Classically trained pianist and hip-hop musician Wendel Patrick teaches Peabody's first hip-hop class, Hip Hop Music Production: History and Practice.
The John Hopkins University's Peabody Conservatory can feel like a musical oasis from another age. It offers degrees in early Baroque instruments and music theory pedagogy, and many of the composers in the curriculum have been dead for centuries.
Yet on a recent weeknight inside Mount Vernon's Centre Street Performance Studio, there stood Hank Shocklee, member of the Bomb Squad, the influential hip-hop production team behind Public Enemy's seismic brand of raw, informed rap — the musical form that arguably feels most alive, most culturally relevant.
Fifty or so Peabody students, along with fans who had heard about the class' open invitation to the public, listened as Shocklee shared first-hand knowledge and vivid anecdotes of helping shape the course of rap music.
Earlier in the night, the man who made the event possible — Wendel Patrick, a 43-year-old musician, radio-show host and staple of the local arts scene — introduced Shocklee.
"My jaw just hit the floor," Patrick said, describing the first time he heard Public Enemy's "Rebel Without a Pause." "It was one of the most influential songs in my life."
A student of rap since its beginnings, Patrick is now the teacher. A classically trained pianist and a hip-hop musician, he was tapped to teach Peabody's first hip-hop class, Hip Hop Music Production: History and Practice, said Dean Fred Bronstein.
Bringing these worlds closer together not only signals Peabody modernizing its approach and curriculum, but it continues Bronstein's efforts to prepare more well-rounded musicians for a changing job market.
"If we want to break down barriers, I think we have to train students to think differently about what it means to be a musician," Bronstein said. "We're looking for ways in our curriculum to actually enrich what our students are doing, and this [class] is one example of that."
The initial idea came from Louna Dekker-Vargas, 23, a flute performance major from New York. She was a new fan of rap, attracted by the intricate production and jazz influences of songs by Chance the Rapper and Kendrick Lamar. Hip-hop, she said, "really makes me happy."
In Baltimore, the streets are brimming with unsung stories, and Aaron Henkin and Wendel Patrick, the producers of the WYPR documentary series "Out of the Blocks," have been on a quest to give residents and business owners a chance to share them, block by block.
Knowing rap's popularity in Baltimore, she thought learning more about the music would offer insight into the city and its residents. With the help of faculty member David Smooke, Dekker-Vargas' proposal for a hip-hop class was awarded one of seven dean's incentive grants.
Smooke and Bronstein said they loved the idea for a hip-hop class immediately — and Smooke knew who should teach it.
"I've known [Patrick] for years, and he's uniquely qualified for this sort of project," Smooke said.
Wendel Patrick was born Kevin Gift. The Washington-born musician studied classical piano in Venezuela as a child, earned a master's in piano performance from Northwestern University and played venues around the world. After moving to Baltimore in 1997, he experimented by fusing jazz and hip-hop, and in the process created an alter-ego, Wendel Patrick, named after his twin brother who died shortly after birth.
He's continued to operate within the two worlds he loves, classical training and hip-hop. He's released hip-hop albums of his own, and co-created the improvised concert series Baltimore Boom Bap Society that brings together local musicians of all backgrounds and MCs. Patrick also taught music at Loyola University Maryland.
Patrick has been encouraged to see the school's commitment to the concept.
"They've been incredibly supportive, giving me whatever it is that I need, and they have been very, very serious about this," Patrick said. "I think [Dean Bronstein] strongly believes this is one way to really make Peabody better, and to have Peabody impact the community in a positive manner."
Applying an academic approach to hip-hop history excited Patrick. Dekker-Vargas reminded him of what it was like to fall in love with the art form.
"From a very young age, even though I was studying classical music, I was just drawn to hip-hop," Patrick said, seated inside his Mount Vernon apartment, surrounding by production equipment, turntables and vinyl records. "I think it's something that hip-hop just does. When people come across it, at any point in their lives, there's something really visceral about it, and I think that's what she was experiencing."
