“It’s crucial to teach self-confidence and the knowledge to survive”: inside the UK’s first School of Rap

Many of your favourite artists studied music, but rap has been absent from the curriculum – until now. Welcome to the university course that sets the bar

Samiul ‘Hush’ Khan never dreamed of being a rapper. He didn’t even think anyone else in his hometown was into rap. “There’s almost no-one from my city doing it,” says the 20-year-old, who grew up in Portsmouth. “And none of them have given light to that area.”

The lack of a local “scene” to join, or be inspired by, is one of the reasons he never considered a career in music to be a viable option. Facetiousness was another. “A lot of people don’t take hip-hop or rap seriously,” he says. “Other musicians look at us like we don’t know what we’re doing.”

But a new university course aims to challenge all this, and has given Khan – and many others – a renewed sense of self and purpose. Aside from making music his livelihood, Khan hopes that the next generation needn’t have such a limited outlook; his ambition is to put rap, and Portsmouth, firmly on the map.

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Students at ACM Guildford (Rob Blackham)

It may come as a surprise, but chances are that many of your favourite artists are music school alumni. From stars such as Dua Lipa to James Blake and Adele, UK pop and indie is full of musicians who honed their talents at a variety of institutions specialising in performing arts. Some, such as Adele, attended high schools that blend vocational artistic studies with a traditional curriculum. Others, like Blake, studied full time at college or university. Courses at such institutions range from a BMus in Popular Music to a BA in Electronic Music Production and a BMus in Vocal Studies. You can even get a degree in Jazz.

Yet for all the variety on offer at these esteemed centres of learning, one style of music is conspicuous by its absence: rap. In any form, be it hip-hop, trap or grime, the genre has long been ignored academically and educationally, despite being a cornerstone of popular culture and dominating the charts for decades. This is slowly changing. Launched last September, the Academy of Contemporary Music’s new two-year BA (Hons) Music Industry Practice Rap and MC Pathway is the first course of its kind, and aims to be the first big step towards rap being acknowledged as a respected art form in educational circles.

Rap school is here, and ACM have big plans for it.

Rapper Shao Dow
Rapper and course tutor Shao Dow (Lewis Blackburn)

“The first thing you have to understand is that we’re not teaching people to rap. The course is so much more than that.”

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NME is sitting opposite rapper Shao Dow on a train bound for ACM’s Guildford campus, where the course is based (it’s also taught at their Birmingham location). Headhunted by ACM to help put the degree together, Shao Dow worked with the university to create all the technical studies modules from scratch, centring learning around what he calls “the four disciplines of rap”: lyricism, flow, delivery and originality.

According to ACM’s prospectus, students also “analyse music theory, study the ideologies behind skilful artistry, develop analytical skills for song and lyric writing, receive integral guidance on how to hold audiences through effective performance and how to captivate listeners with the art of freestyle.” A beginners’ guide to rapping this most certainly is not.

“We want to teach them how to create a business” – tutor Shao Dow

Of course, it’s impossible to learn passion in the classroom. Ditto some basic skills. Many say that rap – like music is general – is something felt, not taught, and that either you have ‘it’ or you don’t. The students here already have a high degree of ability, technical and otherwise. Honing this is a focus, as is making the most of existing talent. The possibility of a total novice like me doing the course and becoming competent is, suffice to say, completely non-existent.

But there’s also a hard-nosed, pragmatic edge to the course. “We want to teach them how to create a business, and how to make a living from what they do,” says Shao Dow. “Giving them the self-confidence and the necessary knowledge to survive as artists is crucial here. Of course we want them to develop their craft, and get better at rapping, but being a creative entrepreneur and building a sustainable career – and showing them that such a thing possible – is just as important.”

school of rap
Shao Dow (right) and student Roscoe Ashdown (left) plus former tutor AC (ACM)

For Shao Dow, this involved thinking about “the things I wish I’d known when I started out – how to book a tour, how royalties work, that sort of thing”, and he’s perfectly placed to be giving advice. Defiantly independent – he’s never signed a record deal – he’s as much an entrepreneur as a rapper, and has built a successful career and brand with little outside help from labels or management (although he now has a manager, he still books his own tours). Three self-released albums have sold north of 30,000 copies, and he’s taken a pop-up shop of his merchandise – designed by himself, of course – around the country’s shopping centres. He’s even published a manga comic through his own company, DiY Gang Entertainment.

