Thug Notes Demystifies 60 Literary Classics (from Shakespeare to Gatsby) with a Fresh Urban Twist

Gen­tle read­er, if you feel your knee jerk­ing at Thug Notes, may I sug­gest tak­ing a moment to gaze beyond the gold bling and du-rag favored by its fic­ti­tious host, lit­er­a­ture lover Sparky Sweets, PhD.

Or do we think YA author John Green should hold the monop­oly on wit­ty, break­neck decon­struc­tions of clas­sic lit­er­a­ture? No shade towards Green. The Crash Course empire he’s cre­at­ed with his sci­en­tist broth­er, Hank, pro­vides a great and enter­tain­ing ser­vice to stu­dents of all ages. His cute-nerd vibe makes him an appeal­ing host.

But there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

A poor choice of metaphor, giv­en the fic­ti­tious Dr. Sweets’ soft spot for baby felines. It’s not some­thing he talks about on the show, but he fre­quent­ly tweets pho­tos of him­self in their oh-so-cud­dly com­pa­ny, tag­ging them #kit­ten­ther­a­py.

He (or per­haps head writer / pro­duc­er Jared Bauer) also turns to Twit­ter to dis­sem­i­nate quotes by the likes of Cer­vantes (“Dili­gence is the moth­er of good for­tune”) and Orwell (“Either we all live in a decent world, or nobody does”).

Thug Notes’ tagline “clas­sic lit­er­a­ture, orig­i­nal gangs­ta” may be its punch­line, but the humor of incon­gruity is not its sole aim.

Come­di­an Greg Edwards, who plays Sparky Sweets, told The New York Times that the project is “triv­i­al­iz­ing academia’s attempt at mak­ing lit­er­a­ture exclu­sion­ary by show­ing that even high­brow aca­d­e­m­ic con­cepts can be com­mu­ni­cat­ed in a clear and open fash­ion.”

Amen. As Sparky Sweets observes fol­low­ing Simon’s mur­der in the Lord of the Flies above, “Whoo, this $hit (is) get­tin’ real!”

Is there a dan­ger that white teenage boys who love com­e­dy and hip hop, who are indif­fer­ent to lit­er­a­ture, and who know few black peo­ple and/or urban dwellers, might run around imi­tat­ing their favorite parts of these videos, not real­iz­ing that their attempt to embody the char­ac­ter is per­pet­u­at­ing a stereo­type in a bad way?


Is there an equal or greater dan­ger that a reluc­tant stu­dent might be prod­ded in a pos­i­tive direc­tion by Sparky’s zesty, insight­ful take on their assigned read­ing?

Resound­ing­ly, yes.

Thug Notes’ dis­cus­sion of racism as por­trayed in To Kill a Mock­ing­bird is not the longest I’ve ever heard, but it is the most straight­for­ward and brac­ing. It got my blood going! I’m inspired to drag my dog eared paper­back copy out and give it anoth­er read! (Maybe I’ll have a Scotch and play some clas­si­cal music. Sparky does that too.)

I’m hop­ing the kids at the high school a cou­ple of blocks away — who, for the record, look and sound far more like Sparky than they do me — will be encour­aged to sup­ple­ment their read­ing of this book, and oth­ers, with Thug Notes.

As an out-of-char­ac­ter Greg Edwards, bear­ing as much resem­blance to Sparky Sweets as Stephen Col­bert does to his most famous cre­ation, told inter­view­er Tavis Smi­ley:

We don’t want to stop kids from read­ing the book. We just want to open up doors. Maybe teach­ers can use it. It’s hard being a teacher nowa­days. You’re under­paid, you’re over­worked, the class­rooms are full, the kids are crazy, so throw this on and maybe it’ll spark one kid’s atten­tion.

As of this writ­ing, Thug Notes has tack­led dozens of titles (you can watch them all here, or right below), a heap­ing help­ing of banned books, and four of Shakespeare’s plays (above).

New titles will be added every oth­er Tues­day. I can’t wait.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Alexan­der Hamil­ton: Hip-Hop Hero at the White House Poet­ry Evening

The Can­ter­bury Tales Remixed: Baba Brinkman’s New Album Uses Hip Hop to Bring Chaucer Into the 21st Cen­tu­ry, Yo

Do Rap­pers Have a Big­ger Vocab­u­lary Than Shake­speare?: A Data Sci­en­tist Maps Out the Answer

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, home­school­er, and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday

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