Sunday, August 29, 2010

Free Fringe Finale

On Friday I went back to the flat for a quick nap after Human Nature, feeling like a zombie after doing three shows a day all week, and managed to sleep through my alarm. I woke up with a gasp at 8:43pm – can’t remember what I was dreaming about – and realized with a sense of panic that Rapconteur was scheduled to start at 8:45. Now, it is a free fringe show, which means I can abridge it with no “value-for-money” issues, and I’m the last one in my venue, so nobody’s schedule would be thrown off terribly, but it was a horrible feeling to know that a room full of people was waiting to see my show on the other side of town and I was nowhere nearby. This situation very closely resembled another recurrent Fringe nightmare I have, the “can’t-get-to-my-venue-and-the-show-is-late” dream.

First I called a cab, then I started calling everyone I knew who might be at or near the venue, no answer, no answer, no answer, not there, can’t help you, sorry (and good luck). The mobile reception in Cabaret Voltaire is crap, so there was nothing for it. I arrived at 8:57 to find a crowded room waiting patiently for me to start. What happened? I had arranged to meet my brother Erik at 8:20 to set up for the show, and at 8:45 he made an announcement, telling the crowd: “Don’t worry, I just talked to Baba and he’s on his way, so we’ll be starting in a few minutes. Refunds are available for anyone who wants one.” I can’t imagine a more admirable lie, and I even finished the show on time. Capital guy, my brother.

Yesterday was the final Rapconteur show and the venue was rammed. I was sad to see the end of that show, at least at the Cab Vol Speakeasy (an awesome venue), but I am now home from my two-show day, well fed, and after writing this blog I can take an hour nap with no fear of letting anyone down terribly, myself included. Tonight is the Free Fringe wrap party (right after my nap), but I know everyone reading this must be wondering: how did it go? I said at the beginning that the Free Fringe was an experiment, my first time at it anyway, and to quantify it I kept meticulous records. The feel-good answer to “how did it go?” would have something to do with the amazing time I had, the thrill of performing, the smashing reviews (five stars in Three Weeks!), the great venue staff, and the general positive audience response. Hooray! But why beat around the bush? You are all thinking “Yeah, but the show was free, so did you make any money?!?”

This is essentially a question about human altruism, which we are all inherently (and perhaps rightly) skeptical about, not because it doesn’t exist but because it is difficult to predict and therefore difficult to count on. At the same time, our daily social interactions are constantly governed by (conscious and unconscious) attempts to predict the trustworthiness, generosity, and integrity of other people, so any information about what makes us tick is a public benefit. Participating in the Free Fringe took a leap of faith, because like you I wondered beforehand: Is it a sucker’s game? Or is it a beacon in the darkness of cynical, acquisitive human nature? Judge for yourself.

Shows performed: 19
Production overhead: £600 (give or take a few quid)
Total audience donations: £1358
Daily donation average: £71.47
Total CD sales: £640
Daily average gross income: £104.16
Net income: £1398

* The missing data here is the daily average number of punters, which I would estimate at around 40-45, but we didn’t do a daily headcount. It was difficult because the venue is a bar and people were coming and going a lot.

Would I do it again? Hell yes.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Tragedy Averted

Keep calm and carry on. The fringe has an odd way of subtly adjusting my threshold of what is and isn't worth reporting, so hopefully this blog isn't miscalibrated. On Friday I began what is certainly the most extreme fringe regime I've ever undertaken, performing three shows per day, the Rap Guide to Evolution at 12:30, the Rap Guide to Human Nature at 3:45, and Rapconteur at 8.45, each of them one hour long and each of them alike in that they consist of me running a constant monologue mixing rap and comedy and infotainment. Exhausting as that sounds (for me, not the crowds, smart-ass), I've still been finishing the last show with energy to spare and have been out dancing and watching comedy shows for the past few nights. It's a bit surreal and I keep expecting something to sideswiped me, but so far so robust, and my voice is solid. Piece of piss, as they say around here.

