Rapping to a Different Beat
Thompson says the early seeds for the album began gestating while he was working on his dissertation at USC. "During that time, I was engaging a wealth of rich materials—texts, films, television programs and art—representing and addressing the black experience culturally, politically, socially and intellectually," he says.
"Consuming that material,and understanding the importance of it historically, brought a great deal of inspiration to me, as well as pride in my heritage. I was studying the lives and work of figures like Gordon Parks, Paul Robeson, Nina Simone, Maya Angelou, W.E.B. Dubois, Melvin Van Peebles, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael and Amiri Baraka ... These young, fearless activists and renaissance men and women were literally changing the world around them with their voices, and I wanted to create a piece of art that was built on that legacy."
And Thompson knew Walker was the perfect partner for the project. "From a creative standpoint, Ryan has a very eclectic and diverse producing style and approach to music. Because he has such a vast musical knowledge base, drawing inspiration from so many different styles, he's able to bring an incredible bag of tools to the hip-hop music that we create," Thompson says.
"I especially love his ability to make records that are both beautiful and hard-hitting," he adds. "I call those his 'beauty and the beast'-style records, beautiful piano chords over drums that smack you in the face."
What hits Scholar Ambition listeners in the face is the album's message. While mainstream hip-hop largely produces music with explicit, "hood-life" lyrics, Thompson says, Scholar Ambition's goal is "to inspire young people to strive for their best selves, to achieve their personal definition of success, and to actively chase their dreams and ambitions with no apologies." In other words, do exactly what Thompson and Walker are doing.
Taking the stage wearing a rapper's quintessential stage fashion-black ball cap, shirt and pants-Thompson tells the stories behind the music, setting the backdrop for each song before Walker hits the first beat. Once he does, Thompson's talent on the mic is bringing a new kind of hip-hop to stages across the country.
While Thompson believes even the most graphic "trap music" has a place and serves a purpose in the culture, he acknowledges that "the 'thug life/gangsta' side of the equation has often received a disproportionate amount of attention and promotion." But that's not exclusive to hip-hop.
"Within American culture, stories about gangsters and criminal underworld figures have long been popular," Thompson says, citing films and TV series like The Godfather, Scarface, Boyz n The Hood, Breaking Bad and The Sopranos.
"It makes sense," he says. "Most gangster narratives deal with themes of social mobility and capitalism, which ties into ideas surrounding the American Dream. So whether you've lived a gangster lifestyle or not, people relate to those stories and are intrigued by them.
"Scholar Ambition simply ties ideas of social and cultural mobility to the pursuit of higher education and knowledge. ... So the way some rappers like Rick Ross will give shout-outs to gangster figures like Big Meech and Larry Hoover, I shout out DuBois, Woodson, Huey P., Van Peebles and Boyd because those are my influences."
And while the "lane" Scholar Ambition seeks to forge in the industry is far less traveled than the gangster narrative, Thompson believes the album holds enormous potential, just like the young people receiving its message. "I think people will appreciate what we are bringing to the table, and I have faith that the Scholar Ambition movement will grow into something truly influential."