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Alumni Spotlight // Education

DR. DJ

Psychologist Dr. Elliot Gann `03 brings hip hop to the classroom with Today’s Future Sound
Elliot and Teen Girl
Dr. Elliot Gann `03 brings therapeutic hip hop to Oakland teens through workshops and classes from the Today’s Future Sound team. (Photo courtesy of Today’s Future Sound)

Beatmaker, producer and educator Dr. Elliot Gann `03 – a.k.a. DJ Phillipdrummond – uses hip hop music and culture to build mental health programs and community outreach activities for at-risk youth in northern California.

As the director and founder of Today’s Future Sound (TFS), Gann brings music production and performance workshops to over 6,000 students in the Oakland, San Francisco, Hayward and Martinez school districts. Drawing from his passion for hip hop and electronic music, Gann encourages students to produce and perform their music to foster well-being. He teaches basic music theory, piano/keyboard skills, sound recording and engineering, as well as techniques on how to construct and sequence songs.

Gann graduated with a degree in psychology from UC Santa Barbara, and went on to earn his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the Wright Institute. He has worked as a visiting artist and consultant for educational programs in South America, Asia, Europe, Australia, Africa, and throughout the United States and Canada.

In this Alumni Q&A, Gann talks about how hip hop culture and music influenced his career journey, his many student endeavors at UCSB, and the impact of Today’s Future Sound on young people around the world.

An informational video about Today's Future Sound, its model and travels, produced in 2016. (From www.youtube.com/user/todaysfuturesound)

Why did you decide to study at UC Santa Barbara?

It was between UC Santa Cruz and UC Santa Barbara for me. I grew up in New York City and went to a liberal elite private school where 10 percent of the graduating class went Harvard. We were about 100 to 110 kids per class. I knew I could get in-state tuition in California because my dad lives in the Bay Area. I got a partial scholarship to Occidental College -- but even with a $15,000 scholarship, it was cheaper to go to a UC.

My mom had gone to UC Santa Cruz -- but she did say the weather was also great in Santa Barbara. There was also an honors program at UCSB, which was a great opportunity to engage and classes were smaller. I listened to my mother – as an 18-year-old – and thought the weather was great in Santa Barbara as well. The campus was beautiful.

I had a couple AP credits and knew about the College of Creative Studies. I strongly advocated to take classes there during my freshman year. I was burned out from high school – it was such a competitive environment. I needed time to decompress and express myself. It was fundamentally important for me to take arts and music classes. I did music production in my junior and senior years.

Another reason I decided to go to UC Santa Barbara was Enda Duffy, a UCSB professor of English. I sat in on his Irish literature class. (We had read James Joyce’s Ulysses in high school. I come from a family of psychoanalysts, I’m Jewish – and the protagonist of Ulysses is Jewish-Irish.) I fell in love with the literature, and went and talked to Professor Duffy. I’m from the East Coast and he taught at Wesleyan, so I told him I was looking to going to a small liberal arts college like Skidmore College. He told me I could take his class – and then I took another class – and another. I’m not prone to taking a lot of English classes, but he was incredible. He let us present for our final – and I did a multimedia electronic composition on Ulysses. Professor Duffy is a real gem. It was amazing.

What made you decide on your major?

When I graduated high school, I went to Europe. I went to the Balkans and worked with Bosnian Muslim kids off the coast of Croatia. That was a really important experience for me – to go to Europe by myself and travel.

I knew coming out of high school I wanted to study psychology or cultural anthropology. In Croatia, I had a reaffirming experience teaching severely traumatized kids who grew up during the war – they couldn’t go outside a lot of the time and a lot of them hadn’t gone swimming. We were teaching them how to swim. These were kids from Serb Orthodox AND Catholic Croatian families, all together. A lot these of these kids were from intercultural, interfaith families and had to choose sides during the war. After this experience, I thought I would become a child psychologist. When I went to college, I declared my major in psychology.

Were you very involved in student life at UCSB?

One focus that was really important to me was that I was into underground hip hop, with kids from Los Angeles, San Luis Obispo and as far as the Bay Area and out of state. It was a new cultural experience for me, a kid from New York City, going on a skateboard with flip flops on.

I was so into music and the arts in my extracurricular activities. I hung out with guys who were into underground hip hop. During that time, the SoCal and NorCal scene were equally impressive – and being in Santa Barbara, we had close access to LA and what was happening there. Going down there was really important to me.

