By Alex Maloney, Staff Writer
"I never seen a year like this, so many twists and turns, a whole lot of losers, we all lived and learned. So listen up, I'ma keep it a buck. This the mad skills 2017 rap up."
These are actual lyrics from rapper Mad Skillz from his song “Rap Up,” where he details all the major events of 2017. For this rapper, the year of 2018 brought him to the University of Richmond, where he is now teaching a class titled “The Voice of Hip-Hop in America.” As a liberal-arts college, UR prides itself on having a diverse range of classes for students to take -- from biochemistry to Shakespeare to, now, hip-hop. This new class offered at the university this spring, called The Voice of Hip-Hop in America, meets once a week on Monday nights and is being taught by actual hip-hop artist Donnie Lewis, or as some may know him, Mad Skillz, who spits lyrics like the ones above and has thousands of hits on SoundCloud. Mad Skillz has been in the hip-hop world ever since he fell in love with the genre at an early age, around 1985, when he was only 11 years old.
He remembers seeing hip-hop on television and being absolutely mesmerized, which is why he began rapping in the early ‘90s. Mad Skillz was -- and still is, when he’s not teaching at UR on Monday nights -- spitting rhymes all around the country. He has many creative projects he’s working on, and has recently just returned from some “Grammy-related networking events” in New York, where he did a hip-hop tribute to Missy Elliot. Until this semester, Mad Skillz had never worked in a classroom environment, but instead fostered his talents in a more creative atmosphere.
Despite this, he met for an interview with professor Erik Nielson, an assistant chair of the liberal arts program at UR whose teaching focuses on hip-hop and African American literature, in late 2017. This was for a creative project completely unrelated, but during the interview Nielson proposed the idea of teaching a class together. At first Mad Skillz said he was “hesitant about being in the classroom because [he] had never really thought about teaching.” In the end, Nielson won him over.
After that, the two began to develop the unique course that is being taught currently this spring. Although Mad Skillz was on board for the class after it was developed, he too got the first-day jitters. It was a difficult transition for him to make from an inventive environment to a structured one.“I can talk about hip-hop all day but it is difficult to make sure people actually take away something from my class,” he said.
He wants students to take away something real and valuable, a goal that a lot of teachers feel pressure to obtain. “Right now I’m only one classin and still figuring out my teaching style, but I’m up for the challenge of making something great come out of this class.” There is no “average day” in The Voice of Hip-Hop in America classroom. There are many different types of students with different skill levels from all walks of life in the class. Mad Skillz said that the first step to teaching this class had been figuring out where every student was at on the first day, to ensure they would get the most out of the class.“You have to assume no one knows anything about hip-hop coming in, like an American history or biology class,” he said.
“You have to start at the bare minimum and find out why students are taking the class.” After this, you can begin teaching the basics of hip-hop andwork up to a more complex understanding. Mad Skillz wants to debunk the rumor that this class is an “easy A” and believes any student could have said that after the first day. Students need to “read, research, participate in online discussions and in class discussions and there is a required listening and reading component as well,” he said.
All this work is for students to be able to have a better understanding of the complex hip-hop culture. Mad Skillz said that many people, his students included, might only associate rap music with hip-hop, but that was only one part of the culture. He said it was important to bring the other three components of hip-hop to light, which include graffiti, breakdance and DJ-ing, all of which Mad Skillz believes should be respected in their own right.
Outside UR’s campus and The Voice of Hip-Hop in America classroom, one of Mad Skillz favorite long-term projects is an event called the Art of Noise. The project is for people who don’t want to hear the music on the radio, but want the nostalgia of hip-hop, he said, and will include some of his own original works. Although this isn’t related to his curriculum, the project has a similar message to the one he is trying to convey in the classroom at UR. The Art of Noise is an event designed to create a better understanding and appreciation of the hip-hop world, which is what Mad Skillz aims to do in his classroom as well.
After the course is completed, Mad Skillz’s hope is that students will not only have a better understanding of these individual components but also hip-hop as a whole. “When students see things affiliated with rap culture, they will be able to see them with a different eye, and see the entire world of hip-hop in a better way than they did before,” he said.