Dean by day, rapper by night
Introducing: Henry Biggs
In “It’s Hard Being the Kane,” a song recorded by 80’s rapper Big Daddy Kane, Kane spits out the line “my vocabulary will just have you very/dazed and amazed so I fear no adversary.” No lyrics could better describe the later rap styling of Henry Biggs, currently an assistant dean and the associate director in the McDonnell International Scholars Academy here at Wash. U., an avid fan of Kane, and a man known to some as Headmess.
Fluent in three languages with an academic focus on metric phonology, the study of stress in phrases and sentences, Biggs’ has always been rhythmically focused.
Biggs’ linguistic skills attracted attention, and by 2003 he had had been dubbed “Dean by Day, Rapper by Night” by media pundits including Anderson Cooper. Donning a yellow button down and slacks, Biggs is seemingly the opposite of the egotistically flashy rappers bombarding the music scene today.
Following completion of an undergraduate degree in classics from Harvard, a Ph.D. in Romance linguistics, a masters in computer science, a business degree and a JD, Biggs is now working towards a masters in French law. Throughout his many years in academia, Biggs has also worked to develop his unsuspecting rap persona, Headmess, which began to flourish during his years as a Ph.D. student at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“My dissertation had a really sexy title: ‘A Statistical Analysis of the Metrics of the Classic French Decasyllable and Classic French Alexandrine,’” Biggs said while chuckling. “So the copies really just like flew off the shelf.”
While Dean Biggs pursued his studies in Romance literature, he collaborated with younger Californians in a number of different bands, including one named Hay Knuckle. Since Biggs was in his mid-twenties at the time, he admitted the age difference between band members made for interesting nights.
“It was very funny because I’d perform and they’d say, ‘we want to finish [the night] with your song,’ because I had this one song called ‘Bang Bang You’re Dead’ that was very hard and got a great response,” Biggs said. “But the problem was that I was already sort of a geeky old fart, so I was like ‘Dude, I can’t stay up that late.’ So, they would have me perform at the end of the first set, so I could go home, go to sleep and take my vitamins.”
Biggs continued to be successful outside of the Los Angeles scene and was signed as a solo artist with Requiem Records, a label owned by Mylene Farmer, the number one bestselling French female pop star at the time, or the “Madonna of France.”
“I remember my sort of period of superstardom when I got flown to Paris, and then I was picked up in a limousine every morning and performed my songs [in the studio] and then they drove me back home in a limousine,” Biggs recalled.
Biggs spent several months in Paris collaborating with Mylene on his premier record “Shade: Underbelly,” only to have it “die on the vine” before its release. Although American rap is commonly marketable to foreign countries, France had recently passed a series of laws mandating that an overwhelming percentage of music playing on their radios be only in French.
“So all of a sudden there was just this sort of chilling effect,” Biggs said. “We could have gone back conceivably and done the album in French, but it would have been terrible because the sort of ingenuity that you have in one language, well you’re a fool if you try and pretend you can do that in another language.”
Unable to sell his album in France and falling behind in his studies, Biggs returned to UCLA with a new shock of red hair—a requirement of all Mylene’s artists—and a determination to complete his Ph.D. After working as a night secretary, finishing his dissertation on metric phonology and marrying his wife, Biggs was soon hired at Houghton College in upstate New York where he taught French.
Houghton College was a small, conservative liberal arts school, enforcing a strict no dancing, no drinking, no gambling policy for all teachers, putting Biggs’ rapping career on hold for a while longer. After four years there, working for a time as head of the World Languages Department, Biggs was recruited by Dean McLeod to become an Assistant Dean at Washington University. Originally from St. Louis, Biggs accepted the offer, moved his family, which now consisted of his wife and three kids—eventually a fourth would be added to the clan—and revamped his rap career on the side.
“I was very secretive at first,” Biggs said. “I actually shot a video called ‘Rhythmry’ that had a certain Run DMC type of quality to it. I had a friend who said, ‘Hey man, this is how we think this video is going to work: You are going to be just a total loser geeky professor, right’—so a big stretch for me—‘and then you are going to pull up to a stop sign and you are going to see these gorgeous women and you are going to imagine what it would be like if you were actually cool and these women like wanted you. You are going to have crazy costumes too,’ so I had a Dalmatian suit, I mean every weird thing you could find.”