I would go down to raves to San Bernadino with my friends from Los Angeles. We would go to parties in LA, featuring underground house and electronic music. Steve Aoki used to DJ at a lot of them. We also all hung out at the record store.

I would describe myself as very socially connected with my fellow UCSB students. I used to hang out at Zeta Phi Rho, a predominantly Filipino fraternity house. Everyone was really into underground music. Filipinos have dominated this scene in California. I was hanging out with a lot of the Pinoy kids from LA and from the Bay Area at this fraternity, though I never joined one while I was at UCSB.

I started the hip hop club at UCSB in my senior year. We raised several thousands of dollars and achieved our first mission to bring hip hop culture to the local community. We reached out to the families at the local schools and put put on hip hop events and shows in the community.

I was sick of mainstream cheesy music – it was geared toward partying. I wanted to unite and build community. We also volunteered in community and provided events for all ages. We brought high school youth on campus to teach them about the admissions process. That worked out really nicely. I started a campus visitation program, talking about the SATs, community college and getting automatic admission into UCSB, as well as about social justice and empowerment. I created a sub group in the community which integrated local community in Isla Vista, Goleta and Ventura.

In terms of student life across the UCSB campus, we wanted to unite these kids from all different places. We had weekly meetings at different lecture halls -- there’s an even old Nexus article about this initiative. We started putting on events on campus – I think we did about 7 rap battles and 4 or 5 dance battles. We did one at the hub at the end of senior year and there were 1,100 people attending. It was the biggest rap battle that SB has ever seen – it was a packed crowd! It was ridiculous! I remember Aloe Blacc came and judged the rap battle along with Busdriver – they performed and judged the local rappers.

I also remember being on campus when that crazy guy ran over all those people in Isla Vista in 2001. I was taking 16 or 18 units at the time, and was inside studying and writing a paper. I could have been one of those people. That too was part of my UCSB experience.

On the whole, I was an idealist during my undergraduate days. I loved volunteering with the reading program at the local schools and was into service and connection. I also played pickup soccer.

Now that I think of it, I probably didn’t sleep that much while I was at UCSB.

BGIRL TIARA by Javier Ramirez feat Alex Blum & Elliot Gann

What is it about the hip hop music genre and culture that inspires you?

I grew up in New York City, the birthplace of hip hop. For me, it was the culture with the most social capital. Hip hop takes the best and most exciting parts of a song, and repeats again and again -- you don’t have to hit rewind to get the message. There’s also the kinetic energy of it – it channels aggression really well and has a real vitality to it. Rock is also a culture – it’s a type of music – but it doesn’t have breakdancing or emceeing or rapping or DJing or graffiti.

The fifth element of hip hop is knowledge and knowledge of self. It has all these really exciting components – it’s edgy and rebellious. And it’s still political and radical. As a genre, it speaks to a lot of the youth today who share the same narrative, around the world.

Simply, hip hop spoke to me. I like melodies and dancing and culture. It was an integral part of my experience growing up. I immediately could form relationships with people who had the same background AND those who were from other places and other cultures.

Dr. Elliot Gann `03 teaching school children about hip hop music in Melbourne, Australia.
Dr. Elliot Gann `03 teaching school children about hip hop music in Melbourne, Australia.

What is Today’s Future Sound? What is the scope of the work this organization does for young people in your local community?

I have been running Today's Future Sound full-time for the past couple of years, running programming primarily in low-SES neighborhoods and schools in Oakland and the Bay Area teaching elementary, middle and high schools electronic music production/hip hop music production and DJ'ing. This includes learning basic music theory, the history of hip hop, science, math, and other technological aspects of these activities, including helping the kids to create their own instrumental albums and perform their compositions live in the community.

Not only is this a didactic and experiential activity, I also use this for what I see as developmental, socio-emotional and therapeutic benefits, in areas where youth who have been exposed to community violence, intergenerational trauma, racism, developmental/complex trauma, and even acute trauma.

These kids are given a reliable, interested group of adults/musical mentors (and of course myself as a trained mental health professional/therapist) with whom they can develop relationships and discover themselves as creators. The children learn to be part of a positive and supportive group. This program is important for its perceived value and buy-in from other community members. It has both an expressive modality and a rapport-building mechanism to more effectively build relationships.

