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The Baltimore Sun

The notorious PhD

To many hip-hop heads and pop-culture junkies, Todd Boyd is recognized as a renowned speaker, an in-demand television commentator and a critically acclaimed author. However, on the campus of the University of Southern California, he’s better known as “The Notorious PhD,” the school’s one — and only — hip-hop professor.

When Boyd started his undergraduate studies at University of Florida, he set out to be a sportscaster. However, after taking a media and society course and re-watching movies like “The Godfather” and “Scarface” with a critical eye, Boyd was fascinated by the way these cinematic classics commented on unheard aspects of American society and the culture at large.

“These cultural examples were all a big part of my life,” Boyd said, “but I had no idea people got paid for discussing such things in a serious manner. I remember thinking to myself: I can get paid for lecturing and writing about ‘Scarface’? What?! I was hooked.”

Boyd finished his doctorate in communications studies at the University of Iowa and in 1991 became a professor at the University of Utah. The following year, he came to USC.

It was around this time that West Coast rappers like Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg were rising up the ranks with a new brand of hip hop called “gangsta rap,” which focused on violent and drug-fueled aspects of life in the inner-city. Being so close to a burgeoning musical and cultural revolution, Boyd was inspired and created the course Hip Hop Culture, which is offered through the USC School of Cinematic Arts. It was one of the first courses on hip hop to be taught at a major American university.

As the Katherine and Frank Price Endowed Chair for the Study of Race and Popular Culture and Professor of Critical Studies in the USC School of Cinematic Arts, Boyd will also be teaching The Birth of the Cool and 1970s America this fall. Not only do Boyd’s courses seem to strike a chord with students of the iPod generation, but his unique teaching style keeps kids signing up for more. “I approach my classes the way a jazz musician approaches playing a solo, the way a rapper approaches spittin’ a verse or the way a standup comic performs on stage. It’s all about improvisation,” explained Boyd, who refuses to lecture from notes for fear of being repetitive.

In other words, classes taught by the Notorious PhD are thought-provoking, multidimensional and utterly electric. Boyd hopes his students will walk away with a greater understanding of the media’s power over society and, at the same time, how their thoughts and actions can challenge that power. “More than anything, I want to encourage people to think — think about the world, think about the information they consume and think about their lives,” Boyd said. “I want people to be conscious. I want people to be alert and aware. So much in our society encourages people not to think. If I can get you to think then I’ve accomplished something.”

— Leslie Simon, Special Advertising Sections Writer

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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