The New Negroes and the Bridge Between Hip-Hop and Comedy

In advance of the launch of "The New Negroes" on Comedy Central, Will Hagle explores the relationship between hip-hop and comedy.
By    April 17, 2019

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On April 19, Comedy Central debuts the televised version of The New Negroes. From its origins at Portland’s Bridgetown Comedy Festival to years of monthly shows at UCB in Los Angeles and elsewhere around the country, The New Negroes arrives with a built-in audience. As the show transitions from its humbler, DIY roots to arguably the main stage of mainstream comedy, co-hosts Baron Vaughn and Open Mike Eagle will be exposed to a broader swath of the zombified, channel-flipping American populace. The show they’ve created crosses numerous genre boundaries, pushes the edges of comedy, music, and everything in between.

Consider it a godsend that The New Negroes even got on the air. It’s as original as its creators themselves, a show that admirably refuses to be boxed into the inherently limiting categories that separate genres and art forms. As those that have attended the live show might attest, The New Negroes is a hip-hop show as much as it is a comedic show. There’s an elemental kinship between Baron Vaughn’s sing-song joke delivery and Open Mike Eagle’s dark, deadpan raps. They each put elements of both genres on display. Although the music is seemingly distinct from the comedy, both forms interact with the other to build the show that’s a strong and cohesive unit.

From the most passionate “comedy nerd” to the most clueless cable exec, most non rap obsessives often fail to understand that most great hip-hop is funny. I mean, the first popular rap song literally includes a bizarre Catskills-type monologue about a friend’s family dinner where they serve chicken that tastes like wood.

The relationship between hip-hop and comedy is much deeper than puns, punchlines, and other obvious technical similarities. It’s deeper even than N.W.A. or Wu Tang skits, Hannibal Burress or Andy Sandberg rapping, Dave Chappelle opening Talib Kweli’s Quality, Chris Rock, Lil’ Dicky or Donald Glover. Both have evolved together from their shared ancestral forms of live, spoken entertainment. They’ve diverged at numerous points, branched off in different directions, and still cross over quite frequently.

For the majority of his career, Open Mike Eagle has been associated first and foremost with music. Although his music has been described in different ways—from his self-invented “art rap” to “alternative/underground/comedic/____ rap”—his average fan would likely not categorize him as a comedian. With The New Negroes, that perception could potentially shift.

“In some ways, the show introduces me to new people as a comedian, but once they get familiar with me, it’s obvious that I’m a musician,” Open Mike Eagle says. “You’ll almost never catch me standing up with a microphone and no musical equipment, just telling some jokes.”

In each of the taped episodes of The New Negroes, however, Open Mike Eagle does stand alongside his co-host without the safety or comfort of his musical equipment. Although he’s low-key about it himself, describing the transition as “pretty chill,” and the only difference being “just me standing instead of sitting, basically” — there is some significance to Open Mike Eagle standing center stage and riffing with Vaughn. Paul Schaffer didn’t stand next to David Letterman while he delivered his monologue. On The New Negroes, Open Mike Eagle is more of an equally funny straight man in a comedy duo than a wisecracking musical sidekick. Yet admittedly, describing him in such terms feels like a lapse into unnecessary categorization.

Baron Vaughn, who founded The New Negroes before bringing Open Mike Eagle on board, also consciously seeks to challenge audience expectations and perceptions. One of his goals with his show has been to inspire crowds and comics to think about what it means to be a black comedian in the present day. Rather than shying away from categorization, Vaughn defines himself as belonging to a specific comedy subgenre: “black alternative.” “I’m like an alt-comic, but I’m a black comic,” Vaughn says.

From the The New Negroes’ first live incarnation, Baron had the lofty goal of facilitating deeper discussions about life, philosophy, race, and current events. That’s a tough task for shows performed in venues where audiences expect to laugh without thinking too much. Vaughn found that the level of comic-to-audience communication in his show only reached a higher plateau once they added musical accompaniment.

“I thought [Open Mike Eagle’s] consciousness, the way he talks, the way he raps, the rhythms in which he raps, the subjects that he likes to examine, and the way he likes to examine them would be interesting for a comedy audience to tune into in a way that they don’t normally tune into comedy,” Vaughn says. “I wanted to create a space where people could experiment with what they believe they are as a comedian, and to have a sonic consciousness to that space. And that became Open Mike.”

In the live setting, Eagle performs songs twice to break up the roster of six comedians; in the televised format he co-hosts the show and performs Lance Bangs-directed music videos alongside special guests like Danny Brown, MF Doom, and Phonte. Vaughn describes his inclusion as fundamentally altering the audience’s perception of their comedy experience.

“[The inclusion of music] makes the audience think differently. There’s a little bit more focus—almost like an active listening, in a way, that is different than a lot of standup,” Vaughn says. “If you do a standup show and you expect everything to be funny, then that brings its own baggage. But if you are expecting an exchange of ideas, then it lessens the [expectation that] ‘everything has to be funny,’ and you want to hear some interesting ideas. When it’s funny, then it’s like the icing on the cake.’”

“I think in some ways it’s kind of like a reset,” Open Mike Eagle adds. “It pushes the show along. If you had another standup instead of the two songs, the show might feel a little long. I think the mix of energy makes it more of an arc in the live show. I think just because my music can lead a little comedic, it makes sense, more so than just coming out and doing a random live song.”

