Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 64
Since 2002, Gregory and Jeffery Ameen Qaiyum, better known as GQ and JAQ – the Q Brothers – have been using hip-hop to adapt and update the plays of William Shakespeare. At the time we recorded this podcast episode, their show Othello: The Remix was running off-Broadway at the Westside Theater. They were interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published January 10, 2017. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. “Something Then In Rhyme” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Esther French is the web producer. We had help from Alana Karpoff and Rachael Singer of the theater management company, Jeffrey Richards Associates; Angie Hamilton Lowe at NPR-West in Culver City, California; and Devin Mellor & Camille Smiley at NPR in New York.
MICHAEL WITMORE: Shakespeare told stories with poetry.
[CLIP of Brabantio from Othello:]
So let the Turk of Cyprus us beguile,
We lose it not so long as we can smile.
WITMORE: Puccini and Rossini told stories that way, too.
[CLIP of recitative between Othello and Brabantio from Rossini’s Otello]
WITMORE: And so do this week’s guests.
[CLIP from the Q Brothers’ Othello: The Remix, “Never Gonna Stop”:]
I never knew my pops
Mom was a junkie
Raised in the streets with the streets
With the beats that are funky
Concrete and metal
A child of the ghetto
Lookin’ for the loot,
But there was none for Othello.
WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. This podcast is called “Something Then In Rhyme.”
Since 2002, Gregory and Jeffery Ameen Qaiyum, better known as GQ and JAQ— the Q Brothers— have been using hip-hop to adapt and update the plays of William Shakespeare. Their first show, The Bomb-itty of Errors, ran for months off-Broadway. They followed that with Funk It Up About Nothin’ for Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Q Gents with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Rome Sweet Rome at the University of Iowa, and I-Heart-Juliet at Connecticut College. At the time we recorded this podcast, they were back New York with Othello: The Remix.
[CLIP from the Q Brothers’ Othello: The Remix, “Never Gonna Stop”:]
I spied the impossible
Caught in gang crossfire,
And goin’ to the hospital.
My ‘hood was risin’
Mama’s so cracked out,
She don’t recognize me.
WITMORE: Othello is a rapper who rockets to stardom when he teams with a diva named Desdemona. While Othello hands out favors to the members of his crew, he’s not fair about it, which leaves the rapper Iago jealous that he’s not getting his share of the limelight.
GQ and JAQ took time out between performances to talk with Barbara Bogaev, and before we hear their talk, here’s a little of the show. This is the song that introduces us to Othello. It’s called "Never Gonna Stop."
[CLIP from the Q Brothers’ Othello: The Remix, “Never Gonna Stop”:]
Mo money, mo problems.
Who really love me?
Who can I trust now?
Who can I call to say I’m safe when I touch down?
You could have it all but you wouldn’t care a bit,
‘Less you had someone you could share it with.
Share my riches? It don’t really suit me,
When all I meet is superficial party-going groupies
BARBARA BOGAEV: Well, to start off, let’s make sure that everyone listening who hasn’t seen one of your shows can visualize it and hear it while we’re talking, and—full disclosure—I’ve only seen clips, so if you could describe the show for us… Is your show an opera, a play, a musical with some talking and then rapping?
GREGORY QAIYUM (GQ): The whole thing is in rhyme and the whole thing has music, so it’s much more of an opera than it is a traditional musical. There are bigger songs in it that sort of—when a giant moment happens— it sort of turns into a song, but in between that is really where we dive into the meat of Shakespeare.
BOGAEV: Now, to back it up, after the musical, the rap numbers, you have beats that continue. Help us imagine that. Do you then recite dialogue over the beat or what? Does it continue to rhyme?
JEFFERY QAIYUM (JAQ): Yeah.
GQ: It continues to rhyme, it continues to be over a beat. That’s why it’s more like an opera than a traditional musical because you still have your musical numbers, but in between it’s still over music, it’s still in rhyme, and that’s where all the rap-ting as we call it happens. It’s we’re rapping but we’re acting, and that’s where we get to show the depth of character and play…
JAQ: Big characters, yeah.
GQ: You know, real moments that Shakespeare would have been playing as well.
BOGAEV: Can you give us an idea of that? Can you do some of that right now?
JAQ [as RODERIGO]: Iago?
GQ [as IAGO]: Roderigo?
JAQ [as RODERIGO]:
This is so tragic,
Like when I lost the Black Lotus card playing Magic.
They’re getting married. Now there’s no chance for me.
What am I supposed to do now Iago? Answer me.
GQ [as IAGO]:
You can’t know what love is ‘till you let your gun blast,
And you’ve never even spoken with her, dumbass.
JAQ [as RODERIGO]:
I’ve always known she’s the only one for me.
I’m booting down my CPU, end of story.
GQ [as IAGO]:
Oh, my god. You are the biggest nerd.
That’s the most pathetic thing I’ve ever friggin’ heard.
If Desdemona heard you spitting this patter
She’d be totally turned off, kid. That’s why you ain’t getting at her.
GQ: So something like that.
BOGAEV: You know, it’s great. Having that experience that I’ve had, I’ve seen maybe scores and scores of Shakespeare plays, and in the first 10 minutes I always feel like, “Oh man, this is hard. I have to…” It takes me that amount of time to get into the rhythm of the language and to feel like I understand it, and I can imagine in your show it’s a little bit like that, too.
GQ: Wisely said. It’s very, very true. You see people struggle the same way that we feel the struggle when we go see Shakespeare. You see people struggle like, “Oh my god, there’s a lot of words, and there’s a beat,” but they’re like, “But wait, I can hear all of the words, and I actually do understand the story they’re telling.” It’s like you know how— you have one point in the Shakespeare production that you go see where you feel that? You just have to sit back and like let it wash over you and trust that you’ll understand it.
BOGAEV: Right, you have to stop trying so hard.
JAQ: Yeah, when you stop trying and you realize that like, I’m not going to understand every single word here, but the context should be strong enough that I should be able to just like receive most of it, if I just lay back and let it hit me, you know.
BOGAEV: Right, and then you feel something.
JAQ: Yeah, exactly.
BOGAEV: I want to play some of your rap, too, and we have some clips. Here’s one from your current show in New York at the West Side Theater, Othello: The Remix, and this one’s Iago on jealously.
[CLIP from the Q Brothers’ Othello: The Remix:]
Wonder what I meant?
Wonder what I meant? I’ll tell you what I meant. Check it:
Three of the hottest hip-hop producers in town
Told him my album should drop next and that I should throw down.
Now I know what I should be.
I know what I’m worth,
But Othello just ignores me and says “Cassio’s first.”
Yo! Battle after battle after battle with this crew:
I murder mad MCs, but what’s Othello do?
He deals the freshman a fresh hand,
And he makes him his best man,
And lessens my chances by makin’ me Yes Man.
“But Cassio’s this!” (What?) “And Cassio’s that!” (What?)
But he don’t jack, ‘cause Cassio can’t rap.
He’s a poster child, pin-up boy in a land of pop
I’m half-man, half-Beastie Boy when I drrrrop.
My s*** is John Blaze. This kid is just an actor.
I live what I say, he’s just a candy rapper.
He’s anything but hot, and I get the cold shoulder.
His EP needs a -MD: “Crossover.”
Every time he make noise, I get annoyed man.
I heard his latest song and he belong in a boy band.
He make music for little teenage...
BOGAEV: There’s some great sick burns in there about Cassio: “I heard his latest song and he belong in a boy band.” So, clearly, you don’t try to stick to any iambic pentameter or strict rhythms, but it is mostly rhyming couplets.
JAQ: Yeah, so it’s just in 4/4 rhythm. We just sort of feel like, you know, perhaps iambic pentameter was the super hot rhythm of Shakespeare’s day, but it certainly is not any more, and so when we look at the world today, we look at it through a hip-hop lens. We grew up listening, and loving, and performing hip-hop all the time, and so when we look at a story and say we could do something with this, as poets, the same way that Shakespeare did that to the Greeks, we just think, “Oh, let’s put it in our type of poetry,” which is subdividing over a four-four beat.”
BOGAEV: And do we ever, though, hear any of Shakespeare’s actual lines or poetry in your shows?
JAQ: Yeah, there’s little elements left, fragments, I would say.
GQ: Yeah, woven throughout.
JAQ: I mean there’s also like, when you come to our show and there’s, you know, Desdemona has moments after she’s dead, where she keeps talking—we make jokes about that. There is a lot of stuff in there for the Shakespeare heads that know the script, because it’s a true retelling, but we’re also spoofing it a little bit, and so there’s some extra fun there if you have intimate knowledge of the original.
BOGAEV: Right, and we’re going to talk a bit more about what’s in there for the Shakespeare heads, but just so I get a fix on the music: your scenes are two bar loops, I’ve read. What exactly does that mean and is there a DJ— There is a DJ as part of your performance. Is the DJ orchestrating these loops and spinning records, or what?
JAQ: He is manipulating those loops live, so they’re two and four bar loops usually for the scenes. What we found is that when you’re creating music for a scene that has to have dynamics and go up and down, if the music is too fleshed out and is more than just sort of a nod at a mood, then it binds, it handcuffs the actor, and they can’t play light moments, and heavy moments, and do as much with it because it’s sort of dictating what they can do. Whereas, if we keep the beats more skeletal in between bigger songs, the actor can lead, sort of, the plot of the story and the feelings.
GQ: And make choices, make acting choices, and turn on a dime, and flesh out deep in the character basically as they would if there were no beat and they were playing a realistic scene in some other play.
JAQ: So one of the things that it does is it makes it incredibly difficult to perform because it’s fast and you can’t fall off ‘cause what happens is if you’re on a two-bar loop, and everything’s in rhyming couplets, and you fall back, then the punchline won’t land as the beat loops, and your body, as an audience member, and your brain naturally want that anticipation and then landing of each punchline of each line. You know, we expect it, and so if we fall behind and we’re on what we call the back half of the beat, then the thing doesn’t land.
BOGAEV: Wow, that sounds really intricate. It’s like a dance.
JAQ: It is. It’s very much like a verbal dance. On top of that we’re dancing while we do it, too.
BOGAEV: Oh, that’s really fascinating. Now, Othello: The Remix, it’s just one show in a slew of these Shakespeare adaptations that you’ve done, as we heard in the introduction from Mike Witmore earlier, but it sounds like, when you first started working together, Shakespeare wasn’t the idea at all. It wasn’t even on the table. You only went with Shakespeare because you ran out of time on another concept, right? What was the original idea or inspiration for your first show, which was The Bomb-itty of Errors?
GQ: The original concept was just to mix hip-hop and theater. You know, I was at the Experimental Theater Wing at Tisch School of The Arts at NYU, and I was very much inspired by hip-hop and theater at the time, and the initial… it was a final project for me, like an independent project, and the idea was to mix hip-hop and theater with the theme of what it means to be a boy, because I asked three of my guy friends to write it with me, and we were all rapping on the streets in New York, but we were in conservatory training at the same time. And, you know, it was like, it’s something in hip-hop, you’re like, “Oh yeah, that’s my boy, that’s my boy,” or like, “Are you and your boys going to be there?” And it just kind of like struck me as like, “What does that really mean, and how are we now not boys, and how are we still boys like when we were ten years old and playing on a playground, and why gangs form,” you know? I was just fascinated with that, so…
JAQ: But then…
GQ: But then two weeks deep out of a five-week process we only had two pages of anything, so we were like, you know, my boys were like, “it’s a cool idea and all, bro, but we need something to perform, so we should adapt something,” and then we started throwing around like, Kafka. I’m a big fan of Kafka, and then someone brought up Dickens, and then one of the guys, Red Dragon, he shouted out Shakespeare, and…
JAQ: Well, he had seen like a version…
GQ: A version of The Comedy of Errors done, but with four people, and we started translating the first stanza, and it just— it was an aha moment. It was an epiphany kind of thing.
[CLIP from The Bomb-itty of Errors:]
Thirty years ago in New York City
This biddy named Betty that was o-so pretty
Met an MC by the name of MC Egeon
Who could get him jumping no matter what stage he's on.
MC Ege would grab the mic an’ rock it,
Take the crowd, pull ‘em in, and stick ‘em in his pocket.
Nobody could knock it, he was an innovator.
In a freestyle match, you never had a prayer.
He was a metaphor for hip-hop in its early stages:
A true art form that would last for ages.
Now MC Egeon and Betty got locked up (married that is),
And then Betty got knocked up (pregnant that is)…
BOGAEV: I mean what was it about Shakespeare that clicked for you as rap?
JAQ: The most basically I could put it is, Shakespeare was using musical language and poetry to tell stories, a master storyteller who used poetry and musical language, and that’s what the best rappers are. That’s— the best rappers we grew up to, were master storytellers who used poetry and musical language. I mean to me I was convinced that if Shakespeare were alive now that there’s no way he’d be doing anything else besides being a rapper.
[CLIP (continued) from The Bomb-itty of Errors:]
Now MC E had never been good choosing names,
So without much thought, he named two pairs the same.
One he named Antipholus, the other Dromio.
The next he named Antipholus, and then another Dromio.
The next few years, times were very rough.
When it came down to money, he never had enough.
Four times as many cradles and four pacifiers,
Four times as many bottles and mouths and dirty diapers...
BOGAEV: And when you say that Shakespeare uses music to tell a story, do you mean you recognized as you were doing those line-by-line translations in college that these were musical forms? You recognized the A, A, B, A, or whatever the rhyming couplets as music?
JAQ: Yeah, in the gut like, actually…
GQ: This is Experimental Theater Wing, so I don’t think it was that heady.
JAQ: No it wasn’t, and actually, I was in my first Shakespeare…
GQ: It was from doing it, it was from doing it. It was previous to actually translating it where I felt like Shakespeare was music. It was a production of Troilus and Cressida at the Experimental Theater Wing, and it was a main stage production, and we would spend… you know, experimental theater is about like physically based acting, and six viewpoints, and Peter Brooke, and I mean all kinds of master teachers from all over the world. And so we would spend, like, hours doing exercises on like two lines of material, spending two hours with that, starting on the ground after doing some crazy physical thing where your body and your blood is pumping. You lay on the ground, and you’re in the dark, and your eyes are closed, and then you’re talked through some sort of meditation, and you choose an animal that your character would be, and you let that impulse come out physically. And over the course of two hours, you get to actually vocalize those lines, and you find out that certain vowel sounds that he used evoke certain emotions, certain consonants inform, you know, how evil a character is or not.
BOGAEV: Oh, that’s music.
GQ: That’s music, and I don’t think he was saying I’m going to use more consonants to make it evil—
JAQ: That’s how a poet works—
GQ: I think that’s like he was physically based writing, and more physically based acting his words, and his stuff wasn’t ever meant to be read.
JAQ: That’s a really good point. Physically based writing, he wasn’t writing it to be read. He was writing it to be performed, and so when he would write a passage, and similar to the way that we write a passage, you don’t go like “Is this going to be good to be read?” You say no, like you may not even read this as a rhyme right now, but when it’s said correctly, you will totally hear it as a rhyme, and you will hear, “Pieces in my puzzle I’m a press into place, and I can tell it’s working, see the stress on his face?” You know, you can tell that that guy is angry when he says that rhyme. Those consonants and those vowel sounds tell you that, you know?
BOGAEV: Right, and a lot of people don’t get Shakespeare until they see it on stage. Was that your experience, too, for you guys?
GQ: Completely, completely.
JAQ: Not me, but, yeah, G—
GQ: It was mine, until I actually performed it on stage, and then I saw a few things after that where I started to understand it better.
BOGAEV: And that’s you, G?
JAQ: That’s G, yeah.
BOGAEV: And I had read that you really hated reading Shakespeare in school, right? That you had a violent reaction to it?
GQ: I did, I did.
BOGAEV: What happened?
GQ: I threw the book down, I cried to my mom, and I was probably 12 years old at the time, so cut to when I’m 18, 19 years old, and then have to perform it.
BOGAEV: But why’d it get to you so much, that you were angry, and physical, and crying?
GQ: I had a reading… I mean they called it a reading disability. I couldn’t read nearly as well as what my eight-year-old niece is reading right now—
JAQ: As quickly, certainly not as quickly.
GQ: As quickly, not as well. I couldn’t… just it took me a long time to get through words and to retain them because I was a perfectionist about it, like I would spend ten seconds on each word, because when I looked at the word I wanted to picture it, and feel it, and do all of these things with that word that by the time I got to the end of a sentence I had no idea what the whole thing meant. And, you know, now that I say that out loud, like translating Shakespeare…
JAQ: You were always an actor.
GQ: Yeah, and it was exhausting. I mean like I was playing sports for four hours a day after school, and then I come home to six hours of homework, like my mom was like, “it should take two hours to do your homework.” So I think it was part exhaustion why I was so frustrated, but it was also like, “I can’t understand this. This is not for everyone. This is like, rich white people go see something” or, like, “want to learn some—” That was like my limited perception of what it was, but I think I felt like excluded, and that this was like some high-brow material that was trying to make fun of me somehow.
BOGAEV: What about you, J?
JAQ: I always loved it. It’s really funny.
BOGAEV: Oh, really?
JAQ: Yeah, like I mean and you would think like I was not into acting at all. I’m just a music head, and I just like…
BOGAEV: Although I read that your mom’s nickname for you was “The Foul-mouthed Poet?”
BOGAEV: I can imagine Shakespeare’s mother calling him that.
GQ: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.
JAQ: So no, my… I mean my perception of it immediately was like, “Oh, this is a code and I can crack it. Oh, I get it, like wherefore means why,” and then I’d just substitute in my head and I’d just fly through this, and it was fun. It was like a puzzle to figure out, and like once I figured out the puzzle, and there was something funny in there, that was like an Easter egg to me. And then I was just like “Oh, this is great, like there’s all these horrible things, and hilariously sexual things that my teachers would never allow us to say, and they’re teaching them to me, and, like, I don’t think half the class realizes how racy this stuff is,” but I thought that was so ironic and funny that it got me into it, you know?
BOGAEV: Well how did you both then end up in theater? I’m thinking you both came up in Chicago in the ‘70s and improv was huge then. Were you into that as kids?
GQ: No, we were into breakdancing.
JAQ: Yeah, it was more like ‘80s. We were born in the late ‘70s, so really like we were into breakdancing and…
GQ: You know, and we never had an inkling toward theater. Well actually, J did some theater early.
JAQ: But it was just like ‘cause this girl I liked was there. I mean it wasn’t that, like, you know…
GQ: But we now look back and we were making up our own game shows on a Fisher Price tape recorder, and coming up with characters, so yeah.
JAQ: Well, we were doing all these voices, and like looking back like we like had characters and improv-ing.
GQ: And we were improv-ing. It was all improv.
BOGAEV: Oh, yeah? Did you rap together as kids too?
JAQ: Yeah. It was mostly we were like, we would rap like…
GQ: We would rap songs that existed.
JAQ: Yeah, songs like Beastie Boy songs, and old school rap songs.
GQ: And Run-D.M.C.
JAQ: Kurtis Blow and Whodini.
GQ: So I guess we were rapping and doing theater, improv of some sort. We hadn’t mixed them together. And we were really sports driven, and got into, you know, theater, like my senior year in high school when I quit the lacrosse team. I was supposed to be the captain of a state championship team, one of three captains, and at the time it was an all-male school, so I was like, “You guys, we don’t meet enough girls,” so I got five of my guy friends to go audition at the spring musical down the block at the all-girls school, and I gave up lacrosse for it, and I got the part of the Scarecrow in The Wiz, and then I won best actor in a musical, and then I was like, “Okay, that’s a cool way to leave high school.”
BOGAEV: And now you’ve been invited to write shows at a number of colleges, so how did that happen?
JAQ: It’s usually through, like, a personal connection, but what happens is somebody sees our shows and they say like, you know, “I would love,” because it’s a new form of acting, and it’s also I think what teachers and educators of theater realize is that it reinforces good habits, like it forces you to not take a lot of space to do things and not be feeling yourself enough to take a giant pause here ‘cause there’s no pause to take. You have to go, and so I think educators get excited by the form because they know that their students are gonna be amped when we get there to teach them. And so we go there but under the understanding that we will build a piece, and work with their students, and get to workshop it the whole time, and then it will end in a production, and then we get to leave with our script, and all the rights to it. So for us to have, like, a way to incubate material is amazing, and they get this one-of-a-kind experience that they would’ve never got because we need that opportunity to make our art.
BOGAEV: So you guys have been at this a really long time, 17 years, right? You started back there with Bomb-itty of Errors, and now you’re back in New York, 18 years later, and Hamilton has happened, and In the Heights, and it seems like those shows, I would imagine, would make it both easier and maybe harder to get the word out about a new hip-hop show. I mean how are things different for you now than they were back in 1999 when you first did this? And, you know, do you still only need one good notice in The New York Times to bring out a decent crowd?
GQ: No, no, then we’d be sold out for the next three years if that were true, but you do need those things, but it’s much different than when we were here back then, because at the time everyone who saw it like came out and was like “Wow, like I didn’t think I liked hip-hop.”
JAQ: “I actually liked that.”
GQ: Yeah, like people would say “I actually”… a big compliment was, “I actually liked it,” and so we took it in stride being like “Okay, cool, you were expected to hate it and you liked it,” and they’re like “Yes!” But, like, for them to stay after and have to tell us that is a huge testament, so like— but that happened a lot back then, and I think that…
BOGAEV: And now everyone loves Hamilton, so.
GQ: Well, exactly, so I think one great thing… I mean there’s probably many great things about it. We’re totally for hip-hop growing on every single level, and so, like, one awesome thing that we can point to that Hamilton and Lin-Manuel has done for our work is that people now have less of a preconceived notion, something they can let go of. The public now perceives hip-hop as accessible in theater.
JAQ: For everyone. It’s not just that. It’s like, the Roots are The Tonight Show band. Hip-hop is pop culture now in a way, and so for hip-hop purists like Iago in our show, he’s really lamenting that fact, but ultimately, like, that’s a good thing for us, and it’s a good thing for hip-hop, and it’s a good thing for people bringing an alternative view. I mean for us we had to dig for hip-hop and find other people that liked it, and copied tapes, and it was counterculture, and it’s not any more.
BOGAEV: Well I really loved talking with you, and I really wish you a great run.
GQ: Thank you so much.
JAQ: Thank you. Thank you so much. It was a great pleasure.
GQ: Thanks for having us on—great pleasure for us to speak with you as well, and great questions, and we love that you did all kinds of good research.
BOGAEV: Thank you.
Yes, you know it, yes we not bob-off,
Hanging with Barbara.
Yeah, you know we fine,
Yes, it’s Shakespeare redefined.
Yes, I meant it, Shakespeare reinvented
All kinds of ways,
You know we are not on vaca-tion.
G.Q. and J.Q. doing ad-rap-tations.
Yes, that’s who we are.
Hanging out, studios at NPR, huh.
Across the way, across the coast,
Yes, you know, we going bring the most,
Yeah, ‘cause we rapping like no other.
It’s the Folger Library podcast, Q Brothers,
And we ripping it, verses stay intricate.
Yeah, it’s like a pancake ‘cause we be flipping it,
Uh, like a spatula, I rap for ya’,
Me and G always do that,
And we pursue rap
The same way Shakespeare pursued the iambic pentameter,
No doubt, I’m slamming ya’
Down like a wrestler,
And I mess with the
poetical devices too,
you know what I’m saying ‘cause we the nicest crew,
Q Brothers and we out, see ya’ at the show,
Westside Theater if you didn’t know.
JAQ: Othello the Remix, whaaaaat? [LAUGH]
WITMORE: GQ and JAQ are the Q Brothers, Gregory and Jeffery Ameen Qaiyum. At the time we recorded this— in 2017— their show Othello: The Remix was running off-Broadway at the Westside Theater. They were interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
“Something Then In Rhyme” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Alana Karpoff and Rachael Singer of the theater management company Jeffrey Richards Associates; Angie Hamilton Lowe at NPR-West in Culver City, California, and Devin Mellor & Camille Smiley at NPR in New York.
Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.