A Definitely Not at All Biased History of ItsTheReal by the ItsTheReal Guys
On the release of the hip-hop sketch comedy duo's debut album 'Teddy Bear Fresh,' they tell their story.
ItsTheReal is a hip-hop sketch comedy duo based in New York City featuring brothers Eric and Jeff Rosenthal (who also writes for Noisey sometimes). The two host a podcast where they make rappers (and themselves) laugh, and their debut album Teddy Bear Fresh is out today. Because we love them and they make us laugh often (and let's be real, a little bit of nepotism), we asked them to tell their story and how they've arrived at this moment.
A couple years ago, we were in Los Angeles for Grammys weekend and we were introduced to one of Jam Master Jay's sons, and when he asked what we did, we told him we're hip-hop sketch comedians. After thinking about it for a minute, he wondered, "So you guys draw rappers?"
The last ten years have been like Lyor Cohen's Snapchat: "who are you and what are you doing here?" In fact, you, the reader, probably aren't even entirely sure about the whole thing. Well, we've done a lot of stuff! We made online sketch videos. We've recorded podcasts. We've hosted red carpets and parties, and even our sold-out our own rap tour (it was a one night, two show tour). At any point, we could have referred to ourselves as anything. But with YouTube making the entertainment a true meritocracy, one where only the strong survives, we knew we'd get lost in a sea of "comedians" or "sketch comedy performers," and decided we'd rather be the biggest fish in a small pond. So we narrowed our focus, dove into what we knew, and classified our profession: hip-hop sketch comedy.
We started rapping when we were in high school and college, but we weren't in the freestyling-at-keg-parties mold. We weren't in the suburban gangster mold. We weren't in any mold, actually, cause we rapped about what we knew: the experiences at the day camp we went to as kids and later worked at. There was lots of foreshadowing of ItsTheReal: countless late nights in our best friend Greg Mayo's basement studio, poring over snare drum sounds, roasting coworkers and the campers we were in charge of, and hours, days, weeks of perfecting our wordplay. We called ourselves the Purchase Street Sweepers—a loving nod to DJ Kay Slay's team and the street we grew up on—and we put together five mixtapes, filled with original production, the most clever samples, hysterical skits, and a genuine love and respect for the genre. We'd stay up until sunrise burning CDs one at a time, and in another sign of things to come for ItsTheReal, gave the material out for free.
Our father was a company man. He worked for Citibank and IBM and then Citibank again, a physics major who loved the arts, who spent his 9-5 in a suit behind a computer screen. While he never truly understood rap music—we tried playing him Beanie Sigel, which didn't work—he saw structure and craft and devotion in our early weekly YouTube sketches that commented on the goings-on of the hip-hop world. Dad made a couple of cameos on our sketches, finding joy in playing a historian in our Ken Burns sendup of 50 Cent vs. Kanye, "The Battle of Billboardsburg," and Arnie, the wealthy father of a super sweet sixteen in "Dumbing of Age." He was a creator at heart, and when he was laid off, he and our mom took a leap and put their savings into designing and building their dream house in the mountains of Western North Carolina. Just nine months after moving into the North Carolina home, our dad was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, whose symptoms are usually masked, which causes it to be discovered in its late stages. A mere six weeks later, we sat by our father's bed in hospice. His proudest moment, he told us, was when we moved to New York City: a place where we could live out our dreams.
One of the first times we went to SOB's was during CMJ week, and Mark Ronson had a showcase for his then-label called Allido, with Rhymefest, Daniel Merriweather, Wale, backed by Mark Ronson and the Dap Kings; it was the event that everyone wanted to get into. The line around the block, four deep, reflected that. We were relatively new to living in the city, but the energy was everything we imagined a downtown show would be like. Just waiting by the door felt exciting. We'd come from another event, and walked over just to survey the scene, but in the middle of that mob at the door, our friend Phil Chang caught the attention of Wale's manager at the time and got us waved in. The doors opened, the sound became clear, we turned to the right and saw DJ Green Lantern walking toward us. Green—a musical hero of ours—stopped right next to us, dapped us up, and told us that the videos we were doing were important to hip-hop and to keep it going. We'd never met before. It was at that moment when we felt both that we'd arrived, and that we were just getting started.
