With rhymes that include The Princess Bride references and call-outs searing everyone from his fellow liberals to Bible-belt Creationists, Baba Brinkman wields good-natured wit and acerbic hipster sarcasm in his own brand of “lit hop.” He’s been using it to spread social and political messages, not to mention remixes of Beowulf, Shakespeare, and the Canterbury Tales, for two decades.
A self-described atheist, Brinkman considers the planet a precious and fleeting commodity, in part due to his upbringing among environmental entrepreneurs in rural British Columbia. A rational reverence for the natural world figures prominently in Brinkman’s work. He continues this theme in his latest album, this month’s The Rap Guide to Wilderness, which was commissioned by The WILD Foundation to promote public awareness of ecology and sustainability. “The wild side needs to renew and be pretty / You want to be green? Cool, move to the city,” he raps in “Tranquility Bank,” in which he encourages greener urban spaces to house the planet’s exploding population:
I ain't livin in a wild place, most of us ain't
Seven billion and up and gettin closer to eight
And almost everybody livin' in a urban sprawl
Word to all y'all who be goin’ vertical
Brinkman spoke with The Progressive by phone during a European tour.
How does your atheism inform your passion for science and nature?
The atheism and humanist worldview lends a different perspective, gives you a real question––what is a species, what is an ecosystem, what is our impact compared to previous species and previous ecological disruptions.
Just like asteroid impact events in history, humans are having an analogous impact just through industrial expansion and extinction events. That’s sobering.
[You think of] the irreplaceability of the species, a unique expression of the evolutionary process, and once it disappears it’s extinct. The creationist worldview says we’re all special creations of some supernatural being, and god could create them again, and the only reason [other creatures are] put here is for our amusement and support. The atheist view is we have one life to live and one world to take care of.
You have some criticism in your songs for people who have this idea of “going back to nature” that might not be realistic or helpful. Can you talk about that?
I grew up around a lot of back-to-lander hippie naturalists that believe that reverting to an almost hunter-gatherer way of living would be the solution to the world’s problems in terms of modern society’s ills. I kind of uncritically accepted that, but [I read] a book called The Rebel Cell that critically analyzes a lot of counter-culture messaging and looks at the economic side of it.
A lot of what people put forward as solutions to environmental choices are consumer choices, and elitist ones at that––saying everyone should live in the woods is no different from saying everyone should have a swimming pool. It would be fun, but it’s certainly not optional for everybody and it’s not good for everybody. That’s a counterintuitive view for those who see cities as iconic of the ills of modern civilization, but one of the greenest things you can do is go live in a city, because the smaller your space you’re taking up the more space you’re leaving for other species to try to live in. When you send food to a city it’s within reach of thousands or millions.
You’ve partnered with The Wild Foundation. What are some of their projects that you’re particularly excited about?
They have an initiative called Wild Cites, designing ways for cities to remain connected to wilderness without having to be in wilderness, urban ecosystems thriving and urban species and ways people can have access to wilderness areas and draw strength from that. The song “Tranquility Bank” is a celebration of that idea.
“Nature needs half” is a clear benchmark vision, which they’ve drawn from biologist E.O. Wilson, that 50 percent of terrestrial land on this planet should be designated to not be developed and inhabited by people, it should be wilderness. Nature needs half, and it’s not too much to ask.
They also organize conferences and world congresses on wilderness protection.
It seems like a tremendous amount of research must go into your songwriting––your lyrics are quite educational and fact-packed. What’s your process?
Each track on the album probably took a day to write, and there’s a revision process. I’ll try them out over the beat, but a lot of it is information gathering. I’ll read a series of articles or books about the subject I’m looking to capture and try to draw out the key ideas: what’s essential to understand, but what will people connect with?
Often a way to do that is to connect it with your personal experience; I’m always drawing from what I’ve been through. I try to think my way through the messaging of the song first, but I don’t take tons of notes. I think through what I want to say and then I put a beat on it.
Why are you a rap artist? What were your early influences?
I was a fan of rap since I was about 11, started listening to DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, Beastie Boys, Run DMC. I don’t know if I really recognized the level of sophistication of it the beginning; it had a lot of attitude, and that’s what an adolescent gravitates toward.
At some point I started studying poetry and thought I want to be a poet; I want to be a Shakespeare of today, a stylized storyteller and lyricist. As I studied literature in high school and university I realized it’s got a lot in common in rap. I don’t know if this is the case with a lot of rappers but I wanted to be a poet that speaks to this generation. When Jay Z writes a song he can be confident that millions of people will hear the words he’s about to say. Poets don’t have that level of influence, and I certainly don’t, but I at least can say I have thousands [of listeners].
What do you think about the conversations surrounding cultural appropriation in hip hop––the controversy over artists like Iggy Azalea and Miley Cyrus? Do you think about that, as a white hip-hop artist?
I worried more about appropriation when I first started rapping. I’m 18, white, Canadian, from the suburbs, and this was before Eminem came out. There was Vanilla Ice and Third Base and the Beastie Boys, who were as much rockers as rappers.
There’s a hip hop culture in every city, and that was the case even when I started rapping in the nineties. A local culture sprouted up because people bought the records. Hip hop culture is very much a black and Latin American cultural phenomenon, but those records sell all around the world and all these people listening––you can’t expect them not to try it for themselves. It has to be open for anybody to try, but you have to know where it comes from.
I think appropriation is real and it happens when people don’t know where it comes from or respects it. That’s Vanilla Ice, right? That’s making money off people, and creative complexity is not necessary to make that happen.
What’s your take on the division between “mainstream” hip hop, which is often criticized as being materialistic, and “socially conscious” or “underground” hip hop? Is there one?
You want to say that mainstream rap is not complex, I don’t know; the first two [hip hop] records people heard were Grandmaster Flash, which was straight social justice, and the other was Sugar Hill Gang, which was as commercial as you can get––none of them had been rappers until that point.
There’s a feeling of golden age of hip hop but I feel like that’s myopic. Hip hop has been complex and also commercial since its inception and those are warring tensions within the genre, but that’s not unique to hip hop. You always have to make a decision whether to cater to the lowest common denominator or have a complex message and risk not selling, and there are some artists who find a bit of both and those tend to be the kind I respect the most. Kanye has done that from the beginning, bringing those two ends together. He’s capturing what a lot of rappers feel. Eminem’s done that as well. But I don’t judge anybody.
I think the state of hip hop today is more interesting, complex and diverse than it’s ever been, but people turn on the radio and think it’s ignorant. And it’s true that if you turned on the radio in the nineties you would have heard Nas and Public Enemy and others with a complex social message; there has been a filtering of what’s on the radio, the message getting safer.
But underground is massive now, and you used to not be able to get a record unless a label decided it was worth producing. An artist like me couldn’t have done much until now, in terms of something that’s so different in its message and its content. There’s more artists putting out really good music now than ever before. And what’s new hasn’t been vetted yet. There were a lot of bad poets going on in the Renaissance, but Shakespeare rose to the top. If you look at contemporary hip hop from that perspective, I find it really inspiring.
Julia Burke is web editor at The Progressive.