Today, five boys sit in the lit-up recording studio at Upbeat Academy, listening to a drum track they just made and searching for a perfectly sinister cello. As they flip through Logic Pro files, 37-year-old Glenn Winter explains to the youths the difference between staccato — quick bursts, like the students’ drums — and legato — continuous tone, a bow run slowly across a stringed instrument.
Winter, of Chicago, has produced artists from singer Jill Scott to rapper Mos Def, to local godfather of beats, Mannie Fresh. In his spare time, Winter serves as the Saints’ first on-field DJ. He teaches at Upbeat Academy from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. each Tuesday through Thursday.
Upbeat enrolled its third female student last week, but today it’s a boys’ club.
“Sometimes there’s an issue with transportation for the students,” lead instructor Matt Zarba said, leaning against the wall and nodding to his students’ new beat. Zarba picked up 19-year-old Tai Wan Vial, a committed freestyle rapper and special needs student in the Upbeat program since its inception. Zarba brought Vial back to work in the studio until class officially started.
“I first came to Upbeat to hone my skills lyrically,” Vial said of the free program, which gives aspiring hip-hop artists access to several nice digital studios and highly qualified MCs. “I’ve learned how to structure bars — but as I heard people make beats, I wanted to make beats as well.”
The Upbeat Academy started 21/2 years ago in the Iberville projects. After the program’s gear was stolen, Upbeat moved Uptown off Tchoupitoulas. Last May, it hired Zarba, Upbeat’s only salaried employee. Zarba, a local rapper, had started the “Word Up” hip-hop music class for much younger kids at Lusher Elementary.
“With these kids we have now, though — ages 15 to 22 — the topics are much deeper. We get real. And sometimes the lyrical content can get kind of adult. But we want it to reflect the world they live in,” Zarba said.
Fifty cents from each ticket sold to most Winter Circle festivals around the country, including Buku Fest in New Orleans, go to fund the Upbeat Academy. Upbeat’s Buku connection also landed Vial special moments rapping for hip-hop superstars like Kendrick Lamar and Nas. “Nas cracked a joke like, ‘I wish I could still freestyle like that,’ ” Vial said.
Zarba’s original curriculum also teaches piano theory, and students break down classic songs to discuss mood, tempo, genre, impact, structure and producer. “We work on their history, and we work on their ears,” Zarba said.
Student Jamil “Milly Mill” Carter, 19, started with Upbeat two years ago as just a producer. “I had the mindset of making beats when I was about 12,” Carter said. But those who want to hone their beatmaking on nice gear are nonetheless asked to also try writing rhymes with a pen and a pad — just as the rappers are encouraged to experiment with studio equipment and make their own tracks.
“Since I joined Upbeat, I have no problem with rapping,” Carter said. “I might not be one of the hottest MCs out here, but there’s a few words I can probably give people.”