Using the Power of Hip-Hop

Oakland nonprofit Today’s Future Sound uses beat making to empower kids, veterans, and others.


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Photo by Brian DeSimone Photography

There are several reasons to love the Michael Jackson song “Billie Jean.” One of those, according to Elliot Gann, is that it’s an ideal way to teach people the structure of most modern songs. It’s the perfect blueprint, he explained, because the kick is on the one and the three, and the snare is on the two and the four. “And if you listen to most pop songs and hip-hop songs, the snare and the clap or the snap hits on the two and the four, and there’s almost always, 97 percent of the time, a kick drum on at least the one and the three,” Gann said. “It’s the perfect generic beat that everyone knows.”

The song is an essential part of Gann’s toolkit as executive director of Oakland nonprofit Today’s Future Sound, which uses hip-hop beat making as an educational and therapeutic tool in programs for youth of all ages. Musician Ben Durazzo started the group in 2010 and Gann, a clinical psychologist, joined in 2012. Gann estimated that the organization now serves around 3,500 to 4,000 youth in the Bay Area annually through the nonprofit’s work taking place in various schools, after-school programs, and juvenile detention facilities. (The nonprofit also caters to adults with programs for veterans and corporate team building.) 

At the programs, kids learn the fundamentals of beat making, often by taking the beat from “Billie Jean” and transforming it into something new. Instructors, who are working musicians themselves, come in with a handful of Ableton controllers, and by the end of the session, kids have produced their own song. The benefits of music on a child’s development is well documented, but the group believes that hip-hop in particular makes an effective teaching tool. One obvious reason is that it’s usually what kids are listening to on their own, so they’re already engaged and know what a song should sound like. And the students that the group works with, who often come from underserved and disenfranchised communities, can relate to the genre’s themes of struggle and empowerment. The students are allowed a level of power they might not have in other areas of their life — they’re able to give themselves a new DJ name and an outlet to express their worldview.

“It’s the No. 1 most popular genre in the world. It’s the No. 1 most impactful on popular culture and popular music since 1963. It speaks to people who are marginalized, like the young black and brown African American[s] and Afro-Latino[s] in South Bronx who created what we now call and know as hip-hop culture,” Gann said. He emphasized that hip-hop isn’t just a genre, but an entire culture unto itself. “It gives a voice to the voiceless. It creates a counter narrative to the mainstream narrative. And that’s why it’s so appealing to so many people who have been marginalized or oppressed.”

The group’s ultimate goal, said Damon Johnson, the group’s strategic marketing lead, is to end the school-to-prison pipeline. And a step toward that goal is helping kids get excited about learning a new skill, in teaching them how to channel the energy or anger that might get them labeled as a bad kid, in a productive, artistic way. The genre teaches students other skills, too. There’s the hand-eye coordination of using a beat making machine, the interpersonal and intrapersonal skills of working with other artists all while monitoring the crowd and adjusting the music to the crowd’s responses. Plus, Johnson pointed out, the kids are learning a marketable skill. “Some of these kids have never had access to a laptop,” he said. “If a kid walks out and knows how to use Ableton, that kid can work for the rest of his or her life.”

Today’s Future Sound has received lots of positive feedback over the years — stories about disengaged kids lighting up with excitement when instructors arrive — but not all schools have embraced the program. Some schools don’t see the value in the skills TFS teaches. “We’re in one of the most creative, the most innovative place in the world, arguably. And you have to think creatively and innovatively, and that’s what hip-hop did,” Gann said. The Bay Area’s startups focus on creativity and ingenuity, all of which hip hip is built on, he says. 

“This is the most innovative culture in the world, and it speaks to people globally, and it’s constantly evolving and changing and sampling and flipping ideas on its head in the way that we’re asking scientists to innovate,” Gann said. “So why are we asking kids to do rote learning and stale old outdated curriculum?”

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