Hip-hop Artist Baba Brinkman does for Darwin What He Did for Chaucer

"Performance, feedback, revision" is the algorithm upon which life (and lyrics) develop and evolve, raps Baba Brinkman.

Credit: Baba Brinkman / Facebook

With his ‘Rap Guide to Evolution,’ Vancouver’s own Baba Brinkman proves he’s not your garden variety rapper


Baba Brinkman is hands down the most unique Vancouverite I know. He is a tree planter, a scholar of medieval and renaissance literature, and a “rap troubadour.”


Baba Brinkman Rap Guide to Evolution
(Image: Flickr / Isabelle Adam)


Baba Brinkman

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Baba spends most of his time touring the world performing his unique literary brand of hip-hop at Fringe festivals, Shakespeare festivals and more recently at off-Broadway shows; when he isn’t touring, he calls Vancouver home.


His latest project, The Rap Guide to Evolution, had earned him accolades from no less than Olivia Judson of the New York Times and landed him spots on Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC show (see the episode here) and TEDxEast. 


I’ve known Baba for as long as I can remember; our families are both part of the yoga community at the Salt Spring Centre of Yoga and we spent many lazy summers hanging out at yoga retreats.


I wondered how such beginnings had lead him to his current project…


Granville: I remember seeing you perform at the Salt Spring Centre yoga retreat when I was in my early teens. You were a few years older with an encyclopedic knowledge of hip-hop and would put on stellar performances of hip-hop style spoken word poetry at the talent show.


How did your early musical interests influence your unique musical path?

Baba Brinkman: Well, to be honest I’m pretty much musically illiterate, in so far as I couldn’t tell you the difference between a C and G note on a keyboard or pick them out if I heard them. But my auditory drug of choice has been rap music since I was old enough to pay attention to music at all, and I’ve always been into writing poetry, so at one point I just merged my two obsessions into a single hybrid.


In my late teens, your music surfaced again, this time in an English literature class where you performed a part of your hip-hop Canterbury Tales. I think you performed the prologue. What inspired your Rap Canterbury Tales?

I guess Chaucer inspired the Rap Canterbury Tales more than anyone else, if that’s not too obvious an answer. When I was reading the original Tales at university I just kept thinking, “This is brilliant! Why does everyone think medieval literature is boring? It’s so funny!” So eventually I decided to do something about it and rap seemed like the thing to do (see my first answer).


Watch: Baba Brinkman performs “The Pardoner’s Tale” from the Canterbury Tales


Were you initially interested in creating interesting educational hip-hop or did your work flow naturally from your interests in literature and hip-hop?

I’ve always tried to be entertaining first and educational second, which I think is a very Chaucerian aesthetic, but since my interests are generally quite intellectual, I guess it’s natural for my rap to be used as a teaching tool. As long as people enjoy it, I don’t mind what they use it for.


Tell us about how you performed this piece in England and how this lead to the piece you are currently touring around, the Rap Guide to Evolution.

England seemed like the most natural place to perform my rap version of Chaucer, but I didn’t think it would lead me to rapping about evolution. That just happened because a scientist happened to see me rapping about Chaucer and he approached me and said, “Could you do that for Darwin, too?” and I thought that sounded like a great challenge.


Watch: Baba Brinkman performs “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival


Your Rap Guide to Evolution is apparently the first “peer reviewed” rap show. Could you explain this?

In a sense you could say that all rap is “peer reviewed” in so far as it is judged by listeners. Hip-hop fans are hip-hop experts, and if they like an artist, then you could call that artist “well-reviewed.” But in science the term “peer reviewed” has a very specific meaning, i.e., “fact-checked.” So a peer reviewed article has been subjected to a panel of experts who decide whether the research was done properly and whether it makes any claims that contradict other well-supported research, and if so whether it backs them up with evidence.


I sent copies of my rap lyrics to the scientist who commissioned the work, Dr. Mark Pallen who studies bacterial genomics at the University of Birmingham, and he fact-checked my lyrics for scientific accuracy, so that’s why I can say the Rap Guide to Evolution is peer-reviewed.


In your TEDxEast talk you perform a bit from your Rap Guide to Evolution about the evolution of your act itself. Has all the publicity you’ve received affected your act and made it ‘evolve’?

No, it’s pretty much the same as when I performed it for a crowd of 12 people back in February 2009. The thing that makes it evolve is not how much attention is gets, but how many times I perform it for different groups of people. I think the attention makes me evolve as an artist though because the pressure to be creative and productive increases the more attention I get. But the Rap Guide to Evolution is pretty much a finished work.


Watch: Baba Brinkman at TEDxEast


I know that you live in Vancouver, plant trees professionally, travel the world performing your hip-hop acts and have your own record label. What do you do in your spare time?

Answer interview questions.


Haha. How do you feel your work fits in (or doesn’t) with the Vancouver hip-hop scene?

I developed my skills as an artist and my rhyming style on the Vancouver hip-hop scene, so I’ve definitely been influenced by it, but I can’t really see how my stuff “fits in” here. It fits in like this next statement fits in with the previous one: And now for something completely different…


Do you have any upcoming shows planned in Vancouver?

No, but I’ll be there a bit in December, so hopefully something comes together. Basically Vancouver is where I go between gigs, a place to rest and visit friends and family and pick up my mail and stuff, but I’m not really on the radar there, unfortunately. It’s a vicious cycle: the more I’m away, the more away gigs I get offered, and the less I’m known in Vancouver, but you know what they say in hip-hop, “get in where you fit in.”