Standing amidst a sea of young men in light blue collared shirts and navy blue slacks, Darrell Branch is an authoritative figure. Dawning equally studious attire, the producer known as Digga advises his students on matters of copyright protection, illegal downloads and contract terms. He has been teaching at Renaissance Leadership Academy (RLA), a Harlem middle school, for five years. The transition into education from music was a practical one for the Harlem born entrepreneur.
Darrell began his professional career in 1997 as the exclusive music producer for Undertainment Records. In this role he earned executive producer credits on Cam’ron‘s gold-selling debut album Confessions of Fire. He was also instrumental in the formation of The Diplomats and even conceptualized their American eagle-themed logo. From there, he was off to the races – producing tracks for superstar artists such as Jay Z, 50 Cent, Ludacris and Jennifer Lopez.
Always a teacher at heart, Branch ran the Online Beat Tutorial website from 2004-05. But he found that having a site that hosted videos was expensive. “I used a site from India for people to create an account and put up videos. It was costing me a lot and I wasn’t making that much money.” He began to receive emails from all around the world. People wanted to learn from an American producer.
It was around this time that Branch got a call from Qadir Dixon, the principal at RLA. Both attended the University of New Haven, where Branch received his degree in Music Business. Together, the former basketball teammates thought up an idea for a new type of music class which would have its very own studio. After countless hours of sharing the vision through meetings and phone calls, Dixon successfully wrote several grants to pay for the studio equipment.
“I wanted to bring Darrell here because he’s a great role model, a leader and an example of hard work and believing in your dreams,” says Dixon of his dedication to the cause. “Parents don’t always want the kids in the house playing trumpets, but they can still zone out. Who better to teach them?”
With a teaching position in place, Branch began to conceptualize Music Biz Kids, Inc., which would become home to a learning management website. He made a personal investment of approximately $5,000 to establish the site. He has spent another $10,000 to keep it up and running. He created the materials with a focus on music technology, music theory and music business. All of the curriculum is aligned with the New York State and Common Core Learning Standards (CCLS).
Fast forward to today, and the results are clear. There is well over $100,000 worth of equipment in Mr. Branch’s classroom including a full vocal booth. Students use new model Mac desk stations with M-Audio midi keyboards and Sennheiser headphones. The recording software of choice is Reason. But even surrounded by all of this top-tier machinery, the main engine of classroom instruction is the Music Biz Kids website Branch developed. Through this system, 7th and 8th graders are learning the basics of intellectual property, which protects a revenue stream that is integral to the music industry: publishing.
He’s a superstar. Guys who did not want to come to school have graduated high school and built studios in their homes. He’s inspiring kids to be scholars. They want to be just like him. – RLA Principal, Qadir Dixon, on Branch’s impact
Each student has their own account. The website has contract templates that scholars can customize to the rights they want to retain for their works. Games such as hangman are used to answer questions such as: “What is a copyright owned by the government that anyone can use for free?” (The answer is public domain.) Students are asked to reflect on what they have learned in fill-in-the-blank fashion. When they make new beats, they upload them under their account so that Branch can listen to them anywhere. He is uniquely equipped to both teach them the business principles and critique their budding production skills.
When a scholar can’t figure out the answer to a problem he has come across on Music Biz Kids, Branch coaxes out the answer: “Let’s say I just got these new kicks, and they only belong to me… It begins and ends with the letter E.” After a few students guess wrong, he brings the concept even closer to their everyday experiences. “What do they say when you can’t get it anywhere else?” There’s momentary silence. “Exclusive!” a student at his left finally calls out. They had likely heard this on the radio when a new record was being dropped by one of their favorite DJ’s.
The investment that is being made into the youth here is astonishing. There is even a student-run record label connected to the class. They can participate as A&Rs, producers, artists or videographers. Every role that exists at any other label is available. When I ask about a giant-sized check for $500,000 from Def Jam to RLA hanging above the vocal booth, Branch smiles and explains that it is not real, but an effective visualization technique. “I tell them this is a check, this is how you get paid.” Indeed it is. The groundwork is being laid for a new generation of thought leaders in music, business and beyond. “Some kids don’t appreciate what they have. It may not get through to them now, but a few years later, they will understand. They will have the skills.”
The Music Biz Kids platform is a copywritten learning system. RLA is just the beginning, a trial to show that it actually works. Branch is focused on connecting music with different subjects such as ELA, science and math. “Music is math,” says Branch, who expects to expand soon by licensing the use of his website to other schools.
“I’m in the trenches. I’m with the kids from the hood who I can really directly influence. I want to give them the exposure to the opportunities and show them what is available. I can say I worked with Jay Z and sold 30 million records, but that wears off with [them]. They want to learn it from you, not just hear about it.” – Branch
Aside from his work at RLA, the “Many Men” producer will be releasing his first book, The Beat Game, shortly. It is an autobiographical/instructional look at the business behind making and selling music in hip-hop. He also teaches online courses and maintains an active blog, whose latest post on “The History of Ratchet R&B Music” takes a video journey back as far as the 1970s.
In his classroom, however, it is a no nonsense atmosphere. When a heated conversation over a Yu-Gi-Oh game breaks out in the corner of the room, Mr. Branch gives swift instructions to put the cards away. There’s a different game to be studied in this class: music. And according to Digga, its applications are endless.
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