Mountain Dew Black Label Presents: Hip-Hop University With Dr. Todd Boyd

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This week we have Dr. Todd Boyd, who holds the Katherine and Frank Price Endowed Chair for Study of Race and Popular Culture at the University of Southern California. Known as “the Notorious Ph.D.” he is the author of Am I Black Enough for You: Pop Culture From the Hood and Beyond and The New H.N.I.C: The Death of Civil Rights and the Reign of Hip Hop. He was one of the first people in academia to begin incorporating hip-hop culture into his courses, and has been a leading voice in scholarly applications of hip-hop to American culture for more than two decades.

Can you tell us some of the specific courses on hip-hop you teach?
Way back in the ’90s, I started teaching a course called Hip-Hop Culture, which is sort of self-explanatory in title. There are other courses I teach where hip-hop can serve as an example of something larger. Hip-hop extends far beyond music into other areas. Film, television, sports, fashion, politics, design, dance… there are numerous places where hip-hop serves as a useful example in terms of spelling something out or illustrating a point.

Are there any more specialized courses that you teach?
I’m one of the very small number of people who really began teaching hip-hop courses in major universities. So perhaps some people who have come along more recently are doing things that have grown out of the foundation that I feel I laid. When you talk about a course on hip-hop, the Hip-Hop Culture course was a course on history but it was also politics and a frame for studying American culture, for studying race. It’s grown and morphed into new and different directions to the point I don’t even think about it as separate anymore. I just think of it as part of American culture.

What besides the music in hip-hop culture do you think has had the biggest impact in American history?
When hip-hop started it was about four elements: MCing, DJing, graffiti and breakdancing. As hip hop started to move out of New York become this popular form of music the MC was the easiest part of that to sell. So the music became significant and the MC became the face of hip hop. Hip hop was always a culture, an ideology, a point of view. So you saw it impact movies, sports and fashion. It was all-encompassing. There’s an argument to be made that hip-hop helped pave the ground for the election of the nation’s first African-American president. Because of the role culture plays in our society, hip-hop broke down a lot of barriers that existed previously. So I wouldn’t specify one thing. It’s the impact on everything hip-hop has had, and the fact that you can point to that impact in a number of different areas kind of speaks for itself. There was a time when hip-hop movies were getting a lot of attention, and of course just this summer one of the biggest movies ever of that genre, Straight Outta Compton, made over $100 million. You can talk about film, in sports, but it’s not just one of those things.

What were some challenges when you first got started? Was it hard to sell people the idea of teaching hip-hop in an academic setting?
I’ve been at USC since 1992. I started immediately after the L.A. Riots. It was a time when hip-hop was really instrumental and commenting on what was going on in society. On one hand you had hip-hop predicting what came about in the L.A. Riots, and on the other you had a sort of commentary on it. For instance you listen to Ice Cube before the riots and you listen to Dr. Dre’s The Chronic after the riots. The music and what was going on was very closely intertwined so I started using hip-hop to exemplify certain things.

As far as administration there was never any problem with me teaching the course. There were other faculty members who didn’t know anything about hip-hop who just assumed that because it was contemporary and outside their frame of reference that it was insignificant, but history over time has proven them quite wrong. There are always haters, be it administration, other faculty or even students. But there was never really any attempt to shut it down because it was immediately popular. At the time I was one of the few people who had grown up in the culture who had an opportunity to talk about it authoritatively.

Was there any aspect that students found consistently surprising?
People have often said to me after taking my course was that it was about so much more than the topic, or more than was stated on the syllabus. To me that’s a compliment because when you’re talking about hip-hop or really anything you’re asking, “What’s the relevance of this issue to society? What impact does it have on the world we live in both historically and on the present?” I think a lot of people think of hip-hop as music they listen to, and maybe to some people it’s just music and something they enjoy, but when you take something that people engage at a leisurely level and say there’s a substance to it if you look at it a certain way it’s often surprising that something people think of as not that important has so many important facets attached to it.

Do you have a particular favorite figure that’s influenced hip-hop culture?
I’ve been there from day one pretty much, so there are so many different figures. Biggie Smalls is a personal favorite, but there are many, many others. Ice Cube, NWA, Public Enemy… I could keep naming names.

Is there anywhere you’d like to see academic hip-hop go?
As someone that helped bring hip-hop into the academy I must say I’m disappointed in what I’ve seen come about since. A lot of people tried to jump upon the bandwagon. They didn’t have a real connection to hip-hop but they sort of attached themselves to it because they thought it would sort of help their career. Now you have subsequent generations of people who come along and it’s a situation here they’re trying to bend hip-hop to whatever agenda they have. I don’t really think in terms of where it’s going. I guess it’s just a different historical perspective to sort of see where the culture went and to see what people in academia are doing with it. I don’t run into a lot of people who know what they’re doing, honestly. Or at least they don’t interest me in the way the approach it.

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