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A final exam with a beat

The song begins with a phone ringing and a recorded voice. It's the title track from a new album called 1-800-Mix-Tape, 15 original songs composed and performed by students at UVA’s Rap Lab.

“You have reached the voice mail box of 1-800-Mix-Tape. You have reached the voice mail box of … You have reached the voice mail box of…” 

Hip Hop Dance
Dancers perform during a "final exam" concert by students studying hip hop.

The course was taught by rapper and Professor A.D. Carson whose doctoral dissertation was also a mix tape.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.  It was a 34-track album – maybe like 2.5 hours worth of music that I started writing in 2013," he recalls. "I felt like if I was going to turn in a project that described the album that I would be writing two dissertations, and I don’t imagine that they would have been up for giving me two PhDs.”

At first, he says, most students wanted to write songs about love, and some could not be dissuaded.

A.D. Carson
Rapper and UVA Professor A.D. Carson speaks to students during their final exam performance.

Song lyrics: “Feeling good, feeling great, because every kiss begins with K.  Feel like I don't gotta' say ….”

But Carson encouraged them to think about other subjects – to have confidence in their views about community and the world around them.

“They read James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, we read Jean Toomer’s Cane.  We read articles on a variety of topics, just to try and get them oriented to some histories of black art and politics and social issues.  Music that was coming out currently," he explains. "We talked about older music, and it just flowed from there.”

In the end there were songs about getting out of a toxic relationship, using drugs to cope with brain fog and dealing with social anxiety in the world of party culture – a tune called Pinkety Drinkety.

Song lyrics:  “I don’t like dancing with others. I don't like doing things that uncover all the mistakes we bring out in each other to show one another. I wouldn't recover. I'd rather just hover and leave — not go out and be seen, but if I stay in it's right on my screen, projections of life that I'll never reach, disguising the shame that I’m all alone.”

The lab offers all the electronic toys students need to make music, and Carson doesn’t care what instruments or software they use – as long as it sounds good.

“Because we know that throughout hip hop history, there are any number of technological advancements that come from people using technology wrong," he explains. "People are scratching records.  People are making things that are not drums into drum sounds, and the students get to practice that every day.”

By the end of the course, students said they had learned a lot about music, about Black culture, but the real surprise for a generation obsessed with smart phones, tablets and computers, was how great collaboration in person could be. 

“You’re forced to talk to other people and to get to know them, because you have to understand their artistry as well if you’re going to make something bigger than yourself,” says Akimi Gyamfi.

 “Before this I was pretty anti-social and I didn’t really talk to people," adds T'Asia Parker. "I created connections to people that I wouldn’t otherwise have made connections with."

Song lyrics: “Many friends that I haven’t seen and I don’t even know where they be.  I’m all alone with my memories, and that’s why I’ve been thinking about my many friends.”

At the concert that served as their final exam, invited guests seemed to like what they heard, and Carson was ready to award good grades, but he saw another, more important reward – strong friendships formed through creative collaboration.  

This weekend he will celebrate his students’ graduation and the release of his latest album – Talking to Ghosts. 

Listen to the album 1-800-Mix-Tape