A participant ethnography of the Ed Sullivan Fellows program

Note: I refer to mentors by their real names, and to participants by pseudonyms

Ed Sullivan Fellows (ESF) is a mentorship and artist development program run by the NYU Steinhardt Music Experience Design Lab. It came about by a combination of happenstances. I had a private music production student named Rob Precht, who had found my blog via a Google search. He and I usually held our lessons in the lab’s office space. Over the course of a few months, Rob met people from the lab and heard about our projects. He found us sufficiently inspiring that he approached us with an idea. He wanted to give us a grant to start a program that would help young people from under-resourced communities get a start in the music industry. He asked us to name it after his grandfather, Ed Sullivan, whose show had been crucial to launching the careers of Elvis, the Beatles, and the Jackson 5. While Rob’s initial idea had been to work with refugees who had relocated to New York, we agreed to shift the focus to native New York City residents, since our connections and competencies were stronger there.

Ed Sullivan Fellows

The Ed Sullivan Fellows program is run by Jamie Ehrenfeld, a graduate of NYU’s music education program, a founding member of the Music Experience Design Lab, and a music teacher at Eagle Academy in Brownsville. Like many members of the lab, she straddles musical worlds, bringing her training in classical voice to her work mentoring rappers and R&B singers. Participants are young men and women between the ages of 15 and 20, mostly low-SES people of color. They meet on Saturday afternoons at NYU Steinhardt to write and record songs; to get mentorship on the music business, marketing and branding; and to socialize. We had originally conceived of ESF as a series of formally organized classes, but it became immediately obvious that such a structure was going to be impractical. While there is a regular core of attendees, their lives are complicated, and there is no way to predict who will show up week to week or when they will arrive and leave. Instead, sessions have taken on a clubhouse feel, a series of ad-hoc jam sessions, cyphers, informal talks, and open-ended creativity. Conversations are as likely to focus on participants’ emotions, politics, social life and identity as they are on anything pertaining to music.

There is a “core squad” of nineteen regular ESF participants, and an additional thirty occasional attendees. Many are students at Eagle Academy and members of their social networks. This group is mostly black and Latino. Another smaller group attends City-As-School. Only three Fellows total are white. The Fellows are mostly male, partially because many of them attend an all-male school, and partially because of hip-hop’s skewed gender dynamics generally. There are six core mentors (including myself) and another sixteen peripheral mentors. Some are young black men and women from the Fellows’ social networks, and the rest are NYU people, or are socially connected to the lab. All of the mentors are musicians, but otherwise come from a variety of backgrounds: education, business, software development, design.

The ethnomusicologist Thomas Turino draws a distinction between “participatory” and “presentational” cultures of music performance. Presentational performances include all of the music you would hear at a professional concert: classical, jazz, rock, and so on. Participatory performances include campfire singalongs, jam sessions, and drum circles, where there is little to no distinction between performers and audience. We tend to regard presentational performance as “real” music. Turino argues that we undervalue participatory music subcultures, because they are some of the few cultural spaces in America where monetary profit is not a primary value, and where our jobs and economic status are not our major identifying characteristics. While the ostensible goal of ESF is developing young artists professionally, the actual music-making that takes place is highly participatory in nature.

Hip-hop is not the only style of music that the Fellows create. Some are singer-songwriters in a pop, R&B or gospel style. Still, hip-hop is the default, the unifying thread, and the common vocabulary. Among the forty-six Fellows, there are twenty-three emcees, nineteen singers, eighteen producers, thirteen live instrumentalists, and twenty-nine improvisors who are comfortable participating in a live jam. (These categories are not mutually exclusive.) Among the nine more mentors, there are three emcees, four singers, four producers, six live instrumentalists, and eight improvisors. Of the twenty-three Fellows who self-identify as rappers, sixteen of them can freestyle, improvising lyrics on the spot, a formidably challenging musical practice. Participation in cyphers and jams is a core part of the ESF ethos.

The Fellows are familiar with the drug-influenced mumble rappers who currently dominate the charts, but their sensibilities are more clear-eyed, narrative, and direct. For example, Rashad cites Chance The Rapper as his major musical inspiration. Chance has a densely intellectual flow with an irrepressible sunniness, and raps about his life, his community, politics, and his relationship with God. Other Fellows express outspoken admiration for Kendrick Lamar, who is less cheerful and optimistic, but who also has a strong social and political conscience. Like most current hip-hop artists, ESF participants favor beats that are extremely slow and sparse, with electronic drums playing stuttering subdivisions of the beat accompanied by disjointed samples or soft textural ambience on top. I try to keep current with hip-hop, as much as a 41-year-old white dad can, but this music continues to surprise me with how futuristic it sounds. It has a science-fictional dystopian quality, but for all its iciness, the funk heartbeat remains.

