Rapper Baba Brinkman gets positively medieval
NEW YORK—Most rappers boast about their intellect, but few go out and actually get a master's degree in medieval and Renaissance literature so they can spit better rhymes.
Then again, most rappers aren't Baba Brinkman.
The 33-year-old Canadian, who when talking is just as likely to quote from Ice-T as make a reference to evolutionary psychology, has put his life at the service of hip-hop, a form of music he sees as limitless in its power.
To prove it, he's rapped a version of Geoffrey Chaucer's 14th-century "The Canterbury Tales." He has also waded into science, tackling Charles Darwin's "The Origin of the Species," and has rapped about market economics.
"Every message is conducive to this medium," he says. "People would say, `Well, maybe in theory. But what have you got?' That's where the `Canterbury Tales' idea came about: If I can rap medieval poetry, then that will show people the boundarylessness of the genre."
Brinkman, along with his frequent DJ collaborator Jamie Simmonds, is currently revisiting Chaucer with their "The Canterbury Tales Remixed" at the SoHo Playhouse following a successful run there of "The Rap Guide to Evolution" this fall.
The show sandwiches three of the Canterbury Tales between the epic poems of Gilgamesh and Beowulf, turning these dusty old works that torture adolescents in classrooms into remarkably current and vivid stories.
"This is bigger than me; it's bigger than you, bigger than rap," Brinkman says at the top of the show. "It's bigger than fingers on triggers and bigger than gangsters slingin' the crack/That's just the latest version of an ancient story/The rage of warriors hungry for fame and glory."
During performances, Brinkman prowls the stage in a pair of jeans and a hoodie, and often interacts with Simmonds, who scratches out beats on his turntables and is prone to layer Mobb Deep cuts over strings.
The two met in 2008 in the southeast English city of Brighton and instantly bonded over their love of hip-hop. Simmonds, a 36-year-old Englishman, came from a recording studio background and was more used to spinning records to tipsy dancers in nightclubs than providing the music for a rap about behavior patterns of primate species.
"We just really connected. I really liked that it was something so different. It kind of opened a whole new world for me as well. The theater world was something I'd never been a part of," Simmonds says. "I really enjoy a challenge. And that's exactly what it was. It was putting myself out of my comfort zone."
Brinkman hails from Vancouver, British Columbia, and planted trees in the Rocky Mountains every summer for over 10 years. At Simon Fraser University, his master's thesis drew parallels between the worlds of hip-hop music and literary poetry.
After graduating, Brinkman, who was born Dirk Brinkman, has taken his award-winning hip-hop theater shows to dozens of cities around the world, including several stops at the Edinburgh Fringe in Scotland. One show often leads to a commission for another from audience members stunned that Brinkman's raps can tackle any complex idea.
"Everything we do is a tribute to hip-hop. I think I'm pretty rare in that I actually got an English master's degree because I wanted to be a more versatile MC," he says.
"I wanted to explain to people that rap is not 40 years old. I mean, hip-hop as a culture is 40 years old and the thing we call rap today is 40 years old, but rhymed storytelling is ancient. Every culture's got some variation."
In many ways, his remixed Chaucer is a return to his roots. After getting his master's, Brinkman toured with a version of "The Canterbury Tales," which by then included The Miller's Tale and The Wife of Bath's Tale. For the new show, he's rewritten everything and collaborated with Simmonds on original music.
Deciding to rap about "The Canterbury Tales" makes a perverse sense. Brinkman explains that Chaucer wrote a rich and elaborate tapestry of medieval social life, combining snapshots of all classes, from nobles to workers, from priests and nuns to drunkards and thieves.
There was another reason, too: "He's dirty," says Brinkman, laughing.
"He's the Slick Rick of that era," Simmonds adds.
"`The Canterbury Tales' are so unashamed and a totally piercing portrait of human nature and human foibles. And I think rap is that as well. It doesn't blush when it looks at human behavior," Brinkman says. "It's all on display in rap -- warts and all. And that's what `The Canterbury Tales' is, too."
In the show, Brinkman's lyrics -- performed over Simmonds' moody, orchestral score -- explain the work through a cheeky modern lens. In the Pardoner's Tale, Brinkman raps that the title character is "a medieval televangelist. He's Creflo Dollar, he's Ted Haggard, he's got mad swagger like Jimmy Swaggart."
In the same tale, Brinkman offers a way to understand the three drunken men who seek to kill Death: "Think Boyz in the Hood; think Menace to Society/Just from the Middle Ages, of the Flemish variety."
His work on Chaucer led to "The Rap Guide to Evolution," "The Rap Guide to Human Nature" and "The Rap Guide to Business," which he was commissioned to write to welcome a new class at New York University's Stern School of Business.
"Human capital, it's tough to quantify," he rapped in one song. "But without it your business will not survive/Human capital, it's tough to quantify/You got to offer people more than just a nine to five."
Brinkman and Simmonds have both moved to New York and are preparing to take full advantage of their three-year work visas. Their evolution rap will tour in the spring and the Chaucer work is now enjoying a run until early January, and may tour as well.
The two are plotting a new rap guide, perhaps on religion or maybe on climate change. Whatever it is, it won't be fluffy. "I'm not exactly drawn to small talk," says Brinkman. "As an MC, I want to tackle the most controversial, interesting things in the world."
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