Having premiered their latest production Othello: The Remix at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, there can be little doubt that the Chicago-based hip hop masters the Q Brothers, have staked a solid claim on contemporary adaptations of the Bard’s work. JQ and GQ have travelled the world with their award-winning ad-rap-tations, and were full of many more anecdotes than could possibly fit in this article. They are also pioneers of replacing the word ‘motherfucker’ with ‘sludsucker’.
When the conference call was first put through, it seemed like one of the Q Brothers had been lost in the ether. Though he was eventually connected, I was a little disappointed. Surely this was a prime opportunity to sow dissent in the ranks and have one brother dish the dirt on the other, laying the groundwork for a spectacular onstage breakdown at the height of the Sydney Festival come January. It would have been fittingly Shakespearean, and perhaps something that hip hop naysayers may have found solace in. That’s the kind of cultural collision the Q Brothers are very aware of.
“By using Shakespeare, we’re probably bringing hip hop to people who don’t know hip hop at least as much, if not more, than we are bringing Shakespeare to people who don’t know Shakespeare,” one of the brothers tells me. Which brother exactly, is difficult to pinpoint. I’m going to go with JQ. “People can hate on hip hop and not know about it, not understand it, and we’re making them look at it in a new light, which I think is maybe more important. It wasn’t exactly our intention – the only idea we had was to tell a cool story and to tell it the way we knew how.”
And what a story. Many will be familiar with the tragedy of Shakespeare’s Othello, but you can guarantee they’ve never seen it like this. A blend of rap, musical theatre and traditional text, the Q Brothers have delved deep into Shakespeare’s language to present something as stirring as the original, but with a strong and contemporary voice.
“The impetus was to do a piece of theatre that was built from hip hop and rap, this music that we’d grown up with and still both love,” GQ says. “Once we started messing with [the play], it made complete sense in terms of what Shakespeare was doing with language, with poetry, storytelling, with music. That’s really what we’re doing in hip hop. Language, poetry, storytelling and music. It became very apparent very quickly that these two forms not only lend themselves to each other but are essentially the same.”
He makes a fine point, and you can imagine having old stories retold with fresh dialogue is just the kind of thing the Bard himself would approve of. “It’s kind of the evolution of what Shakespeare was doing,” GQ says. “The more we worked on it, the clearer that was. It’s easy to believe that today, Shakespeare would have been a rapper. We know there are lot of people who think that’s some obscene joke…” “Or that we’re just saying it for shock value,” JQ adds. “When really, it’s completely accurate.”
The Q Brothers’ dedication to their adaptations is testament to this belief. This is no idle gimmick, but hard and thoughtful work. “[Our scripts] come out over the course of 20 to 40 drafts over 12 to 18 months. Othello: The Remix took about six, eight months. We do a line for line translation of every single line in the play. It’s still everything that is said by every character, except it all happens to rhyme now. But that’s just the first step. We’ll have the OED out, the internet running, we’ll have two different published versions of the play, and just go to town for two to three weeks of not much sleep to make that first draft happen.”
I tell them this sounds exhausting beyond belief. GQ laughs. “We’re just trying to be entertaining, and to tell a good story in a new way. That’s all.”
BY JUSTIN NORRIS