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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.
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.”
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
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.
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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?
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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."
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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.
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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.
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.
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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.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
I'm Jeremy Hobson. There is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.