Foucault's Turntable

Hip-Hop Scholars Bumrush the Academy

"Like Craig Mack said, here comes a brand-new flava in your ear!" Professor Todd Boyd is hyping his latest book, The New H.N.I.C.: The Death of Civil Rights and the Reign of Hip-Hop (NYU Press), but it's not so much what he's saying as how he says it that captures the ear. His argument begins in a rich, methodical tone, elegantly scripting the fall of the previous generation alongside the rise of a new hip-hop ethos, occasionally punctuated with a line lifted from Jay-Z or Nas.

But as the momentum of his account builds, he starts to lean into his syllables, swerving and gusting through words that usually lie restless in his books. The pacing and arc are there, and it becomes clear: Boyd sounds like a rapper, and he knows it. "I got confidence in my skills," he offers half-jokingly, but with just enough rise to suggest that it's more than gesture. "Like I said, I'm infused with that MC spirit—any nigga that wants to get on the stand, let's go!"

Boyd, 38, who has taught critical studies at the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television since 1992, may sound like an odd professor given the academy's reputation for dry detachment, but he's part of an expanding class of scholars applying their professional wits to hip-hop. A quarter century after its founding in New York's South Bronx, the culture of beats, rhymes, and life is finding new devotees in classrooms, conferences, and faculty meetings coast-to-coast. Berkeley, Stanford, Michigan, Yale, Harvard, New York University, and M.I.T. have each boasted courses examining some aspect of the culture, while the prestigious annual American Studies and Modern Language Association conferences have featured similar panels. Some snicker that as long as Princeton theologian Cornel West doesn't record a follow-up to his 2001 album, Sketches of My Culture, the academy will continue unfettered in its engagement of the global, billion-dollar culture.

illustration: Chang Park

Stray sociologists and literary scholars had looked at hip-hop music and graffiti culture since the late 1970s, and critics like Nelson George and Greg Tate (in the Voice) and British musician and writer David Toop engaged the subject with considerable intellectual rigor in the 1980s, but a critical mass of university scholars studying hip-hop didn't emerge until the mid '90s. This first generation consisted largely of folks who'd grown up with the culture and applied traditional disciplinary models to their work. NYU historian Tricia Rose's Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (1994) is often regarded as the seminal text of this group. Other figures who published books on the subject in the mid 1990s include University of Pennsylvania humanities professor Michael Eric Dyson and literary scholars Houston Baker of Duke and Russell Potter of Rhode Island College. Perhaps the most engaging work of this period was "Kickin' Reality, Kickin' Ballistics," the closing chapter of NYU historian Robin Kelley's acclaimed study of the black working class, Race Rebels (1996). Dissatisfied with the chapter's stern, joyless handling of post-industrial space and urban hip-hop culture, Kelley kept it real and ended the work with a condensed, "remixed" version of his thoughts, replete with the freshest slanguage (circa 1995) and the endearing image of Kelley cruising in his Subaru wagon and blasting Das EFX.

"In my mind, a lot of universities have been behind—they wait for something to happen and then they jump on it," complains Boyd, who sees himself as part of this loose generation of mid-'90s scholars. "To me, that's a very old-school model. The academy should anticipate and predict situations so as to inform not only members of the academy, but society at large." Though Boyd has already "published in these academic journals that two or three people read" (Wide Angle, Film Quarterly) and achieved tenure, he claims to give the tried-and-true hoops and ladders of academic life little deference.

"I think of myself as someone here to shake all that up. I approach my writing like a hip-hop producer produces a track. To me, that language that I learned in grad school [film studies at the University of Iowa in the late 1980s]—that language of high theory—is another place I can sample from. To be able to reference Foucault, Lacan, or Gramsci and at the same time make it hip-hop—to use hip-hop to read those figures—gives me an advantage."

The New H.N.I.C. (the acronym stands for "Head Niggas in Charge") is Boyd's attempt to "shake all that up." The slender volume is built on the provocative premise that this generation's hip-hop culture has come to supersede the previous one's paradigm of civil rights. Highlighting various moments in recent rap history—the controversy over OutKast's naming a single after Rosa Parks; the white negro-isms of Eminem—Boyd offers hip-hop as the most suitable access point for understanding the social, political, and cultural experiences of African Americans born after the civil rights period. He writes: "Although I would never encourage anyone to ignore one's history, I would suggest that you might get a better read of what's going on in the world of Black people today by listening to DMX on It's Dark and Hell Is Hot than by listening to repeated broadcasts of Martin Luther King speeches."

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