By Ricky O’Bannon

Rap and hip-hop have historically been shut out of the traditional music conservatory. But like jazz and rock before it, some institutions are starting to find a place for MCs alongside pianists and sopranos.

Jack “Jakaboski” Derbyshire recently became the first rapper to enroll in the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Based in London, Guildhall is a conservatory that has graduated the likes of composer Thomas Adès or cellist Jacqueline du Pré.

Derbyshire will spend two years as part of a master’s program in community-based creative leadership. Derbyshire — who will also release a new EP, Mount Strive, later this month  first came to consider the program after a close friend who studied jazz double bass at Guildhall introduced him to program director, Sigrun Saevarsdottir-Griffiths.

At the time, Derbyshire said he wasn’t considering continuing his education, but he volunteered to work with Griffiths’ husband, Paul, on a music workshop for foster kids and was sold on the program by the end of the day.

Jakaboski 400
Jack "Jakaboski" Derbyshire in a performance with the group
Strangelove, via Don't Let the Label Label You on YouTube.

To enroll in the program, Derbyshire was subject to a musical audition alongside violinists, cellists and other musicians who would become his peers.

“The audition was a bit nuts,” he said. “I thought it was all such a long shot but I guess it must have gone alright because I’m here now, right?”

Derbyshire said what he hopes to get from his time at Guildhall may change as time goes on, but in the short term he looks forward to working with the diverse musicians around him.

“At the moment I just want to throw myself into as many different situations as possible — experiment and collaborate with people, get to know my craft better and push the boundaries of it,” he said. “Rap is pretty underdeveloped in a lot of ways. It's young. There's so much further to go with it.”

Technology has managed to close access gaps of both geography and history for music. Young musicians are able to hear music from an era or place and put the pieces together in new and interesting ways. Hip-hop in particular — through its use of borrowing and reworking musical samples into raw materials for new music — is a music form where collaboration and reinvention are valued.

Derbyshire pointed to rapper and producer J Dilla who made use of jazz in his music in the mid-90s.

“Dilla sampled old jazz records and created something new, and in turn these young jazz musicians took from him and so on. I think we are in an interesting time in that we have unprecedented access to music,” Derbyshire said. “I can be on the bus and I can turn on my phone and listen to a dusty recording of an old Mississippi woman singing the blues in 1901 or a 2-step garage white label from ’99. In this way I think our appreciation for different genres and styles has grown, and that's a great thing.

“It’s probably the reason they let me through the doors at Guildhall in the first place. It's rare that you meet purists in any form these days,” he said. “It’s limiting, and the reality is if you want to work and make a living from what you do, you have to open up and be flexible.”

Rap, Derbyshire said, has been pulled from its roots in many ways as it became big business, which in turn might cause the general public to have a limited perception of what it can be. But Derbyshire also said he sees that rap is in a healthy place when many people are accepting it as a legitimate art form.

“It's our job to keep pushing the boundaries, to denounce the rubbish and celebrate the real stuff,” he said.

In the United States, rap and hip hop are also beginning to find a place in some music schools. At the Berklee College of Music in Boston, courses are offered in hip-hop ensembles, hip-hop business, songwriting, production, spoken-word and turntable ensembles. Berklee also hosts an annual symposium on the business of hip-hop.

The school’s turntable ensemble recently performed at the Kennedy Center. Ron Savage is the chair of ensembles department at Berklee and said his first major act in 2000 after receiving the position was to oversee the creation of a hip-hop ensemble.

Turntable Ensemble 400

Raydar Ellis (left) and Sam Millinazzo (right) performing as part of
the Berklee Mix Maestros at the Kennedy Center's One Mic: Hip-
Hop Culture Worldwide
event last March.

“We are by definition and mission statement a ‘contemporary music school,’” Savage said. “I did not see how we could make that claim and not acknowledge the worldwide influence of the music and culture of hip-hop.”

Like other musical forms, Savage said that history suggests to him that culture and race have played a roll in the slow acceptance of hip-hop by traditional music education — though he said those barriers are beginning to break.

“The fear factor and alienation that existed when hip-hop was seen exclusively as an urban (ie. Black) phenomenon has largely waned and the music has now gained a wider swath of recognition,” Savage said. “It only makes sense that schools begin to fall in line with mainstream society.”

But some of that bias still exists, and it can show itself at times in the language used to describe the music forms.

“Some conservatories still refer to European Classical studies as ‘legit’ studies,” he said. “This implies that other musical forms — no matter how ancient or profoundly conceived — are illegitimate.”

Like Derbyshire, Savage said bringing hip-hop and rap into the conservatory presents a great opportunity for musicians across traditional genre lines to learn from and collaborate with one another.

“I believe the true beauty of music is that it never runs out of space for new vision [and] ideas. Many of the earliest rappers incorporated breaks and samples of jazz, classical and various world music forms into their music,” Savage said. “To have students now study with the vast possibilities of creating music across antiquated boundaries is very exciting. We're still 40 years behind but moving in the right direction.”