Friction in Fur Coats

by by Eric Axelman

“People have an idea of what scientists are like, and how scientists are supposed to act, and how scientists are supposed to convey information,” said Dr. Jeremy Long, assistant professor of Biology at San Diego State University. “Hip-hop is about as far removed from that image as you can get.” He should know. A rapper himself, he has two tracks on YouTube—one, titled “What Invert,” is set to the beat of TI’s “Whatever You Like.” The other is a recording of an academic talk at an annual meeting for Marine Ecologists delivered as a rap, despite serious discouragement from his peers. The night before he was going to rap his talk, “several colleagues I respect immensely were trying to talk me out of it. So I was totally freaked out, because I was like, ‘there are potential implications of this,’” such as risks to his chances for tenure in an increasingly competitive academic environment. He ended up going through with the rap, and the same people that discouraged him congratulated him after they saw him perform. Long said that scientists interested in creative forms of outreach are “uncertain about the consequences of doing this [kind of stuff]. If we see more of us are doing this, that we’re ok, and we’re getting tenure and all this stuff, maybe it’ll fuel the beast.” Long has been rapping about science since 2008, and his persona as a rapper is widely known in field of marine ecology. He also requires undergraduates in his classes to make music videos of their own, and he sees this as having a larger influence on the dissemination of science than his own videos. “It’s more about me guiding students on the style now. In the past few years, I’ve made one video, and my students have made ten or fifteen,” said Long.

Long believes much of the humor in science rap comes from peoples’ reaction to the juxtaposition of science and rap. “Science has such a specific language,” said Zach Bornstein B ‘12, “a specific way you’re allowed to write, and a very specific template in which you’re allowed to convey information.” Bornstein, a neuroscience concentrator and former leader of Brown’s Out of Bounds comedy group, now works for Late Night with David Letterman and does stand up comedy in New York. Bornstein is interested in what triggers the human brain to find a joke, song, or act funny, and how that affects retention and memory. “I think that what’s cool about scientists rapping about science is that if they’re doing it earnestly, you’re making science accessible to people in a format that they’re used to. It’s way easier to listen to a 4-minute song than to read a paper in Neuron [the neuroscience journal] or something, because you have to learn that language, whereas more people are familiar with rap language,” said Bornstein.

When scientists rap, they oftentimes become increasingly visible while their content does not. For Long, this isn’t good enough: “I get responses, and often times they are ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about,’” he said. “Showing that we’re human is important…but I do think that we need to take it to the next level and really try to get a message across.” To Professor Long, this is where there is room for improvement in the field of science rap. “I want to teach. I want to teach the public about science, not just that scientists can be funny.” It’s unclear which scientific field has the most rappers, or how science raps are received by the public. However, if you do a YouTube search of “rap + [any scientific field],” you’re guaranteed to find pages upon pages of uploaded videos. Some only have a few hundred views, but may have 10’s of thousands, and some are in the millions. One, the “Large Hadron Rap,” is going on 7.5 million.

Scientists are not the only ones rapping about science. Underground and alternative hip-hop artists have often embraced science related themes and language to evoke a certain aura and feeling in their music. In “Chemical Calisthenics,” Blackalicious raps that, “I’m calcium plus potassium, magnesium…style aroma is scientific, the lyrical fuse would be connected/ to teach you chemical calisthenics.” In these lines, and in using the phrase “chemical calisthenics,” the rap group compares and associates themselves with the power and lightning-like energy of chemistry. In Mos Def’s “Mathematics,” the rapper writes, “you wanna learn how to rhyme? you better learn how to add / it’s mathematics.” In the song he views the world as a series of statistics, such as “69 billion in the last twenty years / spent on national defense but folks still live in fear,” and “the system break man child and women into figures/two columns for who is, and who ain’t niggas.” Mos Def believes that if you don’t look at the world quantitatively to see larger patterns of injustice, you’ll miss their existence.

GZA of Wu-Tang Clan fame is coming out with an album about physics, and it will be a physics album through and through. GZA’s explanation for why he has decided to change his subject matter dramatically: he thinks the universe is beautiful. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, GZA commented, “[People are] drawn to [science,] but they don’t know why they’re drawn to it.” Zach Bornstein believes that GZA, and others like him, are trying to help people drawn to science connect to it in a meaningful way. “What they’re doing that’s cool is making science accessible to people who know the language of rap, but who would like to know the content of science,” Bornstein argues.  Marco Vitali, a violinist who is helping to score the album, states in the Wall Street Journal that, “overpowering ideas [like] the grandeur of the fact that the universe was born in a millionth of a second, in this explosion that created billions of stars. How do we make a record feel like that?”

Talking about the rap community’s response to his album, GZA told the Wall Street Journal, “They don’t get the idea. Because rappers are so one-dimensional, so narrow-minded, it comes off as corny.” The one-dimensionality of mainstream rap that GZA talks about is one of the main reasons science rap music can be so funny, Bornstein says: “where you’re using the rap format to talk about things that are high brow, you’re bringing to light the fact that rap usually talks about really stupid things. There are of course people who rap about significant things,” but Bornstein argues these people are the minority in mainstream hip-hop. Whether or not most science rappers are making fun of the genre is unclear. When I spoke to Jeremy Long, he was sincere in saying, “I hope I’m not making fun of hip-hop.” On the other hand, Bornstein also believes that using science in rap can be extremely positive for the genre, as it can “help expand the umbrella of what rap’s allowed to deal with.”

Although GZA’s decision to make a science album is a major step toward making the ‘genre’ of science rap larger, for now, the emphasis seems to be on professionalizing the field. Scientists like Tyron Hayes are writing clever, funny raps, that truly tell the story of their research, and the GZA is undertaking a good deal of research himself, doing serious fact checking with Neil deGrasse Tyson (the famed astrophysicist) and a number of famed marine biologists. Both artists are passionate about what they do, and think that science rap can expand their profession’s horizon. I’ll be happy just to hear GZA rap about whales—he has an album about the ocean planned.


ERIC AXELMAN B’12.5 doesn’t know whether he wants a PhD or a record deal.