Yo! Get ur bard on!

July 11, 2003

Henry Biggs was a 'nerdy' classics lecturer until a discussion of Homer inspired him to start rapping. Stephen Phillips does a sound check

Chuck Berry is the normal bill of fare at Blueberry Hill. The rock-and-roll legend plays monthly sets to capacity crowds at the restaurant-cum-concert venue St Louis, Missouri.

This April, however, Blueberry Hill played host to an altogether different act. Henry Biggs, assistant dean and academic coordinator of the College of Arts and Sciences at nearby Washington University, took to the stage for a rendition of some of his own compositions.

Banish all images of an academic decked in tweed jacket and corduroys tremulously reciting verse. Biggs, aka Headmess, saves this get-up for the day job.

As his rapping alter-ego, the 39-year-old classics lecturer edgily paced the stage, griping a microphone, swathed head to toe in black, an ebony baseball cap swivelled back to front over his brow.

"Come my goddess don't be so modest you the hottest, now why not us?
Let me be your Casanova, come on and get closah, check the Testarossa,
Rock the roller-coaster, pack more meat than a Ponderosa."

The overflowing audience of students and faculty members pulsated to the gritty rhymes and grinding rhythms from the eight-piece band as, befitting his monicker, Headmess span out his trademark cerebral puns.

Backing singer for the night Barbara Ann Hanson, the arts and sciences secretary, was thrilled. "I flipped out," she says.

Rap isn't normally her cup of tea, Hanson professes, not caring for its profanity-laced lyrics. "I prefer Celine Dion... but Henry was able to get his message across without doing that."

It also revealed a different side of her colleague. "He's a wonderful performe... and everyone said, 'he's really courageous to get up there and fulfil his dream'."

And there may be an encore. Local media coverage of the gig prompted an offer from youth culture arbiter MTV to perform live on US television later this month. A tour may also be in the works.

Biggs, who spends summer in rural France with his Italian lecturer wife and three children, is unfazed by the attention. His discography already comprises three album releases (the first two under his former alias, Underbelly). Sales of his latest effort are respectable, given the absence of promotion, at 150 CDs or so as of last month. And the Harvard graduate was signed by a record label in France a decade ago while studying for a masters in civilisation at the Sorbonne.

But his recording career stalled after an edict banning foreign artists from all but a sliver of French radio airtime rendered him commercially unviable, he says.

Undaunted, Biggs continued to release albums under his own steam while advancing his academic career, as chairman of the foreign languages department at Houghton College in New York State, before joining Washington University in 1999.

Meanwhile, he began performing in the early 1990s when he would skip his graduate studies in romance languages at the University of California at Los Angeles to perform rap cameos in friends' metal bands in Los Angeles clubs.

Biggs never felt seduced by the rock-and-roll lifestyle though. "The guys would want to save my song for the finale, but I would (tell them), 'I can't stay up that late. I've got class next morning'."

A self-confessed "nerd", he is sanguine that much of the buzz about Headmess stems from the novelty value of a white academic rapper. But while he shrugs off the ribbing he inevitably receives, Biggs is deadly seriously about wanting to be seen as more than just an eccentric academic.

He is positively messianic about the artistic possibilities of the form and its capacity to reach out to a mass audience. "I take it very seriously, I'm not trying to do some goofy Bozo the Clown rapping thing," he says.

"Rap is a very powerful vehicle that allows you to deliver more words than any other kind of music.

"It's a very thin line you have to walk doing something that will interest academics and a common audience, (but) that's where I'm trying to go."

The seed of this rapping career sprouted in the most unlikely of places - a discussion of Homer in an academic seminar. Biggs began to see the epic Greek bard as a proto-rapper spinning yarns.

He also locates rapping in the grand tradition of narrative balladeering stretching back to the medieval French and Italian troubadours.

"One of their defining characteristics is that they would pound their chests about what incredible specimens of manhood they were and all the women they had.

"This was the poetry of the period - the parallels are pretty obvious," Biggs says.

But while embracing rap, he eschews its oft-criticised misogyny and glorification of violence.

In his own work, Biggs is keen to strip away the fronting that he says compensates for archetypal human vulnerability. "Rap has this machismo, but when someone comes on that strong, it says, 'I'm so desperate, lonely, needy and forsaken'."

Drawing on his training, Biggs employs subtle word play to subvert the literal meaning of his raps and invite the audience to question assumptions more deeply.

Accordingly, check out this sample of the song Wrap from his latest album, Puzzle:

"You be moanin' for my mojo, screamin' for my big boom
King Kong of love - danger - clear the area
Ragin' through my women like Conan the Barbarian."

Pretty unequivocally self-aggrandising stuff. But spell out the last letter of each line going down the rap and each first letter going back up to the start and you have: "Don't listen it's all lies here is the truth miserable and marking time dying slow abject and desolate and forsaken."

Like an old master, this feat of linguistic dexterity, based on the acrostic scheme popular during the Victorian era, took Biggs ten painstaking months to compose.

In another song, he mocks the prevailing braggadocio of much contemporary rap by making it a lipogram in a nod to French avant garde author George Perec, omitting the letter 'i' from what is a first-person paean to the rapper's sexual prowess.

But, while parodying gangsta rap, Biggs is contemptuous of saccharine rappers such as Hollywood idol Will Smith, taking an unflinching look at uncomfortable subjects such as police brutality on his latest album.

"I'm trying to ask hard questions, not just fluff and nonsense," he explains.

But while Biggs strives to wear his learning lightly, you're unlikely to find Dr Dre or Eminem rapping about 19th-century Jesuit lyrical poet Gerard Manley "Hip" Hopkins any time soon.

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