With The New Negroes, Baron Vaughn and Open Mike Eagle get unique ideas across while being simultaneously funny and serious. The amount of “mainstream rappers” (that is, popular rappers who aren’t considered “comedy rappers”) who have hilarious personalities or lyrics that they offset with weighty insight is far too high to list here. In fact, it could be argued that the amount of “funny” rappers vastly outweighs the amount of “serious” ones, because even the most serious ones have their funny moments.

“It’s all about the turn of phrase in both hip hop and comedy,” Vaughn says. “What’s the best way to encapsulate a compelling idea? Sometimes the idea is dramatic, sometimes it’s comedic. I think hip hop does this more than comedy does, because comedy is always going for the joke, but hip-hop can straddle that line. Being able to go back and forth from the serious to the comedic to the serious to the comedic in one line in one song in an album and tell a story like that is the sign of someone who is accepting the complexity of the world, if you will.”

For the televised version of The New Negroes, Open Mike Eagle wisely selected a lineup of guest artists to contribute to his music video vignettes that end each episode. The first few episodes feature Danny Brown, MF Doom, and Phonte, respectively. In each of them, the guest MCs adhere to the comedic theme of the song. If you (somehow) didn’t know who any of them were, you might even think they were always that funny.

Open Mike Eagle intentionally leaned into his funnier side, and encouraged his guest artists to do the same. “I definitely wanted to embrace and dig from comedic side a little bit more for the music, just because my music without any direction or guidelines can also be kind of dark. That wasn’t necessarily the tone the show was going for. So I felt like if I came from it from my comedic values, that would put me in a better position that would make sense with the comedy show,” Open Mike Eagle says.

Some comedic rap songs that feature celebrity guests are humorous simply because of the out-of-place nature of the guest in question. A Lonely Island song featuring Michael Bolton, for instance, might just be funny because Michael Bolton isn’t supposed to be on a rap song (or a comedy song, for that matter). The musical guests on The New Negroes, like the co-hosts themselves, each possess an obvious sense of humor that often emerges in their musical work. Still, audiences may view their inclusion as incongruous, and laugh or feel uncomfortable accordingly.

“Instead of them playing it super straight and having their appearance itself be the humor, I think this gave an opportunity to performers who often don’t get a chance to show that they can play humorous, to have more fun,” Open Mike Eagle says. “Their willingness to do so really amplified what we we’re able to do. I wouldn’t have been above just having someone play it super straight, but I think I enjoy it more that everybody kind of went along and really wanted to push the envelope and deliver the performances too. I really think it gave a few of them to stretch their legs on camera in a way that they hadn’t before.”

Not even MF Doom, episode 2’s featured musical guest and one of the world’s most revered hip-hop lyricists, is above the most important element of comedy: the pun. Everyone in hip-hop (except Open Mike Eagle, it turns out) embraces the pun. It might prove to be the great connector, because it is essential to both art forms.

“People hate puns, unless you’re a really good rapper. Then they love puns. If it’s on a Swiss Beatz beat and you make a good pun, if you’re on a Dilla beat and you make a good pun, people are going to be with you,” Vaughn says.

“I hate [puns] a lot, and everybody knows I hate them a lot, so they do them around me a lot, because they know I hate them,” Open Mike Eagle says.

Although the similarities between hip-hop and comedy abound, there are downsides. Some rappers, like some comedians, can be considered funny more for their personalities or behavior than for what they’re actually saying in their songs.

“ODB was a huge personality. Some of the stuff that he’s doing, he means to be funny. Some of it you’re just like, I can’t tell anymore. Is this just who this guy is? Has he created this persona? But then people who know him are just like, no that’s exactly who he was,” Vaughn says.

Another unfortunate side effect of rappers being humorous is that sometimes audiences can laugh at them for the wrong reasons: because they’re from a different culture, speak in a certain way, or because of some other fundamental misunderstanding. It is, of course, a two-way street. The best artists, like Kendrick Lamar can make depressing music about alcoholism sound like a frat house drinking anthem (“Swimming Pools),” thus subverting audience expectations.

Many comedy shows have incorporated elements of hip-hop. SNL breaks up their sketches with live songs, occasionally booking rappers. Kid Capri DJed for Def Comedy Jam. Chappelle’s Show incorporated hip-hop in several innovative ways. Coach Tea, the DJ at the Comedy Store’s weekly Roast Battle show in Los Angeles, can get audiences roaring with laughter simply through his song selection. Vaughn claims the show that he’s most “standing on the shoulders of” is Robert Townsend’s Partners In Crime: a “proto-Def Comedy Jam” and “proto-In Living Color” that included personalities from both shows as well as standup, music, and sketches.

Ultimately, Vaughn and Eagle’s project is innovative in the way it toys with audience perception, encouraging the masses to think more deeply than they would if they were mindlessly consuming comedy or hip-hop as entertainment. It’s also extremely funny. For now, the world that we have created and operate in might perceive of hip-hop and comedy as two distinct entities — a categorization that exists for logical reasons. But Baron Vaughn and Open Mike Eagle are blurring the lines in the best possible way, transforming our collective idea of what to expect from rap and comedy, however you choose to define them.

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