The Overlap Between Rap & Comedy
Giants of Entertainment That Go Together As Naturally As PB&J
At face value, one might not initially suppose the Venn diagram of the worlds of comedy and hip-hop would have much overlap. Hip-hop carries a reputation of machismo and braggadocio, whereas comedians are more often thought of as being self-deprecating. Rap takes itself seriously, comedy (supposedly) doesn’t. Ultimately, they share more than they differ, in my opinion, and together they create a wonderful fusion of linguistic cleverness, observational creativity, and levity.
In fact, if you know where to look, plenty of comedic bars can be found in the early days of hip-hop with the likes of Run DMC, The Fugees, Snoop Dogg, and N.W.A. Quality punchlines have always been a marker of both great comedians and emcees.
“So put a quarter in ya ass, cause ya played yaself.”
-Big Daddy Kane, The Symphony (1988)
For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a penchant for both hip-hop and comedy. Even when all my parents would allow me to listen to was Christian music, I took an interest in Christian rap. Most of it is pretty cringe-y in hindsight, even after rediscovering my faith in the Divine, but that’s what I gravitated toward. KJ-52, DC Talk, and Toby Mac were constantly in rotation in my CD player. As I started to drift away from religiosity, my music taste started incorporating more secular artists.
For just as long as I’ve gravitated toward the rhythmic poetry of hip-hop, I’ve loved listening to funny people. The first stand-up comedian I remember popping up on my radar was Dane Cook, right around 2007–08. He was confident, animated, and visibly had a passion for what he was doing. It wasn’t long before I started expanding my horizons to more venerated comedians like Carlin and Hicks.
“If you don’t know who Big Daddy Kane is, you can go fuck yourself.”
-Tom Segura, Completely Normal (2014)
The Roots of The Merging
I think the first merging of rap and comedy I ever heard probably came from either Afroman’s Because I Got High or Weird Al Yankovic with White & Nerdy. The melding of these two entertainment titans may have started out as satirical, but the amalgam of comedic hip-hop has evolved into something beyond satire. In the 90’s, there wasn’t as much blurring of the lines; Weird Al was never really considered a “rapper”. But as both genres have evolved, so too has their crossover.
Dave Chappelle definitely contributed heavily to the intersection of these seemingly separate sectors of entertainment, frequently featuring hip-hop acts on episodes of Chappelle’s Show in the early 2000’s. Likewise, Katt Williams’ song Sweat Cha Perm Out with Lil John and DJ Storm was used in his act on stage for his special The Pimp Chronicles.
“What’cha call a girl who don’t suck dick? Ya don’t!”
-J.I.D., Never (2017)
Eminem, and especially his work with D12, are another prime example of earlier merging of comedy and hip-hop, his discography rife with goofy songs like Cum on Everybody, Ass Like That, and My Band, counteracting the bitter angst of so much of his more readily recognized work.
The Boondocks, Adult Swim’s animated series which premiered in 2005, also lent a significant contribution toward bridging the worlds of comedy and rap, particularly with the episodes exploring the life of fictional rapper “Gangstalicious”. The detailing of the rise and fall of Gangstalicious mirrors several real life examples of the short-lived successes of the music industry, none of whom I’m going to name.
My mom has been a French professor since I was a young’un, so I was also introduced to a few foreign comedic rappers early on, namely Kamini and Fatal Bazooka. I consider Kamini’s “Je suis Blanc” and Fatal Bazooka’s “Fous Ta Cagoule” to be milestones in my music taste’s formative years.
Recently, a Russian rapper Morgenshtern has gained American attention due to TikTok popularizing his song “Ice” in meme fashion. Curiously, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of consistency in how its utilized, but at the time I am writing this, it has over 37 million plays on Spotify, the most of any of his songs.
The New School
New artists like Bandingo YGNE, Lil Dicky, Yung Gravy, Dbangz, and plenty of others, have carved out a growing niche of rappers with verifiable talent for the craft (some more than others) and a comedic wit, popularly dubbed Meme Rap. Typically characterized by use of pop culture samples, video game sounds, and pop culture references contained within their rhymes, Meme Rap generally does not express a desire to be taken seriously, even though some definitely possess the skill. Lil Dicky’s freestyle on the Sway in the Morning radio show is widely heralded as being one of the best freestyles they’ve had on the show.
Another one of the greatest freestyles featured on Sway, Childish Gambino (AKA Donald Glover) strikes me as one of the best examples because of his fluidity between genres of music, as well as forms of creative expression. Glover has stand-up specials, a prolific music catalogue (which isn’t confined to rap), as well as actor/writer/producer accolades from his show on FX, Atlanta, and comedic acting credits on Community and The Mystery Team. His album Camp from 2011 is a prime example of rap that falls squarely on the line between taking itself seriously and jokes. Donald Glover can’t be labeled as either an actor who raps or a rapper who acts; everything he does, he does excellently.
Bo Burnham never sincerely tried to paint himself as a rapper, as far as I can tell, though he made a number of comedic rap songs like “OH BO” which actually contain some impressive bars. He has the technical talent and writing prowess, but he is blindingly white, so I understand his not pursuing rap outright.
Two Sides of the Same Coin
While there are a plethora of genre-bending comedic rappers popping up all over the internet, more traditionally recognized rappers flex their sense of humor in their rhymes perpetually. J.I.D., A$AP Ferg and Rocky, and Logic, just to name a few, have catalogues of songs full of innuendo, wordplay, and jocular story-telling.
“If I see Ri-ri, please believe me, I’mma eat it like panini,”
-A$AP Ferg, Plain Jane (2017)
Comedy and rap share a lot of the same subject matter, which is why I feel they meld so comfortably. Wealth inequality, drugs (marijuana especially), racial tension, sex, and politics are some of the most common themes in both sectors, so they feel like different pieces of the same jigsaw. Both forms of expression thrive on connectivity, and both rely heavily on the transformation of painful experience into something to be appreciated.