In Conversation with Dr. Todd Boyd, the ‘Notorious PhD’


Cutler and Gross’ In Conversation series celebrates the brand’s customers and their personal style. We look closer at their work and how they ended up in their individual creative field, what their specific craft looks like, the style journey they are on, and how their Cutler and Gross frames fit in with their unique aesthetic. 

Interview by David Hellqvist Photography  by Nathaniel Wood

Have you got a nickname? Do you like it or is a derogatory name still lingering from misspent university days? Or maybe it’s just an easier way of saying a complicated name that owes too much to an exotic family lineage? Yes, not everyone gets to be as lucky as Dr. Todd Boyd. He goes by the name of the Notorious PhD. Exactly.

Calling in from Los Angeles, the Notorious PhD is a Professor of Cinema and Media Studies at the USC School of Cinematic Arts (which explains the PhD) who’s work over the last three decades has been focused on mapping the role of black culture – often through the medium of hip-hop (hence the Notorious) – in American society. He’s been busy because everywhere you look – art, politics, fashion, literature, other forms of music and even the way we talk and text – hip-hop culture has permeated the discourse.

Gaining his PhD and arriving in LA just after the Rodney King riots of 1992 set the tone for Dr. Boyd’s tenure, highlighting the at times fragile relationship between white and black America. But beyond moments like that – and that was not too be the last one sadly – the Notorious PhD’s work is about connecting the dots between individual black creatives working in various art disciplines and the rich cultural fabric that they have helped to spin in the united patchwork of America of the 21st century.

“I’m someone who grew up in hip-hop culture, so in addition to writing and doing research about it, lecturing about it, this is my life.”

Dr. Todd boyd

How would you describe your work to a stranger?

When people ask, I determine my response based on who’s asking the questions and the context: I could say I’m a professor which I am, I could say I’m a writer, which I am, I could say I’m a commentator which I am. I wear a lot of hats. I’d describe myself as a creative intellectual. Duke Ellington used to talk about transcending category, meaning of course that you couldn’t reduce something down to any one thing, it’s not that simple. I think I have always thought about my work in that way: it’s beyond category, it’s multiple things. In basketball these days, if you are a great defender, you can guard all five positions on the floor, and they say you can guard ‘one through five’. I like to think about my work that way, I can guard one through five, and depending on the context the day of the week I can embody any of those descriptions I gave you.

When and how did you get your nickname, the Notorious PhD?

Back in the 90s I was one of the first academics/professors/intellectuals in the country to bring hip-hop into the American university system. I was the first one to do this who had actually come out of the culture though. The LA Times did a feature on me, they titled it ‘Notorious PhD’. I dig Biggie Smalls – Rest in Peace – and I thought the title fit so I just ran with it. Some people say to me, ‘You named yourself Notorious PhD’. But you’ve got to understand that when I grew up you couldn’t give yourself a name, somebody had to bestow it upon you. I’m someone who grew up in hip-hop culture, so in addition to writing and doing research about it, lecturing about it, this is my life, this is who I am …as I say, I come out of the culture. So, when talking about hip-hop I thought, ‘Well, I can’t just talk about it, I have to embody it. I have to represent it.’

Would you say there’s any overlap between what you do and a hip-hop?

Yeah, there’s a certain performance aspect to my work. Rappers get credit for spitting sixteen bars, as they say. Well, I don’t use notes when I lecture but I don’t do sixteen bars, I go two hours without notes. The way I lecture, the way I approach my craft, is a lot like a rapper, or a jazz musician. But I’m an intellectual and I’m in a university as opposed to a recording studio, and so the persona is developed around the things I would say, but also my own presence, my own visibility, my own identity … and style is a big part of it, fashion has always been a big part of it.

Dr Todd Boyd captured in his Los Angeles office wearing the 880 archive frame by Cutler and Gross bought in our New York store

What can be said of hip-hop’s cultural role in American society?

A lot of people are pointing to hip-hop’s 50th anniversary this year and how hip-hop has transformed American culture over the last five decades. When they hear hip-hop, people think of rap music but rap music’s only one part of it because hip-hop’s always been a cultural movement, but for some time now rap music has been the most popular music in the world, influencing other styles of music. And the same can be said for film, television, sports, art and fashion where hip-hop has had a profound effect … even in the White House! The most profound development to happen in America is the slave trade and so the impact of slavery and the descendants of slaves on American society and culture is enormous. What hip-hop represents is a sort of historical juncture when that influence has, over time, been able to become front and centre. Of course, for a long time black culture was marginalised in America. That’s not the case anymore, certainly not to the same extent. Hip-hop has been the engine behind moving the influence of black culture into the mainstream.

