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MIT Technology Review

Rapper flips the script on music and coding

L. Dolio Durant ’99

Photo of L. Dolio Durant ’99Photo of L. Dolio Durant ’99
Photo of L. Dolio Durant ’99
courtesy of gangstagrass

When L. Dolio Durant ’99 enrolled at MIT as a mechanical engineering student, he planned to put his longtime interest in music on pause to focus on his studies. That didn’t happen.

“I ended up getting heavily involved with hip-hop at MIT and the rap battle scene in Cambridge,” Durant remembers. As a student, he found himself splitting his time between freestyle rap sessions in Harvard Square and courses on lean production back at MIT.

It was a balance he would continue to perfect. Pursuing a career in software development after MIT, Durant had the flexible schedule he needed to follow his passion for music. He began to DJ in New York City, where he met the producer Rench, who would launch Durant’s group, Gangstagrass—a band that combines rap and bluegrass to create one-of-a-kind sounds. The group’s album, American Music, debuted at number five on the Billboard bluegrass charts in 2015, and their song “Long Hard Times to Come” was the theme to the FX television show Justified.

Durant tours as a vocalist with the band some 90 days each year, but that still leaves time for his other passion: helping new developers. As a lead technical instructor at Zip Code Wilmington, an intensive Java training program in Delaware, he tutors nontraditional students—many of whom enter the program knowing nothing about coding.

Durant began tutoring would-be developers after seeing a lack of diversity in coding. “When people follow the same traditional path [to coding], you end up with the same type of ideas popping up again and again,” he says.

With Zip Code Wilmington, students from varied backgrounds—from high school graduates to PhDs—take part in a 12-week training course for software development. Tuition is often completely covered by partner businesses that hire students for full-time technical roles after they complete the program.

Instructors like Durant shepherd students through Zip Code, leading classes and “jazz sessions,” where students riff about educational subjects they need more help with. “We’ll talk about a topic in a language they understand, as they don’t have a grasp on the jargon just yet,” he says. “Seeing those lightbulbs turn on as they understand it is my favorite part.”

As Durant continues teaching and making music, he credits MIT for teaching him how to balance both roles. “When I tell people I have two full-time jobs, it blows their mind,” he says. “But being at MIT teaches you time management—it’s the whole ‘drinking from the firehose without spilling a drop’ mentality.”