Mr B the Gentleman Rhymer performs at the National Arts Club, on New York's Gramercy Park. Photograph: Erin McCann for the Guardian
A very English man in New York: Mr B pays homage to hip-hop's roots
The Gentleman Rhymer explains how he came to bring chap-hop – and its raps about tea, toilets and CB Fry – to America
Martin Pengelly in New York
theguardian.com, Monday 25 November 2013 / http://www.theguardian.com/music/2013/nov/25/mr-b-gentleman-rhymer-chap-hop
"I'm not going to break America," said Mr B the Gentleman Rhymer, tuning his banjolele on the first night of his short tour. "I'm going to fix it."
His statement prompted intriguing questions. Does America know it needs fixing? Does America, which gave hip-hop to the world, know it also needs chap-hop? Does America know it needs raps delivered in precise RP about toilets, tailoring and the correct manner in which to shoot one's cuff?
These and other posers – which have been asked by afficionados of chap-hop since the movement's beginnings in London, five years or so ago – may also have occurred to the US customs officials who briefly detained Mr B. But while your average rap star might be held for, say, transporting narcotics across international lines, Mr B was merely packing a tempting selection of cufflinks and club ties. He was waved through, leaving said officials no doubt more perplexed than concerned.
On record, Mr B himself seems rather more concerned than perplexed. On his new album – Can't Stop, Shan't Stop – he ponders the glorious history and sadly misogynist/materialist present of the music he loves ("Hip-hop chose the cult of me/Hip-hop chose to ignore Chuck D"), states firmly that (I've No Wish To) Keep it Real, then takes aim at the palsied state of pop in general. Witness the withering Brit School: "Strummer would rage but he's six-foot under/ Rotten doesn't care, he's too busy selling butter."
The timeless concerns of the chap are present, of course – Shelltoes or Brogues?, why it is that Ladies Have Friends Who They Hate, the dolorous fact that It Doesn't Pay To Turn Up Late to an Orgy – but it seems that four albums in, and after the amicable conclusion of an internationally reported scrap with the more steampunkish Professor Elemental, chap-hop has, in some ways, grown up.
This may be because Mr B – aka, but only sometimes, Jim Burke – has too. Now music editor at The Chap magazine and a Fringe and festivals mainstay, he arrived in America on the back of a 20-year musical career. It all began with Collapsed Lung and a hit, Eat My Goal, indelibly associated with Euro 96. There was also a spot of big-beat pioneering, as Sgt. Rock, and a dash of something called dandy punk. But less of that.
"I had the idea of Mr B in my head for a few years," he says, when asked how his chap-hop career came about. "I had this whole idea of chap-hop, and being a musician I didn't do anything about it.
But eventually I just recorded something one afternoon and put a MySpace page up, as you did in those days, and after a couple of weeks someone asked me to play at a festival. So I thought, 'I'd best write a few more.'
"I did a 20-minute set and the chap who was doing my sound said, 'I think this is the best thing you've ever done.' So I did some more, and it's all just gone on from there."
In America, it went down very well at the National Arts Club on Gramercy Park, where a suitably elegant crowd gathered to celebrate I am Dandy, a book by the writer Nathaniel Adams and photgrapher Rose Callahan. It seemed appropriate that a representative of the sartorially concerned chap movement was there to entertain.
There is, however, more to the Mr B persona. Much of his trip to America is about paying homage to the origins of the music he loves and which his recordings treat with scrupulous respect. Asked about his influences – available in list form in The Corinthians, a new song which brackets the man who invented hip-hop, DJ Kool Herc, with the Edwardian sporting star CB Fry and PG Wodehouse – he says:
What I'd like to do is go to 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, and play Hip-Hop Was To Blame After All. That would be fun, although I'm not quite sure what that part of town's like these days.
"I like playing hip-hop, I like playing about with words… I like playing the banjolele. I like being a bit silly and I like chappishness. And all those things have kind of come together and, surprisingly, seem to work. Whenever anyone asks me about Mr B and the whole vintage thing, though, I always think, 'Well, no. It's more Vivian Stanshall, things like that.'"
Burke's reference to the man behind the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, a true English eccentric who died in 1995, reveals a key to chap-hop's appeal which is also, to some, its achilles heel. Chap-hop, though embedded in hip-hop culture – as Mr B's Attack of the Show-boosted first YouTube hit, Chap-Hop History, ebulliently demonstrates – is meant to be funny.
