From the Classroom

Moncell Durden: hip hop archivist

Durden’s knowledge was long hidden behind private university walls. Now, he’s sharing it with the world.

Intangible Roots homepage: primary mission.

Moncell Durden slumped into his office chair after teaching for over six hours. Soon, he was gushing over his newest project, Intangible Roots, with a new kind of energy. As he spoke, he stared across his office at one of the many paintings adorning the space, most of which belonged to his former students.

Surprisingly, Durden is not an art professor. In fact, Durden hated all things school growing up, earning nothing but Cs and Ds in high school. Unlike the dancers he teaches at the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance today, Durden never got a college degree. Dance wasn’t so much a profession as it was a lifestyle.

“My parents were social dancers, so my mother says I had no choice,” Durden laughed. “I’ve been dancing with my feet or roller skates since the ‘70s.”

Durden is now the founder of Intangible Roots pedagogical school, a “dynamic, polymathic experience” designed to provide professional development, certification, and accreditation programs to preserve the music, movement, history and heritage of Black folkloric expression. This summer, Intangible Roots will host a two-day intensive at USC Kaufman and then begin its four-year certification program via Zoom, making Durden’s teachings more accessible than ever.

Amy O’Neal is Durden’s colleague both at Kaufman and Intangible Roots. She believes the name tells you exactly what you get out of the program.

“We show you the fundamentals of Black social dance and what the actual technique is. Yes, it has technique,” O’Neal said. “But we’ll also encourage you to juxtapose this movement and this ideology against your own lived experience, to see the similarities and the differences and for you to ask questions like ‘what are my common practices in terms of how I gesturally communicate?’”

In the ‘80s, Durden toured with the Electric Boogaloos (the creators of the popping dance style) and befriended members of Rocksteady crew, a collective the New York Times called, “the foremost breakdancing group in the world today.”

While Durden finished touring with Rennie Harris’ hip-hop theater collective in the ‘90s, he was forced to lead newer members’ practice giving him his first-ever teaching experience. From there, his students recommended him as a hip-hop professor at Drexel University where he taught for seven years before moving to USC Kaufman.

Today, Durden teaches Kaufman majors and minors both movement and lecture courses on the dances born of the African diaspora: jazz and hip hop. In a world where the mainstream’s idea of hip-hop culture and dance is heavily diluted by corporate America and everyday TikTok appropriators, Durden’s commitment to relaying authentic information is the perfect antidote. Thanks to Intangible Roots, these lessons are no longer limited to just USC students.

Durden’s Gen Z students understand his expertise and the privilege that it is to work with him. Junior dance major Diego Lopez has taken locking, house and jazz with him. “I feel like his class is so rich in information and culture and just joy, overall. I had a great time learning from him—he’s a legend,” he said.

As an educator with no college degree, Durden wanted to expand his teachings beyond the dance studios at Kaufman to help fellow prospective hip-hop educators.

“You don’t need a degree for this!” he said. “You need practice. You need lived experience. And so what I want my certification to do for those people is to give them a seat at the table.”

Like most passion projects turned into businesses, Intangible Roots was born during the pandemic. Durden offered Instagram live sessions lecturing on dance simply because he wanted to—and because his followers were begging for it.

“I decided I would go live every week for an hour for ten weeks. And then I did the first one and was like, ‘What did I just commit myself to?’ My whole goal was just to help to offer anything during the pandemic, you know, I’m just doing some dance. It turns out that was basically free advertising and I actually did it for 12 weeks,” Durden said.

Not only did Durden lecture for two weeks longer than expected, but he also unintentionally grew his following from 1200 to 7000 in just 12 weeks. However, the one-way communication design of Instagram live wasn’t fulfilling enough for Durden’s professor heart.

“It was really weird because I’m the one talking and I can see people commenting or whatever, but I’m not in conversation with them. So I was like, you know what I wanna do? A class on Zoom.”

The Covid-era Zoom classes amassed 300 people weekly from all over the world. The lectures covered topics like jazz, New Orleans second-line dance and even minstrelsy and racism. After the sessions ended, people still begged for more.

During Durden’s brief time away from the sessions, he realized that the name Intangible Roots finally belonged to something. He came up with the name 13 years ago but didn’t know what to do with it.

“In doing sessions I was like, ‘This is one intensely rooted educational platform to teach people about the historical things that they don’t get.’ It was perfect,” he said.

While Durden is modest about his career and successes, dancers who are aware of his past know him and regard him as an icon. Durden’s efforts in expanding his first-hand information to the masses have always been at the forefront of his work.

In 2021, he released a documentary film he directed and produced, “Everything Remains Raw,” which follows the lineage of artists responsible for inventing hip-hop dance. Durden sat down with legends like the inventor of locking, Don Campbell, and interviewed them about their work in the moments when history was made. For Durden, it was a way to celebrate his peers.

“Yeah, those were just my friends and my teachers. I just wanted to archive it,” he said.

Durden began filming in 2003 and stopped editing in 2021—but he says he still plans to make more edits. Over the years, Durden struggled to find funding to push the movie further, so the hour-long film is on Youtube for everyone’s viewing pleasure.

“I really kind of messed up twice,” Durden said with his head in his hand. “The last two times I was with Questlove I should’ve said something but I didn’t.”

With Questlove’s help, Durden says he could get music clearances easily and the attention he feels the film deserves. Currently, Questlove is executive producing a new Broadway show about Soul Train, “The Hippest Trip,” and Durden just joined the team as a consultant.

“Next time I see him I’ll sit him down and make him watch it. The amount of information already in the film doesn’t come close to the amount of information I want to put in the film,” Durden said. “But I need that support.”

In the meantime, Durden continues to share mini-lessons via the Intangle Roots Instagram page and promote this summer’s intensive and certification program.

“A lot of these dance classes are just all about movement,” Durden said. “But there’s no context and we need context to understand why we’re moving the way we are. And that’s what ‘Roots’ is to me.”