Hmm, what else? On Sunday morning at 11am I arrived at C Central for an event called the Naked Brunch, which is exactly what it was. Food was served, cabaret entertainment was in effect, a mix of burlesque and comedy (and evolutionary rap), and the performers (a dozen or so of us) and audience (about a hundred of them) were all 100% nude. This was one of those "sign up for something crazy to test my own limits" initiatives, but when I stepped onto that stage in front of a room full of naked strangers I didn't feel the least bit intimidated, even in spite of my awareness that the cool Scottish morning air was shriveling my endowment, credit crunch style. I just worked the word "shrinkage" into the freestyle section of "Performance, Feedback, Revision" (rhyming it with "Brinkman" and "delinquents"), kept calm and carried on (got a huge naked cheer too), then hustled out of there for my Evolution show at half twelve.

What else? A number of smashing reviews came out over the past few days: for Rapconteur I got a five star review from Three Weeks (which isn't yet online), a four star review from the Scotsman, and another really nice one from the Stage (they don't do stars), so that show has been really full lately. And for the Rap Guide to Human Nature we got four stars from Whatsonstage and four stars from Broadway Baby. Smooth sailing.

Today was my day off, but the main event was the Gospel at Colonus at the Playhouse Theatre with the Blind Boys of Alabama and a cast of about forty African American gospel singers reinterpreting Oedipus as a Southern Baptist revival. The music was incredible and moving, but the surreal part for me was reflecting that just before the show I was meeting with its New York producer, Sharon Levy, whose next project now that Gospel at Colonus' sell out run at the Edinburgh International Festival is finished is to bring the Rap Guide to Evolution to New York for an off-Broadway run. I can't imagine two more different shows stylistically; today she's producing a show with forty black people singing amazing harmonies about trusting in god, and her next show will be one white guy rapping about Darwin. But on reflection I guess rap Darwin and gospel Sophocles are not such distant artistic cousins, and I figure any producer willing to make that transition has to be pretty cool.

So tomorrow I start the final week of the fringe, feeling good, with good reviews and good crowds and in good spirits, upbeat and ready for the mere 19 shows (give or take) that I have left to perform. I almost wish i had something more edgy and calamitous to report, because I am aware of how saccharine this post is coming across. But screw it. This may be the calm before the storm or it may just be a calm stretch with no disaster on the horizon, but either way I plan to keep calm and carry on, and leave the tragedy to Oedipus.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Burlesque Brouhaha

I’ve seen some shows I really didn’t enjoy over the past few days, but I’m not going to write about them. As far as I’m concerned, ostracism from all discourse is sufficient punishment for the crime of failure to entertain, but of course I’m not a professional critic or reviewer, and sometimes I’m thankful for that fact.

Yesterday I read with amusement Sally Stott’s utterly scathing Scotsman review of the Edinburgh burlesque scene. She reviews six shows in one mighty article, giving two of them three stars (equivalent to summary dismissal) and three of them two stars (equivalent to summary dismissal coupled with a poke in the eye), and the one she gives four stars to is credited with this distinction: “Out of all the burlesque acts I've seen, the ones that didn't involve women stripping were the best.” So is Sally just a prude? Is this like tut-tutting at women who wear revealing clothes on the street? Is she unfairly venting her spleen on Edinburgh’s fun-loving dancing girls, perhaps out of lingering frustration at the pay-gap between male and female Scotsman critics? I doubt it.

I haven’t seen any of the shows she reviewed, so I can’t say whether I agree with her critique or not, but I have met Sally a few times over the years and have been closely reading her Scotsman reviews for three consecutive Fringes now and I can say – in my esteem – that she usually has excellent judgment. That’s why I think her article is so brave. She must have known that she was about to draw the ire not only of a performer or two, but of a whole community, the dreaded burlesque community. When I read the article yesterday I just thought to myself “good job for taking a stand”, and I don’t mean a stand again burlesque (which I think is wonderful, as a whole), but a stand for the integrity of the reviewing profession, which is based on a (usually very subjective) combined emotional and intellectual response to a performance, articulated solely for the purpose of guiding the uninitiated through the chaos of the Fringe (because face it, you can’t see everything).