ESF meets and works in spaces belonging to NYU Steinhardt’s music technology and music education departments: primarily a conference room and recording studio, spilling over into various labs and classrooms as needed. During the week, these spaces host classes and presentations, and are otherwise occupied by NYU students, who socialize in low-key ways or work on their laptops. While NYU’s culture is informal, it is still an academic institution, and the predominant feeling in the common space is quiet and productive. On the rare occasion when music is played on the conference area PA system during the week, it is part of a class or lecture. During ESF sessions, by contrast, the PA plays hip-hop beats, sometimes looped endlessly for long periods of time, and usually at party volumes. The Fellows have an unreserved social style, and the feeling when they occupy the space is more one of play than of work.

ESF periodically records in the James Dolan studio, named for the owner of Madison Square Garden, himself an enthusiastic amateur musician and at one time the parent of two NYU music technology students. He noticed that the school’s recording facilities were old and run-down, so he essentially gave Steinhardt a blank check to build a state-of-the-art studio. Ten million dollars later, NYU boasts one of the best studios in New York, with top-of-the-line equipment and immaculate acoustics. The monitor speakers alone cost twenty thousand dollars; the mixing desk costs on the order of a hundred thousand. When the Fellows record, they are assisted by well-trained and highly competent student engineers. I always feel like more of a “real musician” whenever I work in there, and clearly it has a similar effect on the Fellows. For all its luxuriousness, though, the Dolan studio was designed to capture live performances using Pro Tools, not for creative hip-hop production with Logic or FL Studio or Ableton Live. The Fellows would be better served by a group of smaller, less grandiose spaces equipped with the software and hardware designed specifically for their methods.

For all its progressiveness, New York is one of the most racially segregated cities in America. NYU students and ESF participants live within a few miles of each other, but occupy very different social worlds. Nearly all of the Fellows are black or Latino, and all are of low socioeconomic status. NYU students are ethnically diverse, but this is because of the prevalence of international students; the students of color are predominantly Asian. NYU is an extremely expensive private institution, and unlike Ivy League schools, it does not have a large endowment that it can use for financial aid and scholarships. While not all NYU students are wealthy, a substantial percentage certainly are, and an air of casual privilege pervades. NYU music technology students know hip-hop, and some are aficionados, but their tastes center more on indie rock, electronica, and experimental music. Music education students mostly inhabit the self-contained classical world, or the similarly insular subculture of musical theater.

The ESF working style, in or out of the studio, is low-key, social, casual, and, at times, indistinguishable from simply hanging out. This is well in keeping with the broader norms of hip-hop. For all its apparent lack of focus, this ad-hoc working style is richly generative of original music. After extended socializing, the Fellows tend to make their creative choices quickly and decisively, and for the most part are confident and relaxed performers. The same is broadly true of other hip-hop musicians I have worked with.

While the music emerges seamlessly out of playful fraternizing, this is not to say that it is always effortless. The Fellows are not all expert musicians, and they sometimes show dissatisfaction or frustration with their music. Also, they vary in their willingness to share their ideas, especially the unfinished or insufficiently polished ones. That said, I can not recall seeing anyone in ESF display anxiety. This is a conspicuous difference from NYU’s music students, for whom anxiety is a dominant emotion in their creative spaces, especially the recording studio. During one session I led for some of my NYU undergraduate students, one woman came close to a panic attack from simply sitting in the control room listening to her peers recording. Classical music students face continual and strict scrutiny, and the studio represents the harshest scrutiny of all—an error that might go unnoticed in a live performance is painfully obvious on a recording.

Due to family obligations, I am not able to be a regular participant in ESF. When I can attend sessions, I teach audio engineering, work with the Fellows on mixing and editing their tracks, give creative feedback, or most commonly, make myself available and see what happens. Today it will be the latter. I arrive at 2 pm, the session’s scheduled start time. Jamie is there, as is another mentor, Amber, an NYU music education student. There are only two Fellows present, Juan and Marcus, and no one is making any music yet. Most of the Fellows will arrive late, and while the session is supposed to end at 6, Jamie tells me that “they’ll still be kicking it at 6:30 or 7:00… You can’t fight their body clock.”

