Greg Oguss on Pop Culture
GAME RECOGNIZE GAME
“I know Todd Boyd. You’re no Todd Boyd,” a fiftysomething hippie poet named told me last fall, referencing the most quotable professor on the University of Southern California campus, aka the Notorious PhD. The hippie was correct, technically. Unlike the well-known African-American cultural critic Dr. Boyd, I’m a small-time critic, author and low-fi rock musician who was still pursuing my PhD at USC at the time. These days, I’m just another PhD drop-out. I’m still good friends with Todd, who was my dissertation chair and a mentor of mine to the extent I’ve ever listened to anyone’s advice on anything. Todd and I have both dealt with the sort of player-hating represented by the above quote that’s often directed at intellectuals who write for the mainstream. Todd has frequently written of his battles with haters in academia as well as the criticism he gets from African-Americans who accuse him of “selling out.” On the latter subject, Todd is apt to quote Jay-Z who once boasted that he didn’t sell-out but instead “brought the suburbs to the ‘hood.”
That player-hating hippie poet used to be a big fan of my music and fiction. He may still be one for all I know. We don’t keep in touch since he deleted me on MySpace shortly after messaging me the above insult due to what he felt was my overuse of the n-word. Todd Boyd, whose words carry more weight than mine, can inform this dude that “nigger” and “nigga” have a variety of meanings, typically depending on context. This controversial term is also Todd’s favorite word in the English language, as he reveals in his book on the death of the Civil Rights movement and the rise of Hip Hop, The New H.N.I.C. The hippie poet isn’t aware of any of this because he doesn’t “know” Todd, although he’s probably heard him speak in public. In 2000, I started working as Todd’s Teaching Assistant for his extremely popular undergrad courses on film and Hip Hop culture at USC. Much like the ubiquitous Michael Eric Dyson, you might’ve seen Todd on HBO, CNN or ESPN. Dyson’s popularity is well-deserved, but he isn’t “notorious” like Dr. Boyd. Anyone who writes a book called Why I Love Black Women, as Dyson did, can’t really be called a “Hip Hop scholar.” Claiming you love all black women has nothing to do with Hip Hop, as Todd once pointed out to me. Todd loves Iceberg Slim and Snoop, who once claimed “Bitch, you without me is like Harold Melvin without the Blue Notes, you’ll never go platinum.” That’s a line from Doggystyle, a record littered with “nigga” and “niggette,” the latter being Snoop’s affectionate term for the bitches who love him.
Todd’s rivalry with Dyson is part of the “What’s beef?” mentality that’s long been a part of African-American culture. Most great MCs have had beef with another rapper at some point. The friendly side of this tradition derives from “playin’ the dozens” which crops up on HBO’s Def Comedy Jam and is always the lamest part of the show. The “What’s Beef?” mentality has a darker side that’s erupted into violence, contributing to the climate that took the lives of the Notorious B.I.G and Tupac Shakur. “What’s Beef?” is the title of a classic diss song recorded by Biggie during his battle with ‘Pac. In that cut, Biggie lays down the gauntlet to all the haters with the line, “He who violates me, I shall annihilate thee.”
In contrast to those Hip Hop battles, I didn’t go to war with the hippie poet over some gangsta shit where I called out one of his homies in song. The truth is much more mundane. I’d written a Dylan-ish folk-rock song about Edie Sedgwick and posted it on MySpace. In response, the hippie took it upon himself to inform me I needed to stop wasting my time writing about that “vapid whore.” A pro-censorship hippie is an amusing contradiction. As any fan of my alt-rock persona Lil Beck could tell you, trying to talk me into censoring myself is a colossal waste of time. The Edie Sedgwick song, “Stuck Inside of Glendale w/ the Sedgwick Blues Again,” appears on Lil Beck’s album Life After Hip Hop. Many fans who responded to it are party girls like a foxy 20 year-old Chilean named Gabby Del Canto, who described herself as LB’s “number one fan” and invited me to vacation with her down in Santiago not long after I posted that song.