Sure enough, today in the Scotsman a second-page news feature (not even in the arts section) reported a planned protest by the burlesque community: “Burlesque dancers to hold demo at Scotsman office over harsh Fringe review”. The reason for the semi-naked protest (besides publicity)? The burlesque dancers are offended at Sally’s portrayal of their art form as demeaning to women. Her article begins “A woman with an expression somewhere between a crack addict and a blown-up sex doll takes off her bra and drops it on the floor.” And from there it gets harsher. But when I showed the article to a friend of mine who works at the Gilded Balloon, who is herself a burlesque performer, she read Sally’s description and said “Oh, well that just sounds like tacky burlesque”. Here’s why I find this situation so fascinating. Sally has obviously done her homework. She has read numerous books both for and against the new burlesque movement as a form of female empowerment (the article refers to a few of them). She went to see for herself, and she found the experience depressing rather than uplifting, and then she admirably did her job as a reviewer. I say, bad luck for the Edinburgh burlesque community, but it hardly settles the debate, and it’s hardly proof of bias, or grounds for a protest.

I can imagine a parallel universe in which there isn’t one evolutionary rap artist at the Fringe, but rather a half dozen or so, each spinning various aspects of hip-hop culture into humorous evolutionary parables. The Scotsman reviews us all as a package, and utterly savages our hip-hop skills and evolutionary knowledge, not to mention the overall poor entertainment value. It would be very easy to rally a protest claiming the review was ideological, that the reviewer was either a creationist or a racist (since the fear of a black planet seems to ironically extend into a fear of white rappers as well). Evolutionary rappers unite! But how would we be able to tell whether the reviewer had a grudge against rap, or evolution, or just against our particular take on these concepts? You can’t please everybody, but you can accuse everyone who dislikes you of being unfair and ideological. It’s a great self-esteem booster actually – you should try it.

And what do I think of the burlesque debate? I think the question of whether or not it’s empowering for women to get (mostly) naked in public is a debate best had by women. I’ve spent some time with the burlesque community in Vancouver and I genuinely think they’re doing it for the right reasons, for artistic self-expression and for the pure joy of it, the thrill, rather than for male visual gratification and easy money. Of course, the question of whether or not it would still be a thrill if there were no male visual gratification involved is one for evolutionary psychology to tackle. I released a rap song about this exact debate last year, weighing in from the (biased) perspective of a male voyeur (featuring Vancouver burlesque legend Miss Cherry OnTop). You can listen to the song here.

Oh yeah, and speaking of Scotsman features, here’s mine.

Monday, August 16, 2010


Today’s Human Nature gig was the best yet by far, despite technical glitches and an aborted ending. Sometimes the laughs just flow like wine, other times they just coagulate. Yesterday’s was pretty fun too. A family of six sat in the front row, two parents and four kids, boys of about 7 and 9, girls of about 13 and 15 (they were warned in advance about the profanity in the show and said it was no problem). Of course the parents got clowned about their fecundity, and queried about whether the mom was on the pill when they first hooked up (She’s Ovulating!) But the best part was during the intro to The Evolution of Gayness when I talked about homophobia in both hip-hop culture and in conservative religious circles, the latter version based on the biblical injunction of Leviticus (20:13) which says men having sex with men is an abomination punishable by death. But since the bible also prescribes very specific criteria for the correct method of selling your daughter into slavery (Exodus 21:7), it’s a pretty flimsy document as a basis for morality. That was my point: hate gays and sell your children, or find a different moral compass and do neither.

Since I had parents with daughters in the front row I decided to get them involved: “So, ma’am, if you should decide to sell one of your lovely daughters here into slavery, the important thing is to sell her to a member of your own nation, not a foreigner. Where are you from? England?” To which she replied: “We’re from Israel”. “Perfect!” I said, “the nation was only hypothetical before, but it turns our they are literally from the nation! So, according to your ancestors’ holy writ you can only sell your daughters to other Israelites. Do we have any other Israelites in the house? Any potential buyers?” The unexpectedness of it had the audience in hysterics.

I’m beginning to wonder if I’m even capable of doing comedy about non-taboo subjects. Last night Jamie and I did our first late-night drunken comedy gig at the Axis of Awesome and Friends. That is, the audience was drunk and rowdy (Jamie was a bit tipsy but fully functional). I was stone sober, and a bundle of nerves. Bugs on Me went down a storm, and then as a closer we did the Human Nature freestyle piece that ends our show everyday. So last night at 12:40am I asked the audience (about 160 of them) for three aspects of human nature to freestyle about, and the three they shouted out were “Homosexuality!” “Self-Awareness!” and “Abortion!” Gulp. Before I launched into the freestyle I asked them to reflect on the absurdity of the situation. When I started out as a hip-hop artist over a decade ago, I certainly never pictured myself performing for a drunken crowd at a comedy club in Scotland, and especially not a three-and-a-half-minute-long improvised rap about homosexuality, abortion, and self-awareness. Oh yeah, and make it funny.

