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Monday, May 12, 2014

Web Series 'Thug Notes' Puts A Hip-Hop Spin On Classic Literature

Note: This video contains language that some viewers may find offensive.

Students of literature have long used SparkNotes and CliffsNotes to help them navigate the tricky plot-lines of the classics. Now, there’s a new web series that students can turn to for literary help: “Thug Notes.”

From “The Great Gatsby” to Dante’s “Inferno” these popular book report videos have captured the attention of students and teachers across the country by using hip-hop vernacular to explain classic literature.

Jared Bauer, the writer and creator of the series, and Greg Edwards, the host of the show, discuss the series and its popularity with Here & Now’s Robin Young.

Interview Highlights: Jared Bauer and Greg Edwards

Bauer on the theory behind “Thug Notes”

“It might just make things more appealing to take the ivory tower out of literature and kind of made it more accessible — almost in an abrasive way, you know? To make the point very strongly, that education doesn’t have to be in a certain way.”

Edwards on what he enjoys most about the series

“We just have a lot of fun shooting. Just the comments from YouTube, the kids really enjoy it, teachers are using it in the classroom. I think it’s great, and it’s just fun and it’s funny. I mean, I’ve read some of the books, definitely in high school and college, but some of these books I’ve never heard of, never even thought of. So when they give me the script, I do some research of my own. I go through some videos, and it just adds to it. It opens up my eyes, different reviews on these books, and just hearing it from [co-writer] Joe [Salvaggio] and Jared. They’re so thorough with this summary and analysis. It just helps to explain it, and it gives me a picture that I didn’t think of before.”

Bauer on using the controversial “thug” stereotype

“We are using a racial stereotype, but what we’re really doing is we’re inverting that stereotype and making it look ridiculous — saying the idea that, ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’ … You watch ‘Thug Notes’ and you see the smartest way to understand a book in five minutes, and because of that, it proves to the audience that, you know, there’s nothing inherently unrefined about, you know, urban vernacular, or about hip-hop setting. You know, we can explain literature in urban vernacular.”





The debate over the words young African-Americans use to describe each other burbles up from time to time. After Clipper owner Donald Sterling was banned from the NBA for his racist remarks, New York Times sports columnist William Rhoden applauded on MSNBC, then said now it's time for the young players to clean up their act.


WILLIAM RHODEN: First of all, they should stop using N words in the locker room. You know what I mean? You can't have it both ways.

YOUNG: Then President Obama gave a shout out to Seattle Seahawk cornerback Richard Sherman at the recent correspondence dinner. Richard is the player who was called a thug for his chest pounding after a game, thug being seen by some as the new N word. But wait a minute. What's this new website called Thug Notes?


YOUNG: Yes. Students have had Spark and CliffNotes, now Thug Notes. Little book report videos shot PBS style. The camera passing lovingly over shelves filled with bound books, host comedian Greg Edwards sitting Alastair Cook style in an overstuffed leather chair summarizing, for instance, F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby."


GREG EDWARDS: All these rich white folks decide to take a trip to Manhattan together. These fools arrive at the Plaza Hotel where Daisy's hubby Tom gets all crunk about Daisy and Gatsby's relationship.

YOUNG: Jared Bauer created the series with academic Joseph Salvaggio. And Jared joins us now. Welcome.

JARED BAUER: Hey, how are you?

YOUNG: And also host comedian Greg Edwards, Dr. Sparky Sweets Ph.D., he joins us as well from the studios of NPR West. Greg, welcome to you, as well.

EDWARDS: Thank you.

YOUNG: So what was the driving force behind this, Jared? What were you thinking?

BAUER: Well, a lot of things. The story, when the idea first came into my mind is I was in line at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood to see "Barry Lyndon," which is my favorite Kubrick movie. And I was joining with my friend about how, you know, the story of "Barry Lyndon," I don't know if you've seen the movie, it's a very, kind of, slow moving elegant piece.

