This Friday, October 17, sees New York’s longest-running freestyle theatrical comedy experience, Freestyle Love Supreme, venture from the stage to the screen with the premiere of a new show on Pivot TV. After a decade of wowing audiences with top-tier freestyle rhymes and impeccable comedic timing, the gang are looking to transition their talents to this new medium with some innovative techniques that maintain the spontaneous energy of the live setting with the new freedoms a taped show allows.
We spoke to members MC Utkarsh “UTK” Ambudkar (Pitch Perfect, The Mindy Project, The Beatards) and beatboxer Chris “Shockwave” Sullivan (“The Electric Company,” UCBEast’s Battlicious) about hip-hop’s impact on their lives and where it’s taken them.
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Do you recall your first exposures to hip-hop?
Shockwave: It was more of a garage-band-style musical experience. I grew up in a suburb of mostly white people and was born a child of the ’80s. My first music video was Aerosmith and Run-DMC’s “Walk This Way,” and that shook my world a little bit because I was more-so raised on metal and rock ‘n’ roll. I was in a band at the time who experimented with hip-hop by trying to squeeze more words in and have fun with what we were trying to sing. I was like 10 years old around that time when I laid down my first beatbox track, but I didn’t know what it was then. I was just experimenting. We were making music and didn’t have drums. It came organically rather than trying to do it just to do it.
Utkarsh: In third grade, a white kid called me a “nigger,” and then the black kids kind of took me under their wing, like, “We don’t know where India is, but you’re with us now.” From there, I recall going to a house and listening to Snoop Doggy Dogg’s Doggystyle, listening to Warren G, listening to The Chronic. I got to college and my roommate was from Denver, so I got exposed to all this West Coast hip-hop, Freestyle Fellowship, Aceyalone, Blackalicious, and I really liked that style because it felt so organic. It really spoke to me more than the stuff I was coming up on.
How did Freestyle Love Supreme first come together?
Utkarsh: The guys Lin, Anthony, Tommy, and Bill all went to Wesleyan University together, and they started working together. They moved to New York and started writing In the Heights. During rehearsals they started to fuck around and do it for fun, and then Anthony and Tommy decided to start making games and turn it into a show. Lin was writing In the Heights and met Chris Jackson, who would jump into the freestyle sessions, and then he joined the group. They were performing at this place called Mo Pitkins, and that’s where they met Chris Sullivan. I was doing battles at Freestyle Mondays at Sin Sin and invited a producer of a play I was doing to see one of the battles. He put me in touch with them because Lin needed a replacement while he was doing In the Heights. That basically brought me on board around 2006.
Shockwave: What I saw during the show was characters and story and comedy all happening with respect for improv and hip-hop and paying them homage at the same time. We started playing around and it made sense for me to become part of the group, and then it took off on its own.
Utkarsh, was it hard to balance doing Freestyle Love Supreme while your own group, the Beatards, were taking off in 2009?
Utkarsh: It was very difficult, because I was acting, mostly off Broadway. Any kind of acting takes up almost all of your time. That was not a huge strain on Freestyle Love Supreme so much, because they’re all theater guys and have a rotational roster. But with the Beatards, it’s hard because it’s just the three of us and we get offered to open for Collie Budz in Toronto or Montreal and I can’t go — it’s like, shit, you know? That didn’t cause tension so much with Freestyle Love Supreme, but maybe with the Beatards.
At what point did you realize Freestyle Love Supreme was taking off?
Utkarsh: Immediately. The first show I ever did. Since I’ve been in the group, they’ve consistently been a sold-out show. I don’t think there’s a venue we’ve done in New York that hasn’t completely sold out, which is pretty amazing to jump on to that kind of boat. As hip-hop artists, we’re used to playing to crowds of just our girlfriends and maybe our roommate. I was scrounging to get people to come to the Beatards parties, and then I come into a system that’s already working like the San Antonio Spurs, and that’s awesome.
What is it about Freestyle Love Supreme that connects with audiences and continues to be this consistently growing entity?
Shockwave: To general audiences, the mass populace who can afford to go to ticketed events, there’s a bit of a stigma about hip-hop and improv from different ends but in very similar ways. We do something that’s a bit more unique to both hip-hop and improv audiences, and that has to do with making what we do a bit more accessible and letting the audience in and having the talent to uphold all those high demands. The live show makes sense, and that’s why you walk away satisfied.
Utkarsh: I think it’s because it’s something unique in that it melds theater, improvisational acting, and hip-hop in a way that is accessible to almost anyone who’s willing to listen, in the sense that we aren’t talking about how big our dicks or chains are, or how much money we have. We’re talking about Saran wrap and Putin and Nicaragua and giving Michael Jackson’s entire history on the spot, which content-wise is so different from where mainstream hip-hop is going. When people are like, “We don’t want to hear about guns, money, or bitches,” we’re doing the exact opposite, talking about baby pools, Cream of Wheat, and field hockey. But the skill level — it’s still there. The content is what makes it sort of different and more-so like a show.
Shockwave: It’s a word-of-mouth show, because it’s such a hard thing to explain.
At what point did you start transitioning into taking it from the stage to the screen?
Utkarsh: It’s been a three- or four-year process. We did a scripted pilot for Adult Swim which didn’t get picked up. Pivot is a new channel who saw something in us and tried to find a way to take the stage show and make something interesting, which they’ve done. When you see it, there’s a lot of split-screen stuff and picture-in-picture, so you get to see a lot of reactions from the audience, which I find pretty interesting. Then we have a lot of unscripted stuff on the street where we sort of Curb Your Enthusiasm‘d our way through the day.
Was it hard transitioning the live show to the small screen?
Shockwave: In all of my experience and in everything I’ve seen, it’s very difficult to capture improvisation on-screen in any way. Whether you’re watching it on YouTube or seeing it on a TV show, there’s something that happens when you add a camera to it and record it. The camera makes the action fall a little flat; the live aspect is not there. As an audience member, you’re saying, “Oh, I can see how that would be funny in a live aspect.”
For our show, an entire process was done. Our shows were improvisational and the material generated onstage helps inform what’s going to happen offstage. It gave us a lot to pull from, and your eye is always following something. It’s informed, and not flat. It’s not fast cuts and overproduced. The show’s budget is very small, and we’re trying to do magic with it.