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Hip Hop Librarian Spins Info Lit. An Interview With Craig Arthur

July 2, 2015, 12:55 pm

Craig Arthur

Craig Arthur (Radford)

Earlier I wrote about Carrie Donovan’s Keynote at the The Innovative Library Classroom Conference. There was another presentation that I found inspiring: Can You Kick It?  Bringing Hip Hop Pedagogy To The Library Classroom by Craig Arthur, Instruction Librarian at Radford University.

During the session Craig used two turntables to lead a discussion on plagiarism. He was kind enough to answer a few questions.

How did you get into hip hop?
I started buying music just as Hip Hop became “popular music.” The earliest memory I have of listening to hip hop music was riding the bus on a field trip seated next to an elementary school friend. He had a copy of a Too Short tape and one of those mind-blowingly fresh yellow Sony Walkmans. He must have owed me a favor because I remember listening to the tape the entire trip.  At 8 years old, it was probably for the best that I did not understand much of the content. I just knew it was subversive.

A few years later, the first hip hop album I owned was a dubbed tape of the Wu Tang Clan’s debut album Enter the 36 Chambers. I got it from a friend in early 1994 and played it until the tape popped. 36 Chambers changed how I heard music and still is one of my favorite albums. Looking back, I think the combination of heavy drums and vocal samples from kung fu flicks was what initially appealed to me. After that tape, there was no going back.

craig at conference

How does hip hop inspire your teaching? How do you use it in the classroom?
Hip hop inspires much more than my teaching praxis. I am thankful that I was enculturated in the last generation of pre-Internet hip hop. Navigating authentically Black, largely male dominated and working class spaces as a white, middle class kid undoubtedly informed (and still informs) my worldview. At a relatively young age, I learned how to be a part of something that was not about me and, as a result, I became very aware of my unearned societal privilege.

In the classroom, I use hip hop as a means to meet students where they are. Hip hop is unique in that it is one of the few facets of popular culture that regularly confronts issues of race, class, authenticity, and authority head on and without apology. I teach roughly 45 one shot sessions a semester; a good 75% of those are first-year seminar courses. While each of the students I teach is not a hip hop fan, I find that music sampling can be an disarming entry point to a discussion of academic integrity that is inspiring instead of punitive and judgmental. Rather than “don’t plagiarize or you’ll get kicked out of school!” we can reframe that narrative into “the world is a big place with billions of things that can inspire you; as long as you cite your sources you’ll be good!”

The academic research process and hip hop DJing/production undeniably employ different conventions. Despite these differences, both disciplines require that practitioners turn consumption into production. A skilled hip hop DJ/producer uses material from a wide variety of genres and eras to create something new that is, at its best, collectively greater than the sum of its many parts. This level of source synthesis is exactly what I hope students do in their research projects.

You mentioned working on a research project related to hip hop when you were in college—tell me about that.

WUVT

WUVT 90.7fm

For much of my time in undergrad, my primary foci were DJing and college radio. I first got involved in Virginia Tech’s station (WUVT 90.7fm) as a guest DJ on a friend’s show in the fall of 2001. I started my own show the following fall. I worked my way up to Hip Hop Director and eventually Program Director. As Hip Hop Director, I was responsible for soliciting labels for promotional copies (typically 12” records) of their new releases and then adding them to the station’s library. When I became Program Director, I worked with over 100 DJs to set the station’s schedule. When I wasn’t at the station, I DJed regularly (I had paying jobs Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights many weeks) for a wide variety of organizations and events.

It wasn’t until my final year that I started to see the connections between scholarly research (which I had barely tolerated to that point) and what I loved most. Recognizing my passion and requisite knowledge base, Dr. A. Kwame Harrison invited me to do an undergraduate research project in spite of my less than stellar academic record. About five years later, the project was a co-authored scholarly article published in Popular Music & Society. It began as a deep reading of Billboard Magazine in hopes of finding “hidden histories” pertaining to hip hop’s emergence as a commercially-viable music. As I spent countless hours scanning microfilm in the basement of Newman Library, something about that process resonated with me. It seemed very similar to getting dusty looking for records. I appreciate Kwame for giving me that opportunity; I am proud to call him a friend and regular collaborator a decade later.

