How would you describe what you do? Is your goal to educate, entertain, both?
I've variously described it as 'Lit-hop' and 'peer-reviewed rap' and 'geek rap'. Call it what you want, just donít call it nerd-core! My goal is always primarily to entertain, an aesthetic I learned from Chaucer. If you have no audience, you have no ability to communicate, period. So itís necessary to be entertaining first and foremost, and once youíve got their attention, then you can do all kinds of interesting things, be shocking, be provocative, and yes, slip them some knowledge.
Youíre very omnivorous in your interests. What's drawn you to the subjects youíve covered?
I guess my primary fascination is the question: what endures and why? Virtuosity in the performing arts, insight in literature, empirical verifiability in the sciences, and genetic proliferation in the biological world are all answers to the same question when applied to different spheres.
I believe you've said you view hip-hop as being a contemporary extension of the oral poetic tradition of the past. Which is more powerful the voice or the printed word?
The voice offers a shared experience, a group-level thrill, while the page offers an intimate one-to-one connection between the author and reader. The page canít deliver the catharsis of a crowd laughing or singing together and feeling that union, but the page is a far more expedient communicator of information, so it depends on what kind of power you mean. Darwin could have tried to explain natural selection to each person he met for his entire adult life and he may never have made a dent in natural theology, but his book was a game changer.
How do you go about shaping your material? How much research do you do for each show?
I do as much research as I have time for in the intervening period between the moment I commit to the project and the moment I first have to perform it. I can be very focused and productive once I decide to do something, but between projects I just graze on various books. To give you a sense of proportion, I decided to do The Rap Guide to Human Nature in September 2009, researched it continuously until June 2010, and then wrote the script and recorded the album in June and July so that it was ready to perform in August for the Fringe. Rapconteur I wrote on the side, almost as a form of escapism from the science. For Rapconteur I didnít read much secondary literature, just multiple translations of each text along with the introductions, glossaries, etc.
Do audiences Ďgetí what youíre trying to do? Who tends to come to see your shows? Hip-hop fans? Chaucer enthusiasts?
I get both hip-hop fans and Chaucer enthusiasts in, but the common denominator is that I get open-minded people in. There are definitely Chaucer enthusiasts who feel like Iím bastardizing something precious, and likewise there must be hip-hop fans who consider me a novelty act, but if people give me a chance and come and witness a performance, I think Iíve got a pretty good chance of converting them. The open-mindedness is simply what gets them through the door.
Are there any further areas youíd like to explore through rap?
Global warming, health care policy, religion, gender politics. As long as itís controversial Iím interested.
Baba Brinkman will be at Greenwich Theatre, London, 7-8 September, 2010, with The Rap Canterbury Tales and Other Stories