New School: Two New England outfits use hip-hop to help kids reach the head of the class

By Victoria Leenders-Cheng

How many United States presidents — besides the current one, of course — can you name? 

There are as many ways to memorize the 44 heads of state as there are students who have ever taken an American history class. But a new method gaining ground around the country and based in New England involves an unusual combination of mnemonics and music: educational rap.

Two separate but similar companies, Rhythm, Rhyme and Results (or Triple R), based in Cambridge, and Smart Songs, based in Providence, R.I., produce hip-hop and rap music with lyrics that focus on school subjects such as science and social studies.

Both Triple R and Smart Songs recently released updated versions of their songs to include the election and inauguration of President Barack Obama, and are hoping to use the momentum to establish educational rap as a teaching tool that is not only novel and fun, but also useful.

“Music is ideally suited for educational purposes because we always remember things differently if we can associate a melody with the words,” said Triple R President and Berklee College of Music professor Isaiah Jackson.

Jackson’s son, Ben, founded Triple R in 2006 with two friends who enjoyed creating their own beats and writing their own rap lyrics. They decided to apply their hobby to content from a social studies class textbook and found to their amusement that it helped even them remember the information.

“I spent a couple of hours making the [Bill of Rights] rhyme [to a beat],” Ben Jackson explained. “A couple of days later, I caught myself singing the song and I realized that for the first time in my life, I knew the first 10 amendments to the Constitution.”

Smart Songs began on similar grounds in Rhode Island, with friends who enjoyed writing hip-hop songs for fun in high school deciding to focus their efforts on an educational cause.

“We weren’t trying to make a career out of it,” explained Smart Songs co-founder Scott Geer. “But at the end of 2007, after college, we started talking about what could do with our music and we thought this would be a really good opportunity to try to associate educational themes and have some sort of purpose with our music.”

“We know kids like hip-hop and it’s a good way to reach them,” he added.

Both Triple R and Smart Songs take their music seriously.

“We’re hip-hop fans and we strive to make good music that contains the true elements of hip-hop, that isn’t commercial and watered down and doesn’t sacrifice the good beats and lyrics,” Geer said.

“The key is hearing the music,” Ben Jackson said. “When you say ‘educational rap,’ people assume it’s playful, lightweight rap music, but you put it on and realize the beats are produced by professional producers and professional rappers. If you’re not listening to [the] words, you might as well be listening to the radio.”

Hip-hop producer and engineer The Arcitype graduated from Emerson College and owns a studio in North Cambridge. He said he applies the same rigorous standards to creating Triple R’s music as he does to the work he’s done with other professional musicians, including the legendary Kool G. Rap and local underground heavyweights Termanology and Edo. G.

The Arcitype produced “44 Presidents” — Triple R’s most successful track and a featured video on YouTube in mid-February — using a sample from “Hail to the Chief” to create a thumping mix of drumbeats and cascading trumpets.

“I chopped everything and created a beat in whatever way those notes spoke to me,” he said. “The beginning is one of my favorite parts of the whole track because you hear [“Hail to the Chief”] in its entirety and then you can pick apart the pieces that I used from that section and see how I reordered it.”

For Black History Month, Triple R released a special collection entitled “Four Centuries, Four Songs: from Africa to the White House,” which included “44 Presidents” as well as tracks about the various countries of Africa, the civil war and the civil rights movement.

“Especially in 2009, the Black History Month collection was obligatory,” said Isaiah Jackson. “We feature a picture of our 44th president because I think this year more than any other, we can celebrate the achievements we have made as a country.”

Smart Songs is also working on linking current events to their music, with projects such as a planned trip around the country performing in classrooms to teach students about U.S. geography and another called “Trip to Wall Street” that will “try to educate kids about how the economy works, how to save money and how to open a business,” Geer said.

There are two ways to look at rap music, Isaiah Jackson noted.

“One is, make children turn stuff off so they can do their homework,” he said. “The other approach is, ‘They’re going to listen to it anyway … Let’s put some content in there.”

The novelty and excitement of linking curricular content to rap music also gives rise to a fundamental principle of education, Jackson added: “As any good teacher will tell you, anybody learns much better if they’re enjoying it.”