ItsTheReal Blurs the Line Between Serious Hip Hop and Parody with ‘Urbane Outfitters Vol. 1’
Many musicians moonlight with comedic output, and vice versa. From follow-worthy Twitter accounts to viral videos and other projects, Rimshot is a regular column highlighting some of the most interesting crossovers between the worlds of independent music and comedy.
Whether or not they’re always intended to bring laughs, the set-up and delivery of hip-hop lyrics often bear a comedic resemblance. Add in larger than life personas, out-there lifestyles and a lifetime supply of cultural tropes, and the world of rap is ripe for humorous endeavours.
New York brothers Eric and Jeff Rosenthal have made viral videos lovingly lampooning the movement since 2007 at their site http://itsthereal.tumblr.com/ ItsTheReal. Now, they’re performing as a duo with the same name.
ItsTheReal release their debut mixtape Urbane Outfitters Vol. 1 today via DatPiff, and it’s another project that toes the line between super serious rap culture and winking comedy. Just take a look at the guestlist: along with Hannibal Buress, they’ve called in favours from the likes of Bun B, Maino, Freeway, Lil Jon and even mixtape mainstay DJ Drama, who hosts.
We caught up with the duo to find out more about Urbane Outfitters and just how seriously they take this joke rap shit.
How long have you guys been making music together?
Eric: Any recordings we made in the summer nights years ago were inside jokes with our day camp friends — multiple album-length projects that featured original songs where we’d roast our fellow workers and friends, all over beats crafted by our long-time best friend Greg Mayo. For whatever reason, we took it super seriously, and… oh my god. I just now realized we were dorks.
Jeff: And now after six years of doing a bunch of things in the hip-hop community (making weekly sketch videos for ItsTheReal.com from 2007-on; the Hypemen podcast with our great friend Jensen Karp; doing funny-slash-aggressive interviews for MTV and Bonnaroo) we decided that it was time we stop commenting on the culture and try to take a more active role… which means now we’re rapping, alongside actual rappers, on a mixtape presented by DJ Drama, which is the weirdest thing to explain to our Mom. Thankfully, Grandma is a huge DJ Drama fan, so we’re good with her.
What’s the goal of Urbane Outfitters Vol 1? Is this just a hobby or something you’d like to do full-time if you could?
Eric: The goal of the mixtape itself is to shine a light on notorious tropes and comment on them in a new way. Hip-hop is ingrained in us, and just like any of the projects we’ve taken on, this has our voice and perspective, only now what we say rhymes and may get stuck in your head. (We’re sorry.)
Jeff: We’ve basically performed a roast of rappers, rap culture and hip-hop figures over the past six years…and even early on, we started becoming friends with these guys. And so we did videos with Cam’ron, Nick Cannon, the Clipse, Max B, Slaughterhouse… everybody. And MTV showed that we were really having fun with everyone from Rick Ross to Mac Miller, A$AP Rocky to Vinny from Jersey Shore and Stevie Wonder. So, it becomes harder to make those same jokes when you’re not as removed. Luckily with this project though, it’s a guaranteed way to get our own clothing line, liquor, and into the Fast and Furious franchise.
Jeff, I assume you are the same Jeff Rosenthal who writes about rap for Rolling Stone, which adds another dimension to this project. Does writing about rap every day affect the way you approach this project? Does making fun of rap tropes stem from being over-saturated with them for work?
Jeff: As Jay-Z said, “He is I and I am him.” (The following lyric from that song… doesn’t apply to me.) What happened is that Maura Johnston (formerly) at the Village Voice thought our videos were funny, and that I should be a writer for them. So I started writing concert reviews for them, and later for Rolling Stone. That started in 2010, I think. It’s been a fun side-gig — I get to see concerts for free! — which has allowed me to show that it’s not just jokes for me or Eric; that there’s a depth of knowledge here. Anyway, we knew the behind-the-scenes stories from the jump: Eric went to the Grammys with Kanye in 2005; we’ve seen the craziest things happen at concerts and parties and in the offices of record companies. We’ve been on a party bus with Flo Rida, ridden in Maino’s Bentley at 3AM, been invited to Cam’ron’s basement to see his strip club, and played Scrabble with Max B right before he went to jail. (Also, I starved on the Rihanna Plane, which I wrote up for Rolling Stone.)
The lines between comedy and rap are so blurred lately… it’s hard to tell the difference between Riff Raff and The Lonely Island. What makes comedy rap different from regular rap with jokey punchlines? Is there even a distinction?