That altruistic element – the sense that ACM hopes to impart more than mere knowledge or skill – is also emphasised by Kainne Clements, CEO and Executive Chairman of ACM. Genial yet focussed, he talks of empowerment and giving the students self-worth – music, he says, is simply a good way to achieve this: “It’s about unlocking every unique individuals’ potential, and helping them be the best version of themselves.” To this end, the sense of hierarchy and authority traditionally present at university is entirely absent – questioning, and collaboration are openly encouraged.

“I say to the students: ‘Tell me what you need – this is how to present it, and we’ll help you sort it’”, says Clements. To date, this has included numerous student-run record labels, in-house video production and even a student magazine. A custom app, myACM, encourages cross collaboration across the entire student body, as do various social events and open jam sessions. There’s a palpable sense that ACM wants to equip young people with the skills to not just manage their careers, but their lives.

“Who can tell me about J Dilla?”

Shao Dow and Dr. Tony Briscoe, one of the course’s other tutors, are running through a song-craft workshop, ‘Rhythm: Concepts & Analysis’, the first of several classes NME is invited to sit in on. (The teaching team also includes rappers Funky DL and Jimmy Davis, educator and entrepreneur Julian Hall, and songwriter-turned-academic Nathan Richards). Briscoe – a prolific composer and producer with a PhD in Sound & Vibrations, and a former mentor to the likes of Craig David – is demonstrating how Dilla deconstructed beats using an MPC3000, playing around with the kick drum and snare to give his music a unique feel and groove.

“Your music needs to swing, yeah?” Briscoe says. “If it doesn’t, it can end up a little…boring.” He moves on to looking at the prominence in rap of the triplet flow, first popularised by Migos, and how to create different lanes through a beat to rap in. To demonstrate, he constructs a beat off the cuff – one that definitely “swings” – and invites someone to freestyle over it. Levi “LXDXP” Bennett, a 20-year-old from Lewisham, volunteers and delivers a quite brilliant verse; his classmates are clearly impressed.

The students are then tasked with making three different beats – trap, boom bap, and afrobeat – based on the session’s principles. Some sit at workstations – iMacs with Logic, and mini Yamaha keyboards – and some have their own laptops. “You have to give information to them in a context they understand,” says Briscoe as he walks around, checking on progress and giving tips. “Everyone is capable of learning.”

“Everyone is capable of learning to rap” – tutor Dr. Tony Briscoe

In fact, all 13 students are frighteningly precocious, bursting with ideas and determined to succeed artistically. Some, like Bennett and Garren Cade, an 18-year-old from Ashford, Kent, wish to focus on performing. Others, like Khan, are more interested in production and studio craft. But all of them emphasise how important the existence of such a course is, validating their love for rap and giving them belief that this passion can be turned into a career.

Many of them are entirely self-taught; messing around with Logic or Ableton from an early age, or just growing up in a musical household, encouraged by parents and siblings to get involved. Several transferred from other ACM courses, drawn by the performance element and the sense that a curriculum designed explicitly for rappers would be a better fit. “Lots of uni courses are more for singers, or just full on production,” says Zak Pendlebury, 18, from Nottingham, whose stage name is Leo Maroon. “I want to rap, though, so this is perfect.”

They talk admiringly of the laid-back vibe, and the sense of practicality that runs through everything they’re taught – real-world skills that they’re already putting to good use. Bennett promotes shows in London and performs regularly. “I didn’t think I’d be able to pick up some of the skills as quickly as I have,” he says; his elective this term is extra keyboard lessons. Cade, who goes by the name Darren With A G, is even more effusive. “I wouldn’t even release my old songs now,” he says. “The level I’m at now, compared to where I was… I’ve improved and learned so much.”