One of my favorite opportunities in my current position is being part of what I semi-jokingly call a higher education street team. Instead of promoting independent label record releases (been there, done that, got too many t-shirts), we evangelize the transformative power of undergraduate research. The research project with Kwame didn’t just enrich my collegiate experience, it inspired and created many academic and professional opportunities that I would have never seen coming otherwise.

In your talk you mentioned that in the early days the person who carried the crates of records held a position of  prestige. Tell me more about that.
When I first started DJing, the barriers to entry were much greater than they are now. Not only did you have to acquire quite a bit of expensive equipment, you had to be constantly dedicated to building your record collection and working knowledge of music. It was necessary for a DJ to bring 500+ records to an event as well as two 50-pound turntable cases and large, unwieldy speakers. Most DJs I know that started in the pre-Internet era paid their dues by carrying other DJs’ record crates and equipment. This act not only showed deference to one’s elders and (importantly) allowed free entry to the parties (“I’m with the DJ!”) – it also granted the aspiring DJs access to information that they could not otherwise get without sweat equity. Gradually, as this information was de-commodified thanks to the Internet, I’ve found, anecdotally, that these “informal apprenticeships” have become increasingly rare.

How have you developed your craft as a DJ?
I learned largely by doing. Most of my closest friends growing up were also involved in hip hop (either as MCs or DJs or graffiti writers or bedroom beatmakers or some combination of the above) and we were all very competitive. Almost two decades later, many of us are still active participants.

Craig DJing in 03

Craig DJing in 2003

I was very lucky to have had a handful of mentors as I was coming into my own. The most notable was the local legend DJ Slate. He is a dozen or so years older than my peers and, while he would not teach us how to DJ, he would act as a sounding board, source of information, and stellar example. Who knows? Without Slate I might not have found this career that I love almost as much as DJing.

During your presentation you mentioned sampling, plagiarism, and the notion of intent. Can you share more about that?
One of my favorite examples to use in class is Beyonce and Nicki Minaj’s use of a very small but important piece of Outkast’s “SpottieOttieDopaliscious” in their “Flawless Remix.” The remix was released in August 2014 and was a success, so most of the students are familiar with it even if they have not heard of Outkast (that has really happened!). It is always interesting to get the students’ responses when I ask if the use of the “Spottie…” is acceptable according to different conventions. Most students think that Nicki and Beyonce were audibly citing their influences according to hip hop convention. What if we consider the same example through the lens of academia? Those answers are a little more nuanced. We can cover this discussion, music included, in about 5 to 10 minutes.

In your view, how has digital music impacted music creation and production?
I think most differences between the two eras are inexplicitly tied to an increased access to information. For example, it was not uncommon for DJs to cover (or remove or replace) the labels of their records so that onlookers would not be able to locate them. [Check out one of my all-time-favorite (explicit) hip hop rants from DJ Premier for evidence of this ethos.] With current technology like Shazam and sites like WhoSampled, that degree of gatekeeping is no longer possible. And, as a music lover and a librarian, I realize that it is probably for the best.

Any deep cuts you want to recommend to readers?
One of my favorites that exemplifies the source synthesis that I geek out over is Pete Rock’s “Pete’s Jazz” (YouTube) from his Petestrumentals album. It is probably too obscure to use in a class of first-year students but it is worth noting here. With just an E-mu SP1200 sampler, Pete Rock (one of the best producers to ever power up a drum machine) chopped up short samples from at least 4 records, altered and arranged the sounds, and programmed a drum track and a bass line on top of it all to create something new and radically different than the source material.

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