By David Menconi
Michigan Alumnus magazine, Spring 2013
A violinist by training, hip-hop DJ by enthusiasm, and arts entrepreneur guru by chance, University of Michigan alumnus and current University of North Carolina Professor Mark Katz said he’s “just been going with the flow” for the past 20 years. It always seems to take him to interesting places.
In recent years, Katz has headed up UNC’s arts entrepreneurship minor, which has yielded several real-world ventures. Among the program’s notable offshoots is Devil Down Records, a specialty blues label that has released acclaimed albums by North Mississippi Allstars and the late Fred McDowell. Another offshoot, a class called Beat Making Lab, sent teachers to Africa last summer to teach recording techniques.
“There’s always a lot of talk about the need for liberal arts universities to train students for jobs,” Katz said. “What I like about the arts entrepreneur minor is that it teaches students how to create jobs and businesses rather than fit into something that exists. It teaches an entrepreneurial mindset—how to be resourceful and take initiative. Those are skills that will help students succeed anywhere.”
Katz, MA’95, PhD’99, started his academic career as a philosophy major at William & Mary, intending to go to law school but then taking a hard left turn into music. He earned graduate musicology degrees at Michigan and taught at the Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University before coming to UNC in 2006 to head up the music department.
Along the way, his interests gravitated from classical toward hip-hop. He was expanding his Michigan dissertation into his first book, “Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music” (2004), which led him to turntable scratching. Before long, he was doing it himself.
“My friends from high school and Michigan would have been surprised, because I was listening to Brahms or Led Zeppelin back then,” he said. “I’ve kind of gone the opposite direction from most people, getting more into popular music as I’ve gotten older. My grad-school colleagues would think it’s funny that I’m teaching DJing.”
Katz’s interest in hip-hop dovetailed nicely with Beat Making Lab, which grew out of an arts entrepreneurship class project he assigned: Develop a business plan for a “Carolina Beat Academy” to teach the craft of beat-based electronic music. Even though the academy was hypothetical, his students were enthusiastic enough to encourage him to start a real version of it.
Fall 2011 brought the first Beat Making Lab class, taught by Katz and local producer and DJ Stephen “Apple Juice Kid” Levitin. It yielded a fine album (“Tar Heel Tracks,” soundcloud.com/beat-making-lab) the students assembled with samples from native North Carolina acts, including the Avett Brothers and Lost in the Trees.
For the spring 2012 class, Katz brought in rapper Pierce Freelon (son of Grammy-nominated jazz singer Nnenna Freelon) to co-teach. Freelon and Levitin took it worldwide that summer with their African sojourn, setting up students in the Congo city of Goma with recording gear. In Goma, Freelon and Levitin taught their charges how to record beats and to sell the music—an album is on the way. Freelon and Levitin are planning similar excursions to other countries.
Meanwhile, Katz has arts entrepreneur classes on “Rock Lab” and “Rap Lab” in the works in Chapel Hill to offer hands-on training in all aspects of the music business.
“This really is not typical in terms of what music departments do,” Katz said. “It’s a liberal arts approach to career training that teaches skills, but broadly based. The focus is on teaching students to be resourceful and take initiative, which may sound vague. But think about what students have been trained to do when they get here: take tests, ace their SATs, write essays that impress admissions officers. They’re smart, but sometimes at a loss when given an open-ended problem where the solution isn’t in the back of the book. ‘What do I do first?’ they ask. ‘That’s the challenge,’ I tell them. ‘What do you do first?’”
Given his stature as a slightly built, somewhat awkward middle-aged white guy who keeps turntables in his office and hobnobs with hip-hop artists, Katz is a walking advertisement for the virtues of creative flexibility.
“I’ve been told, ‘You don’t look like somebody who’d write about hip-hop,’” Katz said. “I’m always tempted to ask, ‘What should I look like?’ Sometimes I think it’s funny myself. If my teenage self were to see me now, he’d think, ‘That guy is a lot cooler than I am.’ But I’m still not cool, and I don’t try to be. I’m this nerdy, clean-cut white guy. An ethnomusicologist friend put it this way: ‘You’re an outsider, but you own your outsiderness.’ I don’t try to be anybody else, just who I am. It works.”
Photo by Beth Jakub