Juan and Marcus join me at the table where I am sitting with my computer. They talk about the new Kendrick Lamar album and other recent developments in the rap world. Then Juan mentions that he is presently homeless due to a fight with his mother. (He is not the only homeless ESF participant.) There was apparently some police involvement, and a restraining order was issued. As a result, Juan missed a performance, so now on top of everything else, he will not be able to get booked at the venue again. He tells us this with the same wry detachment he used to talk about the new Kendrick. Either this happens to him routinely, or he is putting a brave face on a very bad situation, or both. The subject changes to whether a mutual friend is gay. Then Juan sings something, and Marcus asks, “You know the guy who sings that song?” Juan replies, “Who, Chris Brown?” Marcus says, “Yeah, you should let him sing it.” This is just friendly trash talk; Juan sings beautifully.

Three more Fellows drift in at 3:00 and gather in a far corner of the room. They plug a laptop into the PA and play a beat they’re working on. It is a four bar loop, endlessly repeating, with jazzy major seventh chords on piano over a drum machine. The three guys let it run while they shoot the breeze. As other Fellows arrive, they make a point of greeting me, shaking my hand firmly or fist bumping me, whether they have met me before or not. They look at their phones, noodle on the piano, and talk. It appears that nothing whatsoever is happening here, but I know from experience that it is all part of the process. After spending 45 minutes just letting their loop run, the group in the corner begins scrolling through different drum sounds. Then they quickly lay down a synth bassline on the MIDI controller. A notebook is produced, and songwriting begins in earnest.

Jamie and I are the only white people present. She and Amber continue to hang out, since the Fellows presently do not need any guidance. Amber complains about NYU’s music curriculum, that she is forced to study serialist composition. “I take all these music classes and only one involves me writing songs.” Jamie responds, “I got a whole music degree here and have never written a song.” She is committed to making expression the center of ESF; she wants everyone to write songs, to manifest themselves as creative and empowered beings. Kigan, another mentor, listens to us critique the Eurocentrism of the music academy, and is appalled to learn that universities did not begin to consider jazz an acceptable subject of study until decades after its peak cultural relevance. Kigan says that trap music now is what jazz was in the 1930s, that it’s where all the creativity is happening. He is not even referring to rap when he says this; he means the instrumental component of the music. He recommends a producer named Flosstradamus to me, and I make a note to look him up on SoundCloud later.

At 4:30, there is another beat looping on the speaker system. This one is in a minor key, with a mysterious vocal sample that sounds like aliens chanting. The beat is trap style, an extremely slow tempo with hi-hats stuttering in doubletime. Juan begins freestyling effortlessly over it. Another Fellow plays a line on the upright piano. Amber begins writing out a song structure on the whiteboard. Kigan and Jamie eat pizza and continue chatting. The energy in the room has picked up undeniably, even if it still seems unfocused.

Jamie and I talk about a grant proposal she is working on. She tries to articulate the value of what is happening here. “Saturdays are not the program. The space is not the program. The interactions are the program.” She wants to give ESF a sense of “accountability,” though she knows that this goal will run up against the chaotic reality of the Fellows’ lives. Rather than imposing some kind of discipline, she wants to foster intrinsic motivation from the sense of community: “Oh man, I saw on Facebook Live that you guys had a great session.” She ponders doing a “reboot” after Labor Day. Until then, the periodic recording sessions in the Dolan studio will continue to be natural anchor points. Jamie has also been bringing the Fellows to hackathons at Spotify and Splice–she wants them to imagine themselves someday working at those kinds of companies.

Alex Ruthmann, the director of the Music Experience Design Lab, is on the Steinhardt music education faculty, and has already started thinking of ways to integrate ESF with the official curriculum. The worlds of ESF and NYU have much to offer each other. NYU has its facilities and equipment, its expert faculty, its glamorous central location, and the accumulated expertise of all those well-trained musicians and composers and engineers. ESF has none of the material wealth or the privilege. But the Fellows are part of hip-hop, the single most important driver of America’s musical culture. A recent study conducted by Spotify concluded that hip-hop is the most-listened to genre of music on their service, not just in the United States, but everywhere in the world. It is astonishing to me that our country’s most marginalized young people are producing its most valued music. I hope that the academy learns to value their ideas as much as mass culture does.

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