Wisconsin's great "Teach Me How to Bucky" T-shirt fad was launched by accident.
It was the first day of class at UW-Madison, Sept. 2, 2010, and senior Quincy Kwalae walked into the wrong room. "Ironically," he says, "it was an entrepreneur class."
Students introduced themselves. Kwalae said he makes music. Another guy said he makes films. "After class he came up to me," says Kwalae, "and he said, 'Hey, I know who you are. I'm trying to get my name out there. We should work on a project.' And I said, 'It's funny you should say that, because I just came up with this idea.'"
The idea was to have Bucky Badger star in a be-true-to-your-school remake of the Cali Swag District pop song "Teach Me How to Dougie." Kwalae soon recorded "Teach Me How to Bucky" with his musical partner, Clifton Beefy.
The duo, whose legal names are Quincy Harrison, 22, and Cliff Grefe, 21, perform together in the local hip-hop duo Zooniversity. They collaborated with the student filmmaker, Logan Cascia, on a video. Five weeks later, "Teach Me How to Bucky" premiered on Camp Randall Stadium's JumboTron during the homecoming football game against the Minnesota Gophers.
The clip set off a YouTube frenzy. Over the next 24 hours, "Bucky" became the site's sixth most watched music video and broke the top 100 for videos overall.
It wasn't the first time college students set music to film to promote their school. But the clip's success motivated students around the country to make new rally songs for their schools.
Hoosier fans soon had "This Is Indiana." The University of Oregon tried "Teach Me How to Duckie." Even Tom Hanks' son, Chet Haze, a student at Northwestern University, rapped "White and Purple," a parody of Wiz Khalifa's "Black and Yellow."
The songs were steeped in the way music sounds and looks in 2011. They were rap-pop tunes, often direct parodies of Top 40 tracks. "All sorts of universities are going to start doing this," says Kwalae. "It's a recruitment tool and a spirit builder. There were YouTube comments under our video where people said, 'I'm going to apply to go school here because of this video.' I think that's cool."
It also wasn't the first time Kwalae and Beefy made national waves with their music. A year earlier, the duo debuted with "The Coastie Song." The track serenaded Starbucks-loving wealthy coeds from the East Coast. "Coastie" was covered in USA Today because the song's reference to "my Jewish-American princess" sparked controversy.
That didn't stop the campus caricature from gaining wide recognition among UW students. The video gathered more than 200,000 views. "It was played at all the campus bars," says Kwalae. "People would come up to us and say, 'You guys made the Coastie Song?'"
The story of Zooniversity is about more than collegiate spirit and provocative videos going viral. It's about two UW students who are redefining what it means to be musicians in the digital age, and what it takes to win a mass audience in the post-record-industry era.
Working in a small room on the top floor of their Langdon Street fraternity, Zooniversity herald a new class of pop musicians who arrange sounds on a computer and rap over them. They earn fans by performing in videos drenched in localized cultural emblems that appeal to their online followers.
Zooniversity are blazing the trail of a new kind of artist: the social network musician. Social network musicians remix what's already been published to make it more relevant to their target market, their followers.
You can see the trend in the way Katy Perry's "California Gurls" was remade for YouTube by teenagers living in un-exotic places. "North Dakota Bois" and "Us Milwaukee Girls" have gathered hundreds of thousands of views online.
American youth have long navigated commercial culture. But in the digital age, it's a culture that can be downloaded to a hard drive, and, more important, it can be edited.
Songwriting, recording, producing and publishing are being deconstructed and rebuilt by a new generation of musicians. They're humanizing pop's shallow and decadent themes with locally relevant humor and wit.
Zooniversity are teaching us more than how to Bucky.
A rose for the chancellor
On Valentine's Day of 2010, Kwalae and Beefy knocked on the door of UW Chancellor Biddy Martin's house in University Heights. They'd come to deliver a rose and a song.
The song was "My Biddy," Zooniversity's original composition that the duo describe as "a love song for our amazing chancellor."
"I got you on my mind," sang guest vocalist Sam Petricca. "Want to skip this class, find you fast, but I know it's a waste of time."
"She was really impressed with that, so she invited us back for dinner," says Beefy. "We asked her to be in this video, and she was really cool about that. She invited us into her office for 15 minutes on some random day. We went up to Bascom, and she was down for whatever. She was dancing. She was real fun."
Kwalae was raised in Bloomington, Ind., where he says he was trained to play basketball, not music. "It was Indiana, and I was always two feet taller than everyone else," he says. "So I played basketball."
Kwalae never played an instrument, "but I always say I played around with music," he says. "I was reasonably computer savvy. I got a couple of computer programs, messed around with them, and I sold my first beat when I was in eighth grade."
Now, he says, "it's become more than a hobby."
Beefy's path to music started with poetry. Raised in Token Creek, he attended DeForest High School. "In middle school I would always write poetry," he says. "I did some poetry slams and spoken word. I really didn't start rapping until I was 16, and that was just over people's beats that I found."
That changed when he enrolled at UW-Madison and joined Phi Gamma Delta. "I joined our fraternity when I was a freshman, and Quincy was already in it from the year before," says Beefy. "I heard him making a beat, and we talked, and we made our first song right away, basically - just in his room in about a day."
Kwalae credits Beefy with directing the duo's attention to "Teach Me How to Dougie." It references a Dallas hip-hop dance called the Dougie; the word melds "Dallas" and "boogie." "He's always staying current with hip-hop to the extreme," Kwalae says of Beefy. "He hears songs a month before they come out. He was playing 'Dougie' a lot and noticing everyone loved it."
