A hip-hop beat bounces across a public library computer lab. Zen Xavier stands over the shoulder of audio engineer Audrey Martinovich as his words, recorded just moments ago, interweave with the beat: “I told him even if his mama didn’t care / I would always be there.” It’s a song about a friend on the autism spectrum.

Meanwhile, Alex Fritz, next up in the booth, is writing and rewriting and rewriting lyrics, just to commit them to memory and overcome the stage fright that always seems to be in the way. It’s a song about never giving up on yourself.

Zen Xavier awaits his cue in the recording booth at the Central Library Media Lab.
Zen Xavier awaits his cue in the recording booth at the Central Library Media Lab.

Xavier, Fritz and 16 other students at Clark Street School in Middleton have spent this semester writing and revising and recording every word and every beat that will be released on a digital mix tape on May 13. They’ll also perform that night at the Play Circle at the Union Theater.

This is the Clark Street Studio Project, the brainchild of UW PhD candidate Mike Dando and Clark Street teacher Matt Ecklund.

“There are few times in life when something you have envisioned comes to fruition,” says Dando, currently finishing his dissertation on multicultural education. “These students are taking the academic and intellectual work embedded in the hip-hop culture and they’re making the most of that. Rather than saying we’re using hip-hop to teach English or to teach math, it’s just embedded. It’s not Schoolhouse Rap. We’re not just putting standard curriculum to a beat. We’re re-envisioning the curriculum.”

Mike Dando
Mike Dando

Dando says the students learn writing skills as well as the all-important skill of revision, based on feedback from fellow students. They learn science and math on the mixing board. They learn collaboration through the production process. And they learn important things about themselves and their own skills.

“There have been kids who’ve said, ‘I didn’t know I could write,’” Dando says. “As a teacher, what more do you need?”

“I think I’ve learned how to open up more,” says Fritz, a 15-year-old sophomore. “I wrote raps before but I was too scared to open up. I’ve gotten a lot more confident.”

DSC_0765The program began in conversations between Dando and Ecklund, and expanded to include the Madison Public Libraries when the school started looking for studio space. Central Library is home to a media lab and recording studio that seems tailor-made for a program like Clark Street Studio.

The library also came packaged with an expert in the form of library staffer Rob Dz, himself a well-known hip-hop artist. He serves as an advisor and mentor, assisting with everything from lyrics to how the studio works to the proper standing position to record a rap.

“A lot of these kids have never been in a studio before,” he says. “I’m really impressed by their desire to try. We might get a kid that might not go to any other class, and this is the one class they go to. Therefore I can help a lot of these kids open up. Their content, their effort, their appreciation is very easy to see.”

Rob Dz says the class helps students understand the details of the entire creative process.

“We’re going beyond the watered-down rap element of it,” he says. “It’s more than a boom boom click.”

He says the goal isn’t to turn all of the students into MCs.

“My hope for these kids is that they are able to appreciate being able to express themselves,” he says. “Hopefully that helps lead to other things. Do I expect all of them to become rappers? No. That’s not the point. But I want them to learn how to express themselves. Hopefully in the bigger scheme of things they learn more about themselves, and that will shape them and help them find more direction.”

Dando says integrating curriculum into hip-hop engages students in ways that are relevant to them. They’re not just writing, but they’re writing about social justice, race, food security.

“People always say ‘kids don’t want to write their essays,’” Dando says. “They do, they just don’t want to write your essay. They’re taking these serious issues and they’re writing about them, thinking, working outside of school. Kids are coming in and saying, ‘Check out this beat I made.’ They’re not doing that with their math homework. They want to share what they’re learning. They’re taking what they’re learning, applying it to their lived experience. It’s a culturally relevant, multicultural learning space.”

This first semester, the program has run on “half a shoestring,” Dando says, but has grant funding through the UW School of Education to continue and expand next year.

The result of this semester’s work will be available for download for a $5 suggested donation to Clark Street School on May 13. The class will perform at 7 p.m. that evening at the Play Circle at the Wisconsin Union Theater.