The hip hop scene in Britain is a hugely multi-faceted and exciting place to be at present. There are those concerned with escaping their humdrum realities, trying to make the most of they were given, living and breathing the lifestyle they preach, like High Focus records, London Zoo, Rum Committee, Northern Structure and, in fact, a vast majority of UK Hip Hop. There are those focussed on social change and politics, like Ed Greens, Akala and SGB. There are those that weave graphic horror stories and violent imagescapes, in the vein of Cruger and Rhyme Asylum. There are, however, a small contingent of us who adopt characters, create bizarre scenarios and use jokes to try and convey our world view. It is an often overlooked segment of hip hop culture, especially in the UK where the combination of humour and hip hop haven’t until recently been seen as commercially viable. Hip Hop provides a voice for the economically and socially marginalised: if that includes slightly plump Jewish boys with a penchant for not having sex much, I’ll take it. As part of a comedy hip hop duo (Sanity Valve, google us) that has been met with a surprising amount of local success, we’ve had to break down a lot of barriers to convince people to listen to us. I wanted to explore those barriers and maybe explain a little about why people like myself do things like this.
The stratospheric climb of Don’t Flop over the last few years has brought to light the conflict between humorous mockery of an opponent and the systematic, lyrical dismantling of their street persona. As has been discussed in other blog posts, bars and jokes are considered to be opposing schools of thought. In my opinion, the debate with specific regards to battling is void: with the spectrum of styles and approaches to enjoy inside and outside of the battle league, a battler should be judged on the merits of their individual performance; in their mastery of the language, projection, charisma and use of unique and thrilling ideas. However, this debate points to a clash of styles outside of battling that never really sees the light of day, and the undercurrent of UK Hip Hop comedy gives us a scene that really is unique.
Many argue that because of the tendencies of comedy to subvert the norms and conventions of the culture into which it is dumped, the adaption of the slang and lifestyle into a comic context is an affront to those that struggled (and continue to struggle) for their place. It is often confused with ‘novelty’ rap (like Morris and the Minors, or Eddie Vegas) and disregarded. In actuality, the relationship between ‘authentic’ hip hop and comedy are more blurred than purists would care to admit. Doc Brown, now making television stand-up appearances, started out on tracks with heavyweights Tony D, Lowkey and Reveal, displaying an impressive conversational and self-reflective style that has neatly transferred to a blossoming stand-up comedy/ hip hop career. Abandoman, the self-professed ‘7th most popular rapper in Ireland’ is a comedy freestyle artist, and could quite easily sustain a three day long battle with Supernatural, maybe even coming up trumps. His ability to form punchlines in a matter of seconds is equal to, if not better than, the likes of Scizzahs and Tenchoo, yet, though a successful touring comic, he goes unheralded on a wider hip hop platform. Elemental (largely under the guise of Professor Elemental) makes giddy, positive, simple songs about tea and feeling splendid whilst wearing century-old costumes, and his genuine lyricism has been honed in ciphers, workshops and international gigs. Over one million views later, and with ‘Rebel Without Applause’, possibly my favourite album, under his belt, he is still largely playing steampunk and fetish nights. Tim Minchin is an exceptional musician. Tim Key is an exceptional poet. Both apply their craft to comedy, and the former played the O2 Arena this year. Neither are regarded as anything less than world class in their field for it. So why do comedy Hip Hop artists face those exact stigma?
As I see it, comedy is not a genre, it is an ethic with which to approach an art form. The days of pure, vaudeville slapstick are gone, and have become part of so many other media that it has to be considered so. Traditions have been gleefully shat on time after time, by the Marx Brothers, by Monty Python, by the League of Gentleman buffoons, and now we’re met with a move into means outside of traditional sketch, song and stand up comedy. Hip Hop, similarly acting as a voice for the disenfranchised and outcast, was a sitting duck for becoming an inventive new playground for comic thinkers. Starting out, I speak for myself when it WAS about finding new ways to say the word ‘knob’ and rhyme things with it. Four years on, it’s now about character, about storytelling and about positioning of egos within a set piece.
By the latter, I mean this, and battling is a prime example: I am referring to the battler’s placement of themselves in the context and in regards to the other MC. Lunar C, by no means a comedy MC but with a strong grasp of its mechanics, takes a position of arrogance: by using a wider vocabulary than the other person, and by flippantly throwing streams of grotesque imagery and complex wordplay into the mix, Lunar undercuts his opponent’s ego. In a manner reminiscent of a young Stewart Lee (take that comparison with a fist-sized pinch of salt) he demeans the audience and his target and with this obnoxious willingness to be hated, he gains fans and destroys contexts. Battlers like Oshea, Stowaway, Two-Can, Aukes and myself take a different approach. By using our own unassuming personae against ourselves, we remove the wind from opponents’ sails and make them look ridiculous for even remotely taking us seriously. Sacha Baron Cohen uses this tactic in films like Borat: Borat is a cretin. Baron Cohen is an exceptional performer. Innocuous as we are, we’ve all won battles.
Which brings me back to comedy Hip Hop. As a culture that promotes expression, stories and audience involvement (what better way than a well crafted joke?) we should be embracing the comic way of thinking. Yet, though Hip Hop is fast gaining credentials in a mainstream comedy market, comedy is yet to push its way through at the opposite end. It’s easy to overthink it (as I successfully have done for over a thousand words) but ultimately Hip Hop is appealing because it is fun to watch and to perform and provides a sense of belonging and identity for everyone involved. The comedy community functions in the same vein, and the London sketch circuit and Hip Hop communities work in surprisingly similar ways. People collaborate, cultivate ideas, build up to big events together and always support each other’s work. A bunch of freaks clubbing together to create something. Isn’t that what it’s all about?