Upcoming hip-hop workshops aspire to build community

Jaime Fields, Campus Life Editor

This Saturday, Oct. 2, the 5th Element Project will present free workshops on various aspects of hip-hop from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. in both Young Ballroom and the Dance Studio, followed by a panel discussion and a dance battle that has drawn break dancers from all over.

This event started with a Mellon grant received by Peter de Grasse, a senior lecturer in the theatre and dance department. According to de Grasse, a former colleague originally informed him of the grant and encouraged him to ask the people involved with hip-hop what they would do with more resources. 

De Grasse did exactly that, reaching out to Rodney Outlaw, a music producer, and Louie Miranda, a B-boy (or break dancer) from whom de Grasse took dance classes. Together, the three started the 5th Element Project and put together a course that served both Whitman students and students from the community, with de Grasse teaching theory, Outlaw teaching music production and Miranda teaching B-boying/B-girling, or breaking.

The initial intention with the grant was to close the course with an event in May of 2020. When the pandemic happened, the event had to be postponed until this semester. Even though it is now fall, the final battle, hosted by Louie Miranda’s crew, is still called “Break into Summer.”

“We decided to keep the title that it had during May of 2020 because we wanted to sort of maintain that word-on-the-street brand identity that it had,” de Grasse said.

Although the postponement of the final event was rough, it also allowed de Grasse more time to continue developing the hip-hop course into an integral part of the dance program. The course now also has reserved slots for students from Lincoln High School, a local alternative high school, and Nixyaawii, a charter school on the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

“The course has developed into what we hope will become an enrichment program that’s adjacent to Whitman’s current enrichment program, and friendly with it, and that also provides direct access to Whitman College courses for historically marginalized groups,” de Grasse said.

The event will kick off with workshops in various dance styles, graffiti and music production, then move into a panel discussion. Finally, the event will close out with a 2v2 dance battle featuring dancers from various locations, with the winning crew taking home a $3,000 prize, followed by an informal dance party.

Both collaborators from the original course will be at the event, leading workshops.

Rodney Outlaw, a music producer and audio engineer who taught the music production portion of the original course, has been working in his field for a little more than 24 years. According to Outlaw, he was about 12 years old when he first got into hip-hop.

“[The artists I listened to] had a way of putting the message of the culture in a way that made sense to me, and that I got to see every day—every time I left my house, my environment reflected what I was listening to in hip-hop music,” Outlaw said. “It gave me a platform to tell my story through my eyes in a creative way that could reach more people than just a traditional conversation.”

Outlaw started out as a hip-hop artist, and while he’s never given up that pursuit, after about 10 years he shifted his primary focus to music production.

“Going through hip-hop as a fan… gives you the foundation and the courage to express your views in a creative way, and then when you transition into an artist, it’s all about your message and your story,” Outlaw said. “But as you get deeper and deeper into hip-hop, because it’s a culture, it’s a living thing… it’s always gonna be an evolution… you start to learn that just as much as the message… that the music plays this role… so when you start learning and identifying that, you just have this natural gravitation to want to produce because now you have another resource.”

While he enjoyed the artistry of writing lyrics, Outlaw found he was always looking for the next challenge and appreciated what he could do with music production.

“It’s like I can put pen to pad and tell my story, but now I’m learning how to put frequencies to words to help those words pop even more,” Outlaw said.

Outlaw said that it was more than just making a “hot track”—he wanted to do something with his music that would make an artist feel that they could put their own story to it. This Saturday, Outlaw will be leading a workshop on music production in the Dance Studio.

Louie Miranda, who was raised in Walla Walla and has been dancing for almost 20 years, is another one of the original collaborators on the project and will be co-leading a B-boying workshop this Saturday in the Young Ballroom.

According to Miranda, there are four main elements of hip-hop: breakdancing, DJing, rapping and graffiti. Although Miranda is primarily a dancer, he has loved all of it for as long as he can remember. 

Miranda pointed out that people of all ages and backgrounds enjoy hip-hop; even his 5-year-old son has been starting to learn breakdancing. He also appreciates the wide and diverse community of hip-hop.

“It’s worldwide,” Miranda said. “There’s dancers and anything to do with hip-hop anywhere.”

Miranda hopes that with these workshops, Whitman students and community members alike will be able to connect with this community. De Grasse agreed and is excited for Whitman students to meet people their own age from the community that they might never have otherwise encountered. Miranda is also looking forward to meeting new people himself.

“[I’m excited] to get everybody to see what hip-hop can do, reach out to different people—maybe they’ll fall in love with it as much as I did,” Miranda said. “Reaching out to anyone and everyone that is willing to come do the workshops and meeting new people… that’s one thing that I’ve always liked about workshops, is that you get to meet people from everywhere.”

Outlaw also referenced the community of hip-hop and is excited that they were able to pull together a diverse group of artists for the workshops.

“It’s just a very eclectic diverse group of people—it’s not just Black people, it’s not just white people, it’s not just Asian people, it’s everything,” Outlaw said. “And that’s the one thing you can always count on with hip-hop—when you’re speaking to the culture, everyone’s a part of it, right? Like that’s the cool thing about the culture of hip-hop, right, like everybody plays a role and that’s what makes it cool, so I’m excited that we get to represent that in the workshops.”

He added that although these workshops are a good first step, Whitman needs to continue to make this art form available to students.

“I would hope and plead that Whitman takes this art form and the teaching of this art form to a deeper level, not just touch on the surface of it for the sake of ‘hey look what we did,’” Outlaw said. “So with that being said, I would like for you to know that… I’m going to be constantly holding this institution accountable, I mean they’ve taken the first step, to continue to take those steps.”

Outlaw sees it as only fair to students who may be interested in the culture to grant it that academic validation. “You guys have ballet, you guys have a lot of very traditional style arts on this campus,” he said. “I think hip-hop deserves a seat at the table.”