Rap and comedy haven’t intersected much over the years. Outside of the occasional punchline, hip-hop hasn’t often welcomed the idea of being “funny.”
But the past two years have seen something of a hip-hop comedy explosion. One of the first to really get it right without coming off corny to either subset is Eliza Skinner, whose new show Turnt Up! returns to the UCB Theatre on Franklin tonight.
Along with being named one of Time Out Los Angeles' “Comedians to Watch in 2015,” Skinner is a heck of an MC as well. Originally from Richmond, Virginia, she moved to New York to pursue comedy after college.
“I’d been in a short-form [improv] group in college, and in New York, I’d been hired by a company who did short-form, but they had a musical section,” she explains. “I’d been trying to do that in college, but we didn’t know you could have a piano player or musicians on stage.”
Skinner saw the tension between musical improv and the rest of the improv community first hand. “Back then people thought that it was ‘easier’ and that audiences just like music, so it didn’t really count. They acted like it was cheating.”
Even in hip-hop’s home city, “rap improv” didn’t really exist. “Improv mostly came from Chicago, and in Chicago they mostly had piano players underscoring their shows. People started singing along, and then you had musical improv. But whenever people would rap, they were rapping to a piano, and that sounds terrible. It was really embarrassing and never really took off.”
After Freestyle Love Supreme, a group with a hip-hop and improv background, started to find an audience in the mid-2000s, member and acclaimed beatboxer Chris “Shockwave” Sullivan enthusiastically began pushing Skinner to create a hip-hop-centric show. Thus her first show, The Beatdown, was born. “That was the first hip-hop improv show in New York,” Skinner says. “Other groups came a few years later out of that, but we were the one.”
Having Sullivan provide a beatbox for comedians rap battling each other gave the show immediate hip-hop credibility. Originally at East Village’s Mo Pitkins, the shows quickly became packed, as both hip-hop and comedy fans (including Jimmy Fallon) came to see performers like Reggie Watts, Pete Holmes, “UTK” Utkarsh Ambudkar and Donald Glover, who grabbed the mic in some of his earliest Childish Gambino appearances.
Those early shows set themselves apart by taking performers out of their comfort zones. “I love how honestly nervous people get about it. People get kind of complacent into doing their act, and The Beatdown was not at all anyone’s act,” says Skinner.
After Mo Pitkins closed in 2007, the show moved New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade theater. Its success seemed to trump the criticisms from those who viewed musical improv unfavorably at the time. “A lot of the same people who were like ‘Music is dumb’ were like 'Rap is cool,’ and the people who said ‘Musical improv is cheating’ were like, ‘How can I get on this show?’”
The show wound up attracting well-known rappers as well, but the unpredictable nature of improv comedy would often result in surprises. “MC Chris [did] the show and he would lose to someone who would know how to work the audience, like Michelle Collins,” Skinner recalls.
When early battles occasionally veered into meaner territory, Skinner began clarifying the differences between The Beatdown and a more traditional rap battle, “In other battles, you’re trying to insult each other, take each other down. In our show, it’s about being clever and funny and working with the audience.”
Skinner relocated to Los Angeles at the end of 2010, and now she and Sullivan continue to host different versions of the show on both coasts. Initially, she ran into some challenges in bringing The Beatdown out west. “It started getting a lot harder to get stand-ups or anybody who didn’t already think they were good at it to do it. There’s so many industry eyes out here, whereas in New York you feel like nobody’s paying attention to what you’re doing, so you can kind of screw around. There were also more rappers out here who wanted to get more involved.”
Sullivan and Skinner eventually agreed to change the names and format of both incarnations of The Beatdown. While New York’s was rechristened Battlicious, last December saw the debut of Skinner’s Turnt Up!.
Skinner also teaches musical improv classes at UCB, which use a lot of rap exercises. “It’s really good for rhythm and rhyming.”
Ten years after the first Beatdown show, Skinner has seen a change in the way new aspiring improvisers take to rapping. “At this point, [rap] is a fact in their lives. For people getting into improv now, as long as [they’ve seen] improv, there’s been my show, or shows like it, and [they] don’t even think to judge it. It just is, and there’s more people getting excited about it.”