Interview With Beatnuts Playwright Sacha Jenkins
Hip-hop’s relationship with theater thus far has been nothing more than a fling. Rappers flirting with the stage, hitting it then quitting on a whim. Diddy stars in Raisin in the Sun here, Jim Jones promotes his latest release with the Hip-Hop Monologues there. But that may soon change, if hip-hop historian Sacha Jenkins has anything to do with it.
A founding member of the hip-hop brain trust Ego Trip, a renowned journalist and television producer, Jenkins conceptualized and wrote “Deez Nuts,” the hip-hop play du jour about the oft-overlooked Queens rap duo, The Beatnuts. A Queens native himself, the play follows a journalist (based on Jenkins) as he sets out on a quest to write the ultimate Beatnuts article. What follows is their story, interspersed with a healthy dose of Beatnuts music. Half narrative, half performance art, “Deez Nuts” attempts to straddle the line between homage to the Beatnuts legacy, and providing a platform for what could arguably be considered a Beatnuts concert.
Last night, the play kicked off the Hip-Hop Theater Festival (October 1st-17th) in New York, way off Broadway, downtown at the Ohio Theater. We caught up with Sacha Jenkins just prior to night two of the play’s three night engagement.
Where did the idea for “Deez Nuts” come from?
The idea for the play Deez Nuts came from me having a desire as a writer to sort of cover new terrain and also being from Queens and being such a fan of the Beatnuts and understanding that there’s so much regional talk. Their attitude and how they carry themselves is so indigenous to Queens. A lot of people dig the Beatnuts but I don’t know that they fully understand the Beatnuts the way that I did. I had this desire knowing that these guys have big personalities, they’re funny, knowing that they have this rocky relationship at times, I figured that bringing that to the stage would be fun and interesting for people to see.
Was it a conscious decision to choose them as a focus, or could another group easily slide into the role of being what the play is about?
I think that you could cut and paste people into something like this. I’m sure that because live performance is the way to go, I know this is a trend that is up and coming. [But] I think the combined story of the Beatnuts makes for a more interesting sort of narrative. They aren’t platinum. They’re not on the cover of every magazine. They been in the game nearly 20 years.
What was it like the first time you met them?
Me and Psycho Les went to the same high school. I didn’t know him personally. I would see Les around in school and he was a quiet dude who always had a fat rope chain, nice sheepskin coat, nice sneakers, and he was Columbian; I just assumed he was a drug dealer, but it turns out he wasn’t. He was busy dealing dope beats and eventually dope rhymes. Juju, he and I have many friends in common, so we didn’t necessarily know each other back then, but we know enough of the same people, that we could have known each other, or we kind of know each other, since we know the same people from the same time. Me really connecting with them on a deep level was when I had the inspiration to do this play.
What was the process like convincing them or selling them on the idea to actually do this? I’m sure there was some apprehension.
I think they were a little skeptical, mainly because they’ve been through so many ups and downs in the business. So it’s just kind of like, “Who is this dude, kind of out of nowhere telling us about a play?” Then Peter [Oasis– the play’s producer] came back with, “Well I know these guys at the Hip-hop Theater Festival and they’re good people.” I knew them as well, but I didn’t know them the way Peter did. I think [The Beatnuts] were skeptical initially but eventually the persistence and me and Peter saying, “Alright we got tickets to go see the Jim Jones play, this thing is happening and it’s a trend and it’s gonna continue to grow, and you guys should want to be a part of something like this.” Once we introduced the Hip-hop Theater Festival to them and they started to see this was a reality and there were people working on their behalf to produce something that pays tribute to their legacy, they said, “Alright, we’ll fuck with this weird dude.”
What will people take from this play?
For hip-hop people who aren’t familiar with theater, I think they’re going to walk away with a thoroughly enjoyable hip-hop experience. For people who aren’t necessarily in the hip-hop world, they’ll walk away with an experience that was very musical, and not necessarily in a Jesus Christ Superstar sort of way. It’s a very direct encounter with people who are part of a culture. It’s anthropological, it’s social, it’s musical and it’s theatrical.
There have been hip-hop people in theater- Diddy in Raisin in the Sun, Mos Def in Top Dog/Underdog, the Jim Jones play. So you’ve seen these hip-hop people sprinkled throughout theater. Is hip-hop’s relationship with theater a good one?
I’m new to theater. From what I’ve seen, a lot of the audience has been hip-hop fans. Fans of the Beatnuts. People in hip-hop at this point want more. People expect their artists to give them more. So that’s why I think this trend is going to grow. Artists aren’t selling records anymore, so how do they eat? They sell merchandise and they tour. I think that hip-hop fans are going to come to expect more of their artists and they’re going to want theater.
You just had your first show. What went right, what went wrong?
What’s great about it is the nature of how the show breathes. Some things went wrong, [but] no one will ever know because of how the play the works and the rapport that the both the actors and the Beatnuts have with the story. So there were a couple of flubs but honestly nobody noticed. I think Juju came in early on a song, or he didn’t do his verse twice and he stopped and said, “Yo I just fucked up that verse, whatever, that’s hip-hop,” and everyone laughed. You wouldn’t even know if he was serious or not serious, but didn’t even matter because of the way he handled the situation. The more we perform it the more comfortable we’ll be with it, the more natural it is. There’s some improv involved with it. I wasn’t trying to get the Beatnuts to be actors. I wanted them to sort of display who they are by talking to them. This show is almost like a conversation with the Beatnuts.
The premise of it is a journalist going to interview the Beatnuts, but how much of a narrative is there to it?
There’s a journalist who starts out wanting to write the ultimate Beatnuts article and then changes his mind and wants to get out of journalism because its dying and he decides to take a shot at writing a play. The show is really about the process of writing that play, how it sort of affects the lives of the group and how they feel about this play that is being written about them. Is there a narrative? Sure. But a big part of that narrative is the music of the group and the group sometimes in their own words.
And the long term goal is to make it a franchise that can sort of live on its own and continue and travel and perform?
The goal is to make this a healthy, living organism that the Beatnuts can take around the world. I’m still a huge fan of their music. I think its timeless, I think its funny. I think every once in a while there’s like a political perspective. But ultimately you get a real sense of what Queens is like. I’m a big proponent of sharing Queens with the world. If it wasn’t for Queens, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today. Spike Lee’s all about Brooklyn, I’m all about Queens… not that I’m Spike Lee or anything.
What else are you up to?
I have a new book, which is the part two to another book. The new book is Piecebook Reloaded: Rare Graffiti Drawings, 1985-2005. And that basically is a compilation of images culled from various sketchbooks that graffiti artists have. Sketches and drawings that date back to 1985 and to roughly 2005. There are a couple 2006s and 2007s that sneak in there. That’s the companion book to the first book that came out about a year and a half ago called Piecebook: Secret Drawings of Graffiti Writers. That book spanned from 1973 to about 1985. This book picks up the baton where the last book left off. There’s some book signings and some speaking engagements surrounding that. I have a few television projects that I’m developing, I don’t want to jinx anything. Other than that, getting ready for the cold weather in New York.
And last words?
RIP Mr. Magic. The DJ who started it all for hip-hop on the radio.
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