Reap the Benefits of Hip-Hop, Part 1

One of the biggest benefits of using hip-hop, says NAfME member Robert Vagi, is that “students who are often disengaged in other academic areas come alive in their songwriting.”

Writing hip-hop songs also boosts self-confidence. “That is due, in part, to the success they experience,” Vagi says, ”but the critical element of that success is the risk taking involved in song writing. Junior high kids, especially in high needs areas, struggle with being vulnerable. I’ve had the honor of seeing many of my students overcome at least a portion of that insecurity through the songwriting process.”

Hip-hop has also increased the value of music at Vagi’s school. His administration supports everything he and his students do. They even play his students’ music during morning announcements. “This has given me significant credibility with the entire student body, which ultimately opens doors to engage students in other musical experiences,” says Vagi.

The Nuts and Bolts

Meter—Most hip-hop is in some kind of duple meter, so students need to keep each line of their lyrics within 4 beats.

Rhythm—Vagi lets students’ intuitive sense of music and language guide them. “When students do need guidance with vocal cadence or flow, I’ll perform some examples or options for them.” For clarity and cadence, Vagi tells students to make their words “sound like drums.” Folks should be able to tap or clap the rhythm of their lyrics without the words.

Music accompaniment—“My goal is to get all students to a place where they can create good-quality accompaniments with minimal involvement from me,” says Vagi. His basic rules are

  • Create a 2-measure introduction, and add an instrument when the vocal part comes in.
  • Change a part of the background during the hooks (choruses).
  • Do something different in each verse.
  • Try to create a background that connects to the overall effect of the song.
  • To break up lines, add an instrument in between the lines.


Vagi uses GarageBand, which is user friendly and good quality.

  • “It comes standard on all Macs, has a large number of samples and loops, and can record live tracks or ‘real instrument’ tracks,” Vagi says.
  • Students can choose the loops and samples they want, change what instrument plays the loops and samples, or record a track of their own.
  • They can also change the tempo and meter and can alter the timbre of instruments and their voices with sound effects.

Recording with GarageBand

Required equipment:

  • Recording device with a USB connection
  • A splitter that connects two sets of headphones into one outlet
  • Two sets of headphones

Vagi likes to use an 8-channel mixer with a studio microphone and headphones that he purchased with grant money.

“The human component of recording students can be a bit more challenging and requires being part teacher, part musician, and part recording engineer,” says Vagi.

  • Students often struggle to get good takes of long sections of lyrics, so Vagi usually records 2 lines at a time and then patches them together.
  • For students who need more guidance and modeling, Vagi becomes rehearsal technician as well as recording engineer.
  • Students must practice reciting their lyrics out loud, in time, with a background track. Besides the practice and getting used to hearing their own voice, it reduces recording sessions from hours to minutes.
  • Vagi trains students to be recording engineers and record their friends, which has been a very positive experience for them.
  • When he has to record students himself, Vagi sets up after school appointments.

Robert Vagi is a music teacher at Ira A. Murphy Elementary School in Peoria, Arizona. He discusses setting up a hip-hop class or unit of study in his article, “From Haydn to Hip-Hop,” in the January 2010 issue of Teaching Music.

—Linda C. Brown, June 2, 2010, © National Association for Music Education