But at the end of the day it's about a social climber who does illegal activities, who, you know, almost kills an English - and basically I was just making the joke that, wow, I mean, he's the original gangster. I mean, he's like, you know, 17th century gangster.

And this woman behind me was offended that I would, you know, use rap lyrics or, you know, like an urban setting to describe "Barry Lyndon," like, as if I didn't understand the movie. But I think that she didn't understand, and I think that there was nothing actually inaccurate in what I was saying. I was just kind of bringing an ironic context into it.

And then I just kind of had this idea that, like, well, you know, it's a new modern context, but nothing that I'm saying is not correct. So it might just make things more appealing if, you know, we took the ivory tower out of literature and kind of made it more accessible, almost in an abrasive way, you know, to make the point very strongly that education doesn't have to be in a certain way.

YOUNG: For instance, "Romeo and Juliet," it makes its way to "West Side Story." You know, people have seen the modern in the classics, but you put it through this hip-hop filter. Greg, we want to hear some more, but how much fun is this for you?

I mean, "Romeo and Juliet" have big Daddy Montague, I'm trying to find some other ones. You call "MacBeth" all geeked up. Jay Gatsby is a rich playboy with that mad Mitt Romney money.

EDWARDS: Mitt Romney, no, I enjoy it. We have a lot of fun shooting, just the comments from YouTube, the kids really enjoy it. Teachers are using it in the classroom. I think it's great. And it's just fun and it's funny. I mean, I've read some of the books definitely in high school and in college, but some of these books I've never heard of, never even thought of.

So when they give me the script, I do some research of my own. I go through some videos, and it just adds to it. It opens up my eyes and different reviews on these books and just hearing it from Joe and Jared, and they're so thorough with this summary and analysis, it just helps to explain it. And it gives me a picture that I didn't think of before.

YOUNG: Well, for instance, in "Moby Dick," the whale hunter becomes some tatted up harpooner.


YOUNG: And listen to your interpretation of Dostoevsky's :Notes From Underground," the bitter former civil servant in 1860s Russia. He goes underground for 20 years 'cause he has contempt for modern society. He returns, barging into dinner parties where he's no longer part of the crew.


EDWARDS: Back in the day, the underground man decided to drop in on some old school homey named Zverkov who's about to throw a banging party. The thing is, old undie ain't tight with any of Zverkov's crew no more. In fact, when they see him lurking around the party sipping too much sizzurp and acting a fool, they start thinking, what's this fool smoking? So escape this life, dive into a good book, and hit me up next week, homies. Peace.

YOUNG: So he's sipping sizzurp, funny, but also a very dangerous cocktail of soda, candy and cough medicine. And that brings us to the name of the website, Thug Notes. Let's just address that for a second.

And probably, hopefully, address in advance the, oh, thousand mothers and others who are raising fine young black men, who would say, oh, this is such a great idea, but why do you have to call it Thug Notes? Because, you guys know, it's taken on a real pejorative.

BAUER: You know, we are using a racial stereotype, but what we're really doing is we're inverting that stereotype and making it look ridiculous, saying the idea that don't judge a book by its cover.

YOUNG: Literally. I mean, in this case. (Unintelligible) right.

BAUER: Literally, right. Right. I mean, you watch Thug Notes and you see the smartest way to understand a book in five minutes. And because of that, it proves to the audience that, you know, there's nothing inherently unrefined about, you know, urban vernacular, or about hip-hop setting. You know, we can explain literature in urban vernacular.

EDWARDS: And with Thug Notes, I feel like we flip the stereotype. And it's educational and it's funny.

YOUNG: Well, I'm sure you both saw the rave in the New York Times, the great review of the web series, in which the writer also said, you know, as good as it is, it's educational and everything, he's a little worried because so many people are seizing on hip-hop and rap. Alex Trebek, you know, rapping Jeopardy clues, and school systems using things like the Civil War rap.

And they closed by saying maybe it means that new laws mandating that only skilled professionals like Dr. Sweet, that's you, Greg, should try this kind of stuff.

