Dr. Elliot Gann is standing in front of his beat-up and stickered black Mazda Protégé in the parking lot of West Oakland Middle School. In his left ear is a Bluetooth earpiece, which, as he eats a Trader Joes sandwich wrap, enables him to lament to a friend the parking ticket he just received. To his side is a worn green Atlantic suitcase that wobbles with a broken wheel. Inside, its contents are packed tight: two sets of studio monitors, two audio interfaces, wires, cables, and cords, and a few MIDI controllers. All of these tools he needs to conduct the workshops he puts on several times a week in Bay Area middle schools.
“Dr. Elliot,” as the children he teaches affectionately call him, is the founder of Today’s Future Sound, a non-profit he started seven months ago to serve under-privileged youth by teaching them music production skills, or beat making. Gann, who received his Ph.D. in psychology from the Wright Institute in 2010, views his service as an alternative to traditional psychology. “It’s an effective way to deliver services that maybe a traditional therapist can’t,” says Gann. What he seeks to accomplish with his non-profit is not simply to improve kids’ music skills, but also to help their own personal development. “It’s teaching kids coping mechanisms. It’s teaching them to regulate themselves,” says Gann. “I think it’s a really healthy way to help kids process trauma.”
Inside of West Oakland Middle School, the children greet Gann with excitement:
“Dr. Elliot! Are we going to finish our beat today?”
“Dr. Elliot! Can I make a 2 Chainz beat?”
“Dr. Elliot! Can I make a beat with you?”
He calmly tells the children to finish what they’re working on and that he will call them over one at a time after he sets up.
The children love to make beats with Dr. Elliot so much that Kahlil Fantauzzi, a social studies teacher at the school and a recent Berkeley mayoral candidate, uses it as a reward system. “What I’ll do is say, ‘Okay, Dr. Elliot is coming Friday. I want you to come up with a contract.’ If the students do good for the week and don’t have behavioral problems, they can come,” says Fantauzzi.
Gann and Fantauzzi met at Hip Hop In the Park, an event put on by the UC Berkeley organization Students for Hip Hop that Fantauzzi helped establish while a student there. When Gann told Fantauzzi about Today’s Future Sound, he became an instant ally.
Fantauzzi has been interested in what he describes as the “positive aspects of Hip Hop” and how it can be used in the classroom since he began teaching ten years ago. “I use Hip Hop as a framework for critical thinking,” says Fantauzzi, who has images of Tupac, Ice Cube, and radicals like Malcolm X hung up in his classroom. Fantauzzi believes Hip Hop can help students analyze the information they are given in the classroom at a deeper level, thanks to the sociopolitical and economic questions rappers often raise.
Gann typically visits Fantauzzi’s classroom twice a week during the students’ lunch period. Other teachers will give students a pass to leave class and spend their last period or two making beats with Gann.
The first student that Gann calls up to make a beat today is visibly upset. Gann asks if he is okay and finds out that the student’s mother passed away unexpectedly the previous week. Gann immediately switches into therapist mode. “Oh my God, I’m so sorry to hear that,” he says to the student. “That’s terrible. You know, man, if you need to talk, you know I’m a therapist. If you need or want to talk, I got you.”
The student says nothing, just sits looking at Gann’s laptop screen.
“Do you want to talk about it or just get to making beats?” Gann asks.
“Let’s make beats,” the student says.
Gann has been making beats and releasing them independently for fifteen years. In 1997 he bought a copy of the Om records compilation Deep Concentration Vol. 1. The CD featured legendary producers Cut Chemist, Prince Paul and Mumbles—people who have had a lasting impact on beat-making culture. Better yet, it came with a CD-ROM that included Mix Man, an early production software, allowing the buyer to remix the tracks at home.
“That was when I really started making beats,” says Gann. He began ordering electronic and Hip Hop magazines in order to stay up on the latest software and sounds.
Today, he boasts, “I can teach anyone to make a beat in 30 minutes.” And he is not joking. Inside of the classroom, kids who have had no prior experience with MIDI devices or production software, or don’t have a computer at home, are creating, on their own, intricate beats—and loving it. “That drop is saucy!” says a student named Sean, so visibly enthused with his creation that he jumps out of his chair and does an end-zone style dance. “Once it’s done, its gonna go, bruh.”
