Associated Press Interview with Heather Hollingsworth

Posted: June 22, 2013 in Press

Ex-rap producer trains to be a composer in KC

SATURDAY APRIL 27, 2013, 4:19 PM

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Starting as a teenager, Kerwin Young helped craft the sound of Public Enemy, which recently became only the fourth hip-hop group inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Now the 43-year-old is honing his skills composing orchestral music and shaking up the staid world of academia in the process.

“I feel I’m able to relate a lot better to youth because I see what kind of music they listen to,” said Young, a former member of the Bomb Squad production team, which worked with Public Enemy when it busted onto the music scene in the late 1980s with politically and socially charged lyrics. “I know how to take the classical side and sort of dumb it down so it’s not going over their heads and make it relevant to the music they listen to now so they can see the relationship between the two and say, ‘OK, Wow! I see. I get that.’ ”

With his hip-hop background, the New York native doesn’t fit the mold at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance — an institution he was attracted to, in part, because the school’s professors include Chinese-born composer Chen Yi, and her Pulitzer Prize winning composer husband, Zhou Long. Young finds himself drawn to non-Western music.

While Young already knew how to compose orchestral scores when he arrived five years ago, his training had come largely from working as a disc jockey, producing hip-hop and poring through books. That hands-on, figure-it-out-on-your-own instruction was sufficient at first. But with the arrival of gangster rap, Young backed away from hip-hop, saying the new artists were “killing the type of rap music that had been created up until that point.” Some of his music was used in TV and film, but to achieve his dream of writing the musical scores for an action blockbuster he needed more formal schooling.

Young’s nontraditional musical background was immediately apparent when he applied to the Kansas City conservatory. First off, he turned in letters of recommendation from Public Enemy co-founder Chuck D. and Eric Sadler of the Bomb Squad.

Then there were the auditions. Young had quit the alto sax after eighth grade, wanting to play current music, not the John Philip Sousa marches his band teacher doled out. While he’d picked up a few instruments since then, he didn’t know the technical nuances that come from playing since early childhood. But the self-taught composer’s scores so impressed faculty that the university offered him a spot. Paul Rudy, one of Young’s professors, said the scores were what you’d expect from a graduate student. Still, it was no easy road.

“I sat him down the first semester,” recalled Rudy, the coordinator of the school’s composition program. “I said, ‘I don’t know how this is going to go. You’re not the typical student we get. We’re going to have to work with you to get you through this.'”

Instead of making him focus on a single instrument, the school tried something new, letting Young enroll in classes typically offered to students training to be music teachers. The methods classes teach students a little bit about a range of instruments, a kind of training that Rudy said makes a lot of sense for aspiring composers.

Now, that option is available to all composition students. The composition program also has started working with students who want to study the computer as an instrument and rethought the audition requirement. Composition students still audition but mostly so the university knows where to place them.

“I look back on it and, wow, we changed our thinking about our degrees a lot,” said Rudy. “With composition there are so many ways to make music. He was our test case, and he came through with flying colors.”

Young initially didn’t plan to stay long, just a month to study orchestration, but now he’s pursuing his master’s degree — taking out student loans to pay for it — after earning a bachelor’s degree last year. Along the way, he’s heard the Kansas City Symphony bring his work to life during a special session where they sight read the work of student composers. For his compositions, he draws from his exposure to the pop world, with his work more melodic than many of his peers. He’s even learned to compose for Chinese instruments.

“I don’t want to write academic music that just goes over people’s heads,” said Young, who also would like to teach composition and write for more ensembles. “I want to write music that average ordinary people can enjoy, that families can bring their children out to and children can appreciate because they can see a correlation with cartoons or video games and understand the music.”

Rudy acknowledged that all the change Young has brought has been uncomfortable for some people.

“But that was the thing Public Enemy did, too,” Rudy said. “Public Enemy was uncomfortable for a lot of people for a long time, so in the way that same challenge Public Enemy brought about happened in the conservatory, too.”

  1. Kerwin Young says:

    For those of you out there who may be in wonder, I am not an ex-rap producer. I continue to produce artists in all genres. Also, I am NOT training to become a composer. I’ve ALWAYS been a composer since the beginning, and that beginning would be in 1989.