Baba Brinkman bills himself as “the world’s only peer-reviewed rapper,” and nobody disputes the title. In college, the lumbering son of Canadian tree planters studied the parallels between hip-hop and medieval poetry and he has since carved out a niche with science-themed hip-hop shows and albums, such as “The Rap Guide to Climate Chaos.”
During a recent performance, I watched him link together a fast-paced flow incorporating audience questions about language, pet ownership, obscure neurological conditions, and social media.
I had to wonder: How does his brain do that?
That’s precisely the question his wife, Dr. Heather Berlin, seeks to answer in their show Off the Top, playing March 15 at Caveat. Heather is a real-deal neuroscientist with a Masters from Harvard and a PhD from Oxford. As a faculty member at Mt. Sinai, she studies impulse control disorders and novel treatments. “Novel” as in cyberpunk brain implants that deliver electrical signals straight to the gray matter.
Heather’s favorite test subject is her husband Baba. No, she doesn’t give him a brain implant during Off The Top, but she and Baba do take a look at the neurological basis for creativity, comedy, and how we control—or don’t control—our subconscious impulses.
Though Baba is a regular performer at the SoHo Playhouse and other venues, Off The Top is his first joint show with Heather. They premiered it at Edinburgh several years ago, and have presented at various off-Broadway engagements ever since.
As a neuroscience researcher, Heather explores the liminal space between the subconscious and the conscious mind. Impulse control disorders arise from breakdowns along that boundary, but it is also the font of creativity.
When she first met Baba, he reminded her of one of her impulse-control disorder patients, she says in the show. “He presented with caffeine addiction, high-fat diet”— on the other side of the stage, Baba is grinning with nostalgic pride— “TV addiction, and what I’d call… impulsive sexual behavior.”
“You weren’t complaining at the time, baby,” Baba says, his grin growing wider.
Indeed for Baba, creativity is an essential professional skill. Not only does he make his living writing complex rhymes about dense, scientific topics, part of his act is freestyle rhyming—improvising—in response to audience cues.
In Off The Top, Heather exposes the workings of Baba’s rapping brain by complicating the task, asking him to perform while simultaneously identifying colors, performing basic math, and typing out a letter. Watching these different cognitive functions interact, and ultimately break down, is effective edutainment. And live demonstrations like that one help illuminate the MRI images and other scientific data presented throughout the show.
If Baba is Heather’s favorite test subject, Heather is Baba’s favorite rhyming target. In the hip-hop tradition, Baba is an unashamed wielder of the male gaze. He is quick to boast—in PG terms—about the alluring features of his mate, and how she is evidence of his own prowess. Heather responds to Baba’s bravado sometimes with girlish laughter and sometimes with exasperated reprimand.
It’s evident that “Heather’s the straight man, and I’m the crazy one,” in Baba’s words. (On cue, Heather interjects, “And that’s what it’s like in real life, too.”) Their evident delight in one another and their easy banter is believable and endearing. If potentially cringe-inducing, depending on your appetite for public flirting.
Heather’s efforts to tame the man-child she married are part of a multimodal presentation that also encompasses historical cases of brain injuries, complex brain scan results, and live demonstrations.
For the March 15 production at Caveat, Heather and Baba have added a third flavor to their neuroscience neapolitan, comedian Mimi Hayes. Mimi has a new book out called I’ll Be OK, It’s Just a Hole in My Head, about a nearly fatal brain hemorrhage she experienced at 22, and her act finds the humor in living with a brain injury.
Off The Top’s science content and eclectic presentation is par for the course at Caveat, the nearly two-year old venue started by particle physicist Ben Lillie, where cocktails and comedy help the science go down.
“If I was single,” Heather says, “I would probably go hang out there, watch shows and meet other interesting people.”
“And wait for your Baba to come along?” I ask.
“Yeah.” She pauses. “Or… someone else.”
Baba just laughs.
Off The Top is Friday, March 15, 9 pm at Caveat. Tickets are $12 in advance, $15 at the door. 21+.