, e.g., 16 bar verse, chorus, verse, chorus, 8 bar bridge, verse chorus). The kids don't always understand the theory of making the audience think their work is "original" and will just use a favorite phrase as they have heard it - anyway, it is more challenging, fun and funnier for the kids to transform/make up their own ideas.

After the band name battles, it's time for lyrics. If they can't think of anything, mmake suggestions: TV shows, horror movies, school lessons, jump rope, on and on. Sometimes the name of the band is enough to trigger lyrics. Often they will write lyrics down, but improvising singly or in groups keeps everyone interested, and generally is the best approach. Then once they improvise, if something is particularly outstanding, suggest they expand on it. After there is plenty of material, it will be up to you to mix it

Now show them how to play those easy instruments like slide whistles and record them - tell them to LISTEN to the tracks they already recorded first before playing.

If there is still time - the above steps usually take about 2 hours - they can help choose the best parts and start mixing with you. They often get too excited at this step...

Not much advice for mixing - mostly figure out what to throw out! Many hours of several tracks will be distilled to a 120 second song.

I hope the ease and fun of this project will encourage you to try it . Send me any cool mp3s to hear - maybe we can release some of them or put on the website - and if you find new means or variations on this approach, I'll post them here.

Read the recording notes to see who did what.

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