Lyricism and learning: Conservatory hosts first rap composition workshop


Alison Yang

Hannah Streeper (10) finishes her recording session during Harker Conservatory’s Rap Composition Workshop led by guest artist Justin Smith on April 14. “My favorite part of the process is watching students come in for the first time, how they react to hearing themselves and [gain] confidence,” Smith said.

by Alison Yang, Co-Arts & Entertainment Editor

Tick. Tock. With the clock’s steady rhythm as a metronome, students scribble and type furiously. Muttering rhymes under their breath, they hold phones to their ears. Through their tinny speakers, the sound of melodic rap leaks through. 

Around 25 students attended Harker Conservatory’s first Rap Composition Workshop hosted by guest artist Justin Smith on April 14 in the Rothschild Performing Arts Center (RPAC) 302. Smith began rapping during his education at Chapman University, intertwining personal creativity with his background in improvised theater. The workshop began with improvised warm-ups as the students familiarized themselves with controlling cadence, flow and narrative. They then picked from two of Smith’s beats to write and record their own 14-bar verses.

Many students who signed up for the workshop were rap fans, while others were just looking for a fun activity to do with friends. Additionally, around ten of the students were Certificate program candidates and signed up to meet their workshop requirements. BB Ajlouny (12), a Certificate of Dance student, speaks about his experience in the workshop.

“I’m exposed to a lot of rap just by listening to music,” BB said. “The opportunity to learn more about it and actually practice the art was really intriguing. I’d never written a rap [like in the workshop] before, so I did a lot of experimenting. I listened to the beat and translated what sounded good in my head to my notes.”

Though some students like BB worked alone, others like sophomores Summer Adler, Hasini Namala, Sara Glusman and Ariana Gauba or frosh Thomas Campsini, Ishan Mysore and Nikhal Sharma collaborated on verses inside vocal practice rooms. As time passed, awkward giggles transformed into developed bars and peer reviews. 

Smith began rapping with a friend on a random day in a park. He reflects on his journey and his struggle with overcoming his worries about releasing music.

“It’s easier than ever to record music [alone], especially with software like GarageBand,” Smith said. “The biggest challenge I faced was the [initial] fear of presenting this side of me publicly. It took effort to take that first step, but ever since then it’s been a slippery slope in a positive way.”

Ishan Mysore (9) chats with Justin Smith after finishing his recording. Students chose from two different preprepared beats to write on top of. (Alison Yang)

Recording began in the final half hour of the workshop with students entering Smith’s makeshift studio inside a practice room. Each rapper’s setup varied: some had friends hyping them up in the studio, and some had only Smith in the room with them. 

“I love being behind the [producer’s] desk,” Smith said. “My favorite part of the process is watching students come in for the first time, how they react to hearing themselves and [gain] confidence. A lot of the kids were nailing it on their first take.”

After finishing recording, everyone gathered in a huddle to hear all the finished verses. Pieces ranged from lighthearted disses on friends to melodic reflections on struggle. Rambunctious reactions and cheers met every piece.

“[As a certificate of dance student], it was fun to be pushed out of my comfort zone,” BB said. “The energy really picked up as the workshop kept going and [became] really fun. I think I’ll still stick to dance, but it was a good opportunity nonetheless.”

The workshop lasted from 3:30 to 6 pm, but many students lingered afterward. Stacking chairs and joking around, some like Shiv Deokar (10) considered continuing rap beyond the workshop. 

“I’m really glad to be around people as driven as me,” Shiv said. “I want to expand my skills and become the best rapper I can be. Everyone’s got to start somewhere before making it big [in the rap industry]. Kendrick [Lamar] started somewhere, [J Cole] started somewhere, Drake started somewhere. I’m trying to [be] like them.”