Newspaper article International New York Times

Gangsta Summaries for Literary Classics ; with Humor and Respect, Rappers Translate Great Works into Street Jargon

Newspaper article International New York Times

Gangsta Summaries for Literary Classics ; with Humor and Respect, Rappers Translate Great Works into Street Jargon

Article excerpt, and other websites are reducing fine literature to its hip-hop essence.

In 1848, a reviewer for Graham's Magazine described "Wuthering Heights" as "a compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors, such as we might suppose a person, inspired by a mixture of brandy and gunpowder, might write for the edification of fifth-rate blackguards." Presumably, this grumpy writer would have cared even less for the Thug Notes version.

That Emily Bronte novel is among the latest subjects tackled on, a website where fine literature is reduced to its hip-hop essence. A genial fellow using the moniker Sparky Sweets, Ph.D. serves up video summaries of classics in the language of the street, throwing in a minute or two of analysis for good measure. Dr. Sweets, a black man whose wardrobe leans toward shorts, tank tops and assorted do-rags and caps, sits in a somber-looking library worthy of PBS and holds forth about a new volume each week. The site's motto: "Classical Literature. Original Gangster."

In the world of Dr. Sweets (who is actually a comedian named Greg Edwards), Queequeg from "Moby-Dick" is "some tatted-up harpooner." Jay Gatsby is "a rich playboy with that mad Mitt Romney money." And the characters of a beloved Shakespeare play include "Romeo's homieos, Benvolio and Mercutio."

SparkNotes and others, of course, have been summarizing the classics for years, but their cheat sheets have merely made literature's dusty volumes drastically shorter, not less boring for the lazy and unappreciative. Thug Notes manages to turn "Wuthering Heights," "Pride and Prejudice" and other tomes into bite-size fun (the videos are generally under five minutes) while conveying a certain respect toward the source material.

The good doctor's summary of "Romeo and Juliet" may be full of unprintable slang, but it ends with a discussion of the clashes of opposites in the work and whether it can rightly be labeled a tragedy. He may dismiss the core of "Moby-Dick" as "about 500 pages of Ishmael going off about whaling" (finishing that phrase with an expletive), but he has thesis-worthy thoughts about the symbolism of the whale, of the quest and of the ship -- the Rachel -- that rescues Ishmael. "Keep floating, homies," he concludes, "??'cause somewhere out there, we all got our own Rachel that's there to save us."

Thug Notes is a deliciously executed example of a trend that has been around for years: the application of street sensibility to high- culture, high-concept areas and, more generally, any place where it's not expected. Shakespeare was getting the hip-hop treatment ("The Bomb-itty of Errors") back in the last century. Teachers seeking to boost their cool quotient have been assigning rap-battle debates and giving hip-hop lectures about this or that for years.

Use of the technique seems only to be increasing. Put "rap" and any high-culture term into a search engine and you're bound to get multiple hits. Yes, someone has turned the "Ring" cycle into "Gangsta Wagner."

A little of this gimmick goes a long way, which is why the Internet, land of the short video, is its natural home. …

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