Classtime at ACM (ACM)

Cade also talks glowingly of the opportunities students are given outside the classroom. ACM has strong industry links, which are leveraged to give students the sort of direct access that even money can’t buy. There are masterclasses with renowned individuals drawn from across the musical spectrum, work placements, and the chance to attend special concerts. London’s Metropolis Studios – Europe’s largest independent recording studio and a favourite of the likes of Stormzy, Beyoncé, Drake, and Kendrick Lamar – is a partner. Here students can watch Grammy winning engineers and producers at work, or even record during the studio’s downtime (it’s open and staffed 24/7).

There is a notable fact about the course’s debut cohort, though. Despite coming from a wide range of social and racial backgrounds, all are male. “No girls applied for Guildford,” admits Martin “Ace” Kent, guitarist in Skunk Anansie and ACM’s Director of Creative Industry Development. “We do have female rappers on the creative artist degree there in other pathways, who also sing, and there is one very talented female MC doing the Rap/MC pathway in Birmingham,” he adds. “Ultimately, this is the first year. There are very dope female rappers out there, and I’m confident we’ll get more young women applying as word spreads about the availability and quality of the course.”

Over in a technical studies class, Shao Dow is breaking down a number of performances on YouTube to highlight stagecraft; how the artists move, interact with the crowd, even what they are wearing.

“Watch these clips,” he says, “and tell me what you notice. What are they doing differently?”

He picks out a specific performance. “See, when he takes his cap off, he’s rapping from a different perspective – he becomes the other protagonist in the song.” Stage presence, he sagely notes, is something that many novices overlook, but needs just as much graft and thought as lyric writing or beat making. “All of this shapes your personality as an artist.”

He moves onto breath control and breathing techniques, something he never knew the importance of starting out – he had to figure it out himself. He gets the students to do a verse, followed by some dynamic exercise movements, then the same verse again; a few understandably struggle.

“Rap is like any music: you have a message that you want to express” – student Garren Cade

“You have to work with that feeling of being out of breath,” he says. “You need to know you can still perform.” After some hints and tips, he tells the students to practice at home; they’ll re-visit the exercise in a few weeks, and he hopes to see some improvement.

Details like this count when it comes to assessments which, unsurprisingly, focus mainly on performance. As a fully accredited higher learning institute – the Rap and MC pathway is quality assured and awarded by Middlesex University – there remains an element of written work and even a few exams, yet things like performing to an audience, submitting recorded tracks or even designing and executing a release campaign for a single, carry far greater weight.

Such an holistic approach is typical of all ACM’s courses, but especially so for the Rap and MC pathway – both the institution, and Shao Dow, are keen to point out they are learning as much as the students. “As it’s a first, it’s a dynamic and evolutionary process,” says Ace. “We are creating a platform with the students as they are demanding it, and we’re not force-feeding them information.”

“Providing the tools to create their own career”: these are words NME hears more than once over our two days. As Shao Dow notes, the students are “hungry and talented, and want help to realise as much of their potential as possible. It’s our job to provide that.”

For their part, the students realise that, in the first year of anything, teething problems are inevitable. “At first it did feel like they’d thrown a bunch of modules together,” says Khan, “but now it’s starting to blend more. It feels more cohesive.” But they’re also aware how much the team of tutors are invested in their success. “Shao Dow sees how everybody has their own style, so he tailors how he teaches different things for each individual,” says Bennett. “That’s rare.”

The plan for the future is simple; expansion, and make the curriculum better still. Already they have a growing list of people who want to audition for the 2020 intake, and it’s likely the course will have to expand; two separate groups, or even more. “Only time will tell,” says Ace. But ACM are not resting on their laurels; on the Rap and MC pathway, as with all their courses, everything they do is dedicated to helping the students navigate the shifting sands that underpin the modern music industry.

The students, though, see an even loftier goal in all this; a wider acceptance, and understanding, of rap. “Rap is like any music; you have a feeling, you have a message, and you want to express that,” says Cade. “People think that it’s this violent thing, but it’s not,” adds Bennett. “Rappers rap about all sorts of things – love, friendship, life – so it needs to be approached with a more open mind.”

Khan puts it most eloquently. “As an artist, making people feel how you feel is the goal – your mindset, what you’re going through, what you’re trying to say, everything. When they connect with you through your music… that connection with the listener is unbreakable. Rap is no different.”​

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