NEW YORK | Most rappers boast about their intellect, but few go out and actually get a master’s degree in medieval and Renaissance literature so they can spit better rhymes.
Then again, most rappers aren’t Baba Brinkman.
The 33-year-old Canadian, who when talking is just as likely to quote from Ice-T as make a reference to evolutionary psychology, has put his life at the service of hip-hop, a form of music he sees as limitless in its power.
To prove it, he’s rapped a version of Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14th-century “The Canterbury Tales.” He also has waded into science, tackling Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of the Species,” and has rapped about market economics.
“Every message is conducive to this medium,” he said. “People would say, ‘Well, maybe in theory. But what have you got?’ That’s where the ‘Canterbury Tales’ idea came about: If I can rap medieval poetry, then that will show people the boundarylessness of the genre.”
Mr. Brinkman, along with his frequent DJ collaborator Jamie Simmonds, currently is revisiting Chaucer with their “The Canterbury Tales Remixed” at the SoHo Playhouse following a successful run there of “The Rap Guide to Evolution” this fall.
The show sandwiches three of the tales between the epic poems of Gilgamesh and Beowulf, turning these dusty old works that torture adolescents in classrooms into remarkably current and vivid stories.
“This is bigger than me; it’s bigger than you, bigger than rap,” Mr. Brinkman says at the top of the show. “It’s bigger than fingers on triggers and bigger than gangsters slingin’ the crack/That’s just the latest version of an ancient story/The rage of warriors hungry for fame and glory.”
During performances, Mr. Brinkman prowls the stage in a pair of jeans and a hoodie, and often interacts with Mr. Simmonds, who scratches out beats on his turntables and is prone to layer Mobb Deep cuts over strings.
The two met in 2008 in the southeast English city of Brighton and instantly bonded over their love of hip-hop. Mr. Simmonds, a 36-year-old Englishman, came from a recording studio background and was more used to spinning records to tipsy dancers in nightclubs than providing the music for a rap about behavior patterns of primate species.
“We just really connected. I really liked that it was something so different. It kind of opened a whole new world for me as well. The theater world was something I’d never been a part of,” Mr. Simmonds said. “I really enjoy a challenge. And that’s exactly what it was. It was putting myself out of my comfort zone.”
Mr. Brinkman hails from Vancouver, British Columbia, and he planted trees in the Rocky Mountains every summer for more than 10 years. At Simon Fraser University, his master’s thesis drew parallels between the worlds of hip-hop music and literary poetry.
After graduating, Mr. Brinkman, who was born Dirk Brinkman, has taken his award-winning hip-hop theater shows to dozens of cities around the world, including several stops at the Edinburgh Fringe in Scotland. One show often leads to a commission for another from audience members stunned that Mr. Brinkman’s raps can tackle any complex idea.
“Everything we do is a tribute to hip-hop. I think I’m pretty rare in that I actually got an English master’s degree because I wanted to be a more versatile MC,” he said.
“I wanted to explain to people that rap is not 40 years old. I mean, hip-hop as a culture is 40 years old and the thing we call rap today is 40 years old, but rhymed storytelling is ancient. Every culture’s got some variation.”