by Zach Mayo
No matter who you are or where you’re from, music can be a powerful form of expression. In a small underground room in Chapel Hill, this music is changing people’s lives.
Tucked away underneath Franklin Street in the basement of the post office, a soft-spoken high school student named Simon Lee sits at a computer. He brings up a program, hits a few buttons on the keyboard, and then the room explodes with music.
The song is one of his own creations, and the room is the Beat Making Lab, a community music studio where locals come to create their own hip hop beats. Lee has been coming to the lab for about a year, and he helps run it two days a week after school.
“Music has always been in my family” Lee said. “You can ask my mom and dad, before I pretty much learned to read I was learning the counts of music and what types of different music there was.”
The concept of the lab was born in 2011, when UNC music professor Mark Katz and hip hop producer Steve Levitin, also known as Apple Juice Kid, realized they could each help each other out. Katz was trained in music and certified to teach, while Levitin was an established beat maker. Both wanted to teach hip-hop on campus. Current lab leader and UNC professor Pierce Freelon explains.
“Why is it that we have a music department where you can study jazz, you can study classical, you can, for crying out loud, go sing opera if you want to,” Freelon said. “How many opera singers do you know on a typical college campus versus R & B singers or rappers? It’s probably one hundred to one, literally, rappers to opera singers. Yet, our music department has an opera component and not a rap one.”
Freelon joined on in 2012 and after more successful classes, he realized he wanted to take the lab on the road and bring it to new communities. From there, the idea took off to unexpected lands.
With the help of many donations, he took the lab all over the world, from the Congo to Panama, then to Senegal, Fiji, Ethiopia and Kenya. Freelon says at each location, collaborating with locals was easy.
“Hip-hop is a global culture,” Freelon said. “When we were in the Congo, there was a line of 20 emcees that wanted to get down and rock over one of our beats, and I didn’t teach them how to rap. They were self-taught, and there were amazing producers already on the ground.”
But after two years of traveling, Freelon is back in Chapel Hill and focused on Franklin Street’s lab. It turns out the studio is having just as much impact on U.S. soil as it had overseas. UNC students take classes here, but so do other people in the community.
Kimberally Richardson, who heard about the lab on the news, has been making music here for about six months. She read from a journal entry to sum up what the lab means to her.
“Beat making has really changed my life,” Richardson said. “It has helped me face the fear of speaking. Growing up, I’ve always been shy and nervous to speak in front of people. But this journey has built my confidence. I’m thankful for this experience to express myself through music. Being a wife and a mother of two, it has been a safe, peaceful environment where I can come and relieve some stress. This has really became my second home.”
And as Lee sits in the lab and plays his beats, he says he loves the different backgrounds of those who come to work.
“It’s really fun,” Lee said. “You get to know that you’re always helping the community, you’re helping somebody achieve their goal and you know that was your goal not too long ago.”
Looking around, it’s clear that the lab offers different things for different people.
For Freelon, it’s a chance to reach out to the community.
For Richardson, it’s a form of expression.
As for Lee, he’ll be graduating high school in the spring and heading to college. He doesn’t know where he’ll end up, but he says he wants to become a music producer someday, and that the lab has helped him take the first steps to reaching his dream.