The Wu-Tang Clan once said if we picked up their double album, Wu-Tang Forever, we wouldn't have to go to summer school. It was a flawless sales pitch, but my high school guidance counselor disagreed. Yet a decade and a half later at USC's Stauffer Lecture Hall, 40 physics students are watching the GZA wax philosophical about the importance of chess, kung fu and sharpening one's sword.
Such is the speed with which rebels can become respectable -- especially when they contribute something as enduring as the GZA's 1995 Liquid Swords, a record still revered by both diehards and dilettantes.
Though many of the kids in this classroom were born in 1991, the year GZA debuted, they are riveted by his tale of the Clan's rise and its philosophies. One flannel-clad postadolescent even says the Beatles and Wu-Tang are the two groups that soundtrack his life.
It's all a little weird. A man whose masterpiece included ultraviolent skits about shoguns with brains infected by devils has become rap's Dalai Lama (with a little bit of Rodney Dangerfield in Back to School). This is the fourth university visit for the 45-year-old Brooklynite, following trips to Oxford, Harvard and MIT, where he spoke and soaked up knowledge from physics and biology professors.
At USC, he's dropping jewels about everything from what chemical they spray at crime scenes to detect blood ("Luminol") to his writing process ("I could write about a pencil if I wanted to. You just take it back deep enough, all the way back to the tree it came from)." He's a high school dropout who cultivated his intelligence to live up to his nickname, the Genius.
Of course, hip-hop is no stranger to autodidacticism or the ivory tower. Professors have taught classes on everyone from Eminem to 2Pac. The venerable Southern rapper Bun B is lecturing on "Religion and Hip-Hop Culture" at Houston's Rice University. In late 2010, Jay-Z released Decoded, an analytical tome that argued the artistic merit of his lyrics.
But GZA's case is different. Forever obsessed with obscure metaphors and mathematical patterns, he's finally been given entry to the elite halls of higher education. He recently announced that his cosmic awakening inspired the concepts of his next album, Dark Matter.