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STYLE & CULTURE

Notorious PhD

Todd Boyd takes his cues from rap as a classroom provocateur.

March 10, 2003|Bob Baker | Times Staff Writer

There are times when Todd Boyd's persona -- the tenured professor as hip-hop artist -- is irresistible.

There he is, 6-foot-2, 250 pounds, in shades and wearing a blue Orlando Magic jersey over a gray T-shirt, striding back and forth before 150 USC students in his "Hip-Hop Culture" class, holding their gaze for 90 minutes, working without notes, punctuating his deep-voiced pronouncements about Nas or Notorious B.I.G. or Marvin Gaye with snatches of their music, moving to a corner of the room each time a track starts, contemplatively mouthing the lyrics.

Did you hear the common theme of desperation? he'll ask the students when it's quiet again. Did you hear Biggie from '93 remembering how, back in the day, parents used to take care of us, but now they're just scared of us? Did you catch that refrain from Grandmaster Flash's "The Message" in '82: "It's like a jungle sometimes; it makes me wonder how I keep from goin' under." Did you get the way Marvin foreshadowed all this back in '71 in "Inner City Blues," when he moaned: "Make me wanna holler: What they do my mind?"

There are times when Boyd's ability to connect the dots is both audacious and smoothly persuasive.

There he is, in the same class, listing the social forces that shaped rap: the '70s oil embargo, Japanese car imports, U.S. auto plant cutbacks, school integration and white flight and a shrinking urban tax base, drug dealing, Ronald Reagan's war on labor unions, cuts in social programs -- think about this, he injects with total certitude: Were it not for cuts in school-music funding in the '70s, the first generation of rappers would have been accompanied by instruments; they wouldn't have had to sample other tracks.

And there are times when Boyd crosses the line into, well, into Todd Boyd territory, where most academics fear to tread.

There he is, describing Reagan in class as "America's version of Adolf Hitler ... a sad-ass actor" who was as qualified for office as Adam Sandler. "He was white in the worst possible way."

There he is, claiming in a new book that hip-hop is more relevant to contemporary black life than the civil-rights movement. Adopting hip-hop's confrontational spirit, the book proclaims: "Frankly I love the word 'nigga.' It is my favorite word in the English language because no other word incites more controversy today."

There he is, cautioning students not to raise their hands until the end of his lecture because "when I get into my groove, I'm like in a different space; I don't like my groove to be interrupted."

Boyd, 38, has a PhD in critical studies from the University of Iowa. He is the co-writer of a reasonably successful 1999 film, "The Wood". He has finished another book (his third), due in October, on the social impact of hip-hop and basketball. He is perpetually in demand by reporters to pass judgment on everything about race from pimp fashion to radio programming to the historical validity of a mysterious black caddy in "The Legend of Bagger Vance."

He is knowledgeable, engaging and independent minded.

He is also an egomaniac, an iconoclast and an intellectual hedonist.

"A lot of people," he says good-naturedly, "can't make sense of me." Boyd has taught at USC's School of Cinema-Television for a decade. He says it was upon winning tenure six years ago that he decided to follow his instincts, figuring he had nothing to fear. This coincided roughly with the rise of hip-hop -- loosely defined as rap music and its styles of fashion, language and self-assertiveness -- in American pop culture. "This is very personal," he says. "I've seen hip-hop from the beginning; it's always been part of my life." He says the first rap record he heard as a 10th-grader in Detroit ("Rappers Delight," 1979) moved him more than any filmed speech by Martin Luther King Jr. he ever saw. ("I was the first one of my friends who learned it word for word -- the eight-minute version.")

Hip-hop has not only overturned the record business (rap has outsold country music for the past five years), it has filtered into some remarkably unlikely places. It's not just that Kobe Bryant can't get a big Reebok shoe contract because, according to some industry experts, his mannerisms are too polished -- lacking, in hip-hop parlance, "street cred." It's that Dr. Scholl's now runs a TV commercial for its gel insoles in which actors -- all but one of them white, mind you -- exude pleasure in "gellin' " (as in "chillin' ") -- even, in one actor's embarrassing attempt at street cred, "gellin' like a felon."

Scores of professors in fields from linguistics to anthropology to history have integrated hip-hop into their classes or, more recently, begun devoting entire classes to it. But no other nationally known academic has gone further than Boyd in adapting hip-hop's mannerisms.

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