By Sarah Tomlinson
Although MC Lars dubbed his fifth studio album The Graduate, he actually went back to school soon after it was released in 2006, taking two online courses with Berkleemusic. Anyone familiar with the San Francisco-based rapper’s innovative, intellectually precocious sound knows why he feels comfortable hitting the books.
Just take The Graduate’s song, “Ahab,” on which Lars rapped about Herman Melville’s iconic novel Moby Dick. Or “Download This Song,” which featured lyrics based on the book, The Future of Music: Manifesto for the Digital Music Revolution, written by Berkleemusic instructor Dave Kusek and Gerd Leonhard. It may not be as obvious a choice for a pop culture shout out as the samples of Iggy Pop’s song “The Passenger,” which the song also contains, and which Pop personally gave him permission to use. But for Lars, the book was as inspirational as any muse other artists might draw on.
Kusek’s book not only got Lars thinking about how to transform and maintain his own career in these changing times, but it also introduced him to Berkleemusic. “I found out about the online school through Dave Kusek, because I was a big fan of his music technology book, The Future of Music,” Lars says by phone from New York City. “Then I got in touch with him, and he told me about the online school. So I looked into it, and it seemed like something I would really love to do. And it was really cool.”
Lars took two courses through Berkleemusic, Songwriting Workshop: Hit Song Forms and Rhythm and Groove Guitar, both of which he hoped would enhance his skills as a songwriter and performer. Although he already had five albums under his belt at the time, he knew there was still a lot more he could learn. “I do hip-hop stuff, and I wanted to see if I could learn more about the melodic approach to songwriting, like chords and bridges,” he says. “I wanted to improve my skills in a way that you can’t really learn about on your own.”
Pleased by how much he gained from both courses, Lars especially liked the hands-on approach employed by the songwriting course. Students read about a certain element of composition each week, and then they applied the lesson by creating a piece of music as their homework. These mp3s were posted online, so the professor and other students could give feedback. Lars also found it helpful that all of the students were able to progress at their own pace, and really absorb each lesson, before moving on.
Lars often draws on lessons he learned in the course while recording new material and working with other musicians. “It’s cool to have an academic perspective offered during the creative process,” he says. “Or, even when I’m rehearsing, I think of the forms of the stuff I’ve already done, and how I could have done it differently. So it adds perspective on new stuff and old stuff.”
At the same time, the rhythm guitar course presented an unexpected challenge for Lars, as it was much more difficult for him to keep up with the course work than he had expected. But his perseverance paid off, and he now draws on what he learned in that course in his professional life, too. “That was really challenging for me,” he says. “But it was good, because even though I got behind, the instructor let me catch up after I came back off of tour. I’m actually playing guitar on this next tour because of that course.”
Because the guitar course pushed him as much as it did, Lars has found that it not only improved his playing, but it also changed the way he approaches and thinks about music. “It’s like going back to when I first heard a Nirvana record and started realizing that I could play those songs,” he says. “It re-instilled a passion for music from way back, which was really cool.”
Not only has Lars encouraged his friends who are musicians to take courses at Berkleemusic, but he also looks forward to taking more courses in the future. He’d especially like to learn more about home recording with a ProTools course. But for now, he’s too busy touring Europe this summer, and then working on his next album in the fall.
Lars may be planning for his next album, but he’s changed his approach to recording and releasing music in a major way. And he credits Kusek and his book with this innovation. “He influenced me to re-conceptualize how people access music,” says Lars. “Instead of working on an album a year, I’m doing this thing where I put out a single a month on iTunes. Based on the response from that, that will help make up the album.”
This approach allows Lars to interact with his fans more directly, while also keeping his name and music on people’s radar. “It’s a cool way to find out what concepts react with people and what concepts aren’t as strong, and it also gives me a great opportunity to be topical,” says Lars. “It makes a stronger bond between people who are interested in the music, and the creation of it.”
Music isn’t all he’s tackling with a fresh perspective these days. He was so deeply inspired by Kusek’s book, that it has helped him to rethink the shape of his entire career. “Terry McBride, who runs Nettwerk Music Group that I work with, talks about the middle class of artists, and Dave Kusek talks about that too,” says Lars. “That you can do it as a career, but you’re not going to make lots of money. So it’s good and bad, but it’s mostly good, because it means that the people who do it as a career are the ones who love it and don’t want to be famous overnight and make millions of dollars. It means that there’s an opportunity for the truly dedicated.”