What inspired you yourself growing up as a black man in America?

The biggest cultural influences I had were in the 1970s, that was the era when hip-hop emerged. But it was developing underground, it was developing away from the public eye. Simultaneously, though, there were other developments out in the open: the Blaxploitation era in Hollywood, people like boxer Muhammad Ali and comedian Richard Pryor, emerging black politicians becoming big city mayors. The 1970s is really the first decade when you have, in essence, a free black nation because of the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act in the 60s.

“I don’t use notes when I lecture … the way I lecture, the way I approach my craft, is a lot like a rapper.”

Dr. Todd boyD

You moved to Los Angeles in 1992; what was the city’s cultural landscape like then?

It was just a really pivotal time; the culture was popping. I got there just after the Rodney King riots but one of the things hip-hop would do was to provide commentary about what was going on at the time, people were listening to Ice Cube or NWA before the riots. Later Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg blew up, Arsenio Hall had a very popular talk show with rappers appearing, Michael Jordan was at the top of his game as a basketball player. I think it all inspired me in the sense that it kind of added a context to what I was doing. It made what I was doing seem much more important, and much more urgent, because of what was happening in the streets. At the time there were buildings that had been visibly burned during the riots very close to USCs campus, so it was very tangible – it was not something you just watched on television, it was real.

The archived 880 Optical amongst some of Dr Todd Boyd’s personal effects and favourite knick-knacks

We talk a lot about music, film and fashion but where does sports fit into the equation?

Sports is very creative; I mean the greatest athletes are creators. Muhammad Ali was incredibly creative, as a boxer, as a persona. I don’t know that you get to be considered a great athlete without a certain level of creativity. But sports, particularly basketball, has always been a part of hip-hop culture. There are rappers rhyming about basketball from the early 80s going forward, even before Kurtis Blow. A lot of people don’t think about it in the same creative way as they think about, say, art, film, or music, but to me it’s part of this larger cultural movement because in sports it’s about winning and losing, and if you take that as a metaphor you can apply it to other aspects of life. There’s this story about Barack Obama when he gave the speech that introduced him to the country at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, and before doing the speech he goes, ‘I got this, like I’m LeBron’ … he’s referencing LeBron James who was a young player in the NBA at the time. You know, LeBron represents success, if you want to make a point about ‘making it’, what better example to use?

“People are going to notice your frames, they’re a way of standing out and giving yourself an identity and a persona.”


Fashion seems important to you; how do you look at style in the context of what you do for a living? And where does your frames fit into that?

Fashion, to me, is like personal expression, it’s not just about wearing clothes, I mean I’ve studied the history of fashion, many of those things that inspired me in the 70s: magazine covers, magazine photographs, album covers, movie posters, all those cultural representations, I would look at what people were wearing how they presented themselves. In the 70s, before contact lenses got big, a lot of people wore glasses, and the style of those glasses is something I took note of, I didn’t need glasses growing up, but I would go buy fake glasses and wear them just because I liked the look. And at some point, father time caught up with me and I actually needed glasses, and for me frames are just another style accessory. People are going to notice your frames; they’re going to remember them. So they’re a way of standing out and giving yourself an identity and a persona, but it’s also part of personal creative expression which to me is my personal art that the world can see. I’m not a painter, but what I can do with fashion is creative in the same way that an artist goes about creating their work. And I think glasses are central to it. Glasses serve a purpose; I certainly need them to see but when you wear glasses that give you a look it’s just a great opportunity to represent yourself to the world.

How did you come across Cutler and Gross, and what do you like about the brand?

I was in New York walking through Soho, and I was looking through the window of the Cutler and Gross store and decided to go in as they had all these really cool frames on display. But what really caught my attention was the vintage Cutler frames from the 70s and 80s. And that’s my thing, retro and vintage styles that doesn’t look like everything you might see in contemporary society. I eventually bought my first pair which were the ones I wore in the ‘The Last Dance’ documentary. When I was growing up you didn’t want to be like everybody else, you wanted to be different, you would go to the complete other side of the room just to not be part of the crowd, so I like Cutler and Gross because they don’t look like everything else. I want something that’s distinct, and Cutler is perfect for that!

Dr Todd Boyd wearing the archived 880 Optical frame


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