This post was updated Nov. 2 at 8:30 a.m.
“Hypnotize“ by The Notorious B.I.G. filled the ears of students entering a classroom in the Mathematical Sciences building for the weekly Rap Music Club meeting.
For two hours on Wednesdays nights, the space becomes a stage for campus rappers. One by one, members take a turn rapping, while others stand around the performer in a circle, reacting to the content.
Wednesday meetings start with a 15-minute discussion of the latest rap album releases, followed by 30 to 45 minutes of freestyling. In the last hour, the club’s central rap group, the Bruin Association of Rap Scholars, writes and rehearses songs. The Rap Music Club seeks to offer a casual and fun atmosphere for discussions and performances, said UCLA alumnus and member Tommy Reyes.
Reyes joined the club in 2013 when his then-roommate Jordan Abel formed it. The club was intended to be a place for students to come together casually to practice freestyling, Reyes said. Reyes, who graduated in 2015, maintains involvement with the club by attending most meetings, he said.
Reyes played saxophone for the UCLA Bruin Marching Band as a student, and said he’s been playing musical instruments, such as the piano, since he was 7 years old. But rap gives people a voice that other genres and instruments don’t, Reyes said. Rappers don’t need to buy an instrument to perform, and they practice their craft anywhere, he said.
However, other Rap Music Club members, including second-year physics student Isaac Lara, joined without much musical experience.
“I did not rap at all – I listened to rap music, for like six months, before coming to college,” Lara said.
Prior to joining the Rap Music Club, Lara said he mainly listened to nerdcore rap – a subgenre focused on science fiction, video games and other subjects commonly considered nerdy – and had never tried freestyling, he said. Since joining the club, Lara has expanded his musical interests and now listens to genres including horrorcore and rappers like Eminem, he said.
Rap music, particularly the gangster rap subgenre, is often criticized for being violent and vulgar, said Allison Duffy, a fourth-year sociology student. Even Kanye West said rap is generally thought of as misogynistic in an interview with Lou Stoppard. But, according to Duffy, rap can be used in productive ways to vent ideas.
Rap lyrics can also be comical and resonate with listeners directly, Lara said. “We’re not gangsters. We’re not hard,” Lara said. “We’re UCLA students – let’s rap about stuff in our daily lives.”
The Rap Music Club also developed Lara’s appreciation for the creativity and spontaneity of freestyling, he said. In club meetings, Lara demonstrated his rhyming abilities by freestyling a rap about picking up women at a club.
Members of the Rap Music Club encourage one another’s skills and improvements in freestyling sessions, he said.
Duffy looks up to Lara for his abilities as a freestyler, she said.
“Isaac’s one of the most skilled freestylers I’ve heard and he’s only been doing it for a year,” she added.
Although some members such as Lara rap for fun, Duffy said other members consider rapping a serious professional endeavor.
“People get different things out of it: Some people come and just want to listen to people freestyle and laugh,” Duffy said. “Others are really serious about making music.”
In the future, Duffy hopes to go to more concerts with club members and organize rap battles on campus, where two rival rappers try to insult and outwit one another through rhymes.
“The most important thing is to have a chill environment where we can enjoy ourselves,” Duffy said.
Duffy included that although elements of rap culture, such as battles and diss tracks, create a sense of competitiveness, members of the club ultimately aim to open a welcoming and safe creative space.
“Whether you’re a casual listener or whether you study rap or whether you’re a rapper that wants to make it, I think the biggest element is to never lose sight of having fun,” Reyes said. “With your buddies, with your art, always have fun.”