Freestyle rap and improv comedy have plenty in common. First, both have some very strict rules: you aren’t supposed to come in with any pre-written material, and you have to adhere to a commonly expected rhythm that is consistent with the rules of your craft. So it seems almost obvious that improv comics would want to at least try their hand at freestyle rap. And, who knows? Maybe they might actually be good at it. Comedian Eliza Skinner decided it was worthwhile to find out, so she put together a show that challenges comics to attempt to freestyle rap. And she brought that show to SF for the first time as part of this year’s Sketchfest, just to show us that it kind of works a bit.
Opening the show was a three piece sketch ensemble from North Carolina. They took their short set time and managed to fire through eight sketches in 20 minutes; they opened with a rousing performance of “Stuck in the Middle with You” with a rousing hand clap that turned into an analysis of power and crowd control. We proceeded to be treated to sketches about ghosts, elevator protocol, pesky Sith lords bothering your outdoor meal, cheating at live performance, anxiety, Murder She Wrote, and time-traveling anonymous sex. It was a lot of high energy fun, and warmed us up quite nicely for the main event.
The main event? That was a freestyle rap battle between six different comics. They weren’t allowed to prepare any material in advance. MC for the evening was Eliza Skinner, who opened the show with a freestyle based on a suggestion from the crowd (that suggestion was “Cheeto,” for those keeping score). She, along with the other rappers of the evening, was backed by Joshua Silverstein on beat box. And, yes, he beat boxed for nearly an hour straight, with barely a moment to stop for water. And, yes, he did pull out a harmonica and beat boxed through a harmonica for about a minute. You don’t need to keep reading… Silverstein was the most talented person on that stage this evening.
Our six comics each performed under an alias. Myq Kaplan was known as Simplici-T, dressed up as, well, Myq Kaplan. Ben Molina wore a makeshift pope’s costume and went by the name Young Pope. Mateen Stewart dressed up in sort of hippie/hip-hop fusion wear, akin to Ishmael Butler of Digable Planets / Shabazz Palaces fame, and went by the name M<dot>S<dot>. April Richardson was a goth rapper who went by the name of Thursday Adams. Josef Anolin was the legendary Filipino rapper Danny Pacquiao. The final contestant was Dulce Sloan, wearing a leopard print blouse, and performing under the name Leopard Pump.
The event was divided into three rounds, each featuring a rapper doing two 30 second battles. The first round featured all six performers paired off, forced to battle each other, and the winner then went on to the next round. Simplici-T handily beat Young Pope, with a smooth and smart flow, calling out Pope when Pope admitted to forgetting his pre-written material. Thursday Adam’s flow was awkward and simply not good, while M<dot>S<dot> managed to summon Too $hort’s signature flow nicely, while forgoing Too $hort’s penchant for using his favorite word (Editor’s Note: If you don’t know what Too $hort’s favorite word is, I don’t know how you ended up reading a Bay Area music blog). The third paring was Pacquiao and Leopard, and they were my favorite pairing of the night. Leopard decided her immediate goal was to flirt hard with Pacquiao, and Pacquiao reciprocated nicely. I think his face may have been beet red by then end of the battle, but he still handily won.
Round two started out with a brief, ten second battle between all three losers, as one loser got to move on to round two. Thursday and Young Pope were both lacking in the flow department, and, although Leopard Pimp insisted that she was drunk and jet lagged and “didn’t want to keep going,” she managed to pretty much dust the other two.
With that, we had M<dot>S<dot> battle Danny Pacquiao, with two sets of 45 second battles. S<dot> spent time ragging on the Golden State Warriors, which fired up Pacquiao to the point where he felt like he had to win, or else he’s embarrassing the entire top half of the country. Which he handily did. Leopard Pump spent her first set still flirting with Pacquaio, causing Simplici-T to rap about being annoyed that she wasn’t battling the right rapper, and he mocked her flow pretty heavily… Heavily enough to win the second round, taking us to the final.
The final battle was two one-minute freestyles. Yes, each contestant basically had to compose a whole new song on stage. Pacquiao started out strong, but ended up riding out the final ten seconds of each round by simply dancing in place. Simplici-T, on the other hand, kept up his biting mocks of his appointments, keeping a sharp wit. I almost wondered if he battled actual rappers at any point in time.
The whole affair ended with Simplici-T taking a proper victory lap, doing a final freestyle, making sure to plug his Netflix special. This was the first time Skinner brought her Turnt Up show to the Bay Area, and it was an immense amount of fun. So, if you are ever down in L.A., she does it monthly at the UCB Theater. Or you can just be sad that you didn’t go see it here.