Players & playaz

Hip hop today is a far cry from its underground roots in the ’70s; these days it’s a bona fide consumer industry, spawning almost as many post-adolescent millionaires as the NBA. The genre’s gradual integration into the American mainstream has been met with both open arms and outrage over perceived commercial exploitation. The rap-artist persona has been co-opted into successful TV sitcoms, cartoons and even a beverage, with Nelly’s controversial “Pimpjuice.”

Some say hip hop has become a game.

But Detroit schoolteacher Wil Seegars is taking that sentiment literally, with his newly created “Hip Hop Game of Skillz” board game. Based on trivia that explores both contemporary rap and the music’s origins, Seegars says the product is educational and enjoyable.

“This started out as a thematic unit for me to do student teaching when I was in undergraduate,” says Seegars, an instructor at University Preparatory Academy. “It grew into something. I was really doing nothing but being a fan of hip hop and trying to pass this on to young people.”

With degrees in history, English and leadership education, Seegars says he felt equipped to develop the board game, which he calls the first of its kind. A few similar concepts have already been produced, such as New York activist and lecturer David Olu’s “Hip Hop Hall of Fame” board game, but Seegars says his game, unlike the others, combines elements of knowledge, talent and player interaction.

Similar to Monopoly, Skillz players land on squares as they move around a board shaped like a CD, and pick cards with trivia questions about rap music, hip-hop history and related subjects. The game also calls for spontaneous challenges between players, such as who can come up with the most rhyming words within a designated time period. Other trivia includes defining rap-related slang, such as “bling” (which, by this point, even granny knows), or improvising verbal sounds and rhythms — better known as “beat boxing.”

Players’ memory skills are also tested, with challenges to complete famous rap anthems from various eras. For instance, can you finish this line from Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “My Posse’s on Broadway”?

“Me and Kid Sensation at home away from home …”

(The answer: “in the black Benz limo with the cellular phone.”)

But those playing the game can’t simply rely on an extensive memory of music videos and lyrics to win. There are also questions about early legends — such as the Last Poets of the spoken-word performance genre that preceded rap.

“Hip hop is my story and I’m just embracing it in its richness,” Seegars says. “I’m not just talking about the deaths of Tupac and Biggie.”

Seegars says his experience performing locally at open mic sets for poets and rappers was an asset, but in developing the game, he pulled together focus groups. They included a professional DJ, an Ivy League graduate and others who provided feedback about content, strategy and the degree of difficulty. Participants met at Seegars’ home, where they played while he observed.

The Hip Hop Game of Skillz is in the production of its first 2,500 units, the collector’s edition, and can be ordered through Out of concern that it be received as a genuine contribution to the culture, rather than a financially driven product, Seegars plans to go to retailers gradually.

“We don’t want it to lose credibility, and if it’s mass-produced, people will ask questions,” he says.

Erik Perry, founder of Detroit’s Kaboodlz Entertainment Group, which books and promotes rap concerts worldwide, calls the game ambitious.

“It must educate and teach the truth about hip-hop culture,” Perry says. “It can be a hit or miss if it only deals with today’s hip-hop culture. If it deals with the truth I can see it selling in bookstores, record shops, boutiques and, most definitely, an online Web site would be a hit.”

Seegars says the response from his junior high students has been positive.

“I like how new generations can learn about it from the generations before them,” says Alexander Ussery, a rap fan and student of Seegars.

While trends in hip hop will wax and wane, Seegars says his game will stand the test of time. And with the genre now spanning three decades, Seegars hopes his game will help bridge the age gap between the roots of rap and today’s young fans — like Seegars’ students.

“They look at me at 34 and see me as an old, washed-up guy,” Seegars says with a laugh, “and they look at L.L. Cool J — who’s two years older than me — and still see him as what’s hot in hip hop.”

Eddie B. Allen is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]