Lil Dicky and the truth about comedy rap – it’s tricky!

Comedy rapper Lil Dicky has reached No 1, adding to successes such as Big Shaq and the Lonely Island. But as Honey G’s example shows, doing funny rhymes right takes sophistication

‘He’s not like a ‘rapper’ rapper,” the guy in the restaurant explains to his unimpressed girlfriend. “He’s like a ‘funny’ rapper.”

Those two statements – true and open to debate respectively – are from the opening scene of the video to Lil Dicky’s Freaky Friday, which is this week’s UK No 1 single, and which on Monday crossed 100m YouTube views, and will soon join its thriftiness-espousing predecessor $ave Dat Money in passing the same number of Spotify plays.

Freaky Friday tells the story of Lil Dicky mystically swapping bodies with black guest vocalist Chris Brown, and is an extreme extrapolation of a line in Lil Dicky’s 2013 song White Dude, in which he lamented not being able to use the N-word. The upshot is that in 2018 Lil Dicky, now voiced by Chris Brown in the song’s body-swap concept, is finally “allowed” to say the N-word 11 times.

Watch the video for Lil Dicky: Freaky Friday

It’s all very amusing, if you sidestep the fact that Chris Brown is a woman-beater with whose plight both the video and song suggest the audience must sympathise, and if you sidestep the video’s racial stereotyping, and if you sidestep the ramifications of the N-word bonanza (such as the all-white women’s lacrosse team who caused a minor storm last month when they uploaded video of themselves singing along). That’s enough sidestepping to take you off the pavement and into the path of an out-of-control excuse juggernaut, but then you still face other tracks in Lil Dicky’s catalogue such as White Dude and White Crime, which tackle white privilege and male privilege. One assessment of Lil Dicky’s travails was offered in the headline to a 2015 car-crash interview: Lil Dicky Isn’t a White Supremacist, He’s Just an Asshole.

Either way, Freaky Friday is the biggest hit yet from 30-year-old David Burd, who grew up in an upper middle class Jewish family in Philadelphia and worked – of course! – as an advertising creative before recording his first mixtape in 2011. By 2013, he had a viral video on his hands with Ex Boyfriend, and he followed it with a barrage of audio and video content. He has since been embraced by a number of big names: his debut album, 2015’s Professional Rapper, saw collaborations with Snoop Dogg, T-Pain and Fetty Wap.

Freaky Friday is the latest in a long line of comedy rap hits, which more recently include Macklemore’s Thrift Shop and the assorted works of the Lonely Island, and date back to the 1980s with acts such as Weird Al Yankovic. Lil Dicky’s success once again raises the question of why rap and hip-hop are so apparently hilarious: is it simply that there are multiple, strong visual and sonic reference points that make parody easy, making comedy rap no different from the way metal has given the world Spinal Tap, Bad News, the Darkness and Muse? Or do the roots of hip-hop, and grime in the UK, mean that if you’re parodying them, you’re making a joke out of far more than just music?

Watch the video for Lil Dicky: Ex-Boyfriend

Over at BBC Radio 1Xtra, where Freaky Friday has been playlisted, presenter Yasmin Evans remembers first seeing the video on YouTube after seeing it shared on social media. The next time she went into work a listener had requested the track, which, divorced from its scene-setting video and without knowledge of its performers, can be baffling. “When I play it on air, I know people are listening going, ‘I don’t get it. I don’t understand,’” Evans accepts, “but we wouldn’t be doing ourselves justice as broadcasters if we didn’t cover the things being spoken about, or that are viral or trending. Chris Brown’s a good singer! It’s all entertainment.” She says that she has also hosted appearances with the Kurupt FM crew, from the BBC’s pirate radio mockumentary People Just Do Nothing, “and people think they’re genuinely real people. I mean, I guess people think that with [Leigh Francis’s fictional character] Keith Lemon as well.”

What Kurupt FM – and Michael Dapaah, whose Big Shaq character and Man’s Not Hot track blew up after a 1Xtra Fire in the Booth session – have in common is that neither base their humour on outsiders looking in. It’s hard to question their authenticity, and it’s a similar authenticity that Lil Dicky has been shrewd in acquiring by drafting in collaborators such as Brown and Snoop Dogg.

Big Shaq, AKA Michael Dapaah.
Man’s hot … Big Shaq, AKA Michael Dapaah. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

At Sony’s Relentless Records, general manager Ben Coates takes a similar view when he talks about his label’s decision last year to sign Love Island double act Chris & Kem. On paper their track, Little Bit Leave It, bore all the hallmarks of a novelty single, but by drafting in producer Zdot – who has worked with Stormzy and Wiley – the finished article was not the shambles it might have been. Even the rapper Lethal Bizzle, who was initially unimpressed with the duo hijacking his catchphrase, eventually conceded: “You know what, it’s not too bad. It’s quite cool.”

