Notorious PhD

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.

“I wish I was a rapper” are the first words of his new book, “The New H.N.I.C: The Death of Civil Rights and the Reign of Hip Hop” (New York University Press). “There are certainly times,” he continues, “when I wish I could just drop an album and channel all my ideas, anger, humor and energy into some music and be done with it.”


A few pages later, he is talking about his competitiveness, how he’d love to “battle” it out with Michael Eric Dyson, the 44-year-old University of Pennsylvania professor of religious studies who, like Boyd, likes to bolster his viewpoints on some social issues by quoting hip-hop lyrics but is held in higher academic esteem and is the author of eight books. “I got mad love for my nigga, Mike D,” Boyd writes, “his skills are without question but the competitor in me wants to show everybody who really holds it down.”

Boyd moves breezily through life as a provocateur, dropping what he calls “intellectual bombs,” reveling as much in the flow of his words as the structure of his arguments, convinced his style forces people to think. He dismisses the more torturous process of academic inquiry as “books with 3 million footnotes and another 30 million cross-references.” He is fond of comparing himself to Michael Jordan -- in this case, suggesting that his years of study at traditional Iowa paralleled Jordan’s college days, when Jordan’s brilliance was masked by a disciplined coaching system until he threw off the shackles in the NBA -- the same way Boyd threw off his when he got tenure.

“When Jordan was in his prime, he could take some chances that other players couldn’t take, because he knew he could recover from it. I feel like that. I have confidence in my game and I’m willing to go out and shake things up, and I can deal with the fallout.”

Some students credit Boyd with helping them see the world differently. Nate Dumas, a junior USC anthropology major who plans a career as a filmmaker, was impressed when Boyd used an argument between parents and teachers in John Sayles’ “Lone Star” to talk about accepted versus alternative history. “It made me think about who gets to tell it.” Boyd’s talent for news-media visibility has also helped USC present itself as a more diverse campus.


Yet Boyd has drawn silent contempt from more traditional colleagues at USC and other institutions, who regard him as light on scholarship or too publicity hungry. Some refuse to acknowledge him. (“I respectfully withdraw my name from any further public discussion of Todd Boyd,” e-mailed one learned East Coast professor who specializes in hip-hop.)

The title of Boyd’s new book epitomizes his love of intellectual mischief.

“H.N.I.C.” stands for “Head Negro in Charge,” a sardonic phrase rooted in the days of segregation. Blacks used it -- and, on occasion, still do -- to taunt a compliant black employee elevated by the white power structure. Boyd intends you to read the title in its hip-hop vernacular, “Head Nigga in Charge.”

“Nigga,” he says, careful to use that spelling, which he finds far less toxic, is his favorite word for two reasons. First, because our tendency to ban the word from polite conversation lets people fool themselves into thinking racism has disappeared. And second, “any time anybody tells me there’s something I can’t say, you can be sure I’m going to say it as many times as I possibly can.”


And with that, over dinner at one of his favorite Italian restaurants in Brentwood, Boyd smiles at his self-analysis. His is not the story of a man carrying the weight of race on his back. He was raised by affluent parents who, he said, made sure he read Esquire as well as Ebony. He was 4 when King was assassinated and the civil-rights movement froze in its tracks. “My parents talked about [the importance of the movement], but it didn’t affect my life in a personal way.”

He identifies with younger African Americans who are emotionally removed from the days when a black person had to conduct himself with a worried eye toward what whites might think, whether they might apply their impression of him to the race as a whole. He is more comfortable with the independent, express-yourself sensibility of hip-hop, the way it challenges the mainstream and keeps changing whenever society catches on. His ‘60s heroes are Malcolm X and “those jazz musicians -- Miles, Monk, Coltrane -- who were traveling through Europe, creating culture, having fun.”

The civil-rights movement, Boyd maintains, fostered a stifling, “pious,” “Sunday school” code of conformist behavior. “Hip-hop,” he writes in “H.N.I.C.,” “offers new ways of seeing and understanding what it means to be black at this pivotal time in history.”

Boyd saw an example of this generation gap last fall when several black leaders rose up to criticize the comedy “Barbershop” for one character’s exaggerated rant against civil-rights icons, including Rosa Parks. “Old-school civil-rights figures like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton contend that the sacred cows of their time, namely Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, are above criticism and should be regarded as something akin to deities,” he wrote in a commentary for The Times. “The new-school hip-hop generation exists with a mandate to ‘keep it real’; this has to do with embracing a hard-nosed truth about the world and letting the chips fall where they may.”


