There seems to be a lot of parallels between the worlds of freestyle rapping and improv comedy, so it shouldn’t be that surprising that hip-hop improv troupe North Coast is thriving. Recently celebrating five years together, North Coast have spent their summer doing their brand of musical improv across the country, as well as every Saturday night at The Pit, which has just been extended through September. We spoke to two of the group’s founding members, James T. Robilotta and Douglas Widick, about bringing freestyle rhymes into the realm of improv and how they’ve kept their style so fresh.
Do you recall your first exposure ever to hip-hop?
James: My first exposure to hip-hop was the Snoop Dogg video where the people just kept transforming into dobermans on the Doggystyle album. That was my first exposure and it scared the shit out of me. But then I slowly started listening to it more and more. I got exposed to Jay-Z’s Volume 1, and between that and Wyclef Jean’s The Carnival, those are the two albums that were the catalyst into getting me into hip-hop.
Douglas: I think it’s kind of like a dual thing. My mom would play Willenium in the car and I don’t think that counts, but it sorta does because he was clean grandma-safe rap. We would dance in the car and get Shamrock shakes at McDonald’s. My exposure to grittier hip-hop was my cousin, who was in and out of rehab my entire life, and he showed me Eminem and Notorious B.I.G. from when I was really young. Not going to lie, like Robo, it scared me a little bit.
Do you recall your first time rapping?
Douglas: My first time rapping was with kids in the highway in high school and middle school between classes. Someone would kick a written and I would go nuts, I knew in my head that that was wack.
James: For me, I did a little bit in high school, but not that much. I was still stuck in a Dave Matthews phase then. In college, guys across the hall would have cypher sessions and listen to a lot of hip-hop. They would invite me over and say “you gotta come in” and try freestyling, and I would go and listen to this and then go back to my room because I chickened out and rap in front of my computer. A few months later I decided I would go in.
What was the genesis of North Coast?
James: I was doing some improv in college and I went to what was then called the Dirty South Improv Festival, now called the North Carolina Comedy Arts Festival, and I saw a team called The Beat-Box perform, who also does hip-hop improv and were based out of Chicago at the time, who have since dissolved. They did a bit of a kitschier version of what North Coast does, North Coast is a little bit more organic.
Douglas: The difference is we really wanted to go a route that avoided any presentational pre-planning. We didn’t want any presentational moments to come out of the show.
James: I saw them, loved it, and two years later moved to New York and took a bunch of classes at UCB.
Douglas: James and I met in a musical improv class, Musical Improv 101.
James: Five years ago I sent an email out and put a message up on a message board that said I had an idea, I think it would be a lot of fun to do, I want you to have this much improv experience and freestyling as a variable. That’s how it really started.
Douglas: James and I met in a musical improv class, Musical Improv 101 at Upright Citizen’s Brigade.
How long was there between putting up the message and the first North Coast performance?
James: We had out first performance in, April, 2008?
Douglas: We rehearsed for two months and were like “Alright, let’s do this.” We did a show at The Creek called “First Show,” and I remember the first show was an explosion and was an adrenaline rush. The audience was so much fun.
Have you ever faced any resistance from audiences for the specific niche of being a hip-hop improv group?
Douglas: Definitely. We didn’t experience any severity of it until our Cage Match (a competitive improv showdown between two teams who give separate performances and the audience votes on whose was better) as we were just another indie team and were never affiliated fully with any major theater. We never experienced any true backlash about our niche until we started winning at Cage Match at UCB. We got a lot of accusations about stacking the house and being a gimmick, when it’s just another tool on our tool belt that we use. Musical improv isn’t a gimmick, it’s another skill on our toolbelt. But any blowback has been widely overshadowed by the huge positivity and the community being super positive.
Have improv audiences changed much in the past five years since North Coast started performing?
James: I think more people know about improv and appreciate it, but it really depends more on where you’re performing. When you perform at a place like UCB, the crowd tends to have a much more critical eye because they know more, they’ve seen more improvising, there’s more improvisors watching you. But I think more and more people are starting to know improv thanks to theaters like UCB and the Pit and the Magnet really trying to put it out there more. All you have to do it turn on the TV and see an improvisor in every commercial.
Douglas: I’d say that the New York audience is getting savvier and savvier, but maybe for the reason that more people are doing improv. In that five years that you’re referencing, the community has probably tripled or quadrupled. All the major network comedy shows are filled with improvisors, and people are Googling them to see where they came up. The classes have an almost endless demand in New York right now, and that changes the way audiences watch improv. On the whole, I’d say that if we’re in New York, we have a very specific New York improv audience, but when we’re on the road, people are like “Look at the magician!” When we all hit a word at the same time, they’re like “That was written! You planned that!” It’s a big audience shift.
What have been some of the most memorable moments over the past five years of North Coast?
Douglas: I have to say it’s very recent. We were doing a competition and the random challenge was when having someone off the street do an entire set with us. We had this charming old man who zapped the entire show and got the biggest laugh of anyone in North Coast and got a standing ovation because he was so in-the-moment and so funny.
James: I think the biggest compliment for me was, as I mentioned, going to the Dirty South Improv Festival / North Carolina Comedy Arts Festival as a student, and deeply enjoying my time and doing a 15 minute set in the smallest theater, and going to now where whenever we perform at that festival we headline it. That’s really special for me. It’s a very tangible measure of growth.