From ‘Beat Street’ to Berkeley

BERKELEY —The road to academia has many possible starting points. An inspirational teacher. A childhood fascination with dinosaurs. Breakdancing. A reading of The Bell Jar at just the right age. An encouraging parent who –

Wait. Breakdancing?


Rollefson’s lectures are apt to include some live music along with the talk. (Kathleen Karn photo)

Yes, it turns out the leap from Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo to teaching at UC Berkeley isn’t as far as one might think. Just ask J. Griffith “Griff” Rollefson.

A visiting assistant professor in the music department, Rollefson has carved out a unique specialty for himself in the world of musicology. He’s not just a go-to guy when it comes to the study of hip hop and its cultural impact. He’s the go-to guy in the field of European hip hop. That was the topic of his doctoral dissertation, and he’s writing a book on it that’s served as the basis for a School of Music course called “Planet Rap: Global Hip Hop and Postcolonial Perspectives.”

And it all began with block-party popping and locking.

“I grew up in inner-city Milwaukee and remember coming home from church one Sunday afternoon and checking out a block party on 31st Street,” Rollefson says. “A kid just a little older than me – I was about 8 – was doing a headspin on cardboard in the middle of the street. Two big speakers were blasting out what I would soon come to know as ‘breakdance music.’ Later that summer, two of my neighborhood friends got a dubbed copy of a song called ‘Jam on It’ by Newcleus, and pretty soon we were working on our own dance routines on the sidewalk in the backyard.”

Meanwhile, hip hop began to spread beyond the streets and sidewalks. Rollefson remembers a classmate bringing a Kurtis Blow album to school for show and tell. He and his friends began dressing like the characters they saw in hip hop-infused mid-’80s movies like Beat Street and The Last Dragon.

“I had the Payless Air Jordans, parachute pants, and we’d tie Japanese flag bandannas around our legs as part of our breakdancing look,” Rollefson says.

But it wasn’t all about fashion and dancing. When he was in eighth grade, Rollefson got his first taste of Public Enemy, and after that he had a new appreciation for the meaning behind the beats.

“That’s when I started putting things together about hip hop, racial identity and social consciousness,” he says.

Bay Area native

Rollefson might have been primed for that eye-opening by a unique Bay Area heritage. He was born in San Francisco, where his father was pastor of the Castro District’s St. Francis Lutheran Church – which Rollefson fondly recalls as “St. Francis by the Safeway.”

“It was one of the first churches in the country to be open and affirming of gay and lesbian people, and my folks got a crash course in social justice there that became their life’s work,” Rollefson says. “So that was a central part of my upbringing at home, and the Bay and its history and ethos has always been a part of me.”

After getting his Ph.D. in musicology from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, serving as a research fellow at the Freie Universität Berlin and teaching at Chapman University in Southern California, Rollefson finally made his way back to the Bay Area in the fall of 2011. He returned to begin a two-year stint as a visiting assistant professor at Berkeley, funded by a fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies. When not teaching, Rollefson’s been working on a book he’s calling European Hip Hop and the Politics of Postcoloniality, which explores why young people abroad would turn to an American musical form when giving voice to their own cultural identities.

“Minority youth from the former colonies and peripheries of Europe are looking to African American musical protest politics to both perform their resistance and relate themselves to their respective nations,” Rollefson explains. “[They’re] claiming a place at the table through difference rather than assimilation. That is, not by becoming German, French or English but by forcing their nations to redefine the terms of national belonging.”

Wide-ranging tastes

Though Rollefson has devoted much of his academic life to hip hop, his musical interests are wide-ranging. Since coming to Berkeley, he’s taught courses on jazz, bassist/composer Charles Mingus, the history and impact of African American music and music in American culture. Perhaps taking to heart the old adage that talking about music is like dancing about architecture, Rollefson – who plays the bass himself – sometimes literally jazzes up his lectures by performing with fellow musicians.

He also occasionally backs DJs and MCs, something he says is more than just fun: It’s a vital part of his work as an academic.

“To study hip hop, you have to be involved in the community. You have to start at the clubs and community centers,” he says. “I’m fortunate to have met and worked with some amazing artists.”

One of those artists – San Francisco MC Rocky Rivera – dropped in on Rollefson’s “Planet Rap” class. And Rollefson recruited MC Rico Pabón to help him with a course that brings Berkeley undergrads together with local youth to discuss hip hop, American culture and history. The course, “Post Colonial Studies in the Bay Area,” is offered as part of the campus’s American Cultures Engaged Scholarship program, which encourages students to experience the nation’s diversity first-hand through community-based learning.

Twice a week, Rollefson and his students go to the RYSE Youth Center in Richmond to meet with area teens and students from the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts. And they don’t just talk about hip hop. They’re going to be making it, creating their own beats, rhymes and videos. (Anyone who feels self-conscious at the mic will get a hand from Pabón, who’ll be leading performance workshops in April.)

As Rollefson sees it, the program is exactly what the academic study of hip hop ought to look like. While he’s encountered no resistance to his specialty in the halls of academia – “The reception has been great,” he says – many American musicologists recognize that they’ve been overlooking a vibrant new musical flowering in their own backyard.

“The ivory tower knows it has a lot of catching up to do,” Rollefson says. “We just need to make sure we do it the right way – in collaboration and dialogue with the community.”

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