Dr. Todd Boyd Wants People to ‘Understand the Magnitude’ of Hip-Hop Over 50 Years

The author of “Rapper’s Deluxe: How Hip Hop Made the World” reacts to Jay-Z’s Grammys speech and traces the genre’s roots back to DJ Kool Herc’s party in the Bronx

When Dr. Todd Boyd began cognitively crafting “Rapper’s Deluxe: How Hip Hop Made the World” as a child growing up in 1970s Detroit before physically putting pen to paper in 2021, the 50th anniversary of the music genre (which took place in 2023) wasn’t at the forefront of his mind. Instead, he was driven by how rap and hip-hop impacted politics, pop culture and other aspects of life in the United States and beyond since it was birthed by DJ Kool Herc in 1973.

“This book is about the culture, the music is part of the culture. It’s the frame that you sort of see everything through. But it’s also movies, fashion, language, politics, sports and art. I was interested in all these connections, beyond the music,” Dr. Boyd, who is widely known as “Notorious Ph.D,” told TheWrap in an interview.

“Rapper’s Deluxe” — his ninth literary piece — spotlights the various ways hip-hop influenced or appeared in historical events, from the Black Panther Party Movement and its destruction to Eddie Murphy’s hit stand-up comedy show “Delirious.”

“I want people to know and appreciate that this is epic. I keep quoting Drake and J. Cole on the song ‘First Person Shooter,’ ‘Big as the what? Big as the Super Bowl.’ I want people to understand the magnitude. The music is hugely important, perhaps the foundation, but it’s the ways in which it branches out to so many other cultural areas that I think really makes a difference.”

In a sit-down interview with TheWrap, Dr. Boyd — who is the Katherine and Frank Price Endowed Chair for the Study of Race and Popular Culture and Professor of Cinema and Media Studies at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts — discussed hip-hop’s decades-long history, his thoughts on Jay-Z’s Grammys speech, his hopes of turning “Rapper’s Deluxe” into a docuseries, his next chapter diving into hip-hop’s origins and more.

Here’s 10 questions with Dr. Todd Boyd.

These answers have been condensed for readability purposes.

Tell me about your background growing up in Detroit, Michigan, and where your love for news, music and culture came from.

I feel like I started writing this book when I was nine years old, back in the early ’70s, which is the same year the legendary party thrown by DJ Kool Herc in the Bronx is cited. I was someone who was constantly absorbing all the sounds of that era: the music, movies, fashion, sporting events, paying attention to album covers and magazine photos, all sorts of iconography, much of it ended up in the book.

I was absorbing all this information and being inspired by it, and then at some point in my life, I became a professor, I became a writer, I began to research and study these things and began to write about them, speak about them, in the media. It’s really a combination of my personal interest as well as what later became professional interests. And I think the book offers a bit of both. It’s personal, but it’s also a piece that deals with cultural history over a 50-year period. I tried to merge both of those things.

In the book, you open up about how your dad influenced many of your interests. Describe that relationship.

My father was someone who really loved movies. I’m a film professor and I could not even come close to loving movies as much as my father, and he watched all sorts of movies. It was the ’70s, so there was Blaxploitation movies, for sure. But I saw “The Godfather” and “The Godfather: Part Two” and “Paper Moon,” “The Exorcist,” “The Last Tango in Paris.” I was hanging out with my father. If he wanted to go to the movies, he would take me to the movie, he didn’t care what the movie was rated. He listened to a lot of music. He was a guy who had his own style, he was into fashion. He sort of introduced me to all these things. He would watch the news. This is the era of the Watergate [scandal], kind of end of the Vietnam War. When he was watching the news, I couldn’t interrupt him, I can’t talk. I had to sit there and watch it. He’d watch a lot of interview shows, “The Mike Douglas Show” and “The Dick Cavett Show,” and I just absorbed all that. And later it kind of became interests of my mine.

What was your first experience with hip-hop and what was that moment like?

I heard this music because my father was playing it. I heard “Rapper’s Delight” [by The Sugarhill Gang] on the radio and I remember people describing it, but they were having a hard time fully describing what it was. I could understand why it was so hard for people to explain it because it’s the late ’70s, and nobody’s singing on the record, which is what you’d expect. And it’s not a jazz record; musicians aren’t playing instruments, but they’re rapping. It reminded me of Muhammad Ali, reminded me of The Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron, comedian Nipsey Russell. Here was someone who, with music, had put it into a different context and made a record about it and it was being played on the radio. I heard it, I liked it and memorized it — the long version. From that point forward, I’m listening to Kurtis Blow, or the few artists who were out in the early ’80s. Then I heard Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, and also, Afrika Bambaataa, the Soulsonic Force. Everything just really kind of took off from there.

When did you start to construct the book and how long did it take to finish? Did the genre’s 50th anniversary influence the book’s creation at all?

