He's teacher by day, rap artist Lyrical by night
On a cool afternoon at the beginning of the fall semester, Pete Plourde walked into his classroom at Lasell College in Newton.
To the students in his advanced special-event planning and management class, Plourde, dressed in jeans, a button-down shirt, and a sport jacket, was just another teacher.
He joked with them as they entered, instructed them to open their books, then turned on the overhead projector. His flat-brimmed baseball cap, cocked slightly to the side, was the only sign he might be different.
His students call him Professor Plourde, but in the hip-hop community, he's better known as Lyrical. Involved in the local scene for more than a decade, he's among Boston's most established rappers. And over the course of his musical career, he's seen the inside of some of hip-hop's most elite circles, opening for everyone from KRS-One to Rakim .
A speedy lyricist with a large vocabulary, Plourde raps with old-school intelligence over beats that evoke the classic New York sound. In his rhymes, he takes on everything from world events to men respecting women to his hometown.
"Promoting Boston, I spit those rhymes," Plourde raps on "The Focuz Is Back," from his 2005 album, "iNFiNiTi." "With a logo that shines like the Citgo sign . . . Now throw your threes up, Bean, and show yo' hood some respect."
The album has done extremely well on college radio. Last summer "Focuz" and "Come With Me," another single off the independently released disc, reached the top 10 of the national college hip-hop radio charts on RapAttackLives.com, which collects data from college radio stations and various other radio programs.
The rapper is working on a mixtape slated for spring release, plus a book on throwing the perfect hip-hop event. He's also a member of Mayor Menino's Hip Hop Roundtable, which uses hip-hop to promote social change. On Wednesday, he celebrates his birthday with a performance at Harpers Ferry in Allston.
Though you're invited, he won't tell you how old he is. "I've always been a bit hesitant to speak on age as a rapper," Plourde says. "Recently Busta Rhymes echoed the same sentiments, saying that rappers get pigeonholed once they're over 25 years old to believe they're actually over the hill. Yet most of the highest-respected rappers out, such as Busta himself, LL Cool J, Jay-Z, Eminem, and Rakim, are all over 35 and some over 40."
Plourde is viewed by many as a kind of elder statesman of the Boston hip-hop community.
"He's about as committed to the culture as you can get," says local rapper Esoteric, "an MC that loves the art for the right reasons . . . and he's been in MC battles and word wars before most of these newer '8 Mile' MCs grew out of their Green Day phase."
Plourde's tales of the entertainment industry read like a who's who of hip-hop. In the mid '90s, he says, he had a freestyle battle with Damon Dash , cofounder of Roc-A-Fella Records , in a New York City living room. Dash had told Plourde he couldn't accompany the executive and a young Shawn Carter , currently referred to as Island/Def Jam CEO and president Jay-Z , to a club because he wasn't dressed well enough.
"I did get his point, even though he didn't make it with his horrible flows," Plourde says of Dash, who is a businessman and not a rapper. "[His point] was that image is everything in this business, and he was 100 percent correct."
On a separate occasion, he remembers being on the guest list with one of Jay-Z's producers, David "Ski" Willis , to see Notorious B.I.G. and Busta Rhymes perform. This time it was Carter who had a tough time getting into the club -- he didn't "look like a superstar" yet, says Plourde, who was also in the room when Jay-Z recorded some of the tracks for "Reasonable Doubt."
That's heady stuff for a boy from Lowell. Plourde spent his early years there, a smart kid so good at math (another subject he teaches) he could spend his time in class writing rhymes and still keep up. At home, he practiced rapping, creating bass lines on a guitar with missing strings.
Still, Plourde learned to value education. His father, a Navy veteran and strict disciplinarian, made an early impression on his son when he graduated from Fitchburg State College with a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering after taking night classes. Plourde, then in his early teens, saw how the family's income increased after his father graduated. "I used to say, 'I want one of those,' " he says of his father's college degree.
As a teenager, he moved with his family to Chelmsford. He spent several years there, playing basketball and spitting rhymes, and graduated from Chelmsford High. Then he went on to the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and earned a bachelor's degree in business management. He also became certified to teach. Soon after, he was hired as a math instructor at Lowell High, and his career in education began.
"I love teaching," Plourde says. "The style of hip-hop I do has always been from the perspective of trying to teach certain lessons within the music."
In addition to event planning at Lasell last semester -- he's also a concert promoter -- the artist, now based in Cambridge, taught mathematics at Middlesex Community College's Bedford and Lowell campuses and at the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology. He's been teaching at Middlesex since 2000; last year was his first at Benjamin Franklin and Lasell. He's also pursuing a master's in math at UMass-Lowell.
His two careers aren't as divergent as they might seem, he says. For Plourde, there are similarities between rapping and teaching.
"Teaching a subject you don't love is hard, but if you have passion for it, students are able to feed off it much like a crowd feeds off the energy of the performer," he says.
Also, he adds, his rapping earns him the students' respect. They view him as "one of them," he says, not a "stuffy professor looking down on them."
Mercedes Garcia-Bancroft, 20, of Watertown is one of Plourde's students at Lasell. "I thought it was really cool and different," she says of having him as a teacher. She saw Plourde perform at the school's "Lyricists Lounge," an annual open- mike event. "[The students] weren't expecting it," she says. "He is definitely talented."
This ability to connect with young adults is part of the reason he is in demand as an educator.
"You have to be somewhat of a performer to keep their attention," said Benjamin Franklin physics/mathematics department head James Giumarra . "He does a good job making the class interesting using pop- culture references."
Plourde certainly knows how to handle a tough crowd. Last year he started performing between bouts at World Fighting League events. (The next event, "Winter Brawl 2007," takes place at Revere's Club Lido on Feb. 3.)
League owner Zachary Tesler says Plourde's rhymes incorporating martial arts slang won over the predominantly rock-loving WFL crowds. "He seems to be pretty in control," Tesler says.
At one such event last month, Lyrical takes the stage at Club Lido. His facial expressions are animated; he saunters around the ring in slow motion. With one hand on the microphone and the other moving in time to the syllables that flow from his mouth, he engages the audience with confidence, smiling as he works. As they applaud, he tosses CDs into the crowd.
Winter break is almost over, and soon the rapper will start gearing up for the new semester's students. He'll be back at Lasell, and if the other schools can work out the scheduling around his hip-hop career, he'll teach there again too.
"At the end of the day," he says later, "it's all about communicating what you know effectively. If you do that, learning is fun, whether in a classroom or on a stage."