Foucault’s Turntable


“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.

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.”

Unfortunately, The New H.N.I.C. stumbles under the weight of its intentions. Boyd offers useful insight into the political imagination of the hip-hop generation, but his discussion relies more on anecdote, generalizations, and casual sensationalism than analysis. Hip-hop’s tradition of irreverent critique may occupy a different moment than the civil rights movement’s politics of respectability, but there is far more continuity and play between the two generations than Boyd indicates. The New H.N.I.C. would have benefited from a stronger look at the culture’s political nuances as it has evolved over the past two decades, and it leaves many obvious questions unanswered: In what way is the music one of the only expressions of the waning civil rights legacy? How has hip-hop’s political culture been influenced by its ever-present performances of materialism or violence? And most importantly, how do the swelling ranks of hip-hop-inspired organizers and grassroots activists fit within Boyd’s landscape?

Boyd is unaffected by the criticism, either of his scholarship or his taste in rap. “I find myself far out in left field. Tricia [Rose] and Dyson and others are probably bit more conservative than I am relative to hip-hop. Within this group of people who write about hip-hop, I find that a lot of them have a bit of a moralizing tone to what they say. It should be about the culture—this is what it is, with all its problems, all its warts. Take it for what it is. Deal with it, break it down, chop it up, and leave it for somebody else to do with it what they want, know what I’m sayin’?”

The schism Boyd describes is implicit to hip-hop, where generations always clash over what they consider to be the truest practices of the form—e.g., whether Rakim circa 1986 could take the Notorious B.I.G. circa 1996. (The answer, by the way, is yes.) Contest and critique are part of the culture’s self-awareness, but so is the conservatism Boyd describes of each generation passing judgment on the next. To Boyd’s credit, his choice to understand rather than automatically condemn what many see as contemporary hip-hop culture’s childish, bling-bling excess is a much harder path to walk.

Any hip-hop academic shoulders a unique double burden—not only is there the expectation of serious scholarship, there is also a mandate to legitimize an entire field of study in a world built on canons and orthodoxy. For many of the aforementioned authors, the second task was a lot easier to accomplish 10 years ago when Afrocentrists, gangstas, and heavy-handed firebrands sexily lent themselves to academyspeak. Hip-hop was easier to legitimize then because it was “better”—more well rounded, more political, more purposefully angry. Not only had it yet to find its globe-conquering spirit, it was still seen as an open space where De La Soul and N.W.A. could coexist as bodies on a stage and ideas on the page. For Boyd, the past 10 years’ success is neither good nor bad, it just is: “I think hip-hop is at a point now where, without really thinking about it, it’s become successful. And the biggest issue to me is, how does hip-hop deal with its success?”

Boyd’s question was far from the minds of the first-generation scholars who matriculated when the dominant culture still saw hip-hop as esoteric and distant. There was a prophetic quality to this generation’s work as it fought for recognition, pointing toward what Kelley termed “the graffiti on the walls.” The identities and ideas of hip-hop are impossible to ignore today, and as a result it has landed in the most unlikely of places.

The W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research is on the second floor of Harvard University’s Barker Center, and at the end of the Institute’s main hallway—past the splendid portraits of the university’s first black students and posters celebrating department-sponsored talks—is the Hip-Hop Archive, a small office stocked with records, books, magazines, flyers, and other curios collected by Professor Marcyliena Morgan. It’s probably one of the only (smoke-free) places in town where you’ll find a copy of Los Angeles rapper Aceyalone’s out-of-print debut record.

In the parlance of the culture, Harvard is not hip-hop; rather, it’s very Ivory Tower. “Harvard is Harvard and this is hip-hop,” she explains. “Harvard’s not going to change because the Hip-Hop Archive is here and hip-hop’s not going to change because the Archive is at Harvard. Everybody is very secure in who they are and that’s fine—that’s what makes it work.” While teaching at UCLA in the early 1990s, Morgan was bombarded by student requests to apply her teachings on African American language to hip-hop. Soon, she began considering the implications of these cultural formations and their standards of critique for her work as a linguist.

“I got the idea [for the Hip-Hop Archive] because of Ice Cube. Ice Cube’s father tended the grounds at UCLA near where I taught. . . . I remember when they were filming Higher Learning (1995) on campus and I just thought it was incredibly surreal that this guy was tending the grounds and that Ice Cube was sitting on one of those carts. His father reminded me—and this could all be my imagination, I hardly said anything to him but ‘Good morning’ or ‘Good afternoon’—of someone who was just bitter, and he did what he did.

“Here you have the father who grew up black in America and, in a way, what he held onto was his job, and as long as he had that, he was OK because there was bitterness surrounding everything else. And then you had the son who was able to express that in a form of language where the analysis is there. [Cube] makes a lot of mistakes and offends a lot of people, but just keeps pushing through, and you end up with youth in Los Angeles who see that as a way to understand why they should stay in school, or why they should try and do something in their lives.”

Morgan was intrigued with how youth in Los Angeles identified with the rapper, and she feared losing the materials of the moment—peacebooks, flyers, recordings. She decided to start an archive to catalog the materials and network scholars, writers, and activists. “The Archive itself is not just about collecting,” she explains. “It’s really about respect. It’s about what peace means.”

Last October, the Archive hosted the “Hip-Hop Community Activism and Education Roundtable,” an event designed to encourage working relationships between activists, artists, and academics laboring within a shared culture. It was a rather surreal, even heartwarming, scene: a spray-painted Hip-Hop Archive mural hung from the conference room’s regal mantel, its ends strung around aged busts with genetically furrowed brows; representatives of the Zulu Nation poured libations on the stately carpet; conferees enjoyed midday snacks under a chandelier crafted from antlers donated to Harvard by Theodore Roosevelt.

An incidental gesture by rapper Boots Riley of the Coup during an afternoon Q&A session typified the flickering conflict of containing hip-hop in the university. Without any of the deference or pomp people in the building usually used when invoking the distinguished scholar’s name, Riley innocently addressed a concern raised by “a . . . Henry Louis Gates.” It was an unintentionally funny gesture given Gates’s commanding reputation, and a reminder that hip-hop doesn’t always feel the need to be validated by the academy. Hip-hop is for, by, and about the people, while the university assumes elitism. Hip-hop is about keeping it real and being true to experience while the university regards “realness” and truth as mere social constructions. The resulting dialogue between Gates and Riley was, fittingly, like two ships passing in the night—one probing hip-hop’s play of orality and literacy from without, the other defending it as culture and identity from within.

“I think academics . . . We don’t have a lot of heart,” laments Morgan. “That’s not what we do. And I think we drag things down [because] as far as we’re concerned, everything is dying, everything had a problem. That’s what we do—we don’t have anything to write about if there isn’t that!” Perhaps, as Boyd suggested, the key lies in approaching the academy in terms of hip-hop and not vice versa. “I’m just being real,” he laughs after suggesting that he could take his good friend Dyson in an academic MC battle. “This sort of competition has always informed black culture; let’s bring it to the academy. Take the best and the brightest—Cornel West, Skip Gates, Noam Chomsky—take ’em all, give ’em a mic, put ’em on a stage, and let’s go at it. I guarantee you that when the conversation is over, people will be thinking and talking about Doctor Boyd. Like Nas, all I need is one mic.”