Through a series of fortuitous events, Biggs’ lawyer’s boyfriend, who worked for St. Louis’ Channel 4 News, re-launched him into the spotlight, and Biggs was branded “Dean by Day, Rapper by Night.” After Biggs was featured on Anderson Cooper’s show, the Associated Press requested to see Biggs, who had not performed since his UCLA days, in concert.
“I thought, well this will be interesting because I don’t have a band, and I don’t perform at night. The whole thing is kind of a myth.”
Biggs’ performance may have been a last-minute collaboration, but his music is clearly crafted over much longer periods of time. While “Rythmry” may be reminiscent of a stereotypical music video replete with images of seductively dressed women, corvettes and “bling,” Biggs’ rap lyrics reflect many years of schooling in the dynamics of language and a unique compositional talent.
“I think what became a driving force for me is how do you take this stuff that’s in these ivory towers and how would you apply it and make it actually sound good in a modern context,” Biggs posited as the goal of his rap projects.
“I remember my professor even saying once, ‘You know this rhythm sequence exists in no tradition of poetry. It’s never happened.’ Well, what would you think if someone said something like that to you?” Biggs paused for a moment. “You’d think, ‘I’m going to do that.’”
Biggs’ knowledge of the classics and metric phonology allowed him to create not only raps, but also puzzles within his raps. Perhaps the most complex of all the messages on his appropriately named album “Puzzles is Wrap,” an acrostic. When solved, the puzzle negates what the lines of sexual lyrics espouse, stating: “Don’t listen, it’s all lies, here is the truth, miserable and reviled, I’m marking time dying slow, abject and desolate and forsaken.”
Biggs’ influences range from Homer to vulgar French troubadours to Big Daddy Kane, Common and Eminem. He taught a Rap Through the Ages class for three years at Wash. U., but soon became bogged down with other responsibilities. Although Dean Biggs is well known for Headmess, he is also a respected figure on campus for his energetic, welcoming demeanor and involvement in various academic programs.
“You know, Biggs is a Ph.D., he went to Harvard, he has four kids, but he is still loving life,” Associate Dean of Students, Jill Stratton, said. “He’s pursued so many degrees, an undergraduate, a Ph.D., an M.S. in computer science, an M.B.A. and now a law degree. I told him I’d have no respect for him until he got a medical degree. Until after I said that I thought, ‘Oh my God, he may go do it!’”
Sharon Stahl, dean of the First Year Center, summarizes Dean Biggs in just a few words, “You know, he’s just a renaissance guy.”
His office shows no overtly visible signs of his Headmess years, but is rather organized and sparsely decorated, with a few law books scattered around and a small corner of his bookshelf devoted to his dear friend Dean James E. McLeod. On one wall hangs a framed medal and picture from one of the many marathons he has completed, and on the other wall rests a map of his swimming route across the English Channel. Following the path on the map with his finger, Biggs explains the bet; if he became a Rhodes scholar, he would swim the English Channel. He didn’t become the scholar, however he decided to swim the Channel anyway.
“What happened, interestingly, is it was like around hour seven, and I was like I’m toast, I’m all done, I have nothing left,” Biggs remembered. “Well, so I said, you know what, stay positive. You aren’t going to make it across, but it’s a pretty cool run that you are going to be able to tell your buds. So now that you lasted seven hours, don’t you think you could last 15 more? Just so you can tell your buds, ‘Hey man I lasted seven hours and 15 minutes.’ So then I made it to seven hours and 15 and I said, I could probably go 15 minutes more. And that’s what I did for the last five hours. I just always felt like I had 15 minutes more.”
Although Biggs retired his rap persona a few years ago with a final benefit concert, Headmess will make a reappearance this February, recording one more “silly” song and performing near Blueberry Hill. Biggs made it a point that any Wash. U. students are welcome to take part in this final video.
Whether Biggs is earning another degree, expanding the Undergraduate Research Department, caring for his family, or rapping at Blueberry Hill, he always seems to have 15 more minutes left in him.