At the height of our YouTube success, we were going to parties with R&B singers, getting love from classmates we never spoke to in school, and sitting alongside Drake, Alchemist, and Angela Yee at Cipha Sounds' stand-up shows. One night at Ciph's show, a comic who was extremely witty on stage, but didn't appeal to the crowd on the whole, came up to us afterwards to introduce himself, tell us how much he loved our work, and offer to write sketches with us. His name was Hannibal and we thanked him but turned him down by email. The next week, he did a last minute substitute set on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, was spotted that same night by Seth Meyers, who in turn hired him to write for SNL. And then came 30 Rock, Neighbors, The Eric Andre Show, Broad City, Why? with Hannibal Buress, a number of standup specials and albums. We take solace in the fact that Hannibal is not alone... in 2007 we also passed on working with some rapper girl named Nicki.
MTV hired us to do short-form interviews for a small blog of theirs called Clutch, and from the start, it was almost like they didn't know why we were there. Once we developed our own style—yelling new and complex AKAs to introduce ourselves, asking twisting and funny questions, singing, firing hand guns with loud sound effects—our interviews with Rick Ross and Carmelo Anthony and J. Cole and Flo Rida began to get passed around the internet. MTV.com was always a suspect operation. They regularly claimed broke; we brought them multiple options for sponsors. Even though we were the on-air talent, MTV would only let us attend an event if we booked the interview... three interviews gets us a trip to NBA All-Star Weekend? We got them 18. And down at Austin City Limits, when MTVNews blocked us from sitting down with the biggest band in the world, Coldplay, we took a step back and dropped a game winner: getting the festival's only interview with Stevie Wonder. The word for that? Clutch.
Thank god for clothing companies, listening party hors d'oeuvres, and support from family members for getting us through the times when freelance work couldn't. Oh, and thank god for Mac Miller. We were invited back to Mac's green room at a NYC show, and hung out for a few hours. At the end of the night, after Mac had left, after his people has left, it was just us, Rex Arrow (our friend and video director), and an untouched pair of folded, brand-new APC jeans, sized for Jeff's body, but with Mac's name on it. Mac would've had to go through puberty before our eyes to wear them... plus he was surely off to the next city anyway. So after a long discussion, Jeff finally took them… and promptly ran into Mac downstairs. Jeff quickly threw them in a corner, said another round of goodbyes, circled back for them once Mac was out of sight, and left the building. Wore them every day for a year. Now Mac says that Jeff owes him jeans.
For three years we had a comedy manager who repped big movie stars and stand-ups and late night writers but could never figure us out. We came up with a scripted TV show idea we thought was revolutionary and pleaded with her to help us pitch it to networks, but she never would. The most disheartening part came when said, "where's the funny" in it; we thought if someone who works in comedy doesn't see it, maybe we're the ones who are wrong. But we bucked up and switched our representation to music-based managers, who said they totally saw the vision, and we sold that same scripted TV show in our first meeting with them. For the first time in our long career, we were going to get paid! But in the eight months it to negotiate our contracts, every executive we'd worked with left the network and we were stuck with strangers who thought the "Nardwuar" reference in our script was a Jewish word. "Where's the comedy," indeed.
We sold our podcast to a network by describing it as a "dinner party-style" interview at our apartment; the network put a press release out that called it a "dinner party." So we started cooking for guests, and when we booked the Migos—a huge get for us, even though Offset was in jail, the prediction on their debut album numbers was not looking good, and these weren't the fun, wear-fur-in-the-woods, dance-with-Ellen Migos everyone knows now. Thirty minutes before they were scheduled to came over, the Migos' label rep said Quavo and Takeoff didn't want the meal we planned to cook for them, but instead, a specific BBQ order. In a panic, we ran to a nearby BBQ spot, filled their order, presented the food beautifully around the microphones and computer on our tiny Ikea table, only for The Migos to side-eye the food. The chicken, they said, was not crispy enough. The guys didn't have anything to say, their entourage was grumpy, and the food sat untouched for an hour-long, uncomfortable "interview." We sat there for hours afterward, replaying the conversation in our minds, wondering who we could get as a substitute episode, and thinking about how we could possibly save this once-amazing opportunity. We remembered that there were 30 seconds where they had fun doing their best ad-libs, so we took that video footage, looped it for five minutes and posted to YouTube; it's done better than the podcast episode ever did. The chicken may have gone cold, but the YouTube reviews are flames.
Today, we're releasing the project we're most proud of, the culmination of years and years of hard work, our debut album, Teddy Bear Fresh. We're the same guys who slept on the couches in Mayo's basement studio all those years ago, coming up with the funniest, smartest and best sounding music. We're the same guys who wore a million hats, operating as our own PR team, our own A&Rs, our own digital consultants, our own creatives. We're the same guys who held authenticity, quality and consistency up as the holy grails when we were working at the day camp. Don't believe us? Go check out our new music video, "Waco," which we filmed entirely at camp. We never cashed out, we never sold out, we never took the easy way out, cause ItsTheReal has never been easy.