Rest assured my self-awareness level was extremely high on that stage, but that gave me a jumping off point to launch into the evolutionary theories linked to these phenomenon, self-monitoring as a facilitator of social adaptation, the links between abortion and infanticide and parental investment theory, the bi-product and social-lubricant theories of same-sex mating, etc. And somehow I made it funny enough keep them laughing all the way through (it was a freestyle so don’t ask me what I said). I now realize that I have found my niche: I am an extremophile, an organism that thrives in hostile or potentially lethal environments. Or maybe I just got lucky. At the very least, I am learning to thrive in environments high in skepticism (my own and others’), which can be much like heat and ph and radiation in its effect on fragile egos. What a surreal night, but that’s why I love the Fringe.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Rewind the Tape

Stephen J. Gould was fond of pointing out that if you were to rewind the tape of evolution and play it again, there is little chance that humans would make the scene. If this poisonous slug had been eaten by that bird rather than this mammalian ancestor, or if that asteroid had collided with earth a few kilometers to the West, well, it might have been a canid rather than a hominid that achieved hyper-intelligence and world domination, or maybe even a reptile, who knows? Of course, if you believe in physical determinism, in physical causes leading to consequential physical effects, then a universe in a certain state of molecular position and motion four billion years ago should play itself out the exact same way no matter how many times you rewound the tape, so long as everything was literally the same each time you started. But this is not a friendly thought to us conscious entities, laboring under the illusion of free will, so we will leave it.

The point? I am fairly confidant that Gould’s notion, whether or not it is true of biological evolution writ large, is definitely true of the Fringe, and the main reason is the reviewers. Reviewers have the power to kill a great show and they have the power to uplift a mediocre one, perhaps even to give a mediocre show enough buoyancy and confidence to make it great (provided the problem was with the performance and not the material). I thought ENRON was one of the best plays I had seen in years when I watched it in London last fall, and yet its transfer to New York this Spring was scuttled by bad reviews.

Maybe a bad review for ENRON coming from a publication headquartered so close to Wall Street is akin to a bad review of the Rap Guide to Evolution coming from the Discovery Institute, but here in Edinburgh it’s much harder to dismiss reviews as ideological, mainly because they seem so arbitrary. The Scotsman gave Gyles Brandreth five stars, while Fest magazine panned him with one star (no question which review is going on the poster). Rachel Rose Reid was faulted in a three star review for misspelling the name of her show on the ticket (even though it was a box-office mistake). I haven’t seen her show yet, but come on. Yesterday we watched Jonno Katz perform his amazing show “Cactus, The Seduction”, the same day as his four star “Hot Show” review came out in the Scotsman. Kate Copstick raves about Jonno in the review, praising him up and down, while every other critic had been underwhelmed (I’m with her).

So if reviews are arbitrary, then what’s the point? Like so many areas of science, the truth emerges from a meta-analysis. One publication might give one star while another gives five, but a survey of five or six review will show which of those is the outlier. I have only seen about five shows so far at the Fringe (Mark Watson was brilliant tonight, and the Barber Shoppera were sublime on Saturday), but with such a cacophony of performers competing for my attention, it’s reviews, cumulative reviews, both in the form of publications and conversational buzz, that draw my attention to one show over another. Because let’s face it, time is short, and every choice is a sacrifice. So take heart, little neglected talents struggling for recognition at the Fringe. It might seem as arbitrary as a random person’s uninformed opinion, but opinions add up over time, just like other forms of data; it just usually takes longer than we hope, a lot longer. People still reject the truth of evolution, so you shouldn't be surprised if they don't appreciate your talents. Shame about ENRON though. That show would have been good medicine for New York.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

My Fringe Nightmare (Part One)