Inside the classroom
For two hours on Monday nights, Patrick teaches, via his own PowerPoint slides, the genre's history while emphasizing the producers and the eras their work came to define. He also presents material through a sociological lens, like how gang culture of the 1970s and '80s later shaped attitudes and norms in hip-hop.
In each class, Patrick teaches students to make their own beats with the computer program Ableton Live.
"It gives you another layer of respect for the trade," Dekker-Vargas said. "You realize how hard it physically is to tap out what you think is the simplest beat."
Patrick's industry connections have led to a roster of guest speakers including the Roots' producer Dice Raw, spoken-word artist Ursula Rucker and Baltimore rapper Eze Jackson.
Rucker, a poet and recording artist who has collaborated with Patrick, discussed hip-hop as poetry and her vocal approach to rap beats versus other styles in a lecture this month. She was impressed by the class' engagement, as she answered their questions on how she started her career and the creative decisions she makes.
"It was highly concentrated in a short period," Rucker said.
During the class, she and Patrick — who've toured Europe together — performed hip-hop compositions they'd written together. He created the beats live with electronic equipment and his mouth as a beatbox, while Rucker performed her poetry. She believes Patrick is motivated to show the students hip-hop is much more than what's on the radio or on TV.
"He likes to really educate his students about how ... hip-hop can hold so many elements at once and still be viable and still be hip-hop," Rucker said.
Kayin Scanterbury, a junior jazz performance major, was surprised to see a hip-hop class offered. The creativity spurred from Patrick's computer lab sessions has influenced his jazz work. He produces music in his spare time and finds fusing the two genres comes naturally.
"The worlds definitely overlap," said Scanterbury, 20, of Wyncote, Pa. "I'll have an idea in my head as a drummer, and then I'll be like, 'Oh yeah, I can just put this into the beat.'"
Patrick taught Scanterbury how to create the type of beats that make people want to dance. A standout class session came when Patrick assigned a project to build a beat while incorporating Miles Davis samples. Learning how to sample, an essential element of hip-hop production, made an impression on Scanterbury.
He plans to pursue jazz performance after school, but said Patrick's class would inform his musical outlook.
"I love listening to hip-hop, so being able to actually make and be a part of that and having the tools to be able to do that is pretty cool," he said. "It's me trying to expand my creativity."
Patrick's course has also prompted Scanterbury to appreciate hip-hop on a richer level now, he said.
"This class taught me there's a lot more to hip-hop than just the music," he said. "Hip-hop is a culture."
Dekker-Vargas loves the class, and has heard similar reactions from fellow students, she said. She said her recent love of hip-hop isn't merely musical, but also societal, calling the genre "such a strong protest form." She's paying attention to how rap reacts to the country's current disharmony.
In April 2015, in the aftermath of Freddie Gray's death, Dekker-Vargas was alarmed by what she considered insensitive reactions from within the Peabody community.
"I saw some terrible responses on Facebook of some students saying, 'Oh, there are all of these violent protests happening outside, but I'm going to make my beautiful music inside and ignore that,'" she said. "It kind of crystallized in that moment — this ivory tower effect."
When he arrived as dean in 2014, Bronstein said he immediately noticed the perception Dekker-Vargas referred to — that Peabody was seen as insular in the greater Baltimore community — and vowed to change it.
"I was very vocal about it. ... 'No, we have to be outward looking. We have to put up the shades, open the doors,'" said Bronstein. Under his watch, Peabody has produced pop-up concerts throughout the city and made its concerts free to the public. "This is where our curriculum is going. The community needs to be an extension of the classroom and the studio."
Dekker-Vargas is encouraged by the class and these initiatives, but also believes a lasting, positive effect at Peabody can only be achieved through thoughtful and proper execution. Having Patrick teach a class like this gives it the credibility it needs, she said.
Bronstein said he has yet to receive an official proposal for the class' continuation, but "but based on the response we've had to it, I'd love to see the class continue."
Patrick would love to continue to teach the class and even expand into an advanced class. Aside from teaching a deserving American art form, he knows that the class' value will translate well beyond the classroom.
"I think the more places you're prepared to step in and participate and contribute," Patrick said, "I think the better it's going to be for you as a musician in terms of a career."