The Comedy Rap Improv of North Coast
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.
Courtesy North Coast
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.