Songs for Sconnies
Zooniversity make music tailored to students who attend UW-Madison and who were born around 1990. All the team's productions are both videos and songs.
Zooniversity's YouTube channel features five episodes, so far, of Zooday Tuesday, an original show. One episode invites viewers to watch what Kwalae and Beefy did over Thanksgiving break and how they rapped at a campus party sponsored by Victoria's Secret.
In episode five, you can watch Quincy make a Christmas-themed song about final exams. He completes the song in 10 minutes. Episode two features footage gracefully showing the duo douse their audience with beer at a Halloween gig.
Episode four is a promotion for a new song released only to Twitter followers. In the clip, a framed photo of Barack Obama sits behind Beefy and Kwalae.
Zooday Tuesday is just another social marketing tool linking Zooniversity's music to their online followers.
"We're really YouTube-focused because we've noticed that a lot of people, when they want to show a friend a song, they go to YouTube," says Kwalae. "That's just where people are going. So we wanted to have a presence there."
Their YouTube presence goes beyond Coasties, Bucky and Biddy. In "Study Buddy," Quincy and Beefy end their college library boredom by teaming up to cram with a beautiful coed. "90's Song" brims with nostalgia for the duo's elementary school decade. The raps fly as fast as the images of Puff Daddy, Bill and Monica, Seinfeld, Pokémon, Nick Jr., Mario and Luigi.
"Greek Girl" is a tribute to the women of Langdon Street, shown walking in fashionable boots down a snowy campus sidewalk. "They make me want to rush," raps Kwalae.
The work of YouTube-focused musicians like Zooniversity points to the future of music, but the trend has its critics. Among them is Majestic Theatre co-owner Scott Leslie.
"I think the [online] interaction between artist and fans in a lot of ways is a bad thing," he says. "The Internet has created a world where instant gratification is the norm. Artists like Zooniversity are doing what their fans expect - create something, put it out there and do it often. The attention spans are shorter than ever. You can get 100,000 YouTube hits and be forgotten in one week."
Still, Zooniversity's relationship with their social network fan base continues to build 18 months after their first online release. The success of social networking musicians is also fed by another hard, cold fact: Recorded music as a consumer good is dead. CD sales have fallen 20% per year over the past four years, but even more telling, sales of digital tracks are flat (they rose 1% in 2010, according to Billboard magazine).
For young, local musicians, "getting signed" to a label isn't just unrealistic. It's never been part of their landscape. Zooniversity is sublimely okay with that. They've got dreams and a batch of electronic toys to make them come true. And the old ways, really, don't matter.
Friday at Fiji
The Phi Gamma Delta (or Fiji) fraternity sits at the east end of Langdon Street, near the intersection where Wisconsin Avenue loops south to the State Capitol.
Late on a Friday afternoon in February, a student is ending his walk back from campus to the Fiji house, oblivious to street noise thanks to a personal soundtrack streaming directly from his iPod into his ears.
The layout of the Fiji house is dominated by small bedrooms constructed to give private spaces to each of the 30 men who live here. But there's a historic grand ballroom that overlooks Lake Mendota. It's a party room and a space where Kwalae says Zooniversity will host their upcoming CD release.
Upstairs, one small room is furnished with a table and chair, a microphone, speakers, a MIDI controller and an Apple computer loaded with Logic Pro software. On the wall is a composite of cheesy 1980s sorority-house photos. Also on the wall is a symbol of the tricky legal lines social networking musicians sometime walk: a letter citing Zooniversity's unauthorized use of student athlete images for business purposes. Kwalae says he later resolved the issue with university administrators.
Seated at the monitor, Kwalae brings up a clip of Phantom Planet's "California," the theme song of TV's The O.C. He uses a mouse to speed up the tempo of the piano melody that opens the song. Then he adds a thundering hip-hop beat. He's turning it into music that sounds like a different song, a song all his own.
Before I leave the house, Kwalae tells me about his plans for Zooniversity's new CD. They're selling all their copies to a local business that will give the discs away with qualifying purchases of their products. "We do a lot of work with local businesses," says Kwalae. "That's what I think local artists need to jump on."
Outside Fiji house, the February sky is gray and dreary. But as I think about Kwalae's plans, I feel the foggy future of pop music sliding into the control of social networking musicians. That doesn't seem so bleak.
Social network filmmakers, too
Social network musicians rely on images to give their songs an online presence. That means a lot of young musicians are working with young filmmakers to attract new audiences.
For "Teach Me How to Bucky," Quincy Kwalae and Clifton Beefy of Zooniversity collaborated with Logan Cascia, fellow UW student and director of Cascia Films. "I do believe that the video component played a critical role in the positive reception for 'Bucky,'" says Cascia, 20, a junior majoring in film and business. "A key element was the iconic cameos of Chancellor Martin, UW band director Mike Leckrone, Bucky Badger and the man in the orange jumpsuit known on campus as 'Piccolo Pete.'"
Cameras may be lodged into thousands of campus cell phones and laptops, but film quality still distinguishes electrifying music productions from shabby ones. "The video is saturated with color and a lot of high contrast," says Cascia of his clip. "A lot of whites are blown out and the blacks are crushed, kind of giving the whole film a dreamlike look."
Cascia says he's flattered to have helped start a college song competition online. "I think other schools naturally just want to compete," he says. "Thanks to camera technology and YouTube these days, anyone can go out, shoot a video, upload it, and create a virtual rivalry across the country."