Around the same time I recorded that song, I wrote an essay about Edie which took an influential academic to task, USC Professor of Film Dr. David James. Unlike Todd Boyd, James is not a public intellectual who writes for mainstream audiences. But he is immensely respected in the academy for his knowledge of the counterculture and Andy Warhol’s films. I have also worked as David’s Teaching Assistant and learned as much from him as I have from Todd Boyd. Among its arguments, my essay pointed out that David James’s scholarship on Andy Warhol focuses solely on the gay and straight male leading men in Warhol’s cinema while ignoring the significant role of Edie Sedgwick in his films. I also pointed out that the only female Warhol Superstar David analyzes is Nico, who appeared in Chelsea Girlsin a role enabled by Edie’s demand to be cut from the film. I gave David an early draft of the essay. In contrast to the hippie’s ruffled feathers over a young punk like me telling him what’s what, David was excited by the scholarship I’d displayed in the essay. When I left USC, he told me he felt privileged to have known me and would be happy to assist me in any way he could. It is this open-minded attitude that helps keep David popular with scholars my age.
Back in the early 1980s, David James was a poet and part of the LA punk scene. Ironically, this also describes the early careers of that hippie poet and his best pal, both of whom have beef with me. Unlike those guys, David still believes in the spirit of punk, which is very different from the hippie ethos. As detailed by music journalist Lester Bangs in a brilliant piece about the Clash on tour, punk was a mindset that said, You’re either in or out, but I’m not gonna preach to you about how great we are if you can’t make up your mind. Hippies love to preach about “tolerance.” But preaching is, by definition, a rather intolerant form of communication.
The struggle by American public intellectuals to attain mainstream respect has spanned the entire 20th century as Andrew Ross documents in his book No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture. Ross’s work falls into the trap of being harshly critical of intellectuals whose politics aren’t liberal enough in his opinion, like Leslie Fielder, Dwight MacDonald and Susan Sontag. But Ross is a second-rate academic, and his work is only read by other academics. So while the flaws in his work are ironic, they’re not really germane to this subject. Recently, I was discussing the topic of public intellectuals with my friend Jake, who’s a history professor at a New York City community college. Jake argued that it seems anachronistic to continue to use the term “public intellectual” solely in regard to academics, mentioning that superstar political consultants such as Karl Rove are now seen as a new breed of public intellectual. I told him that while most people consider television and movies to be “old media,” I thought TV and film icons like Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart and George Clooney are archetypal examples of this new breed of intellectuals.
Todd Boyd also has a problem with the anachronistic association between academia and public intellectuals. He doesn’t even like it when the term is applied to him. He once told me, “I’m an intellectual,” asking, why add the word “public”? When I pressed him, he told me that as a representative of an institution like USC, he doesn’t feel he has the freedom to be the kind of public intellectual that icons like Nas and Chris Rock are.
Boyd also feels that the “black public intellectual” is a fad that’s played out. Boyd, Cornel West, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Dyson and a host of black scholars gained prominence in the 1990s when “the Negro was in vogue,” to quote Langston Hughes. Anyone who achieves success thanks to a controversial style is going to encounter the player-hating which comes second nature to dudes like that guy I quoted at the top of this article. Oscar Wilde’s line that “living well is the best revenge” is a favorite quote of Todd’s regarding the player-hating he’s had to put up with from all sides. Todd drives a drop-top Jag and lives quite well. Another favorite quote of his is Russell Simmons’s line “Do You,” which was Todd’s only advice to me on the afternoon when I brusquely informed a bunch of big-wig professors that I was dropping out of USC.
I’m known for being hard to get along with, as all of my friends will confirm. But that doesn’t make me any different from the public intellectuals who’ve come before me, dating all the way back to Emerson who said, “To be great is to be misunderstood.” This attitude is apparent in the uncompromising style of Lester Bangs, who, when I was barely in my teens, introduced me to a gonzo journalism offshoot that I still practice today. It’s also part of the hip hop attitude that Todd and I pull from, embodied in Jay-Z’s line, “Love me or hate me or leave me alone.” Similarly, Johnny Thunders once claimed, “Many people love me, many people hate me, there’s nobody in between. That’s the way I prefer it.” I’ve got some Johnny Thunders in me, too. But my philosophy can be summed up in three words that were first mouthed by some nigga whose name has long since been forgotten: “Game recognize game.” In other words, if you’ve got skills, we can deal with each other as equals. But if you attempt to school me and are out of your depth, then as Biggie says, “I shall annihilate thee.” I’m not interested in showing people up just for the sake of it. When Todd offered Russell Simmons’s advice to me, I didn’t mention I’d already written a song called “Behind Every Success Lies a Pack of Haters” which quotes that line. That song is a fan fave about those player-hating hippies and a tight-ass professor named Curtis Marez who told some lies about me behind my back, forcing me to replace him on my dissertation committee. By the time I’d written the song, my days at USC were numbered. But I’ve got nothing to complain about since every word I write is indebted to the many intellectuals at USC who recognized my game and showed me love.