In early April I woke up from a familiar nightmare. I’ve been having the same recurring dream pretty much since Fringe registration closed back in March, a dream with varying specifics, but always the same scenario. In some versions it’s the first day of the Fringe, I’m walking through the streets of Edinburgh, taking things in, checking out the posters and familiar sights, and then it hits me: I don’t have a show! My poster is up, it’s advertising The Rap Guide to Human Nature in bold letters, plastered with positive reviews from last year, but as I search myself I realize with mounting horror that I haven’t written a word in preparation. I’m going to have to just step on stage on day one and wing it. What am I supposed to be talking about again? Evolutionary psychology? That’s heavy stuff. Oh man, I am going to die on my ass! In other versions of the dream I’m actually backstage, just about to step in front of a big crowd for my first show, and the same realization dawns, with the same sense of panic. And in yet other versions I’m performing, rapping and cracking jokes about human nature, fully aware that I’ve blown it and have no script. Then I wake up, look at my phone for the time, and the date, and breathe a sigh of mingling relief and anxiety: four months left to write it, no worries.

The squeeze that induces these dreams is the strange situation where venues will sign up known acts without seeing a script. I used to have to submit my material in advance (which meant the writing deadline was the registration deadline), but not anymore. Now I can just say: “I have a new show” and submit the reviews from my previous show, and viola, my name in lights (or at least in the Fringe catalogue). Of course, I didn’t actually have a new show until the past few weeks. The first words of Human Nature were written on the coach on the way home from Glastonbury back in July, and the last words were written about ten days ago, and that’s the just the fixed, scripted lyrics of the songs (about two thirds of the show). The rest of it is improvised. I detailed the reason for this late start in a previous post, and it has to do with my strange genre, which mixes comedy with science and rap, each of which have their own time demands (researching and recording).

Well, on day one of the Fringe, Wednesday, there were moments that resembled the dream and moments that diverged. Obviously I actually do have a script, but there were definitely awkward moments and moments where I was fraffing away while thinking “shit, what’s the next section again?” Good thing I have a great DJ on stage with me who holds me down like a rock. Jamie cues the records when I’m losing my way, and even tells me “Mate, you talk too much” when I talk too much, which I definitely do sometimes (plus it gets a laugh). The first show was ramshackle, but stepping off stage I at least felt assured that it was not going to be like my nightmare, that I did have a lot of great material in the show, and that I would not be stranded alone in front of a hostile crowd (thanks in no small part to Jamie on the decks). The shows were not very professional, but they were a good basis to build from, revising daily (performance, feedback, revision). And in today’s show we finally hit our stride, but I’ll save that for the next post, which will also include the most fascinating variations on the dream, the rare ones in which I’m kicking ass, even thought I have no material. These represent the El Dorado of dreams, but for now it’s late and I have my first Rapconteur show tomorrow, so I’d rather go prospecting than keep writing. The Fringe is getting good.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Rap Guide to Human Nature

Greetings from Edinburgh!

It's 2am on the eve of the world's biggest arts festival, and I can't sleep. Actually for the past three consecutive nights it has been the same, wired until 4 in the morning, then wake up at 7:30 or 8, racing with nervous energy. Given that this is my sixth (!) time performing at the Edinburgh Fringe, you might ask yourself why on earth I would be nervous. The short answer is that I have never been so uncertain of how the show will go, since this is the first time I have ever brought a show to the Fringe that has never been performed before. And tomorrow is the world premiere.

Sure, I have tested out some bits and pieces of new material, ten or fifteen minute excerpts, but never with the live DJ and slide show as an integrated one-hour whole, volume two of my "Rap Guide" series, The Rap Guide to Human Nature. And this year the show has a significant freestyle component, which is designed to draw audience feedback seamlessly into the experience. We shall see.

The main reason I feel so ill-prepared, however, is also the exciting reason I am writing to you at this very moment: I have a new album to share with you! For the past six weeks I have spent the majority of my time crashing as a house-guest of one of the UK's most talented hip-hop producers, Mr. Simmonds (Jamie to his friends), and together we obsessively crafted a hip-hop record with an ambitious scope. It is an introduction to evolutionary psychology and the science of human behaviour, but the record is not only about the scientific study of human nature, it's also about the various alternative explanations of why humans are the way we are (creationism, spiritualism, social-constructivism, etc), and about how these explanations differ, and what each of them has to say about the violence and misogyny in rap music and hip-hop culture, and how they each square up to the evidence.