Eric: First of all, there’s three members of The Lonely Island, and only one Riff Raff. (So stop, James Franco.) For our style of comedy rap, we wanted to walk that fine line between reality and ridiculousness, where the songs sounded so real that you could maybe hear them on Hot 97, if only they (our lyrics) weren’t so asinine. What The Daily Show and Colbert Report do for news, we’re doing for rap. As for the distinction between comedy rap and rappity rap, let’s just say we have a song with the legendary Bun B, on a trunk-banger of a track, where we salute the ladies who keep their nether regions au natural. It’s called “Girls with the Dirty Souths.”
How do you guys come up with a joke or a concept for a song? Does it start with a beat or an idea for a song?
Eric: It probably starts more often with an idea than a beat. And when it comes to styles or themes to poke fun at, there’s a lot of struggle-rap out there to take inspiration from. We’d think of themes: okay, we want a song that sounds like Rick Ross on a yacht, but how could we flip it? So we do “Funemployment,” where we’re balling out on unemployment checks. Or a strip club anthem, or a gun song, or a mobbing song, or whatever, and we’d go up to the studio with Greg Mayo (remember him from our day camp days?! See: question 1), and we’d think of the perfect tempo, feel, style and structure. On top of that, our aim was to make it both funny and catchy.
Jeff: Eric’s just lying. Nas ghost-writes all of our material.
How did you get each of these big names involved with the project?
Eric: Bun has been a longtime fan of our work — in fact, the first time he called us on the phone, eager to act in an ItsTheReal sketch, he said, “First time, longtime,” which was pretty great. He has an extremely sharp sense of humor, and isn’t afraid to laugh at himself. Or us. He laughs at us a lot.
Jeff: He called me after the Rihanna Plane to see how I was doing. More importantly, we ran into him after a rapper threatened to punch us. Bun B told us that, one, that particular rapper had a horrible sense of humor, and two, that our faces were very punchable.
Jeff: I was in Brooklyn this one Friday night; it was around 1AM. I get this urgent text message from Eric, saying, “Maino’s coming over to hear the music, how close are you to the Upper West Side?” So, I got up and left what was shaping up to be a fun night… I got up there around 2, and about an hour later Maino rolls up in his Bentley. We drove around for about an hour while he slammed on the gas and screamed, “YOU GOT IT RIGHT, YOU MOTHERFUCKERS!” and he agreed to do it on the spot. Around 4, Eric and I walked into our building lobby and had to explain to our doorman that we weren’t drug dealers.
Eric: We met Hannibal years ago at one of Cipha Sounds’ comedy shows at Comix on 14th street (since closed). We thought Hannibal was the funniest person on stage that night by far, and afterwards he came up to us and said he was a fan of ours, and would love to collaborate. We became friends over the years, and this mixtape seemed like the great way to work together. He recorded his parts at our apartment over a year ago — he’s featured on a skit on Vol. 1, and on another one on Vol. 2 — and just last week, emailed to say he still doubted that the mixtape would ever going to be released.
Jeff: I actually met Free in Philly last year at Jay-Z’s event where he announced the Made In America festival. But more importantly is what he said when we emailed after he sent his verse over: “What’s good Rosenthal’s thanks for the love I was afraid I was going to get murdered on y’alls shit. We’ll link soon! Kufi’s and yamakas’s stand up.” We still need to get halal together, Amir!
Eric: Aside from being one of the most successful artists / producers / personalities of the last ten years, Lil Jon’s a Celebrity Apprentice All-Star, and really, there’s only about a dozen of them, so we knew we had to get him. Jon appears on our song about selling out, “Just to Make Dough.”
Jeff: So, we go up to Max B’s apartment in the Bronx years ago, 2008 or 2009, to film this video we were doing for our site. Max B had a lot of made-up words he liked to say (“Waaaavvy,” “Ooooowwwww”), so we wanted to joke around about that. Also, his laugh. Anyway, it was this crazy experience: the apartment had zero furniture in it, except for an ottoman, but we were still asked to take our shoes off. Max was slugging around a bottle of Hennessey and chain-smoking. A bunch of Max’s friends were two feet off camera, their eyes glazed over, looking dead and/or super-annoyed that we were there… with a giant fucking Scrabble board and a camera. We were told Ron Artest was coming and could we include him in the script? Insane. Anyway, Tha Bizness and Mistah FAB were there, and we were probably the only ones having fun while also being terrified.
Eric: We did his taxes for him.
Who is the funniest rapper?
Jeff: Cam’ron, definitely. Also, Jean Grae. NORE can be very funny, same with Mac Miller. And A$AP Yams isn’t a rapper, but he can’t NOT be mentioned here.
Who is the funniest person in the world?
Eric: Forget Louis C.K. Forget Tina Fey. Forget Hannibal Buress. Forget Dave Attell. Forget Chris Rock. More than any of those amazing people, this guy made me cry laughing.