"Yes, music and humour," he says. "The general reaction to this from radio, press and the 'biz' has been a thorn in my side for years. It seems that in pop music as soon as something is considered 'funny', it no longer has artistic merit. I myself think rather the opposite. Humour is one of the most important traits a human possesses and if one employs it in a song I don't see how in any way it denigrates the music. But maybe that's just me."
Guests at the I am Dandy exhibition opening sport vintage clothes – and hairstyles. Photograph: Erin McCann for the Guardian
"Vintage is fine," he says, "but I'm off at a tangent. I want to take it in other directions. That's the thing with various scenes – like steampunk as well. I tend to like to skirt around scenes and never actually get fully involved. It's a surefire way to get squashed creatively, to have a sound that is supposed to sound a certain way. I found that with the Sgt Rock stuff I was doing years ago, because it became the big-beat scene and that took over. Everything sounded like it was worked out by mathematical formula."
Such determined individualism accounts for the unusual array of sounds to be found on your average Mr B album – he plays piano, banjolele and trombone as well as laying down the beats and backing tracks. It may also, of course, be a good way to court obscurity. That, however, is a condition with which Mr B seems reasonably comfortable. On the new album an inappropriately barnstorming "ode to a lack of ambition", Reasons to be Unsuccessful (Part One), is a pendant to The Corinthians' amateurs who "do it because we love it". It's a very British attitude – very chappish – but fortunately enough, quite a lot of Americans seem to like that kind of thing.
"I suppose it's because there isn't so much of it here," says Mr B, "and it's because they're suckers for that particular type of Englishman. I say 'suckers', that's a bad word. I mean it in a good way, obviously.
But it's an ongoing miscomprehension about Englishness which is quite handy for me. Most of the attention to England over here is about royalty and the royal baby and so on, about how we're all gentlemen or peasants. It's not so, of course, but I hope I can play on it.
Once America has been played with, it will be back to Blighty and Brighton and concerts with the likes of The Correspondents, an enormously popular and similarly artistically inclined electro-swing duo. Among potential new projects lurks one which, as much as another of his YouTube hits, Songs for Acid Edward, rather gives away Mr B's early-1990s roots: "acid ragtime". For now that remains in the realm of theory, partly because Mr B's wife, a fashion designer, isn't too fond of the name.
As it happens, Mrs B may also have a role to play in Mr B's long-term future.
"The plan," he says, "should my wife and I ever have a child, is to record a fully psychedelic album and then to retire from playing live. Everyone does that – they record a psychedelic album and then retire, because it's far too complicated to play live.
"Of course, I use a backing track so that's not really an issue. But we'll try not to mention that."
Mr B the Gentleman Rhymer performs at the Slipper Room in New York on Wednesday and at the Gilded Festival in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, on Friday.
Mr. B The Gentleman Rhymer (real name Jim Burke) is a parodist who performs "chap hop" — hip-hop delivered in a Received Pronunciation accent. Mr. B raps, or "rhymes", about high society, pipe smoking and cricket while playing the banjolele. The character is described as having grown up in Cheam and attending Sutton Grammar School for Boys.
Mr. B The Gentleman Rhymer is an alter ego of Jim Burke, a rapper with the Britpop group Collapsed Lung. Mr. B The Gentleman Rhymer started performing in late 2007, playing at cabaret clubs, and venues across the UK including the Glastonbury Festival and club NME in Paris, and performed as part of the 2010 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. He has performed on radio including the Steve Lamacq show and "Introducing with Tom Robinson" for the BBC. He has also been named as a 'Band of the Month' on the Kooba Radio podcast.
His debut album "Flattery Not Included" was released in 2008 for the Grot Music label, which includes the track "Chap-Hop History" which is a Received Pronunciation reworking of some well known hip-hop classics. Its accompanying video has received numerous views on YouTube. Another track from the album, "Timothy", is about the unique vocal style of BBC Radio's Tim Westwood. Perhaps his best known track, "Straight Out Of Surrey", is a parody of N.W.A's "Straight Outta Compton" and purports to be "the extent of his cricket knowledge."
Mr B. has appeared as a guest on the Zero Day album by MC Frontalot, playing the banjolele and providing additional vocals on the track "Better At Rapping".
Until recently, he was engaged in a feud with "chap-hop" artist Professor Elemental. However, Professor Elemental had a short appearance in Mr. B's music video for the song "Like a Chap", of which Professor Elemental said "Much as I hate to admit it, I bloody love that video and am jolly glad (Mr. B) let me gate crash." The "feud" was settled on Professor Elemental's 2012 album Father Of Invention on the track "The Duel," on which Mr. B appeared, and they have made occasional appearances together since.
Photo: Erin McCann for the Guardian