by James Braxton Peterson
For far too many of us the worlds of Shakespeare and Hip-Hop Culture are two ships passing in the night, never to see each other or make contact in any way. Even though these “ships” share the same waters and float among similar waves of oceanic currents, any connection between them is confounded by academic tendencies toward historical compartmentalization or social affinities for rigid distinctions between high and low culture. Thus, few Shakespearian scholars know that Tupac read and embraced Shakespeare or that hip-hop dance guru Renee Harris was so inspired by Romeo and Juliet that he ultimately choreographed and produced Rome and Jules, one of the most intense re-presentations of a Shakespearian narrative in modern times. Films like O, starring Mekhi Phifer and re-visiting Shakespeare’s classic reflections on race, manipulation and miscegenation in Othello, or Neal Gaiman’s graphic novel Sandman that carefully engages A Midsummer Night’s Dream, also serve to deconstruct any rigid canonization of Shakespeare.
The point here is that the Hip-Hop Generation (coined by Bikari Kitwana and referring generally to those born between 1965 and 1984) encounters the work of Shakespeare through the lenses of hip-hop culture—lenses that include the digital information age, postmodernity, and globalization. This generation stands in full appreciation of Shakespeare’s artistry but in a context deriving from an inexhaustible reservoir of poetic folk culture in the artistic forms of hip-hop culture, including rap music, graf or visual art, dance and/or kinesthetic movement, fashion/styles of dress and DJ-ing or the art of turntablism. Taken together these hip-hop folk arts bear striking resemblance to the dramatic world realized through the plays of William Shakespeare. The drama of life, the flash and fanfare of the upper class, irony, misdirection, masking and, most importantly, language itself form the cultural currents commonly navigated by Shakespeare and so many of his rapping counterparts in the 20th and 21st centuries. Language, particularly the verbal arts as demonstrated through “graf” writing and rapping itself, has become the central component of hip-hop culture. Through rap music, wordplay, innuendo, prosody and narrative have all become ubiquitous elements of popular culture. This should not be surprising since between Shakespeare’s dominance as a playwright and the first recorded rap record, the African American oral and folk traditions thrived through the “Negro” spirituals, the Blues, the Black Sermonic tradition, and the generative poetics of luminaries such as Nikki Giovanni and Gil Scott Heron.
The Q Brothers enter here with the latest installment of a hip-hop generational re-imagining of a Shakespeare classic. Funk It Up is more of a “remix” of Much Ado About Nothing than a “remake.” It can be appreciated on its own for its skillful application of rap aesthetics onto Shakespeare’s delightful plot, but the true majesty of Funk It Up is its effortless consistency with Much Ado About Nothing. Funk It Up unveils for us how Benedick’s dramatic praise for bachelorhood is deeply reflected in the aesthetics of gangsta rap and various misogynistic impulses that remain unchecked in mainstream rap music. His expressed mistrust of women translates seamlessly (and sadly) into the world of hip-hop where men envision most women as groupies, hos, gold diggers or bitches. Since one of the central themes of both plays (men’s abiding mistrust of women) hinges on Benedick’s character, understanding his resonance with hip-hop culture is central to the connection between these two works.
In Much Ado and in Funk It Up the themes of mistrust between men and women are projected and performed through language, misdirection, lies and sexual innuendo, and are sustained through vernacular references to sexual acts and sexuality. Language operates similarly in both plays and the plot is essentially identical. Funk It Up is a faithful (and especially for the hip-hop generation—a fruitful) remix of Shakespeare’s Much Ado.
Yet just as we can appreciate the transcendence of Shakespeare’s original by acknowledging concomitant themes in the Q Brothers’ Funk It Up, we cannot fully appreciate Funk It Up unless we understand the extent to which it pays homage to hip-hop culture at the same time that it reworks and acknowledges a Shakespearean classic. One will have to watch and listen carefully in order to “catch them all,” but the Q Brothers’ script is rife with allusions to hip-hop culture. Don John’s simultaneous references to Bad Boy (name of the recording home of the late Notorious B.I.G.) and to the TV show Cops is an example of this. The judge’s Rappin’ Duke reprise will surely inspire laughter as will a blinged-out Lil Jon character portraying a cop. Various other references to or quotes of Run DMC, A Tribe Called Quest and other rap luminaries provide just enough hip-hop “insider trading” to attract hip-hop “heads” with the most discerning ears. But ultimately the most magnetic hip-hop persona in the play is the character of Beatrice, also referred to as Lady B. Only the most well-schooled hip-hop heads will know that the “real” Lady B was one of the first and most successful female rappers to make a record. Hailing from Philadelphia, Lady B is still in the business as a disc jockey for a major urban radio station. Her triumphant real life story in a male-dominated, often misogynistic music industry is an inspirational corollary to Beatrice’s character in both plays. Beatrice/Lady B’s rhymes are also some of the smartest of all of the Funk It Up rappers/players—she may just have the best line in the whole show. But Funk It Up is rife with lyrical repartee and poetic allusions. Its artistry is implicated in the false gaps between high and low culture while its dramatic brilliance comes to life through hip-hop language that readily mirrors our era even as it pays powerful homage to the Shakespearean one.