EDWARDS: You know, we have a diverse cast and crew, and that keeps us on-point and checks everything that we do.

YOUNG: Well, so for instance, who decided that the underground man, the narrator in "Notes From Underground," when he meets a woman he does the nasty with the woman? Who decides that?

BAUER: Yeah, so I mean, there are some times, for example, in the "Notes From Underground" episode, I believe we referred to the character of Liza as a, quote, "trick." But she really is a prostitute and in the sense doing the nasty, well, I mean that is what they're doing. They did in fact.

YOUNG: What are some of the ways you've gotten some of the classics across a line here that are some of your favorites?

BAUER: Elizabethan Haterade.

EDWARDS: Elizabethan Haterade was great.

YOUNG: What's that? What's that?

BAUER: Yeah, when at the end of "Hamlet" when everyone is, you know, either stabbed with the poison blade or drinks the poison, Greg says...

EDWARDS: Elizabethan Haterade.

BAUER: Right.

EDWARDS: I like all of them. We're starting to give, like, gifts on GIFs on the internet and stuff, like, we say, I feel a lot of this, like, ooh, he did. Our peeps this motif, son, people seem to really like that word, that phrase.

YOUNG: Are peeps, what is it? Our peeps this motif, what?

EDWARDS: Peep this motif, son, it's just a phrase when we say, hey, check this out. It's just in a very English literary term, but peep this motif, son, yeah. People have been really enjoying it, and it's great. I'm glad that teachers are using it and the kids are enjoying it.

YOUNG: Well, and you speak directly to some of those kids. At the end of "Moby Dick," again Ishmael and, of course, the ship, the Rachel, and you have, sort of, you add your own kind of coda, keep floating, homies, somewhere out there we've all got our own Rachel that's there to save us. You really just seem to be encouraging them in ways outside of the literature.

BAUER: Yeah, I have to give credit to that to Joe, my co-writer Joe Salvaggio. He came up with that line. Yeah, no, absolutely. We try to, you know, make it as relevant to them as possible.

And, you know, at the end of the day, Joe and I are very angst-y existentialists. So, you know, books like "Moby Dick," "Notes From Underground," "Crime and Punishment," those are our favorites, and so we always get very excited and really put that extra effort with books like that.

YOUNG: Greg Edwards is known on the web series Thug Notes as Dr. Sparky Sweets Ph.D. Jared Bauer, one of the creators and writers of the series. Thanks so much for talking to us about it.

EDWARDS: Thank you.

BAUER: Oh, thank you.

EDWARDS: Thanks for having us.


YOUNG: You know, Jeremy, it's rare that we get to play the group Flocabulary. This is their song, "Love Pop Romeo and Juliet." We thought it perfect. But parents, we feel we should give a warning, Thug Notes is pretty expletive laden. But hey, your kids will be discussing Dostoevsky. So there's a tradeoff there.

HERE AND NOW is a production of NPR and WBUR Boston in association with the BBC World Service. I'm Robin Young.


I'm Jeremy Hobson. There is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Awake listener

    NPR should not be giving this divisive garbage attention. Shame on you.
    It’s helping keep races separate, and keeping people blind to the real
    divider: class and money. The rich love to encourage the poor to fight
    amongst themselves.

    • gluv

      You must be someone that clearly never watched one episode of Thug Notes. There’s nothing divisive about it. It’s recaps and analysis of classic literature. You should check it out. You will be pleasantly surprised.

      • The_Truth_Seeker

        Doesn’t “teach” anything. It’s just more “Wonder bread” for the mind. We need to once again encourage real scholarship and deep understanding of things, not this kind of “tripe”. I’d much rather have the government offer cash awards for actual scholastic achievement (taking into account financial need).

    • Olivia Patterson

      I am a 64-year-old, white female. I’ve read every one of the books he has reviewed. I love the books… and I love the commentary. It looks at the stories from a different angle. And it’s funny, too. Devisive? No way. Only to the closed-minded will it be that way. Sorry, but I have to disagree with you.