As I said, ambitious. But once again I have taken care to get my work scientifically peer-reviewed, and in case anyone doubted me last time, this time I actually integrated the peer-review process into the album, with some hilarious results. Anyway, enough preamble. I am extremely proud of this record musically and lyrically and conceptually, and I hope you will give it a good listen. You can now download The Rap Guide to Human Nature for free (pay what you like), just click here.

I put the album online two days ago and without any promotion it has already been linked in a number of blogs and even been reviewed! Here's my favorite quote: "
It's actually a great album. Not an attempt at parody or a tribute, it's an inspired, groove heavy, high production values record with a wonderful lyrical touch."

I also have a new music video to share, a David Attenborough BBC nature documentary-style interpretation of the nightclub scene, entitled "Short-Term Mating Dance". If you've never heard the sound of a female elephant seal squealing in coital ecstasy, mixed with dance music, here's your chance (by the way, the video features me dancing and making a fool of myself in the club six years ago at the Edinburgh Fringe, filmed by my brother on a handycam). Click here to watch it.

And if you haven't heard my new storytelling album, Rapconteur, you can also download it for free at the link below. Rapconteur features new hip-hop adaptations of Beowulf, Gilgamesh, Kalevala, Poe's Raven, and a new Canterbury Tale with an evolutionary psychology twist, and I'll also be performing it here at the Fringe at 8:45pm daily starting on Friday. Check it out just for the amazing artwork by Sean Dove.

Finally, if you are interested in the story of how the adventure unfolds for Jamie and I over the next three and a half weeks, I am blogging the Fringe again this year at, Wish us luck, and have fun with Human Nature, the most gangster album I have ever made by a long shot.

Sunday, August 1, 2010


From my blog "Darwin on the Fringe":

Riding the train up to Edinburgh and the only way I can think to describe the mounting sense of anticipation I feel right now is with military metaphors. None of your clattering Saving Private Ryan carnage though, this is more like a sea voyage to Troy. The difference between the two wars says a lot about the relationship I have with this festival. For one thing, I still subscribe to the belief that the Fringe represents an oasis of meritocracy in a world beset by various forms of nepotism and arbitrariness. Your odds of surviving D-day as a foot soldier were virtually the same as playing Russian Roulette with several chambers loaded. On the other hand the siege of Troy was primarily a skills competition, at least if Homer is to be believed. Achilles and Hector don’t end up facing each other by accident; it’s because they both defeated every adversary up until that point. Isn’t that how we all want the world to be? Not a battleground, but a place where ability counts for more than class, race, gender, etc, and especially more than luck. Even people who are low in skill should want this. For instance, I can’t play the piano, but I’d rather listen to piano players who have gained recognition by practicing and performing and refining their skills, rather than players who were promoted by more arbitrary or Machiavellian means.

At the beginning of the Fringe, reputation is one of the only assets shows have (apart from the latent quality of the production, which on its own is not enough to get people in). Reputation will bring punters in to at least check out Jim Jeffries and Robin Ince and the Pajama Men. But if they haven’t put the work in to capitalize on their reputations, then the story will be a Busta Rhymes-esque “Legend of the Fall Off”. On the other hand, Edinburgh loves an underdog success story, the show with no reputation at the start of the festival, and a sell-out buzz by the end. Perhaps it’s the closest thing in the British Isles to the American Dream, the dream of prosperity as a direct result of effort and ability, rather than heredity. Unfortunately that was my story in 2004 when I came to the Fringe unknown with the Rap Canterbury Tales. Now I’m about to embark on my sixth Fringe, so reputation will sell me some tickets, just enough for judgment to be passed, but no more. I’m no Jim Jeffries (Achilles? Leonidas?), more of a self-styled Odysseus type, the trickster, a bit too clever for his own good (judging by the critical response last year). Not enough of a rep to strike fear into an adversary’s heart, but enough to give him (or her) pause, a flicker of recognition. The train speeds past Durham, the warrior with a middling reputation crouches in the hull of the Greek ship, feeling the sea spray and imagining the battle to come. Of course, when I get there it won’t be battle, it will be moving into the flat, grocery shopping, sorting out internet, doing my tech-in, admin meetings, blah, the pitching of tents on the Trojan beach. Here’s to glory!