Hip-hop is a natural minefield for satire, a world in which oversize personalities talk large and create brands and fronts that rest on the fragile backs of 16-bar verses. Behind most clever or boastful lyrics is a grown man counting out syllables and scribbling down lines into a notebook. In recent years, though, few have spotlighted the comedy that unfolds between the seeds of a song and a rapper stepping on stage better than a gangly pair of brothers who live on the Upper West Side of New York.
Jeff and Eric Rosenthal are known as ItsTheReal, a comedy duo that documents hip-hop culture through self-directed videos in which they interview rappers or skewer their work in skits. (Jeff also writes about the genre; Rolling Stone sent him on the ill-fated Rihanna Plane, where he shared a row with this editor.)
This April Fools' Day, they're releasing "Urbane Outfitters vol. 1," a true-to-God rap mixtape that features Bun B, Lil Jon, Maino, Freeway and comedian Hannibal Buress -- all under the emphatic gaze of DJ Drama, who hosts the tape and offers many a Drama-tic drop for added aural pleasure.
The Rosenthals and HuffPost Entertainment caught up in advance of the mixtape's release (download "Urbane Outfitters" on DatPiff). An edited transcript of our conversation is available below.
Tell us everything.
Jeff: We only decided to put out the mixtape a few weeks ago, so putting everything together in a very short amount of time and being like, "All right, we can do this, why not?" has been fun. We had all of our parts done, and the verses came in awhile ago, too, so we've been waiting to decide whether to make it two projects or one.
But you guys directed all of the song's content, right? It wasn't like Bun B was running up on you asking to do a song about women's nether regions.
Jeff: Wouldn't that have been the best? But no, we came up with all the concepts and hit everyone up with a certain direction.
Eric: We wanted to find all the big tropes in hip-hop and see if we could expand on them, and see if we could do that with our unique perspective -- a giant deconstruction of the genre itself. So you have songs about selling out, you have a southern banger, you have the gun song, a skit, and then you have DJ Drama yelling over all of it. We wanted it to sound as real as possible, but as ... ItsTheReal as possible.
The way you guys say "Eric" on the intro track really made me feel like it was going to into a very Mannie Fresh-like breakdown, but that never happened. But the reason you guys found this sweet spot seems like there is something innately funny about hip-hop. When did you realize that?
Eric: I graduated college and thought I was going to be a feature film director and writer. But through twists and turns, I got to know Kanye West's management at the time, before he really, really became big, before he put his first album out. I really wanted to work with like-minded people who like hip-hop as I do, and who may be interested in bigger, longer films. I ended up documenting Kanye during his first Grammy week in 2005. So during the biggest week of his life, they treated me like family and it was amazing. From there, I came back to New York and started working with people like Jim Jones, Juelz Santana, Missy Elliot and other groups. The more you see behind the scenes, the more it's just like, "Wow. There are a lot of available topics here." As you get older, you get invested in certain things, and Jeff and I have always loved hip-hop and we've loved comedy, so we decided there has to be a way to marry the two. We've done that by staying true to hip-hop and being aggressive with roasting, but also having fun with rappers and letting rappers have fun with us.
Were you at all in the studio with these people, or was it more of a Dropbox situation?
Jeff: We did this in a very 2013 way. We never saw any of them. Well -- that's not true. Everyone was just very scattered to the winds. With Bun B, we were on the phone with him before he did his and afterwards, and he was in the studio in between for about three hours. It was mostly just done through phone calls and emails.
Eric: Right, although Maino did show up the night before he recorded his verse. He had listened to every other song and showed up at the middle of the night in our apartment and drove us around in his Bentley, and he was just slamming on the gas screaming things like, "You motherfuckers got it right!"
Of all the guys you worked with, who did you find had the easiest time with the comedy aspect of the project?
Jeff: I think they all had fun with it, but I think that Bun had the toughest task. How often do you have anybody talking about women's pubes on record, and in a funny way?
Eric: He had the biggest stretch, but he handled that very well. But Bun's sense of humor is a lot like ours. He likes the same television shows that we like, we laugh at very similar things. We feel closest to Bun like that in that regard.
Was there anyone who turned you down in any memorable ways?
Jeff: There were people who weren't available for this one, because a lot of people were working on albums. No one shoved us against the wall and said, "Listen, I'm not doing your mixtape." I will say this: We've had to deal with a lot of hangers-on and associates and whatever else they call themselves, but none who made it onto [this tape]. Everyone here is sort of their own man and boss, but there are rappers out there who have like 15 people with crazy nicknames and you try to work with each of them to get to the rappers.
Eric: Right, with emails on crazy services you haven't of in years, like xcite.com or AltaVista.com, and it's just like, "What?" But a lot of people who weren't available on the first one will but will be on the second one.
How did you guys link up with Drama?
Jeff: A few years ago we put out these videos, where we just asked why, in 2008, G-Unit can host a Gangster Grillz mixtape but we can't. So we tried to rally the internet for our cause, and it ended up getting to Drama. So he emailed us and said he liked what we were doing and signed it "Barack O'Drama," which was pretty neat. We kept the conversation going for a few years, and we finally met on the BET red carpet one year and in between interviewing him, he was like, "Let's just do a project together." So when we finally called that favor in, he was down. This is someone who has done everything you can do in mixtapes, and I think just sees it as an opportunity to do something new and funny. And it is funny.
You're very comfortable interviewing and working with rappers, but is there something specific about this project that gave you a new window into the thousands of mixtapes that come out each week?
Eric: In the last three weeks, I think we've learned more than we've ever learned before. It's amazing what record labels can do and what artists have to go through in terms of press runs and finishing their album, but we went into crazy overdrive. Everything is done by Jeff and myself. We did all of the wrangling of the artists, we made t-shirts, we did a party at Puff Daddy's studio last night, we are our own publicists and everything. We do have management, but they're on the film and television side, so the music thing has just been us. We, along with our best friend Greg who did the majority of the beats on the album, we were the three pillars of this organization.
Jeff: You can see why some rappers have a bad interview or aren't clever at times, because we're two guys who make a living out of being funny and we still do all these interviews and just wonder, "Oh my God, what am I saying?"
Eric: It's just general exhaustion. It's hard work. Not that we ever doubted it, but we have a new appreciation for how rappers go about their business.
Jeff: I'd say the worst part of the past three weeks is that I don't even know what's going on in the world.
Eric: I'd say the worst part of the past few weeks is the realization that we don't have hangers-on or an entourage.
I didn't have to go through anyone with a "Lil" or "Big" in front of their name to get to you.
Eric: Right, or somebody with an eye patch. We need some of those people to just handle our phone calls and sort our mail.
Watch: ItsTheReal feat. Maino - Beef Wit Us