Thoughts of a music career may invoke images of pianos and violins or popular singers with a whole team of lyricists behind them, but for three guys on Purdue’s campus, it’s just about creating beats and lyrics.
Every creator is different, said Jake Shemon, a junior in the Krannert School of Management. Some create beats, lyrics or both. Some start with lyrics and match beats to them, while others pick beats and write lyrics that connect to a certain rhythm.
Shemon said he listens to music constantly, and uses songs that pique his interest as inspiration for his own.
“I’ll kind of bury myself (in the studio) for six or seven hours at a time at night, sometimes till 2 or 3 in the morning, kind of putting together that design that I come up with beforehand,” Shemon said.
Patrick Appleton, a senior in Krannert, can spend up to six days holed up in his room crafting the lyrics that speak to him the most before finding the beats to match.
Eric Swanson, a senior in the College of Engineering, does the opposite. An acoustical engineering student and an avid drummer since the age of 11, he likened his process to picking a frame for a painting.
“The whole goal of a hip-hop producer is the rapper or the artist is the painting, and you just have to be the frame,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean you can’t be the sexiest frame that’s ever been, you know. And so you can be a frame as long as it doesn’t take away from the painting.”
All three creators are motivated by a lifelong love of hip-hop and rap.
Appleton remembered memorizing Tupac lyrics as a young kid.
“I’ve always been super into rap, and (rhythm and blues). My parents were really into music,” he said. “They always had a bunch of CDs. When I was super young ... my dad would play Tupac, and I knew all the words. So I was cursing and everything. But I just grew up with little MP3 players and stuff, just listening to my favorite artists, just rapping the songs.”
He started writing little verses in eighth grade, and recalled his classmates offering to pay him to write their English homework.
Shemon was also introduced to music through his parents. During their time in college, they met through Purdue Musical Organizations, and Shemon grew up listening to them play in a rock band at their church. Swanson, meanwhile, sat in his father’s office for hours playing with the music software on his family computer.
Appleton is the only one of the three who plans to pursue a full-time career in the music industry after graduation, but all three publish their songs on streaming services such as SoundCloud, Spotify and iTunes.
Performances are also key for all three creators as a way to showcase and promote their music. Shemon has performed at fraternity parties and dance marathons, and all three have hosted their own shows on campus as well as in cities such as Indianapolis, Chicago and Los Angeles.
“I’ve started to realize how much of a time commitment it is to let people know about it,” Shemon said. “It’s a full-on effort. It’s probably about four or five hours of combined work, talking to people and letting people know, ‘Hey, I just finished a song (and) you should probably go check it out,’ to get those 300 plays.”
Though Swanson doesn’t plan to go into a professional music career, he likes the idea of a job that balances his creative side with the technicality of acoustical engineering.
“It’s a way to use my left and right brains at the same time,” he said. “I don’t have to sacrifice the creative side to it, but I’m also a huge math geek, so it’s a way to keep those two. ... It’s a nice marriage of music and math.”
Appleton also spoke of balancing the business and creative sides of making music with a team.
“It’s our job to make my campaign strategies. The idea is to reach people,” he said. “Artworks, banners, to come up with creative posts. But this side is really creative too. ... The more we understand the content and our passion behind pushing it, then the ideas just flow.”
Collaboration is common both among the Purdue community and the national community of music creators. Swanson performed in shows throughout the Midwest in a duo known as Grey Lamb. Shemon, Appleton and Swanson work with creators in places as widespread as California, Illinois, Kansas and Rhode Island to produce songs. Appleton also worked with videographer Levi Turner, who now tours with Joey Bada$$, to create several of his music videos.
Swanson and Shemon agreed that the music scene on campus defies the University’s reputation for engineering.
“If I were to go to another state or another country, it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s the engineering school,’” Shemon said. “To me, it’s an engineering school, a business school and also a school with music. So it’s like that contrast between the STEM studies and the creative campus.”
“On the surface it’s this technically advanced, the face of Purdue is this engineering side of it, but when you get down to the end of the day everyone’s just another person,” Swanson said. “That seems to be the vibe, is everyone has this idea of ‘I’ll screw the system.’ We can still do this and still be Purdue students. And that’s the kind of vibe that I’ve picked up is this idea of wanting to be conscious and be technical about it, but I’m not gonna sacrifice the art because of that.”
Appleton, however, believed Purdue’s academic curriculum can sometimes stop students from contributing to the creative culture on campus.
“I think only people who are in actual arts, I feel like they’re the only ones that have that artistic spirit,” he said. “I think it’s just because it’s a really hard university. People just really stick to their studies and staying in a stable mindset, just on their schoolwork and their career path. ... There’s people who maybe would want to experiment with art more. I just feel like most students up here don’t feel like they have the time or don’t want to take the risk and getting carried away.”
In the end, though, Shemon believed their art is important in spite of wider perceptions about the University.
“It’s a culture thing,” he said. “Music is, it’s something that cultivates culture. And a college campus is a melting pot of cultures to begin with, and music is this language that kind of breaks those cultural barriers between students.”