How teacher Mark Grist became an unlikely rapper and an internet sensation
IT’S almost two years now since Mark Grist quit teaching to concentrate on his career as a poet and rapper. In that time he’s achieved more success than he could possibly have dreamed of when he handed in his notice, making headlines in the national press and becoming a YouTube sensation. One newspaper even described him as “an unlikely heartthrob” – a backhanded compliment if ever there was one. In spite of it all, though, he still has a hankering for the classroom.
“I’m never going to be cool,” he says, “and as much as I might go and rap battle people and all that stuff, ultimately I think my heart is probably still with teaching.”
Footage of the rap battle that made Grist’s name has now had well over two million hits on YouTube, and it isn’t hard to see why: it’s a visceral 17-and-a-bit minutes of verbal jousting that hinges on a delicious moment of what Aristotle would have called “peripeteia” – a sudden reversal of circumstances.
Grist, conservatively clad in buttoned-up suit and tie, is pitted against Blizzard, a baseball-hatted 17-year-old from Manchester, all macho strut and swagger. When the referee introduces the younger rapper he strikes a pose for a moment, then stabs his finger in the air and shouts “For everyone that’s came out today [sic], this is going to be a f***ing classic event, make some f***ing noise.” Cue much cheering from the audience, which mostly consists of sportswear-sporting young men, crowding around the two combatants as if they’re about to witness a playground brawl.
In contrast, when Grist is introduced he simply grins a goofy grin at the camera, gives a little wave and says, “Thanks very much”. Then he pulls a nervous, Hugh Grant-esque face, stretching the corners of his mouth apart as if to say, “Gosh, I really am rather a long way outside my comfort zone here, aren’t I?”
Blizzard is first to rap, hitting Grist with a string of quick-fire insults and finishing up with the line: “You knob-head, I hope you drop dead, if I punch you in the face, who are you gonna call, Ofsted?” Gales of laughter ensue, and you get the feeling the guy in the suit is about to make himself look very, very silly. Only he doesn’t. After a couple of seconds of cliffhanging silence, Grist kicks off his response with a line that brings the house down: “To those at home who are sitting watching YouTube don’t start clicking – I know this might look like some kind of extreme babysitting…”
There’s plenty more where that came from, and over three rounds Grist comprehensively defeats Blizzard, to the evident surprise and delight of the audience. Turns out the square in the suit can rap after all.
Grist’s victory over his better-known opponent may have come as a shock to some in the rap battle scene, but anyone familiar with his previous Fringe appearances would probably have backed him to win.
In 2010, Grist and hip-hop MC Mixy put on a show under their Dead Poets moniker in which they had fun with the disconnect between Grist’s decidedly uncool appearance and his fearsome rapping skills. Throughout the show, Grist – who was made poet laureate of Peterborough in 2008 in recognition of his conventional poetry prowess – played the urbane wordsmith to Mixy’s streetwise rapper, but for the final act they swapped styles, to humorous effect. In a way, then, Grist’s career-defining battle against Blizzard was simply a variation on this theme – the same gag, only played out in a different setting.
At the end of the 2010 Fringe both Grist and Mixy decided to quit their day jobs and go full-time as poets and rappers, and this year they are back in Edinburgh again, only with solo shows at different venues. Mixy’s show Content, at the Royal Oak, is concerned with materialism and what it takes to make us happy; Grist, meanwhile, is at Underbelly Cowgate with a show called Rogue Teacher, which tells the story of his decision to quit teaching and the fall-out from his now-famous battle with Blizzard.
“There’s some rap, there’s some poetry, there’s a fair few jokes and quite a few embarrassing stories as well,” he says. “Essentially it’s about this journey from quite a safe and stable job that I found really rewarding but that, due to circumstances I explain within the show, I just don’t feel that I can do any more, to becoming a rapper.”
“I have a bit of a crisis of conscience, I suppose, so I decide that I’m going to leave. And then I start to realise the ramifications of that in the middle of a recession – and also I realise that, suddenly, I’m not doing something that I feel quite good about myself for doing any more.’”
Filmed as part of the Don’t Flop rap battle league, the Mark Grist v Blizzard encounter went viral last December. Grist left teaching about a year before that, yet he still seems inexorably drawn to the classroom, whether that’s to run rap-related workshops or to take part in “classroom interventions” with Mixy. On his website, he describes himself as “a poet and educational consultant”.
Most teachers are delighted to have the Dead Poets in to liven up their English classes, but inevitably perhaps, given the X-rated language Grist uses in some of his rap battles, a few have expressed reservations.
“I’ve not had a single negative experience,” he says of the work he now does in schools. “The only thing that was funny was when I went back to my old school, they seemed slightly… they just wanted to check what kind of language was going to be used within the workshops.
“Then when I actually went back to the school the kids were all really excited to see me and as I was leaving they all started chanting ‘you wank off in sandals to pictures of Gandalf’ [a line from his battle against Blizzard] and that was my moment – that was my moment when I just stood and I was like… wow, is this what I’ve done?”
Grist was born in Northampton but spent many of his formative years in Scotland, after his father, a building surveyor working for the RAF, was transferred to Unst in the Shetland Isles. The family moved there when Mark was seven and stayed until he was “11 or 12”.
“There were no trees on Shetland,” he says, “so those were the two questions I got asked when we moved there: have you ever eaten a McDonalds and have you ever seen a tree? All the houses were bungalows, too, so there were no steps. I’d taken over a Slinky and I spent hours and hours with these other kids trying to explain to them how a Slinky worked. Good times.”
There then followed a year in Aberdeen that was somewhat less idyllic. “I used to get beaten up quite a bit,” remembers Grist. “It was because I was from Shetland. When I first moved to Aberdeen I went to the local park to play with the kids down there. Then a load of other kids marched down to the park all chanting “Shetland Boy” and beat the crap out of me. I think it was the accent that gave me away. My parents said they couldn’t believe how quickly I picked it up when we moved to Shetland. People in Aberdeen found it difficult to understand what I was saying because my accent was so strong, but I soon lost it.”
The Grists then moved to Bristol, where a teenage Mark was “a bit cheeky and a bit disruptive” at school. He went on to study American and English Literature at the University of East Anglia and then moved to Peterborough to teach – all of which left him with “a slight Bristolian twang, a slight Peterborean twang – but I probably don’t have a particularly identifiable accent.”
When Grist’s rap battle against Blizzard went viral, one newspaper headline read “30-year-old abandons classroom career to become a RAPPER” as if it was impossible to conceive of two less compatible careers. But although Grist may still be struggling to reconcile the two strands of his professional life, you can’t help feeling he’d have a better chance than most of inspiring creativity and enthusiasm in a class of bored teens.
“A lot of the problems we have with teenagers’ creative output at the moment is that we keep telling them the kind of art they should be interested in,” he says.
“We have kids who say they don’t like English lessons and yet they’ll go out and hide from adults in the evenings in car parks and record lyrics onto each others’ phones. I know so many kids who do that – they’re really into that kind of stuff – but we kind of shove it away.
“I just want to do something that will allow teachers to actually communicate with students about it – that will actually allow a dialogue to take place.”
• Mark Grist – Rogue Teacher, Underbelly Cowgate, until 26 August. Today, 5:10pm.
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