When hip-hop began as a subculture in the South Bronx in the 1970s, its practitioners were hardly setting out to make a historical mark, but the mark was made nonetheless. Today, the cultural impact of the genre’s music, dance and art is worldwide. The content ranges from ratchet to romantic, violent to victorious. Braggadocio and party anthems are intermingled with social commentary and political protest, the likes of which have found their ways onto university radars. The post-secondary educational world had no choice but to take notice of this pulsating new world of words and ideas. Making sure that the music itself is well represented in the classroom, and also that its heroes are known to be educational beacons, many of hip-hop’s biggest names have ventured into the realm of the academic. Read on for our list of The 13 Most Important Rappers In Academia.
We would be remiss if we began with anyone other than Tupac Amaru Shakur. Hailed as a poet by some, even a prophet by others, the Harlem-born MC was both conscious and gangster, often within the same verse. From the delicate ode to his oft-troubled mother to the brash act of spitting at reporters capturing footage of him leaving court, Tupac is as enigmatic a figure as the rap world has ever encountered. Unsurprisingly, he is perhaps the most discussed rapper in academia. There have been courses on his life and writings at the University of California, Berkeley, University of Washington and the University of Oslo in Norway. Harvard University not only offered a course on the man but also financed a symposium, entitled All Eyez on Me: Tupac Shakur and the Search for the Modern Folk Hero. In 2011 the Tupac Amaru Shakur Foundation loaned a 26-box collection of artifacts to the Atlanta University Center’s Robert W. Woodruff library, which serves Clark Atlanta University, Spelman College, Morehouse College and the Interdenominational Theological Center.
The hip-hop community acknowledged a coup last week when the Hip Hop Archive and the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University announced the Nasir Jones Hiphop Fellowship, the first honor of its kind to be bestowed upon an MC. The gritty and intricately woven street tales of Nas‘ debut, Illmatic forever seated the Queensbridge lyricist in rap’s upper echelon, earning him praise and worthwhile analysis in classrooms nationwide. Thanks to his unmatched expressive abilities, promising scholars with “exceptional capacity for productive scholarship and exceptional creative ability in the arts in connection with hip-hop” have the opportunity to receive scholarship funds to study at an Ivy League college.
For decades, Lawrence Krisna Parker has been one of the most vocal proponents of hip-hop, education and their intersections. He views the music as not only a powerful cultural force, but also a viable religion. He began the Stop the Violence Movement in 1989 after his Boogie Down Productions partner Scott La Rock was killed and has been heavily involved in activism ever since. Self-christened as “The Teacha” of hip-hop arts and sciences, KRS-ONE has lectured at over 500 colleges and universities including the University of Illinois, the University of Las Vegas, Yale University and Trinity College.
4. 9th Wonder
Patrick Douthit is a rapper, DJ, hip-hop historian and producer’s producer. One listen to the emphatic urgency of Young Guru as he describes the Grammy Award-winner’s importance to the culture explains why North Carolina Central University, Duke University and now Harvard University have all jumped at the opportunity to put 9th Wonder in front of their students. Formerly one-third of Little Brother and currently 100 percent intellectual, the North Carolina native explained to Life+Times how he uses well-known artists as a starting point to delve into the social contexts that shaped the music:
“Y’all like Kendrick Lamar?” “Yeah, we like Kendrick, he’s the man.” “Ok, you see who he’s on the cover of XXL with?” “Yeah, that’s Dr. Dre. Who’s he part of?” “N.W.A.” “Oh, Ok.” “N.W.A. is from Compton.” “Oh, Ok, cool.” “Well let’s talk about Compton for a second, let’s talk about the movies they made for Compton like Boyz N The Hood and Menace 2 Society.” “Oh, Ok.” “Well now let’s talk about Watts.” “What happened in Watts in 1965?”
In January 2013 9th Wonder began a three-year fellowship at Harvard where he will complete an academic research project and teach a class, These Are the Breaks. For his research project of the same name, he will be uncovering the original records used to create his top 10 produced albums. The records, along with the albums and his synopsis, will all have a permanent home in the Harvard Library. Check out his Top 10 below.
5. Bun B
Bernard Freeman was a hip-hop legend well before he set foot on Rice University‘s campus as Distinguished Lecturer in Religious Studies. Freeman, who performs as Bun B, saw the opportunity arise after giving a guest lecture thanks to the H.E.R.E. (Houston Enriches Rice Education) Project. The course, Religious Studies 331: Religion and Hip-Hop Culture, explores the role that faith plays in one’s artistry within hip-hop. From the prevalence of the Five-Percent nation early on to songs speaking directly to a higher power, religion shapes perception and informs the articulation of life’s events. The UGK ambassador hopes to solidify a permanent position at the University.