Coates adds that he was comfortable working on the project as “the guys had a real knowledge and love for the UK urban music scene. They weren’t trying to take the mick or culturally appropriate. They were just huge fans, doing what every other young man up and down the country who’s into grime or hip-hop was doing – and they were having fun with it.”

We do seem to be a long way from the explosion of rap novelty hits of the 1980s, such as Liverpool FC’s Anfield Rap or Mel Brooks’s Hitler Rap. One of the earliest UK examples came from the children’s TV puppet Roland Rat, who hit the charts with Rat Rapping. Steve Jeffries was a house writer at Chappell Music when, in 1983, the phone rang with news that the fabric rodent wished to make a single. “It’s still one of the most hilarious sessions I’ve ever been in,” he says today, but despite the project’s ridiculousness he recalls one key point about the music: “We were keen that it sounded like the real thing. We didn’t want to take the piss.”

One of that era’s biggest novelty rap hits was Morris Minor & The Majors’ Stutter Rap (No Sleep ’Til Bedtime), which pastiched the Beastie Boys’ own approximation of hip-hop, and went Top 5 in 1988. “I was on a train with a friend talking about rapping,” explains comedian and writer Tony Hawks. “And the idea just came up that rapping when you’re born with a stutter would be funny.” He started performing the track on the UK comedy circuit, and in New York, where he says it received a – slightly nonplussed – standing ovation.

Though Hawks says he didn’t receive any feedback from the rap community, he quickly came to acknowledge that his single’s subject matter was not entirely helpful to anyone with a speech impediment. “When you do something in a comedy set, you don’t expect it to be under the same scrutiny as when it’s Top 5 in the charts. Suddenly it’s in the playground, and then you think, ‘Well, we didn’t make it for playgrounds.’ I issued, quite rightly, an apology.” There is a parallel here with that women’s lacrosse team chanting lines from Lil Dicky’s Freaky Friday: the song’s context may involve multiple layers of it’s racist / no it’s not / yes it is / no it’s not, but when that context is ignored, all you’re left with is a load of white people chanting the N-word.

An object lesson in how you can easily run roughshod over these ideas of authenticity and context is 2016 X Factor contestant Honey G. While to varying degrees tracks such as Man’s Not Hot, Freaky Friday and Little Bit Leave It are respectful to rap, Honey G’s output was not. On a very plain, objective level, she could not rap. Her act seemed to have been made deliberately bad, either by Honey G herself or by the show’s producers. It was hard to see her inclusion as anything other than reductive and exploitative.

Honey G, AKA Anna Gilford.
‘It’s quite insulting for people to refer to me as a comedy act’ … Honey G, AKA Anna Gilford. Photograph: Dymond/Syco/Thames

When the Guardian calls Honey G – 36-year-old Anna Gilford – she’s at home in her flat. She’s standing, she says at one point, in front of a photograph of the X Factor judges giving her a standing ovation; she says we can call her Anna, so it seems she’s not in character today. Gilford talks about a planned range of actual honey, her dreams of Hollywood stardom and her forthcoming tour – there will be kids’ dates, with a free buffet. Beyond that, our time on the phone goes badly, falling at the first hurdle when she refuses to accept that she is a joke act: “It’s quite insulting for people to refer to me as a comedy act.” But The X Factor presented her as one for cheap laughs, right? “I don’t think that’s true at all, in any way, shape or form.”

It’s hard to move past that curveball. She insists that she loves hip-hop, and dismisses questions about how it would be possible for someone who truly loved hip-hop to present it, as she did, as something to be ridiculed. “It’s an insult when someone says I’m appropriating black culture,” she says later in the conversation. Her defence is this: “Of all the songs I performed on the live shows at X Factor, a lot of them came from black artists.”

Honey G’s third single, released last Christmas, has been streamed on Spotify only 2,981 times. Its predecessor had about 24,000 streams, while her first release sits at around 275,000. She is losing 90% of her audience every time she releases a song: a cautionary tale that suggests an artist needs sophistication, humour, authenticity – or at least self-awareness – to make comedy rap work in 2018.

Lil Dicky, though, seems to be just getting started. “People want to be entertained by uplifting music and I can’t really criticise that,” is how Ben Coates sees Dicky’s success. “He’s so smart – it seems to stem from someone who’s hugely creative, and has a complete understanding of where the market is right now, and has capitalised on it.”

At 1Xtra, Yasmin Evans adds that the key to pulling off a comedy rap act – and getting it right – is straightforward. “People get the balance right if they’ve lived what they’re portraying,” she reasons. “There are things you need to be aware of. You have to be 100% real. You can’t really fake it. To do it well and represent it right, you have to do it justice.”

Contributor

Peter Robinson

The GuardianTramp

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