(The Root) — In hip-hop, the DJ has always been heralded as the most important member of a rap group. For years, artists have written odes to their mix masters, whether it was Run-DMC showering Jam Master Jay with praise or Rakim proclaiming that "Eric B Is President."
But recently a group of Atlanta-based DJs have been worried that in this era of technological innovation, the role of the classic disc jockey — cutting, scratching, blending and creating beats by digging in crates — might be lost to future generations. So the collective — led by DJ Don Cannon, vice president of A&R at Def Jam Records; DJ Drama, who is known for his "Gangsta Grillz" mixtape series; and DJ Sense, a syndicated radio host on Sirius XM's Shade 45 channel — decided to start their own school of deejaying so they could give back to the next generation of young artists.
Dubbed "The Academy," the school has turned into an elite collective of 20 up-and-coming personalities who, according to Sense, were hand-picked by the trio because of their talents on the 1s and 2s and ability to identify what's hot in the music industry.
"The reason why we became so successful [in the industry] when we first started is because we never wanted to be the typical DJ," said Sense after The Academy's two-day launch event earlier this month. "When we started The Aphilliates [Music Group] back in 2003, we always wanted to master the art of branding, marketing and entrepreneurship. Being a DJ was the foundation for all of this."
Indeed, The Academy is more than just about teaching skills. The three artists are also preserving the cultural genesis of hip-hop, which starts with the DJ and an obsession with doing school. Of the four fundamental elements that converged to start this post-civil rights arts movement, the DJ's primary job has been to provide the space for exploring hip-hop's other elements, whether it's the graffiti artist publicly tagging messages within colorful murals of art or breakdancing battle crews sharpening their uprocks and freezes. For sure, if the MC is the "teacha," as rapper KRS-One refers to himself, then the DJ is the "school principal" — the headmaster, so to speak.
Of course, the idea for a DJ school isn't new. Over the years, several have popped up across the country, including Scratch Academy, in New York, founded by Jam Master Jay. But The Academy differs in that the founders want to help established DJs improve their skills — the school doesn't take novices. The point is to deepen the skill set of established DJs so they can better master their craft and raise their profile.
Originally from Philadelphia, the trio moved to Atlanta to attend Clark Atlanta University. On that campus, they started hustling mixtape CDs, ultimately becoming a driving force in marketing Southern hip-hop and rap artists beyond Southern borders. As The Aphilliates, Drama, Cannon and Sense were the go-to guys for every underground MC wanting to use the unregulated nature of the mixtape as a messaging and marketing tool.
This strategy for introducing new artists, such as Young Jeezy, and catapulting the careers of others like Lil Wayne ultimately led to the creation of new laws pertaining to music piracy after Cannon and Drama were arrested in 2007 for felony violations of Georgia's RICO law. After amassing a remarkable amount of money, power and respect in the wake of their 2007 woes, The Aphilliates realized that there was a need for leadership that nurtures the next generation of DJs — especially in an industry that walks a fine line between maintaining old-school ways and introducing new-school trends.
"We are leaders," Sense said. "So now we are thinking: Let's do things in a more structured way because we never had any mentorship. It's the newer, more mature, more experienced version of The Aphilliates being taught to the new and up-and-coming."
The Academy's inaugural class of DJs includes a total of 20 radio personalities, producers, songwriters and party rockers who have mastered the art of deejaying and acquired a following in their respective markets — both nationally and locally.
When asked about how one gets into The Academy, DJ Sense described the process as akin to a student applying to college. "You have to have certain scores on the SATs to get into a good school," he said, laughing. "We go through a process of who we want to have as part of the movement. We want some exclusivity to it in order to create something that is ahead of the curve. Whoever the individuals are that we decide to choose from, those basic skills necessary for success have already been created. They've already scored good on the SAT."
OK, I get it. But as an educator and hip-hop aficionado, I know that scoring well on a standardized test is only part of a student's success in college. The passion has to be there, along with a fundamental respect for where the culture comes from and a vision for where it is headed. So I got to wondering how these three DJ "school principals" would ensure a return on their investments.
I am told that the talented 20 are young DJs who exhibit many of the same qualities that The Aphilliates see within themselves. "They are the trendsetters who separate themselves from the pack," Sense said. "They were not following the same guidelines and rules. When we go through the process, we can see early stages of those things being developed. All we want to do is enhance it and develop it, offering certain pieces of advice that can enhance their brand."
Enhancing the brand of the DJ is not separate from preserving hip-hop culture. With the establishment of The Academy, Cannon, Drama and Sense are joining a community of traditional educational institutions that have committed themselves to creating hip-hop archives and programs that conserve and protect the cultural narrative of hip-hop in an age when its core practices and philosophies of self-knowledge have been clouded by mass media, advertising and commercial greed.
Lord knows, the last thing hip-hop needs is more imposters acting as if they love going to hip-hop school, when the real goal is to start a food fight in the cafeteria. So let's hope that these 20 apprentices don't flunk out of The Academy. Let's hope that they will graduate magna cum laude, move on to the next level of success and remain students of the culture as they build their respective brand identities and the next generation.
"We spoke to a group of eighth-graders during The Academy's launch week," Sense concluded. "We talked to them about adversity, leadership, perseverance and not being afraid to be an individual. We took it upon ourselves and said, 'Let's be responsible for our culture. Let's be voices for our culture. Let's set examples and be role models just to keep interest in what we do [as DJs] alive.' This is definitely part of what we are doing with The Academy."
Joycelyn A. Wilson is an assistant professor at Virginia Tech and a Hiphop Archive alumnus fellow at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University.