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'This is my music': UNC students produce their own beats

DTH Photo Illustration. Students combine music from various genres and time periods to produce original music.

Although Zakari Lowenthal Billo, a senior chemistry major at UNC, has been a musician for the past ten years, it's only been within the past few that he got into making his own beats and experimenting with digital music.

Billo said that their introduction to digital music production was a “hand-me-down experience." His best friend made beats, which inspired him to do the same. Billo's friend taught them the basics and exposed them to relevant works and genres that shaped their understanding of the art form. 

When he was in high school, Billo said he became interested in hip-hop, which often samples older musical clips and repurposes them to create new compositions. Their appreciation for the genre as a listener fostered their passion for beat-making, which uses similar techniques and technologies. 

"I would say that hip hop has always been about accessing the past, and it's always been about the amplification of Black music that is older and creating something new with that in the contemporary sphere," he said. 

Today, digital audio workstations, such as Ableton Live, Logic and FL Studio software, and hardware like the Akai MPC Live are at the center of digital music production as they provide a platform for the sounds, instruments and tools that musicians use to create their music. 

Dustin Ragland, the education development manager at Ableton, which creates digital music software and hardware, said that digital music production gives him flexibility to reimagine an individual sound in various ways.

“A common misunderstanding of digital tools that can happen is that they are all shortcuts to reach an end goal, which is just producing something, it doesn’t matter what the something is, as long as it’s musical ‘content,’” Ragland said. “But the most compelling examples of uses of digital tools in this case are the ones that allow for you to imagine music that is either physically impossible to play or that you yourself as a musician maybe couldn’t perform.” 

In the past, he has used tools to stretch the sound itself until it’s unrecognizable or to add effects to transform the way the layers of sound interact with one another. 

Alexia Civit, a sophomore music and environmental studies major, said that before coming to UNC she was primarily an acoustic musician. As she learned about different genres, took music technology classes and got involved with student groups at UNC like the Hip Hop Ensemble, her focus started to shift to digital music production.

Civit, whose artist name is Alexia’s Mind, said that she is exploring the balance between manipulating acoustic sounds and leaving the raw performance style in digital music.

She said that music making is like a state of “tunnel vision,” where everything blurs and she focuses on one specific video or sound clip until she realizes how much time has passed. 

According to Civit, there are people who want to tear artists down and say that they won't succeed or have unoriginal music, but she said  she doesn't want others' opinions to stop her from creating.

"This is my music," Civit said. "This is what I have to offer the world."

Billo said that when he is creating music, he starts with a drum pattern or finds source material as inspiration for the mood of the song he wants to compose. After that, they begin to experiment with different sequences and layering to create a unique sound. 

He said that he creates beats in order to therapeutically explore sonic space but also aims to convey his lived experience, values and the cultures of his global upbringing. 

“I’d say the great work of art is finding a medium by which you can communicate and articulate thoughts and visions you have in your head, trying to translate that to reality as much as possible,” Billo said. “And so that's a harder thing to give people but I think it's doable and I think it requires some patience.” 

Keon Marcus, a junior computer science major at UNC, said that as a music producer he tries to keep his music versatile and wants people to feel good when they listen to it. He said that seeing people dance and use his beats, like at UNC Cypher’s weekly freestyle rap performances, is why he creates music — he wants to bring people together. 

Finding other music producers at UNC is similar to searching for a needle in a haystack, he said, but when he happens to come across creators, he enjoys taking the time in person to just sit and make music together. 

“That’s what I like to live by is really just to put your heart and passion into what you truly love, even if people hate it or tell you you shouldn’t do it,” Marcus said.


@dthlifestyle |

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