Robin Kelley, chair of the New York University history department and a specialist in African American history, says Boyd is right to demand that more attention be paid to a younger generation of black thinkers. But Kelly says the thesis of “H.N.I.C.” falls apart as little more than “a polemic, designed to inspire debate.” Most reviewers have agreed (“Boyd doesn’t want to analyze; he wants to riff,” a Times reviewer wrote), although some have praised Boyd’s audacity in making the case for why hip-hop matters.

The thin volume is heavy on slang and hip-hop sensibility, laced with occasionally boastful details about Boyd’s career climb. (“When the lecture was over, I knew I had rocked the house ... ") It toys with the way hip-hop culture is increasingly a model for interpreting America, right down to what Boyd calls President Clinton’s flamboyant “pimp walk” to the stage of the 2000 Democratic presidential convention. It is outraged by black knee-jerking, such as the time “all of the prominent L.A. niggas lined up” behind James K. Hahn in the 2001 Los Angeles mayor’s race, spurning a coalition with candidate Antonio Villaraigosa, simply because Hahn’s father had been popular with blacks.

NYU’s Kelley, two years older than Boyd, is put off by the rapper-like style. “There’s this presumption that the rap itself is enough, that there’s a great lyrical flow that’s operating. But the kind of lyrical flow we associate with hip-hop is not the same as scholarship.... When there’s verbal sparring between rap artists on stage, that’s about who has the greater stylistic ability.”

Growing up in a high-rise in the Lafayette Park section of Detroit, Boyd imagined himself as a basketball coach (his game was lacking), then a TV sportscaster like Bryant Gumbel. He says he went to the University of Florida and flunked out before righting himself and developing an interest in critical studies -- where else, he figured, could you watch movies for college credit? Around this time his father, a real estate appraiser, gave him a copy of Malcolm X’s autobiography, which awoke him intellectually. Every time he walks before an audience, Boyd says, his role models are Malcolm and the revered, late comedian Robin Harris, two men whose grasp of the world made them simultaneously incisive, entertaining and fearless.


After earning his master’s and PhD at Iowa, Boyd taught a year at the University of Utah, then was hired by USC in 1992 as an associate professor. One of his first students, Rick Famuyiwa, who wound up co-writing and directing “The Wood,” fondly remembers the silence in the classroom the day Boyd began a lecture by firing a one-syllable obscenity at “Forrest Gump,” arguing the film took liberty with history to facilitate its hero’s odyssey. Boyd was also capable of suggesting that “Roger Rabbit’s” Toon Town was the model of a racially segregated society, Famuyiwa said.

“His style forces students to actively participate in the class as opposed to just sitting back,” says Famuyiwa, who developed “The Wood” as a story about growing up in Inglewood and is working on another film project with Boyd. “He’s one of a kind.... He’s brilliant.”

USC professor Michael Dear, director of the university’s Southern California Studies Center, says Boyd’s use of rhetoric is an honorable technique and should not be held against him. “He can write academic jargon, he can do jive. He can do rap and Shakespeare. He’s a wordsmith.”

Boyd, who lives in a downtown L.A. high-rise with his girlfriend, Sonja Steptoe, a Time magazine senior correspondent, is most compelling when he uses history to demonstrate that rap is not a pathology, but another link in the development of African American music.


In a recent hip-hop class devoted to improvisation, he takes the class backward to the jazz tradition. (“In classical music, love is based on bitin’ -- imitation. It’s not based on interpretation. A jazz musician, if he plays someone else’s song, has a responsibility to make a distinct and original statement.”) He plays the fabled “blue” comic Rudy Ray Moore to illustrate “toasting,” the talent of piling one tall tale upon another. He talks about jazz “cutting sessions,” where musicians tried to outdo each other. He pulls all those competitions into today’s freestyle “battle raps.” He describes, in great detail, a fabled moment in the 1991 NBA Finals when Jordan appeared to stop in midair, shifted the ball from right hand to left and made a shot no other player could have imagined. It was a classic example of “taking the music and make it yours,” he says.

“Now, you may be used to taking classes from these professors who read from notes,” Boyd says playfully, eliciting a couple of audible sighs of agreement from the audience.

“What happens with the good doctor is,” he says, pointing to his head, “it’s all up here. Just like jazz. Just like hip-hop.”