By Emily Kennard
The Durham VOICE
Hip-hop legend and pioneer Christopher “Play” Martin gives his students at N.C. Central University the ultimate lesson when he teaches Hip-Hop in Context 101. Students couldn’t ask for a better teacher than Martin.
Because he lived it.
“I feel like George Washington,” said Martin, a former member of the famous hip-hop duo Kid ‘N Play. “In most of the books, Kid ‘N Play is in there. It’s like George Washington coming out of the history books.”
Martin, an instructor at NCCU, uses his personal life experiences to teach students how hip hop can positively influence their lives – just as it did for Martin.
“It wasn’t just about the music; it was about the way of life,” said Imani Person, a NCCU junior who took Martin’s class last fall.
Growing in Queens, N.Y., Martin originally took an liking to music for a purely adolescent reason around the age of 18.
“The girls loved the music, and I loved what they loved,” he said.
But what started as a mere pastime evolved into an escape from the harsh environments that surrounded Martin.
“Music was my relief,” he said. “Music was a tool. It kept me sane. It kept me alive.”
Martin began MCing at local clubs to make money and soon found a group of other young MCs, including Christopher “Kid” Reid. As other MCs quit the profession in favor of more prosperous careers, Martin and Reid stood strong.
“When life kicked in and it was time for reality, we were the only two left standing,” Martin said.
And Kid ‘N Play was born.
Making three albums and four movies together from 1987 to 1995, Kid ‘N Play was one of the first successful mainstream hip-hop groups.
But their relationship was about more than just music. Reid taught Martin informal lessons on vocabulary and history.
“He was an untraditional teacher in my life,” Martin said about Reid.
“It’s like a marriage when they talk about how they lose their identity,” Martin said. “It’s a natural feeling, but it’s scary.”
But the separation wasn’t a result of hurt feelings.
“We never split up,” Martin said. “We didn’t break up, we grew up.”
For the next four years, Martin performed in gospel musicals, which he enjoyed due to the immediate feedback from the audience.
“It’s as close as we can be to the human experience right then and there,” Martin said.
Reconnecting with his film career, Martin moved to Durham in 2005 to produce the documentary “Welcome to Durham, USA,” which showcases gang problems in the area. The film won best full-length feature documentary in 2007 at the New York International Film Festival.
“It was really painful in a good way,” Martin said about making the film. “It took a lot out of me.”
Never planning to stay in Durham permanently, Martin’s plans changed with a teaching offer from the chancellor of NCCU.
In 2005, Martin started teaching his hip-hop class, which focuses on the four main elements of hip-hop culture: disc jockeys, MCs, graffiti and break dancing.
Martin, who only earned a GED, is a faculty favorite among students.
“He is someone who I could honestly say is the last of the Mohicans when it comes to being an honest person,” Person said. “Every day he wakes up to push you to be a better person.”
In addition to teaching, Martin is also the co-founder NCCU’s first record label, Eagle Media. Danny Boy, a senior at NCCU, is the first artist signed to the label. His record is set to release in 2010.
“I was so excited,” Boy said about the signing. “My dreams are finally coming true.”
Martin is also the co-founder of Brand Newz, a news Web site founded two years ago.
“I love sharing information,” he said. “Once I hear it and process it through my limited knowledge, I can pass it on.”
Mike Anderson, who works for Brand Newz, said the purpose of the site is to broadcast truthful and relevant news.
“It brings an understanding and awareness to viewers that regular media shy away from,” Anderson said. “It’s like going to a cookout in your backyard instead of a big dinner event.”
Beyond teaching and making music, Martin said Brand Newz is his biggest passion.
“In my life, right now, there’s no other feeling like it,” he said. “I want to be the Ted Turner dipped in chocolate.”
Martin said he plans to continue managing Brand Newz and teaching so he can help others use hip-hip as not only a music outlet but as a way to succeed in life.
“I consider him a legend,” Boy said about Martin. “In my book, he’ll always be a part of my story.”