6. Chuck D
It has been well over 20 years since Public Enemy forcefully burst onto the scene with their frenzied beats and socially conscious lyrics. Time hasn’t softened the aspirational edge of Carlton Douglass Ritenhour, who is as active as ever. These days the Bomb Squad behemoth’s preferred form of revolution is dropping jewels at universities, on radio shows and in prisons. The long list of colleges where he has been invited to speak includes the University of Georgia, Prairie View A&M University, Indiana University, California State University, Sacramento and Drexel University. He often uses the topic “Race, Rap & Reality,” touching on the devolution of hip-hop. Upon taking the floor at New York University he had this to say: “Don’t clap for me. Clap for yourselves. Clap for the possibility of a better world. It ain’t about me.”
7. David Banner
Lavell Crump, a graduate of Southern University, has lectured at Rhodes College, the University of Delaware, Harvard University and Morehouse College. His topics of choice include ethical leadership, misogyny in music and African-American students maintaining their identity within majority white institutions. In interviews he has been outspoken on issues including how mixtapes devalued hip-hop music, the L.A. riots, Trayvon Martin and even Al Shartpton. The rapper and activist made headlines in 2007 when he spoke before the House of Representative’s Committee on Energy and Commerce concerning stereotypes and degrading images in music. While the majority of the audio of the hearing has been overlaid with white noise, a transcript of his testimony can be found here.
Gary Grice is in high demand these days. He is one of the founding members of the Wu-Tang Clan, arguably one of the most talented and influential hip-hop groups of all times. For this reason the stories of his youth are priceless knowledge and a part of hip-hop history. Harvard, MIT, NYU, Cornell University and Oxford University have all invited The Genius to drop science in the form of lectures.
9. Talib Kweli
Coming from a family of educators, Talib Kweli Greene is excellent at orating the various facets of consciousness within the hip-hop dynamic. The New York University graduate has been featured at St. Johns University, Southern University and Princeton University. Check out this article for an insightful look into his interaction with students at the Metropolitan State College of Denver.
10. Jay Z
Sean Carter often appears on “Top Five MCs” lists for his lyrical agility, but his cultural impact is heavy as well. In 2011, Michael Eric Dyson began teaching a much-publicized course entitled The Sociology of Hip-Hop: Jay Z at Georgetown University. Delving into the poetry which underlies Jigga’s empire, the course uses texts such as Decoded and Empire State of Mind: How Jay Z Went from Street Corner to Corner Office. Due to Mr. Carter’s industrious pursuit of the “American Dream” since his 1996 debut, there are countless rhymes and an array of business ventures to be dissected. Steve Stoute, who has been a guest lecturer, commented that the class “offers practical value for students interested in business.”
Rapper, poet, actor and renaissance man Lonnie Rashid Lynn, Jr. is highly inspirational. His New York Times-bestselling memoir, One Day It’ll All Make Sense saw him visiting a slew of campuses starting in 2011. Often beginning with a region-specific freestyle, the G.O.O.D. Music artist has spoken at the University of North Carolina, St. Johns University, The Ohio State University, Washington University, the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Stanford University, just to name a few. Though his subject matter spans more than just hip-hop alone, his music fame draws diverse and eager listeners who often are surprised at what they take away from the presentation.
12. Lil’ Kim
Kimberly Denise Jones was one of the first female rappers of her kind. She was hyper-sexual, bold and a diva all while spitting legitimate rhymes alongside some of the most respected rappers of her day. While her in-your-face lyrics garnered scathing criticism from hip-hop’s resident antagonist, Syracuse University professor Dr. Greg Thomas saw fit to create (and defend) a course focused on her persona. “Hip-Hop Eshu: Queen Bitch 101” explored the roles of sex and gender apparent in Lil’ Kim’s lyrics. While the course is no longer offered by Syracuse, Dr. Thomas parlayed the material into a book in 2009.
13. Lil B
Brandon McCartney shocked some and thrilled others early last year when he announced an upcoming speaking engagement at New York University. The result was a bizarre 80-minute barrage of personal musings touching on love, humanity and environmental consciousness among other topics. While some may question the validity of his presence at a top-tier research university, viewing the event through the perceptive lens of pop cultural phenomena may provide a more clear understanding of why he graced the stage only to face over 500 adoring fans, many of whom cried out passionately, “Thank you, Based God.” As hip-hop evolves the characters springing forth from it continue to diverge from the beaten path. Purists may scoff at the prevailing acceptance of these divergences, but academia has opened wide its arms, careful not to discredit too soon what may become the impetuses of tomorrow.
DJ, producer and drummer Ahmir Khalib Thompson is a fixture in hip-hop, R&B and music at large. Adding to his unmistakable cool is the fact that, when he’s not performing with The Roots as the house band for Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, he’s teaching a class on classic albums at New York University with Harry Weinger (Vice President of A&R for Universal Music Enterprises).
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