Gann’s style of teaching is very methodical, which is necessary for the technical nature of beat making, but he is also very good at making each step of the process seem simple, if not natural. The first thing that he has students do is decide on a tempo: 130 beats per minute (BPM) is the default for the production software he uses, and the pace of most techno music. Most Hip Hop is produced at 80 to 100 BPM. Gann explains this to the kids who he has not worked with before so that they can decide on a style for their creation.
Once they decide, Gann will show them how to assign a snare drum, bass drum, and a high-hat to three separate pads on the MIDI controller, which looks like a miniature keyboard with 16 square pads the size of wooden blocks. Once the pads are assigned, he shows the kids how to play drum rhythms on the pads. “With your two fingers, if you’re going to play your high hat with your right hand, then you’re going to play your kick drum with the middle finger of your left hand and the snare with your index finger on your left hand. So you just walk the dog with your middle and index finger—back and forth, back and forth.”
Once the drums are recorded, Gann goes into his external hard drive and has the kids listen to some music and decide on a song to sample, or divide into sections, which are then rearranged to produce a new sound from the existing song. The sections of the song that are cut into pieces are called “chops” in beat making parlance. “It’s really engaging to play the chops, because it’s immediate gratification,” Gann says.
Gann hopes to be able make a compilation CD of the students’ beats, to have them pressed up with nice artwork and an explanation of how the compilation came to fruition. But CDs cost money, money that Today’s Future Sound doesn’t necessarily have. Gann has struggled with how to fund his non-profit, but recently caught something of a reprieve after receiving $1,000 from the Awesome Foundation—a group which funds projects that help the communities they serve. “It’s nice to have some validation,” says Gann.
Gann is constantly looking for ways to improve upon his project. “I just met with a woman tonight who runs a school-based psychotherapy program in San Francisco,” says Gann. “We discussed the merits of having a therapist who is not only working with the kids, but is a liaison between them and the school.” Another idea she suggested was to get Today’s Future Sound running in a private school for money, so that Gann could make enough to keep it running free in public schools.
That Gann has decided been so dedicated to Today’s Future Sound is telling of his passion. Gann’s mother, father, and stepfather, are all therapists. He grew up rather well-off on New York’s Upper West Side. It might have been easy for him to continue the family tradition and become a regular therapist with an office and an income. Ultimately, Gann didn’t want what he calls the “ordinary” path. “Everyone’s motivations, including mine, are complex,” says Gann, “I’m just very passionate about my work—I just love and value it.”
This might seem too simple an explanation from someone who analyzes people and situations as deeply as a psychoanalyst does. And maybe it is too simple; there might really be a deeper motive that Gann himself is not even aware of. What is clear, though, is that he’s not wrong. Gann’s dedication and vision have won over a number of local, and even international, producers. Vinyl Richie, Fresh Kills, Ben Durazzo, and A-Lab are all local talents that come in on their days off to help with Today’s Future Sound. Some, like Vinyl Richie, even make sure to get certain times off of work so that they can come in and help out.
“Teaching is something I’ve been interested in, so getting this opportunity from Elliot is great,” says Vinyl Richie, a Hip Hop producer from Oakland who also regularly deejays at the Missouri Lounge in Berkeley.
“The kids get a sense of accomplishment and pride. That they can do anything if they put their mind to it,” says Hip Hop producer Friendly Traveler, who also helps with Today’s Future Sound.
Around 5:30pm, as the kids file out of the classroom at West Oakland Middle School, Gann packs up his worn green Atlantic suitcase with the broken wheel. He carries it down two sets of stairs before laying it in the trunk of his run-down Mazda Protégé. On the passenger side door is a large dent. Behind the dinged door, on the passenger seat, is a ticket he received earlier in the day while in a meeting to get funding for Today’s Future Sound. Gann drives down the 980, and then the 24, headed toward his Berkeley apartment, where he will get in, make some food and then some calls to producers to arrange who will help him teach tomorrow. His day is not over; he has work to do.