Rappers Tupac, Nicki Minaj, Slick Rick, Kanye West, Dana Dane and newcomer Azealia Banks all have one thing in common. They all got schooled! Any artist worth their salt has sat through Ear Training, Voice and Diction, Theatre History 1, Art History, and possibly Keyboard Skills and Chorus during the course of their formal training on the way to becoming world class professional performing artists. While those classes can be torturous, they're not exactly the kind of hard knocks we think about when we think about the upbringing of most rappers. It's hard to believe, but singing in the halls, dancing and knocking out beats on the tables, and clawing for the lead in the school musical were par for the course for some listed above. With the exception of Tupac and West all of them attended the infamous star factory commonly called the La Guardia High School for the Performing Arts, the very source for the hit show and 2009 movie Fame. Far from the mean streets, the school is couched in one of the intense-est of artistic surroundings near Lincoln Center and the Juilliard School, steps away from where most artists want ultimately to end up. Some of them received more schooling than others, some pursued so-called serious arts careers on and off-Broadway. Others failed at their intended art and wound up in their most successful artistry by default.
As a youngster and a member of Harlem's 127th Street Repertory Ensemble, Tupac Shakur acted in A Raisin in the Sun and performed it at the hallowed Apollo Theatre with no "Sandman" in sight. It's now old news to know that the hardest man on the streets at one time studied ballet, danced in the Nutcracker and performed in Shakespeare plays -- the latter not so hard to believe due to the linguistic wizardry he was known for.
Banks and Minaj both entered school in pursuit of different artistic paths other than "rapper." People won't find her 2012 Grammy performance so shocking when they know that Minaj first wanted to be an actress and has admitted it's still her end game. The theatrics, voice-play and frothing pseudo-schizophrenia are accessible tools in the box of an artist looking for ways to put her thespian skills on display, even in an industry that demands brutal realness at every turn. Banks knows the absurdity of the audition lifestyle well. In a BBC interview Azealia says before she was "your favorite, raunchiest female rapper, rap star" she was "a really big musical theater geek." Her epiphany came in a professional audition where she was 16 competing against a 26 year-old for the role of a 14 year-old. At that moment, that life made no sense for her. Enter the inexplicably cheesy-grinned persona with the penchant for Mickey Mouse gear, both sugar and spice, but not very nice if you listen closely to the barbed profanity-laced lyrics she spits in her break-out Youtube hit "212." Her quick infamy has landed her on the short roster of artists with Troy Carter, guru manager to Lady Gaga.
Imagine for a second, Slick Rick, master storyteller, and Dana Dane planning world-domination in the cafeteria. Picture Kanye as a freshman at The American Academy of Art taking both Life Drawing and Art Composition. We can see his artsy influences in his personal style, his music videos and even his home decor. No one can argue that arts schooling didn't help them all in their flowering multitalented-ness. But what many of them have in common, the thing that made them able to go from artsy kid to street phenomenon is a quality I call the "Chameleon Gene." All of them have the knack to absorb multiple cultural influences into a style that's all their own. Because of a natural gift for shape-shifting wrapped in a bit of good theatre training, they can emulate others who came before them, exude swagger so convincingly that it becomes hyper-real, and create effortlessly addictive personas that coagulate millions of eager fans.
Drake, another rapper who studied acting in high school before dropping out and having a successful run on a teen drama personifies this last quality maybe more successfully than most. They seem to be, in many ways, the Über-Artists, even if some of their artsy backgrounds can't necessarily qualify them as the most legitimate form of Hip Hop progeny. Their bragging about their rightful places at the top rub some the wrong way because of their non-traditional ascent away from the dangers of the mean streets or lack of a side career as a street pharmacist: two now old-fashioned forms of ID, as far as credibility is concerned. The bouncer at the door of Hip Hop/Rap stardom now only asks, "Can you make good, catchy music?" But if angst and less than stellar childhoods are still ingredients for legitimacy, many in this group have seen and suffered their share of awful circumstances.
Mean streets aside, arts schools are their own kind of ferociously competitive arenas. For every success story there are countless not-so-much stories of artists who couldn't wing it. Everyone knows the grail goes to the person that keeps getting back up, reinvents himself as need be and adjusts to the climate at hand. Banks describes it as this feeling that "it's not going to happen, but it has to happen." It's a hunger they all share to make it work and not on a small scale. One might guess, like Kanye, that brilliance might just be able to replace bullets in the verse and that preppy was overdue for it's chance at cool. One could take rapid-fire lyricism, spy Gaga's penchant for freakishness, remember Lil Kim's irresistible irreverence, dare to flaunt a video-babe bod paired with a valley girl accent and SCORE! To us it feels like overnight Nicki Minaj became what some see as one of the most uniquely talented figures in music today. She might be psychic, like the Harlem-born Azealia Banks, who seemed to know that right about now, the world would be searching for an answer to pop-rap without throwing the baby out with the bath water. She sensed we never quite got over Aaliyah and were missing Missy Elliott, might be craving Eve and the age when the female emcee could bluster with the big boys and make them swoon at the same time.
What have we learned? That the New School went to school and are putting those keyboard skills, painting and method classes to work like nobody's business. It's probably one of the reasons they're more determined than ever to be the boss of their own art -- because they know better than to do otherwise. What they also have in common with their Classical counterparts is that many quit formal schooling early to focus full time on their art. It also looks like the "high arts" have lost their soap box of superiority without such a clear delineation between those who have studied the art and those creating their own brand of it in pop culture. It means that at the end of my outreach performances I might just start saying, "If you study really hard and practice for hours, you might just get to be a rapper!"