What do Shakespeare and rap have in common? A lot more than you might initially think—at least according to the Q Brothers. GQ and JQ, a pair of clever, creative Chicago brothers, have traveled the world writing, directing and performing witty, entertaining shows. From musical hip-hop “add-RAP-tations” of Shakespearean plays to freestyle kiddie concerts about fruit, the Qs are an inspiration for kids and adults alike.
Check out their unique sound:
“It may seem outlandish at first,” says GQ, the writer, actor and older of the two, both of whom are in their late thirties. “But the best hip hop artists are the ones who tell stories through musical language and poetry, just like Shakespeare did. We’re taking classic tales and telling them through the lens of culture today.”
Headed to Lollapalooza with kids in tow? The Q Brothers hip-hop workshop at Kidzapalooza is the place to go. The family-friendly festival within a festival is free for kids 10 and under. For the past decade, the Q Brothers and friends have shown kids how to rap, scratch and beat box. Songs are made up on the spot and mini musicians go home with their track (an MP3 is emailed to the parent).
Each child is asked what he or she would like to make a song about. “Kids usually say something like soccer…and peanuts,” laughs GQ. “We’ll try to make it as funny as possible.”
The Q Brothers also perform on the main family stage at Kidzapalooza on Friday, July 31 from 3:15-3:40 p.m. and Sunday, Aug. 2 from 1:30-1:55 p.m. They open with a song from their “Feel Good Album of the Year.” (Download it for free on their website.). Then they freestyle, taking suggestions from the audience.
“It really spikes our creativity,” GQ says.
The audience’s imaginations are fostered too. During one rainy performance, the kids and the Qs conceived the song “It’s Raining on My Elephant.” While these freestyle sessions don’t incorporate Shakespeare, they show kids different art forms, as well as how to think on their feet and go with the flow.
A talented team, the Q Brothers have many music and acting credits between them. They recently returned from Australia, Abu Dhabi and New Zealand, touring “Othello: The Remix.” Their version, commissioned by Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, presents the tragedy in today’s rap music world, with wise, poetic lyrics and dashes of humor, in rhyming couplets. In development, they have an epic hip-hop version of Homer’s The Odyssey, featuring 250 Chicago Children’s Choir voices, as well as a musical hip-hop version of Frankenstein for the Steppenwolf Theatre.
You can also experience their unforgettable blend of entertainment yourself with “The Q Gents,” a hip-hop adaptation of “The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” currently running at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival in Normal. If you missed “A Q Brothers Christmas Carol” at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater this past holiday season, it was a witty, music-thumping version of the Dickens classic. GQ played a hunched-over Scrooge in love with his money sack, while JQ hysterically embodied countless roles—from a Rastafarian Jacob Marley (get it?) to a sentimental Tiny Tim.
How did all this get started? With fluid, young minds and a unique idea, propelled by the dream to entertain and have fun. Raised in the Wildwood neighborhood of Chicago, GQ and JQ attended Loyola Academy during its last years as an all-boys school. Although GQ had been a successful lacrosse player, he tried out for the school musical, in hopes of meeting girls. He won the role of the scarecrow in “The Whiz.” His dynamic performance awarded him best actor in a musical, as voted by his peers.
Faye Ryan was chair of the Loyola Academy Fine Arts Department and director of the show.
“Part of the job of a high school teacher is to give kids the opportunity to find themselves—to help them discover things about themselves they might not have known,” Ryan says.
At college, a reading disability caused GQ to rethink his anthropology major. He transferred to the Experimental Theater Wing at NYU, where two teachers encouraged deep exploration of Shakespearean language.
“It could drive someone mad,” GQ says. “I hated Shakespeare growing up, but something clicked in my brain. I realized there is nothing Shakespeare would be today but a rapper.”
As his senior project, GQ developed “The Bomb-Itty of Errors,” an independent project based on Shakespeare’s “Comedy of Errors.” JQ joined him to produce the music and learn theater business on the fly at 19 years old.
“It was hard, but it gave me a sensibility,” JQ says. “It was the best thing that ever happened.”
The show went bonkers Off Broadway, and was featured on “The Rosie O’Donnell Show.” MTV offered them a deal to develop “Scratch and Burn,” a TV show that still has a cult following on You Tube today.
While their take on Shakespeare through today’s cultural lens is compelling, the best parts of their performances are often the Q Brothers’ ear-to-ear grins. Their energy and enthusiasm can be contagious.
“GQ and JQ are such warm, giving people,” Ryan says. “Their hearts are in the right place.”
Want to spark kids’ interest in the classics or creative expression? Teachers have so frequently requested the Q Brothers help in making Shakespeare entertaining for their students that they are now patenting their school workshop. What advice can they offer?
“Pursue your curiosities,” JQ says. “You’d be surprised how learning something seemingly unrelated to what you want to do might tie itself back in, like hip-hop and Shakespeare. Never stop learning.”