Dr. Todd Boyd’s Rapper’s Deluxe examines the cultural underpinning of hip-hop

Rappers Deluxe

Courtesy of Dr. Todd Boyd

There have been myriad celebrations of the 50th anniversary of hip hop over the course of the last year in the form of television specials, magazine articles, and concert tours. Nothing, however, has yet summed up the 50 years of this transformative genre so much as  Dr. Todd Boyd’s recent book from Phaidon, Rapper’s Deluxe: How Hip Hop Made the World.

“A show stopping collection of major moments in hip hop and American history,” the new book from the Price Chair for the Study of Race and Popular Culture and Professor of Cinema and Media Studies at USC, is a massive hardbound book which encompasses textbook, art book, and cultural analysis equally. We spoke with Dr. Boyd about Rapper’s Deluxe, discussing both how the book came to be, as well as hip hop and its cultural context.

Dr Todd Boyd

Dr. Todd Boyd. // photo courtesy USC

The Pitch: This is a massive work. When did it all begin?

Dr. Todd Boyd: I think it began when I was maybe nine or ten years old, honestly. But more to the point, I think that I started working on it in 2021 and much of the work was done in 2022 and the early part of last year. In some ways it felt like I’ve been downloading a significant portion of my life because the book starts in the early 1970s and reaches up to the present.

In addition to researching it, observing it, and writing it, it’s also something that I have lived. So there’s the actual timeline of putting the book together, which is maybe in the last two, three years, and then there’s the bigger issue of all the time it took for these things to unfold and think about it over that extended period of time.

Where did your introduction come in the writing process? It is so intensely personal and seems to encompass everything that comes after it in the book. It seems like this is the sort of thing that could either have been written to kick off your process and putting the whole book together or written after you’d completed everything else.

Looking back the project as a whole, I like timelines in general. I think it’s one of the ways I have always ordered the world–when things happen and how you define a decade, and a decade leads into a new decade, and before you know it you have 50 years having passed, which is a long time, but relatively speaking is perhaps maybe not that long.

I think the way in which people think about hip hop history–DJ Kool Herc and the famous party thrown that his sister put together in the Bronx in 1973 has always been point that people considered the origin story of the culture. I thought, “Well, if I start there, what else is going on in 1973?” And when I looked into it and I saw there was a date for this party, I was just curious as to what else was going on, culturally speaking, around that same period of time.

I was kind of surprised to find out that Pam Grier’s film Coffy was the number one film at the box office that same week, which I thought, “This is interesting,” because Pam Grier would become iconic in the ’70s and her legacy would be picked up by rappers like Foxy Brown and Quentin Tarantino’s film Jackie Brown in the ’90s.

I began to think about how people talk about DJ Kool Herc and the famous party. But when you think about it there are other things going on that, once the culture is bigger and broader and more pervasive, we’ll see those influences, we’ll see those things that were happening at the same period of time and from there, I just started thinking about what was going on in the ’70s, and then built on that foundation.

With each passing decade, you’ve got this narrative of growth and expansion and as I said, before you know it, 50 years have passed.

Rappers Deluxe Inner Page

Rapper’s Deluxe inner page. // Photo courtesy Phaidon

What I loved about Rappers Deluxe is that you’re looking at this through a holistic approach, in that you’re looking at the music, but you’re also looking at the culture which influences and comes out of it.

Culture doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It doesn’t happen isolated from everything else. It’s a part of larger trends and cycles and other forms of expression. And so for me, it’s about hip hop. It’s about rap music, but it’s also about film. It’s also about sports, it’s also about art. It’s about the political circumstances during any particular time that influence the music.

I’ve never thought of it as just the music. That’s the thing that many people focus on and the music is certainly substantia, but I have always thought culture is substantive because it can have an influence across society. And to be honest with you, I don’t think we would be celebrating 50 years of hip hop if it were only influential as music.

When you get to the fourth chapter of the book, I’m talking about how hip hop helped elect a president. In many ways, if you think about a cultural influence electing a president–I mean, that’s major. I remember when I was saying this back around Obama’s election and a lot of people couldn’t understand it because they didn’t see the bigger picture, but I think now it makes perfect sense. So again, you need the whole timeline in order to appreciate everything.

I think that what is important about this culture–the reason people are writing about it and talking about it and thinking about it and celebrating 50 years is because it was much more than just a musical trend. If it were that, it wouldn’t be getting the attention that it has received. I wanted to be able to touch on all that and to demonstrate all these places where hip hop has gone and influenced things, and to be able to help people see how this evolved over time.

Dr. Todd Boyd’s Rapper’s Deluxe: How Hip Hop Made the World is available now from Phaidon.

Categories: Music

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