Everybody who teaches at Houston’s prestigious Rice University has impressive credentials, but Bun B is the only faculty member who’s released an album that’s earned five mics in The Source. He’s also one of the chief architects of Southern rap, which he and the late Pimp C, his partner in the hip-hop duo Underground Kingz (UGK), helped popularize. Thus it’s slightly odd to think that the distinguished lecturer for the Rice’s Spring 2011 Religion and Hip-Hop course is also the man who wrote “Pop It 4 Pimp.”
The presence of rappers within the faculty of college campuses isn’t just localized to Rice. In addition to Bun B’s new stint, super-producer 9th Wonder has taught classes on the history of hip-hop at Duke, Jim Jones taught a business class at Fordham last year and Wyclef Jean currently serves as a visiting fellow at Brown University (in a non-lecturing capacity), discussing events in Haiti with Department of Africana Studies. Even the underground is in on the action, with Dessa from the underground Minnesota rap collective Doomtree, serving as artist-in-residence at McNally Smith College. But the story here isn’t one of hip-hop artists looking out of place at college campuses, or of buttoned-up professors attempting to mingle with iced-out rappers in the hood. As hip-hop has grown up, so too has the way it’s perceived. And that includes the way it’s treated at these prestigious institutions.
Religious studies professor Anthony Pinn is the man who brought Bun B to Rice. The process of getting him there was “really rather simple.” Pinn, who’s taught the same religion and hip-hop course for years, met the rapper when one of his students interned at Rap-A-Lot Records. “I mentioned I wanted to bring people from Houston into the classroom,” he explains, “and she put me in touch with Bun B. We met a few times, and it became clear to me that I’d cheating myself and my students if we didn’t come up with a way to give him more than 90 minutes to speak.” Pinn describes Bun as “thoughtful, insightful and engaging,” and not surprisingly, the class filled up quickly. ”Fast enough to gain the attention of the registrar and other administers on campus,” Pinn says.
The entrance of Bun B to Rice presented easy fodder for jokes, but the juxtaposition of hip-hop culture and academia isn’t anything new. Dessa, who taught a course on rap poetics at McNally Smith a few years ago, recalls being asked to “do a b-boy stance” by a camera crew doing a story on her class. “If it’s funny to you to see kids in rap clothes in an institution listening attentively and asking meaningful questions, what you’re really doing is narrowing in on your own preconceived prejudices,” she says. But that leads to an important question: If hip-hop has always been a renegade culture, does it change the nature and mythology of rap to bring the art form – and rappers themselves – into these institutions?
9th Wonder taught Duke’s course on hip-hop from a historical perspective called “Sampling Soul.” He asserts that if hip-hop is going to be changed by being studied, it’s only fair, because after all, rap has been changing the rest of the world for years. “Hip-hop is at an age, and it has such a global influence on economics and society, that it has to be studied and learned from,” he says.
Universities have been keen to broaden their base of educators for a long time and that’s part of the motivation for incorporating rappers into the faculty. “Duke has a series of instructors they refer to as ‘Professors of the Practice,’” says Mark Anthony Neal, professor of African-American Studies who brought 9th Wonder to the university. “[These are] folks who may not have advanced degrees, but have various expertise in business, the arts or international diplomacy.” Tapping rappers as lecturers also dovetails nicely with something that the artists are dealing with themselves: Namely, a struggling music industry in a bad economy.
“We all understand how hard it is in this music business right now to keep a job,” 9th Wonder says. “If I’m having a conversation with one of my peers in the game, and they ask me what I’m doing, the next thing they say is, ‘How’d you get into that? That’s something I need to do.’” In addition to helping rappers find a new hustle, it seems like everyone who’s involved in bringing hip-hop into academia – from 9th Wonder to Dessa to Professors Pinn, Neal and Bradley — agree that educating people about rap is about shattering stereotypes, not reaffirming them. “My job isn’t to make you like Black Moon, or Dre, or Mobb Deep or Kanye West,” 9th says. “What I’m trying to do is make you understand why we love it so much. The students leave, and they understand why hip-hop is a viable institution that they need to stop stereotyping.”