Many of our groups run for 15 weeks or so, but some longer, like our Beats4Lunch program at West Oakland Middle School (WOMS), where we have been working weekly at the school since September 2012. We have become part of the culture of the school and established relationships with school staff, admin, support counselors, teachers and students over the long-term. We are also able to continue to serve students whom we taught at the feeder elementary schools in West Oakland such as Lafayette, Hoover and Prescott Elementary schools, so kids know us and are familiar with us when they arrive at WOMS.

One of our most successful programs last year was at an alternative high school in Martinez, where our class was one of, if not the most popular and well-attended classes, motivating student who normally didn't sign up for electives to sign up and actively participate. (We were addicted to that class!) It was so wonderful to see youth come out of their shells and be motivated, bond with our instructors. We are still in touch with the students -- many of whom ask regularly for us to return.

We also work occasionally at private schools (and summer camps) such as Cathedral School for Boys, Alta Vista, and are talking with Bentley School (we taught on campus at Head Royce this summer). This helps us sustain our program and our 15 instructors. I find there are no shortage of youth who can benefit from the groups. We also teach at private schools as well.

An informational video about Today's Future Sound during its annual fundraiser, produced in 2015. (From www.youtube.com/user/todaysfuturesound)

Beyond your work for Today’s Future Sound, what are your other outreach initiatives?

I have also been working on a national and international basis, starting chapters and training local folks in our model around the continental United States (New York City, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas) as well as doing a fair amount of work in Toronto both in the school districts there (and presenting at a STEM conference) as well as community settings, including work with homeless teenagers, indigenous/aboriginal youth and newly immigrated youth from elementary to high school age.

In January 2015, I went abroad to Dakar, Senegal on a cultural diplomacy mission to do conflict resolution with the US State Department and UNC Chapel Hill (Next Level program) and have kept in touch with the young leaders I met there -- I plan to return soon. This past summer I was an artist in residence in Brisbane, Australia and I worked with homeless youth there, as well as working with refugees from Syria, other recently immigrated youth, aboriginal/indigenous youth, incarcerated/severely traumatized youth (aged 11 to 25) in a variety of "youth care facilities” throughout the continent of Australia (West, South and East coasts). I also presented at a progressive educators conference in Melbourne, and volunteering in locked facilities and alternative high school in Auckland, New Zealand.

I have taught and consulted for three weeks with youth in the barrios of Lima, Peru, as well as a brief stint in São Paulo, Brazil. In both countries, I connected with non-profits working with incarcerated young men. I am working with Horizontes in Brazil to do fundraising to get me back down to do professional development for their staff, and to train local musicians in our model. I hope to help set up a program similar to the one we have here in the United States.

Just recently, we presented at the Deeper Learning Conference at High Tech High in San Diego, where I also DJ'ed for Talib Kweli. We taught in Hong Kong at the end of April, following with a presentation with Dr. Raphael Travis of Texas State, San Marcos (professor of social work and author of The Healing Power of Hip Hop) at the Pacific Rim Conference on Diversity and Disability, as well as consulting and teaching for University of Hawaii’s School of Education. I also went to a workshop in New York City as part of VH1’s Save the Music program.

Dr Elliot Gann `03 – a.k.a. Phillipdrummond – featured on the US Embassy Senegal’s site, workingon beats for the Next Level Dakar Introduction

What are your future plans? What would you like to accomplish as an educator and mentor?

I would love to continue to be involved and present in my creative and professional life. I feel like I have a lot to offer in terms of my experience – if you are not self-directed you can get lost. Since I was young, I had a strong sense of what I liked and who I was – it enabled me to navigate the system really well.

In our current world, you have to be your own brand. You have to have selling points and marketable skillsets. I am constantly marketing myself. It’s important to foster digital literacy – how do you present yourself to the world is key.

I would also love to be more involved in the UCSB community. I usually donate to the Annual Fund – I remember being one of the top earners when I worked as a student to help raise funds for the University.

I really love to empower young people to find their community and find what empowers THEM. Find who you and link your passions. Look at me -- I am a very unorthodox psychologist beatboxer. That’s the unique path where I find fulfillment – what’s yours?

Learn more about Dr. Elliot Gann `03 and Today’s Future Sound at www.todaysfuturesound.org

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