      • The_Truth_Seeker

        Where is American education headed, then (sure isn’t to #1)?

        • The Truth Seeker 2.0

          True, and you are not helping. That’s why I’m taking over. Whenever you leave a comment I’m going to rebut. If you change your profile, I’ll find you. I know all the sites you visit and your writing is unmistakable. I’ll just look for the egomaniac telling everybody how right he thinks he is, over and over again. That’s it, you’re done, time to retire to your mother’s basement, playing video games and building castles in the air.

          • The_Truth_Seeker

            You can’t even come up with your own name and avatar!!! How lazy and stupid is THAT!!?? What a PHONY!!!

      • James Hayes-Bohanan

        You don’t find the sexism divisive? I certainly do.

      • vannest

        Olivia, I am a 63 year old white female who has also read most if not all of the books reviewed. Like you, I also enjoy Thug Notes! I agree with you that many times It brings a new interpretation to the book. Garbage it is NOT!

        • The_Truth_Seeker

          It’s “Wonder Bread” for the brain – that’s all that it is. Kids need a lot better than this if they are to compete in the world (unless they just want to be pop singers and basketball players).

  • Beverly

    It’s called creative teaching. We need more of it.

    • The_Truth_Seeker

      Creative teaching involves a LOT more than this. This is a complete cop-out, as far as education goes. How come the U.S. is on it’s way to the bottom when it comes to education? You can’t teach science and math this way, either.

  • Robert Thomas

    We have met the Eloi and they are us.

  • The_Truth_Seeker

    How come ‘replies’ seem to be turned off?

    • The Truth Seeker 2.0

      You should be able to figure that out.

      • The_Truth_Seeker

        You can’t even come up with your own name and avatar!!! How lazy and stupid is THAT!!?? What a PHONY!!!!

  • The_Truth_Seeker


    WHAT????!!!! Please don’t call total crap “creative”! Not EVERYTHING is creative and creativity requires study, knowledge, practice, insight and lots of hard work. As usual, rap and hip-hop almost never involve any of these very important components. They are what popsicles are to nutrition (i.e. empty but fun junk food).

  • The_Truth_Seeker

    ‘Thug Notes’ / ‘Gangsta Notes’ (same difference)

    Yeah, that’s going to really encourage young people to actually read any of these books! It’s just a “totally illiterate” (but I’ll admit funnier) version of Cliff Notes, so it’s not even very original!

    • The Truth Seeker 2.0


      • The_Truth_Seeker

        You can’t even come up with your own name and avatar!!! How lazy and stupid is THAT!!?? What a PHONY!!! Can’t even think for yourself!

  • The_Truth_Seeker

    @Robert Thomas: “We have met the Eloi and they are us.”

    Books??!!! Who needs books?! Knowledge? Who needs that? Studying? Who wants to do that – that’s not fun?

  • The_Truth_Seeker

    NPR seems willing to do anything to try to get a younger audience. Maybe it should just start rap’n the news at every hour!

  • Lynda

    Thug Notes is very well done. It is designed to capture the attention and minds of it’s listeners and maintain the integrity of the material at the same time. As a teacher I think it rocks!

    • The_Truth_Seeker

      So, the reading scores of your students are expected to go up, because of illiterate junk like this?

  • FalkBurger

    There’s nothing new about “Thug Notes” – y’all never heard of Lord Buckley?

  • Mort Sinclair

    Another high school English teacher here, and I love Thug Notes. More important, however, kids love it. Many have gone back to watch all the works they’ve read in school over the years and actually learned something new or encountered a different spin that helps the literature resonate just a little bit more. More, please, sir.

    • The_Truth_Seeker

      Can they write about any of what they read in a thoughtful way, or just rap about it?

      • Mort Sinclair

        Of course they can. They must read closely and write thoughtfully and analytically about the assigned reading. Why do you even ask that? I doubt very much they rap about much of anything, candidly.

        • The_Truth_Seeker

          Then why do our educational scores keep going down!? I think we rank 28th in math and science now (and not much better in reading). How many kids speak second languages (fluently), as they do in many other countries? How many of our kids want to study math and science?

