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'Listening to the world': UNC Beat Lab allows students to explore beatmaking


Torin Simpson mashing songs for his set on a Pioneer DJ at the Beat Lab inside Hill Hall, UNC Chapel Hill, on Tuesday, February 20, 2024.

Located in Hill Hall Room 109, UNC's Beat Lab is home to a variety of electronic musical equipment available for all students to use, from modern mixing boards and DJ stations to old-school analog-style machines. 

The Beat Lab serves as a creative space for UNC students to explore beatmaking in a relaxed environment. The space was founded in 2013 by Mark Katz, UNC John P. Barker distinguished professor of music, who transformed a tuba storage space into a place for musical discovery and collaboration.

Before he made the space, Katz said he often heard inquiries from students who wanted to learn more about DJing and rap. He said, he responded to the demand by using the turntables previously held in his office to start creating what he called a lab.

“People who I've seen come through have found their place and found their people at the Beat Lab," he said.

The space is run by the UNC Department of Music and is funded by a combination of federal grant money, fundraising, gifts from private donors and even a Red Bull corporate sponsorship, Katz said. He also said the Beat Lab hosts events and workshops where students can learn from experienced artists. The most recent workshop hosted JOENICEDJ, a renowned artist with expertise in dubstep and bass music. 

In the lab, students can also layer their voices or the sounds of other instruments to create beats. The space offers computers for students who might not have music software on their own devices. 

Students flock to the Beat Lab for both educational and extracurricular reasons. For some students, the Beat Lab is a chance to escape a rigorous course load and create something meaningful. Katz said that he's heard students say that having the space to create music freely saved them.

“I think being a beatmaker is listening to the world and being able to redirect the story,” UNC sophomore Ellie Sellers said.

Though she is an English and comparative literature major, Sellers said she started using the space to supplement what she was learning in her beatmaking class. She said she quickly came to enjoy spending time in the Beat Lab environment and it has been a cornerstone of her experience with the UNC Department of Music.

Junior computer science major Keon Marcus said working in the Beat Lab is like watching magic. Marcus uses the space to make his own music and collaborate with others.

“We're learning from each other, bouncing ideas, making things that we didn't even consider before going into the Beat Lab," he said.

The space also supports student organizations like the UNC Hip Hop Ensemble, led by professor Suzi Analogue, who oversees Beat Lab operations. UNC juniors K'mani Leonerio and Quincy Griffin use the space as a part of the group of producers and musicians. The ensemble used the Beat Lab to work on three or four different songs together last semester, Leonerio said.

Despite being a newcomer, Leonerio said he was quickly comfortable in the warm space. The walls of the lab feature art and signatures, including one from founding member of A Tribe Called Quest, Phife Dawg, which Leonerio said was interesting to him because he grew up listening to the group.

The space has open lab hours for anyone from 4-6 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with some limitations due to staffing. The lab team hopes to continue expanding the program in the future, Katz said

“I would definitely recommend [the Beat Lab] because I think the best way to get into music is to just try it out,” Griffin said.

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