I never remember when I start. At some point in 2021 I started working on the book, curating the photographs and ultimately writing the text that goes along with it, and finished up earlier last year. The book begins with Kool Herc’s party in the Bronx and it ends around the time of Dr. Dre, Snoop, Kendrick Lamar and others performing at the halftime show of Super Bowl 2022. We go from 1973 to 2022.

When I started working on the book I didn’t even realize 2023 would be the 50th anniversary. As I got closer to finishing, people began referencing that, and I started maybe thinking about it as well, but that’s not why I did it — not directly anyway. The book was written when it was supposed to be written.

What section of the book was the most fun and the most challenging to put together?

The first chapter was the most fun. I was born in the ’60s but grew up in the ’70s with the music from that era. You know, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Aretha Franklin, I could go on. The music and films from that era are legendary. Guys coming home from Vietnam wearing their military jackets, street style. I’m also talking about the representation of New York and ’70s culture with “Taxi Driver.” You had Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army, Miles Davis, Richard Pryor — the ’70s was such a fascinating and compelling decade.

The third chapter, which is on the 1990s — the era when hip-hop fully expanded — it’s just so much in that decade to account for that. It was bigger than the other chapters because so many important things happened in that moment. So that was probably the hardest because I made sure I laid everything out.

Reading this really made me want to see this as a TV documentary series, would you be open to that?

Of course. A lot of people are familiar with my work from appearing in so many documentaries. Some people call me the documentary king. I’ve thought about it. I’ve had some conversations about it. That’s still in development. Honestly, when I wrote the book, I also approached it as though it were a multi-part documentary series with me as the screen guide and the on-screen narrator. I’m very much focused on turning it into a documentary series as well as an art exhibit.

“Rapper’s Deluxe” spotlights the ways in which Black artists, rappers have been overlooked and/or rejected over the years. The Grammys still seldomly airs rap/hip-hop categories — how do you feel the world values hip-hop today?

To be honest with you, I really don’t care. When you talk about a culture that’s been around for 50 years, it’s not about seeking outside approval. And I get it, you play for the NFL, you want to go to the Super Bowl. If you’re an artist, the Grammys are the measure of institutional success. But, at the same time, hip-hop helped elect a president. Barack Obama is then the president, and he’s brushing his shoulders off, so I’m not really trippin’ on the Grammys, because to me, the Grammys ignoring hip-hop tells you more about the Grammys than it does hip-hop.

I think what Jay-Z had to say about the Grammys was spot on. We’ve been fighting this battle for a long time, so you want that recognition because you deserve it. I think what hip-hop has accomplished is much bigger than the Grammys, much bigger than the slight or induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — seriously. Rock and Roll is a derivative of Black music. Now you’re going to say it’s an honor and we’re going to induct you in our Hall of Fame? Like, really? We’re talking about hip-hop, something that’s been around for 50 years. So when you think about that, it’s substantive in a way that way. Let’s criticize those who ignore us and at the same time use it as motivation. I think that’s what hip-hop has done.

Who are your O.G. rappers and your favorite rappers of today?

I like [Notorious] B.I.G., Jay-Z, Nas, I call that the “Godhead.” Big Daddy Kane, Scarface, Ice Cube, Chuck D, these are all my favorite MCs. Nas and Jay-Z are a little younger. In terms of more recent rappers — I know a lot of people hate on Drake, but dude has skills. J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar and Drake, for more recent artists. I come from an era where it was about bars.

As you look back on the past 50 years of hip-hop, what predictions do you have for its future?

I hate making predictions because when you make predictions you could easily be wrong. If you think about hip-hop in its 20 or 30-year anniversary, Kendrick Lamar has won a Pulitzer Prize (in 2018), Duke Ellington was denied a Pulitzer Prize, Beyoncé and Jay-Z are in Tiffany commercials with a Jean-Michel Basquiat [piece], Nas is performing with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center, Pharrell is the creative director at Louis Vuitton. These things to me are hugely impressive; there’s just so many things we could talk about now. [Hip-hop] is so powerful, even the way people talk. The words they use are so influenced by hip-hop. They don’t even know that the slang they use is hip-hop. They’re speaking our language and don’t even notice it — that’s power. That’s influence. I say all that to say, I don’t know because I don’t like making predictions, but think what I want people to do is focus on what we’ve done. Let’s celebrate that.

What’s the next book?

I haven’t started writing yet, but I’ve started conceptualizing it. I’m thinking about going backwards. “Rapper’s Deluxe” starts in 1973, and I’m interested in what happened before that. How do we get to DJ Kool Herc in the Bronx throwing this party? What happens before hip-hop? So what I’m thinking about is more like a prequel than a sequel.

“Rapper’s Deluxe: How Hip Hop Made the World” is on shelves now.

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