Timmhotep Aku is an NPR Music contributor and occasional guest host for our +1 podcasts. This week he talks with writer, comedian and hip-hop lover Neal Brennan.
Comedian and writer Neal Brennan
Comedy and hip-hop have a lot in common: Both are balms for the sting of the everyday struggle and both hold up a mirror to society's excesses, absurdities and injustices. These two worlds come together in the work of writer and comedian Neal Brennan.
As the co-creator of Chappelle's Show, Brennan and Dave Chappelle created skits together that were funny, provocative and suffused throughout with a sensibility rooted in hip-hop. They lampooned rap stars like Lil' Jon and Sean "Puffy" Combs, while featuring artists like Kanye West, Common and The Roots as musical guests. In fact, when Jimmy Fallon was handed the reins of The Tonight Show, Brennan was the one who recommended The Roots to be the show's house band.
In the decade following Chappelle's sudden departure and subsequent end of the Chapelle's Show, Brennan's continued to work as a stand-up comic, writer, and director. On this week's +1 podcast, I talk with Brennan about his Netflix special and one-man show 3 Mics and some of the songs that have inspired what he calls the "stand up, one-liners and emotional stuff" seen in it. Along the way, Brennan dispels some myths and gives insight on just who the man behind the mic is.
You can hear the full interview at the top of the page and read edited highlights below.
Neal Brennan on how he came to love hip-hop
"My experience with hip-hop was always like sort of the early '80s, so it was like Run-DMC, it was Herbie Hancock's 'Rockit.' And I lived in Chicago at that time and I remember watching someone break dance to 'Rockit' and going like, 'What happened?! What is this?! This is so cool!' I didn't know what it was. Then when I heard [Public Enemy's] 'Don't Believe The Hype,' I think my freshman year in high school, and it was at a basketball game and I remember the team running out [to the song]. And I was like, 'What is going on?!' It was this sentiment you don't hear in music that much. It was very confrontational. And I don't think I'm the Public Enemy of comedy at all. But it definitely was a huge influence. I just saw another very clear point of view that ran counter to the world I live in. And it made sense to me. It didn't scare me because I didn't feel like I was a part of the problem."
On his obsession with justice and how it finds its way into his comedy
"My brain keeps going to racial stuff, unfair stuff and gender stuff repeatedly in sketches. Anything I write, that's what I keep firing off and I don't even get in the way [of it]. That's just what I'm interested in."
On Jay Z's "My 1st Song" and the hard work needed to succeed
"He's the Rolling Stones of hip-hop. You know, Jay-Z's known as a one-take — he doesn't doesn't write his rhymes down, he just goes in it's all very facile and easy. I like that song because he actually is like, 'No it's hard,' and like, 'It took a long time and you've got to stay hungry.' Like, I'm not a genius. I could name five comedians that seem to be able to come up with an hour [of TV programming] in six months and I can tell you right now it's going to take me two years. I know that Louis C.K. and lots of guys that can do it really quickly. I'm just not one of those guys and I'm not going to force myself to do it. I'm going to put in full effort. And they don't get easier, to maintain your standards going higher."
On how The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill influenced Brennan's new Netflix series 3 Mics
"The thing that was cool about The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill was those sketches in-between [the songs] in the classroom. I'd never heard that on a record before. People did sketches but it was more like a documentary. And Lauren wasn't even in it. So that was incredibly cool and it really added to the overall essence of the record in the best possible way. And then the other thing was Lauryn Hill Unplugged, which is maybe the barest work ever. Certainly the barest unplugged and maybe one of the barest things. It's like you're almost watching someone have a nervous breakdown. But when that aired [on MTV] me and Dave [Chappelle] were writing the pilot for Chappelle's Show and I recorded [Lauryn Hill's Unplugged show] on VHS. That's how long ago this was and I'm not kidding you when I say we just watched it over and over and over and over. And that feeling of this personal document — the thing about Chappelle's Show was it was a personal sketch show. And that's what 3 Mics is. It's a personal stand-up show."