December 19, 2006

The Canterbury Rap and Lit-Hop

Baba Brinkman, who has a master's degree in medieval and Renaissance English literature from the University of Victoria, has found a way to apply his scholarly work to his hip-hop artistry, by cutting rhymes from Chaucer's classic 14th Century, "Canterbury Tales." From the article:

"Ready to kill with their jagged-edged daggers drawn/The three aggravated braggarts staggered up the lawn/And without dragging on while the story is told/Beneath the tree they found a bag filled with glorious gold," Brinkman raps in a seamless cadence, updating Geoffrey Chaucer to hip hop.

For those skeptical that there really is the right kind of relationship between Chaucer and hip-hop to pull off such a seemingly unlikely task, I refer you to Brinkman himself:

There are remarkable parallels between "The Canterbury Tales" and modern rap, Brinkman said at Wellesley College during a recent stop on his tour of high schools and colleges across the eastern United States and Puerto Rico.

"Chaucer and rap are both performance-based and they're both battles of words where your proficiency gets you by," said Brinkman, whose master's thesis compared the two.

"The Canterbury Tales" was a storytelling competition among pilgrims on their way to Canterbury Cathedral, much like freestyle rap battles today.

"Before I ever read anything about (Brinkman) I could see the similarities between rap and Chaucer, especially the storytelling aspect," said Kathryn Lynch, a Wellesley English professor who teaches classes on "The Canterbury Tales."

"Like rap, the sound of Chaucer is important for the audience's experience, and they are both competitive verse forms."

It really should not be surprising that someone like Geoffrey Chaucer could be reimagined in 2006 using a freestyle, lyrical art form. This is especially true when you consider slam poetry, beat poetry, and other modern movements that sought to present social issues and themes in a direct, punchy, and explicit sort of way. It takes another leap, however, to arrive at old English literature and it provocatively explodes the wealth of directions that hip-hop can go while also giving back to their constantly expanding audiences. Of course, that doesn't mean that everyone has jumped on board with this new style:

"People have a narrow idea of what constitutes rap based on what they see on TV. Who's to say that white people are not supposed to rap, or Asians, or Hispanics? ... Hip hop is all about proving your skills. About keeping it real. Some people are skeptical at first, but when they hear me, they realize I can rap."

Academics sometimes sniff condescendingly. Brinkman performed at Harvard University to an audience that included the chairman of the English department, but Columbia University was not interested when he offered to bring his act to campus, he said.

But there are rap adaptations based on Shakespeare and "Oedipus," all part of a genre dubbed "Lit-Hop," which is also the name of Brinkman's latest CD.

Thinking about it carefully, it makes perfect sense. Shakespeare and Chaucer, after all, wove words and phrases together just as a needleworker threads a perfectly fitting fabric. In a similar way, rappers sew lyrics and beats together into jams. The big difference is that the language and some of the rules have changed, but therein lies the artful mastery. Brinkman has found a way to combine these previously disparate worlds and fuse them into something new altogether. After all, the lyrical prowess of Shakespeare could really only be fully realized by the hip-hop movement's fluid, linguistic mechanics. Or to quote the artist:

"If Chaucer was around today, he'd probably rap," Brinkman said.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What do you think of these poems?