William Moore can recite The Roots' "How I Got Over" from top to bottom, down to Black Thought's rhythm and cadence. The only thing he's missing is Thought's mean mug and dark shades; he prefers an amiable smile and rimmed glasses.
Moore, a Houstonian by way of New Orleans, has been around music his whole life. His siblings played everything from gospel and jazz to country and rock. His neighbor in New Orleans was Grammy-winning jazz maestro and film score composer Terrence Blanchard.
Moore teaches College Reading and Career Planning at Houston Community College's Southeast campus. Yawn. Given the option, some students would rather have a lobotomy than take such boring classes, but Moore may have found a way to make reading irresistible: He uses hip-hop and jazz as instruments and teaching tools, an idea that came from another idea.
"When I was working with elementary school students, they would say all these interesting rhymes and songs and remember that stuff," says Moore. "Then, they'll read a paragraph and totally forget what it was about. So I understood that these songs and rhymes and all these games that they're playing, this stuff has a flow. It has a rhythm. So that's how I started using songs in my class."
Moore challenged his students to apply the same skill to a different topic: Reading. Same concept, different context.
"If you analyze one of Jay-Z's songs or if you analyze a song from the Roots or take a love song from Maxwell, then you can understand exactly what that means," offers Moore. "The idea is that if you can understand this verse, then you can understand the intricacies of this language or this poem or this article."
The process is simple. Moore plays a song, puts his students in groups and tells them to discuss the content of the song. What comes next is the most crucial part of the technique.
"I also ask them to generate questions, because one of the responsibilities you have as a reader is that you have to respond to the reading," he says.
This is what makes Moore's approach unique. Most students read to find answers, but his students read to find answers and generate questions of their own. Naturally, Moore also stresses reading between the lines. He cites Jay-Z's "Moment of Clarity" as an example of a song with a meaning that isn't always obvious to passive listeners.
"I was trying to teach them the author's tone. And by tone I mean the author's attitude towards the subject," he explains. "I really wanted them to understand that in order to be a good reader you have to be very attentive.
"For instance, Jay-Z says, 'I dumbed down for my audience and doubled my dollars.' Most of them are familiar with the song, they like it but they don't see how these words can be insulting to the audience. And what does he really mean by 'I can't help the poor if I'm one of them/ So I got rich and gave back to me, that's the win-win'? Is he suggesting that the win-win means that he's giving back to the community and also to himself?"
The goal here is to encourage students to be attentive listeners and not passively accept everything they see or hear.
"When you engage in ideas," says Moore, "don't engage passively, whether they're in text or coming across the airwaves or if it's on Television or if it's face-to-face conversation."
How much of a role hip-hop plays as a teaching tool - and whether it directly contributes to learning - remains a source of endless debate. Moore claims that he's seen an improvement in his students. But how exactly do you measure these results?
"One, they're able to create and compose questions and articulate coherent answers," he says. "And they tell me that now when they listen to songs they catch on to things they never thought about before. Or they'll say, 'Sometimes, I used to listen to words and I liked the songs but I never really paid attention to what the person was saying.' So they would communicate to me that now they listen to songs and really try to hear what the artist is saying."
What about rap songs that contain offensive language? HCC students hail from various ethnic groups and spiritual backgrounds, and Moore usually tells them that they have the right to excuse themselves. But so far no one has ever walked out of his class.
Speaking of spirituality, Moore is intrigued by Rice University's decision to recruit rapper Bun B as a Religious Studies instructor. He has one main point of contention.
"For him to be somewhat of an authority and a spokesperson on the topic of spirituality, he's bringing an image that holds a host of connotations, with UGK's music and the whole 'Trill' movement," says Moore. "People will be looking for the spirituality in that kind of music, particularly here in Houston."
"As an educator, you have to be aware of this whole concept of 'prior knowledge,'" he adds. "Students have to come to the learning environment with something they can build on. They have to be able to make connections. Establishing prior knowledge on the subject is going to be a difficult challenge for him [Bun B]."
You would think that being an "outsider" on the subject affords Bun B the ease to share information without seeming intimidating.
"Not necessarily," says Moore. "Nietzsche once said, 'What one has no access to through experience, one has no gift for.' That is a very interesting assessment. For the most part, in my experience, I think that Nietzsche was right. If you don't have experience in something then you come to the situation with no prior knowledge.
"There's something called reciprocity in the classroom," he continues. "It's not healthy to just be a sender and the receiver has nothing to send back. When you think about all the cultural and historical references, you start talking about hip-hop being a voice of social consciousness but you can't connect with the people. If you can't send anything back, it's not a discourse at all."
Moore may not be a fan of Bun B as a Rice instructor, but he is definitely a fan of lyrics-driven hip-hop. His Top 5 list reflects his allegiance to the days when lyricists reigned supreme: Rakim, Chuck D, Radio-era LL Cool J, Black Thought and Jay-Z.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
"You have to put Biggie and Tupac on the list but they would have to come much later," he adds.
We noticed that Vanilla Ice was missing from the list, so we asked where he would rank the Iceman?
"Man, that guy wouldn't even get a ranking."
Spoken like a true OG.