Not every University of Richmond professor receives high-fives from random strangers when walking around campus or is given a box of homemade cupcakes for class, but Donnie “Mad Skillz” Lewis is not the typical college professor.
Although most of the world recognizes him as the rapper Mad Skillz, best known for his 1996 album, "From Where???" he recently took on the title of Mr. Lewis. As UR’s current artist-in-residence, Lewis began teaching a new course called Voices of Hip Hop in America this semester, but he didn’t have to travel far to get to the classroom.
Lewis moved to Richmond in 1987 and has been here ever since. Although he did not attend UR, Lewis said he had gotten his start on its radio show, UR House Party, in 1991, when the show had been run by one of his friends. Lewis explained that a caller on the show had given him his rapper name, which he has been using for over 20 years.
“A guy called and asked about me, and I didn’t have a rap or emcee name or anything like that," Lewis said. "I was just going by my name, and he was like ‘Whoever that was, man he got mad skills!’ and I was like ‘Oh wow,’ and I took the name.”
Lewis came to UR after Erik Nielson, an associate professor of liberal arts, invited him to teach a hip-hop rhetoric course with him.
Nielson has taught hip-hop for a long time, but was not familiar with the local hip-hop scene, he said. Nielson added that he had wanted to teach a class on Richmond hip-hop but had not known the local hip-hop community well enough.
After Nielson met Lewis, he knew he had found the right person to co-teach with.
“When I saw all of his accomplishments, plus the fact that he was from here, and then I learned that he actually got his start here at the university… it just made such perfect sense,” Nielson said.
Lewis said he had agreed to collaborate with Nielson because he could tell that Nielson knew hip-hop and was passionate about it.
So far, their partnership has gone well. The two spend hours before class brainstorming ideas and deciding what to teach that day.
“We argue, we bicker, we debate, and we come up with very good stuff and then we take it to them,” Lewis said.
The goal of the class is to get people to walk away with a better understanding of the hip-hop culture by digging deep into the subject, which requires a lot of work and reading on the students’ part, Lewis said.
Tatiana Monds, junior, described what the students have been doing in the class so far this semester.
“Basically, we’ve been learning kind of breaking down hip-hop lyrics and their meanings and just discussing influences,” Monds said.
Nielson said that another part of the vision for the class included getting members of the Richmond community outside of UR involved. The class is hosting a panel discussion open to the public called Sampling Black History on Feb. 19, which Hank Shocklee, the lead producer for The Bomb Squad, will be attending.
Lewis said he had to be careful not to assume that students already have a baseline knowledge of hip-hop, because they haven’t been surrounded by the culture as much as he has. By going back to the basics, Lewis has seen breakthrough moments within the first few weeks of the semester, he said.
“I literally saw their eyes light up, and I could see them getting it," Lewis said. "It was almost as exciting as being onstage. I love it!”
Because Lewis’ focus is helping students learn as much as possible, he said his favorite part about teaching was seeing students finally grasp a concept. And the cupcakes are a nice perk, too.
Contact contributor Erika Echternach at firstname.lastname@example.org.