Alex Cunningham is sprawled across the hallway in a corner of the University City High School music department. His laptop rests on his chest. Headphones cover his ears.
“I was trying to get to the studio but the door was locked,” he explained.
Cunningham, an 18-year-old senior, didn’t feel like doing the four flights of stairs down and up again to find a staff member to let him in. So he plopped down in the hall, outside of what could be considered his classroom.
After all, he founded the class.
The aspiring music producer convinced his principal last year to let him start an intro to hip-hop producing course. It’s doubled in enrollment for its first full school year and will become a fixture within the school’s course offerings.
Cunningham is a self-taught pianist from a musical family. His younger brother is his partner in production. But Cunningham was never drawn to traditional school music programs. Instead, mixing beats became an insatiable hobby.
School and a part-time job were getting in the way. The Cunninghams would get home from school at about 2:40 and have to clock in at McDonald’s by 4 p.m. So he came up with a solution; make beats at school and get credit for it.
“Not only is it helping us with our career, it helps us with our schooling,” he reasoned.
He took the idea for an independent study on audio production to Principal Susan Hill in the fall of 2016.
“Well, the first thing that went through my mind was, ‘Yeah, how can we make this happen?’” she said.
Saying yes to the class is part of Hill’s effort to introduce more of what’s known as project-based learning, where students design an educational experience that gets them excited about school. She knew audio production is something a lot of her students are interested in.
Hill purchased some audio equipment and speakers, then Cunningham took the idea to his classmates.
Fellow senior Kyhler Cross remembers his friend coming to friends “all hyped.”
“We just think Alex was lying for real, but we was all excited about it too,” Cross said.
Getting the beat going
With a handful of classmates including his younger brother on board, they began to hold class, but not where you might expect.
“At first we were in the library, and I really thank the librarians. You’re not supposed to have speakers in the library,” Cunningham said with a chuckle, adding: “but they bear with us.”
Eventually, the librarians’ patience ran out. Now the students gather in a practice room in the music department.
A laptop and speakers sit on a table in the corner. A keyboard is set up and some students have brought their instruments. After the first bell on a recent Monday morning, there are a dozen students with sleepy eyes and slumped shoulders. Then Cunningham starts up on the keyboard. Once a beat is pumping from the speakers, everyone is up, heads bobbing along, freestyled lyrics flowing.
The tracks are a mix of sounds from the computer program and samples of their own instruments and vocals. Cunningham is the leader of the class, but he considers it more of a group project. One student starts a beat, then someone else jumps in and adds a layer and on it goes.
The students earn credit by producing the soundtrack for school assemblies and pep rallies, explained senior Mason Lewis, who provides lyrics to some of the class’ songs.
“This actually increases our productivity because we have to come to school every day,” he said. “We have to come to school, we have to make a beat. It structures us.”
The students connected with local music producers and have attended concerts. The school even booked them a day at a professional studio where they produced a track. The class includes 11 boys but they recruit a female classmate for vocals sometimes.
Cunningham will graduate in a few weeks and is deciding between a few options for college. But he knows music will be part the mix.
“So I feel like this gives me that leverage, going into the real musician world, where they take you serious,” he said. “So it’s like you have something under your belt.”
The class will be worked into the curriculum and have a teacher in the fall, according to Principal Hill, and she’s hoping to secure a donation to build a full recording studio. For now, she watches the class from the entryway of the practice room
“This makes me happy,” she said over the thumping of music, “to see them so engaged.”
Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney