Homies in Verona, Gangstas in Elsinore

NEIL GENZLINGER / New York Times News Service

Published Jan 25, 2014 at 05:11PM

In 1848, a reviewer for Graham’s Magazine described “Wuthering Heights” as “a compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors, such as we might suppose a person, inspired by a mixture of brandy and gunpowder, might write for the edification of fifth-rate blackguards.” Presumably, this grumpy writer would have cared even less for the Thug Notes version.

That Emily Brontë novel is among the latest subjects tackled on Thug-Notes.com, a website where fine literature is reduced to its hip-hop essence. A genial fellow using the moniker Sparky Sweets, Ph.D. serves up video summaries of classics in the language of the street, throwing in a minute or two of analysis for good measure. Dr. Sweets, a black man whose wardrobe leans toward shorts, tank tops and assorted do-rags and caps, sits in a somber-looking library worthy of PBS and holds forth about a new volume each week. The site’s motto: “Classical Literature. Original Gangster.”

In the world of Dr. Sweets (who is actually a comedian named Greg Edwards), Queequeg from “Moby-Dick” is “some tatted-up harpooner.” Jay Gatsby is “a rich playboy with that mad Mitt Romney money.” And the characters of a beloved Shakespeare play include “Romeo’s homieos, Benvolio and Mercutio.”

SparkNotes and others, of course, have been summarizing the classics for years, but their cheat sheets have merely made literature’s dusty volumes drastically shorter, not less boring for the lazy and unappreciative. Edwards, speaking in character as Dr. Sweets in an interview with The Tampa Bay Times last fall, described Thug Notes as “my way of trivializing academia’s attempt at making literature exclusionary by showing that even highbrow academic concepts can be communicated in a clear and open fashion.”

The site manages to turn “Wuthering Heights,” “Pride and Prejudice” and other tomes into bite-size fun (the videos are generally under five minutes) while conveying a certain respect toward the source material.

The good doctor’s summary of “Romeo and Juliet” may be full of unpublishable slang, but it ends with a discussion of the clashes of opposites in the work and whether it can rightly be labeled a tragedy. He may dismiss the core of “Moby-Dick” as “about 500 pages of Ishmael going off about whaling” (finishing that phrase with an expletive), but he has thesis-worthy thoughts about the symbolism of the whale, of the quest and of the ship - the Rachel - that rescues Ishmael.

“Keep floating, homies,” he concludes, “‘cause somewhere out there, we all got our own Rachel that’s there to save us.”

Thug Notes is a deliciously executed example of a trend that has been around for years: the application of street sensibility to high-culture, high-concept areas and, more generally, any place where it’s not expected. Shakespeare was getting the hip-hop treatment (“The Bomb-itty of Errors”) back in the last century. Teachers seeking to boost their cool quotient have been assigning rap-battle debates and giving hip-hop lectures about this or that for years.

Use of the technique seems to be increasing. Put “rap” and any high-culture term into a search engine and you’re bound to get multiple hits. Yes, someone has turned the “Ring” cycle into “Gangsta Wagner.”

A little of this gimmick goes a long way, which is why the Internet, land of the short video, is its natural home. And some of the current practitioners are getting the formula just right.

The artist Jayson Musson’s “Art Thoughtz” videos, made by his alter ego, Hennessy Youngman, have taken up subjects like Damien Hirst’s worldwide Gagosian Gallery exhibition in 2012 (“some perfect storm of banality”) with a drollness grounded in knowledge. Baba Brinkman has made a well-received stage show out of raps about evolution, but his short videos on the same subject (“Creationist Cousins” is one; “I’m a African” another) are amusing in their own rapid-fire way.

Kate McAlpine, a science writer whose 2008 “Large Hadron Rap” video attracted all kinds of attention, has added a “Black Hole Rap” and a “Rare Isotope Rap” to her résumé. Epic Rap Battles of History has drawn tens of millions of viewers with its ridiculous, raunchy verbal slugfests (“Nikola Tesla vs. Thomas Edison,” “Cleopatra vs. Marilyn Monroe”). And if you can stand the irreverence, BubalaPlease.com mashes up gangsta and Judaism hilariously (Episode 4: “We Doin’ Purim”; Episode 7: “Gangsta Bris”).

This isn’t just a hip-hop/gangsta thing. Incongruity is a versatile tool. Take, for instance, Yelping With Cormac, tongue-in-cheek dining reviews written in the style of Cormac McCarthy. But the language of the urban streets dominates the field.

Practically anyone can try this sort of thing, and it seems as if practically anyone has. No creativity is even required, since there are Web tools like Gizoogle.net that will give any phrase you care to type in a gangsta incarnation. Racist? Some people seem to think so. In any case, here’s how Gizoogle renders the opening sentences of the prepared text of Tuesday’s inaugural address by Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey: “Today, once again, tha playaz of New Jersey have given me tha opportunitizzle ta serve fo’ realz. And I give props ta each n’ every last (expletive) playa hater fo’ dat honor.”

Anyway, as good as Thug Notes is, we don’t want this trend to go much further than it already has, especially educationally. Apparently, almost everything in schools these days is taught in rap. “Civil War rap,” “integer rap,” “geography rap” or any similar search gets you to someone’s classroom video. Seems harmless. But picture yourself going in for neurosurgery.

“Doc, you read all the latest texts on brain surgery in medical school, didn’t you?”

“Read them? No. But I did see the major points of ‘Advanced Neurosurgical Navigation’ debated in a rap battle.”

The phenomenon is also creeping way too far into the mainstream. This month, Alex Trebek rapped, sort of, an entire category’s worth of clues on “Jeopardy!” We have to put a stop to inappropriate hip-hop appropriation before we get the Fox News “Rap the Headlines Hour” or “Gangsta 60 Minutes.”

Yes, that means new laws mandating that only skilled professionals like Dr. Sweets try this kind of stuff. That may sound like a civil liberties infringement, but chill. The Bill of Rights ensures “tha right of tha playas peaceably ta assemble, n’ ta petizzle tha Posse fo’ a redress of grievances.” It doesn’t say anything about the right to rap.