          We keep trying to find excuses for our educational failings, rather than addressing them directly and fixing them. Learning to rap about Shakespeare isn’t going to fix any of this. Kids have to be willing to do some hard things and things which may not always seem like fun. Most of learning has to be done the old fashion way (until they come up with an education pill). The rest of the world is not going to wait for us to catch up.

          • John H.

            You just confronted a teacher who praised this series and asked an inane question. Why do the scores go down? Maybe it’s because we’re so focused on the tests for the scores we don’t know how to teach anything else. Thug Notes isn’t going to get any higher test scores. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing.

            I would posit if all you care about is higher test scores, you don’t care about what really matters — the ability to say you know more today than you did yesterday. I can watch a Thug Notes show and get a fresh perspective on a classic text in 5 minutes. If that gets one kid interested enough in a book to take initiative and read it his/herself, then this is a good series.

          • The_Truth_Seeker

            Forget about the “test results”. I care about the fact that MOST Americans today know little, if anything, about science, math, computers, OR literature – and they don’t seem to care at all that they don’t! They care about making money – not studying hard. They seem to think that they can do OK, without learning much of anything useful, or especially anything that might be the least bit hard.

            I care that regardless if there is a test, or no test, our kids (and adults) are becoming dumber and dumber! There must be a reason for this and junk like this isn’t going to help one bit. Kids won’t even remember what they hear on Thug Notes!!! How can you defend such stuff (I am a scientist, inventor and mathematician).

          • Mort Sinclair

            You may be a scientist, inventor and mathematician, but you are also a self-serving cynic with a supriority complex. Are there problems with the American style of education? Yes, and the causes are myriad and complex,exacerbated by ignorant politicization with a dose of assessment fetish. I don’t read any solutions from you; I read only angry, self-serving truthiness, devoid of facts. Your overreaction to this YouTube series designed to spark an interest in books is just bizarre.

          • The_Truth_Seeker

            The solution? It’s called “curiosity” and WANTING to learn new things! It’s also called “studying hard”. Learning doesn’t come easy and so far no one has found a way to make it easy.

            Without all those things, you can’t force people to learn anything (except maybe by paying them money). I’ve been around for a while and actually self-educated myself in at least half the things I know today (including calculus WAY before college). I’m a lot older know, but I still have the same curiosity and desire to learn lots of new things. I hope that will continue till the end. You can’t just drill knowledge and facts into people and call that understanding, or insight. It certainly doesn’t breed or strengthen creativity.

            I don’t know how you teach these things to kids once they are over 10 years old, but maybe if they still have a drive to learn in them, then it’s never to late to try and bring it out. There are always late bloomers and some people just need to find their own way. I learned more from daydreaming, than I did from paying attention. Everyone has at least 1-2 things they may be really good at. Not everyone has to go to college, either, but most should.

            Again, some learning just can’t be made fun, or easy – it’s just hard work. Learning is a lifelong “journey” – not a destination (and not a test result).

          • Agostinho Paulo

            Does the fact that I’ve read most Dostoyesvskys classics, Camus and Neitzsche books after watching the series count in a way?

          • The_Truth_Seeker

            P.S. Sorry if I’m pretty gruff and blunt, but we have seen what happened when, literally, thousands of scientists were too “timid” to stress the serious consequences of climate change for more than 20 years (i.e. no one listened to them, or respected them)! so, it’s time for scientists to be a little more assertive, when they have something to say that they think is important.

          • The Truth Seeker 2.0

            You’re doing a good job helping us catch up. Tell the people what you’ve accomplished. Come on, don’t be shy.

  • James Hayes-Bohanan

    I have listened to three of these now, and I was hoping to like them and even to use them. But each was more sexist than the last. Why is it OK to toss around the B-word and synonyms, even while being careful on race and class?

    Sexism is just not OK.

    • The_Truth_Seeker

      It’s just more “crap” masquerading as creative educational efforts.

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