Words by Brian Padilla
When thinking about improvisation, the jazz greats come to mind: Louie Armstrong, Miles Davis, and Charlie Parker, the originators of impromptu playing. KRS-One flexing his lyrical prowess to Scott La Rock in the Boogie Down Bronx might also flash across your mental, or Eminem in a Detroit cellar, or Cassidy spitting off the dome to put on for the Illadelph. Hip hop definitely has ties to improvisation, but in regards to comedy, well, punchlines more often come in the form of couplets.
Despite some differences, the art of improvisational comedy is almost identical to Kendrick Lamar freestyling or Louie Armstrong scatting. In both forms, the artists are performing unscripted; they use their rehearsed talent to create an unrehearsed performance. TJ Del Reno said it best, “improv is a theater of the heart.” One could say the same for freestyling.
When I walk into Cipha Sounds’ improv rehearsal, he’s not in yet. Considering his schedule it’s really no surprise. Cipha’s day starts earlier then your local trash man’s. His Hot 97 morning show runs from 5 in the morning until 10 a.m. and constantly features the biggest names in hip hop; everyone from Jay Z to Tyler the Creator. He also hosts an improv show at Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in New York City every Friday night called “Take It Personal.” This 7 p.m. rehearsal is without a doubt the last stop before he heads home.
I’m greeted by TJ, the class’s instructor. He takes one look at me and knows, “You must be here for Sounds.” Jeez, was it the Wu-Tang shirt that gave it away? After I’m introduced, we make small talk while we wait for “Sounds” (as I’m now and forever going to refer to him as). He eventually drifts in and we’re ready to begin.
Sounds is trying out for the Harold team next week. From speaking with the comedians in the room and members of the UCB community, the Harold team is considered the holy grail of the theater. It’s a level of enviable fame. Not only is it respected amongst their comedy peers but it’s somewhat of a breeding grounds for television talent. If you are a star in the UCB theater you will become a star on a network show – or so they say.
Improv rehearsal reminds of a basketball practice in high school. Running through warm-up games and a form of improv that is known as the “Harold structure” looks mentally and physically exhausting. Watching Sounds, it’s clear that he’s tired from a long day at work but his passion dominates the fatigue. It makes me think of a James Franco at the Columbia library. Dude would be there all hours of the night studying for whatever Ph.D he didn’t have, but you could tell that despite the long hours, he really enjoyed it. That is definitely the case with Sounds.
Mass Appeal: What made you want to get into comedy in the first place?
Cipha Sounds: I always loved comedy but I never thought of being in it. I was just funny with my friends. When I got to be a personality on the radio I was doing a lot of funny stuff and people would come up to me and say, “Oh that was funny when you hung up on that girl” or “That was funny when you prank called a rapper.” I kept hearing people say funny funny funny and I thought it was a sign from above.
MA: How did “Take It Personal” come about? Did you just start taking classes at UCB and then bam you got your own show?
CS: The main flagship show at UCB is called ASSSSCAT 3000. They do pretty much the same thing by getting people to speak and do improv of their stories. They would ask me to try to get hip hop personalities to speak at their show. When I tried to ask certain people to do it they would ask if it was for me. I was seeing that they would do it for me if I asked them but since it was someone else they got a little weird about it. Then I thought maybe I should try to do a show and get them on it.
MA: Are there any guests that you’ve wanted to have on the show that have said no or haven’t been able to do it?
CS: Well the first guest I was supposed to have was RZA. I think RZA is the ultimate connection between hip hop and improv. He cancelled the day of because he was stuck on a movie set. No one has ever said no but some people just haven’t done it yet.
MA: Why is RZA the perfect connection between hip hop and improv?
CS: Oh there are so many reasons. Everyone loves Wu-Tang. Hood people, suburban people, foreigners, the whole world loves Wu-Tang on some musical shit. Then he got into acting but he didn’t get into corny acting. He got down with Quentin Tarantino and did some real ill shit. Which shows me he cares about what he’s doing and not just selling himself out to be an actor.
From early on he embodied the old kung-fu culture, later on he embodied the mafia culture, and he’s always been into science. I know RZA knows how to dip and dab in many different worlds. As an improvisor it’s good to know a bunch of different things in case anyone says something in a scene you could pop up with that knowledge.
MA: I’ve always wondered why Wu-Tang is such a crazy hit with white people.
CS: They’re like a rock group. They go against the grain. It seems like they don’t care and stay true. They don’t make commercial hits, you know? They stick to what they always wanted to do.
MA: I can see that. I see it more with Odd Future in the sense of them being punk rock. Wu-Tang talks a lot about 5 Percenters and that’s some heavy stuff for some white dude in the suburbs.
CS: Yeah that’s how I became a 5 Percenter, listening to Wu-Tang and Brand Nubian. That’s why I like Wu, too. They got the hustlers like Raekwon and Ghost. There’s the GZA and the RZA who are like some chess masters. They have the ODB who’s funny and Method Man is the fly pretty dude girls love. They encompass everything.
MA: Yeah they are very well rounded. Have you ever wanted to have Donald Glover on the show? In my mind that’s the ultimate cross over.
CS: No. He is the ultimate guest but the reason that RZA is more than Donald is the simple fact that Donald got his rap name from the Wu-Tang name generator. That’s why RZA is number one and Donald is number two. Even though Donald comes from UCB and did improv, I think RZA is number one because of that fact. I would still love to have Donald on, but he’s always so busy. I’m trying to get him.
MA: How do you rehearse or practice for something that’s improvisational?
CS: It’s really just like rehearsing for a basketball game. You don’t really know what’s going to happen in the basketball game but you know if you’re standing here and you get the ball you can mentally judge how far the basket is. It’s like the [Malcolm Gladwell's] 10,000 hours thing. You just keep doing it and doing it and when something happens on stage, your body and your mental muscles know how to react to it.
When I go to practice I always just say, “I’m going to shoot some jump shots.” You literally just stand on the foul line and shoot free throws the whole time so when it’s game time you get that free throw.
MA: What’s the significance of the Harold team to you?
CS: Being on a Harold team is really about achieving a goal. I used to be very shy and not confident. I would work hard until someone thought I was good enough and then give me a chance. This specific goal is something I am taking control of and fighting hard for.
MA: Why do you think the urban culture doesn’t embrace improv comedy?
CS: I literally think our hip hop culture is just oblivious that improv even exist. I plan on spreading it to urban world.
MA: What’s your end goal with comedy and the Harold team? Are you planning on leaving Old Man Ebro and Rosenberg for an NBC show?
CS: I love Hot 97 ’til the day I die, and I am the most loyal soldier. But if I get casted on a sitcom I’m out of there! [Laughs] It’s definitely a goal to get on television and movies.