Baba Brinkman raps about evolution

When it comes to white people performing black music, Muddy Waters said it best: “They got all these white kids now. Some of them can play good blues. They play so much, run a ring around you playin’ guitar, but they cannot vocal like the black man.”

Of course, Muddy was talking about the blues, not rap, but exchange the key words in that sentence with “rap” and “rhyme,” and the quote would hold just as much weight today, especially when applied to the influx of non-black rappers evolving the genre into something vastly different from its origins.

Some would call it evolution, but is this a positive direction for the genre to take? Enter Baba Brinkman, a New Westminster MC who has stretched the genre to the extreme, filling his lyrics with subject matter that would typically only be associated with “things most likely to never, ever, ever be discussed on a rap record.”

Most well known for his rap version of the Canterbury Tales, Capilano University hosted Brinkman on January 14th, where he performed his newest album, The Rap Guide to Evolution, in what was one of the most surreal rap concerts of all-time. By the end, Brinkman had the pre-dominantly white crowd shouting ‘I’m A African,” made Capilano’s English faculty nod in approval as he recited lyrics over Dead Prez samples, and finished by providing an overhead with advice for “further reading.” A Big L concert this was certainly not.

Brinkman describes his music as “lit-hop,” although it is more appropriately categorized as “nerd-core,” a sub-genre of rap that focuses on... nerd stuff, and features artists such as MC Hawking, Optimus Rhyme, and MC Frontalot.

This evolution happened because, as rap became more accessible, the white majority increased their representation in the genre and changed the typical subject matter of rap to reflect their own interests and beliefs. As Paul Garon says in his article entitled White Blues: “One reason so many white listeners prefer white performers of their own age is that their interest in the values embedded in the blues is nil, whereas they identify quite easily with [the values] of other young whites.” For example, a middle-class white person can appreciate the talent of Nas, but not realistically identify with his struggles; this is an issue more to do with background than race.

Brinkman’s performance highlights how white audiences can identify with rap if it shares their ideals but would not listen to the genre any other way. For example, Dead Prez is a pan-africanist group who vehemently oppose white elitism and power structures through such lyrics as “All my high school teachers can suck my dick / Tellin’ me white man lies, straight bullshit.” Many of the English professors in attendance would probably avoid this type of music, yet despite this, they listened attentively when the lyrical content was changed to explain the origins of humanity from Africa.

To someone whose only association with rap is the form that Brinkman espouses at college campuses, rap groups such as Dead Prez seem like the stereotypical arrogant, superficial blowhards, and Brinkman himself purports this stereotype.

This is a persona,’ states Brinkman, as he throws up a gang sign and changes his voice to a deep, bassy, growl, before delving into a ‘gangster rap’ about survival, evoking another quote from Paul Garon’s article that says “If one considers singing in a black vocal style to be part and parcel of blues performance, one rarely hears such singing by whites, outside of a few embarrassing imitations of black accents.”

Brinkman’s imitation is embarrassing, and it’s meant to be. It’s self-deprecating and it’s meant for laughs. It’s meant to be a joke, and for the professors and college-educated students, it’s funny. Yet this behavior belittles every artist who vaguely sounds like Brinkman’s poor imitation; to someone uneducated in rap music, that means Jay-Z, Nas, Tupac, Biggie, Big L, Rakim, KRS-One; the same blanket covers every master of the genre. Would the same people laugh if Dead Prez’ were to stand in front of the same crowd, reciting white-deprecating humour in imitation ‘white’ voice? Of course not, and I think that most would feel very uncomfortable, just as someone with respect for rap’s origins feels uncomfortable watching Brinkman.

Of course, it’s not like Brinkman isn’t good. He is very good, and this is where Muddy’s quote comes into context. While his lyrics are well crafted, he maintains a consistent flow, has well written lyrics with diverse rhyme schemes, and has awe-inspiring breath control, this is simply the “guitar playin,” and no matter how good Brinkman or others like him are, they will never sound “authentic.” Yet this is the turning point of the evolution of rap music and this is why he rightly chooses to rap about something he identifies with, instead of a cheap imitation, à la Vanilla Ice. Just as Eric Clapton decided it would be ridiculous to try to sing “Mannish Boy” and devoted himself instead to playing guitar, so have artists like Eminem, Slug, Brinkman, and the nerd-core rappers recognized their limitations and then tried to stretch them.

So is this evolution a positive? It should be. Rap and hip-hop has recently been taken into diverse and non-traditional directions while still maintaining strong ties to the origins and history of rapping. Ideally, artists who use the genre through non-traditional means still promote the people who made their career possible, just as Eric Clapton used his popularity to benefit the men who had inspired him. Perhaps this is the greatest concern with Brinkman; he rhymes about evolution and oral tradition while failing to positively promote the tradition from which he came.

Regardless, Brinkman is an amazing performer, and has taken rap in a unique direction, although he is the first to say that “I don’t know how long this particular evolution will succeed.”

//Mac Fairbairn
Sports Editor

Enjoy it? Share this on Facebook


© 2011 The Capilano Courier. phone: 604.984.4949 fax: 604.984.1787 email: