Last night on The Tonight Show, Daniel Radcliffe professed his love of rap to Jimmy Fallon. He said he's been obsessed with memorizing lyrically complex songs since he was young. After a quick shout-out to Eminem, the show segued into a bit in which Radcliffe admirably performed "Alphabet Aerobics" by Blackalicious, an indie hip-hop duo from Sacramento. But why is seeing Harry Potter moonlight as a tongue-twisting MC such a good late-night-TV gag?
This isn't even the first time we've seen this kind of joke on Fallon. He's done variations of it again and again. Back in February, he released a mash-up video of Brian Williams reciting Sugar Hill's "Rappers Delight" that has racked up more than 14 million YouTube views. And he's also had white stars like Anne Hathaway sing rap lyrics by black artists like Kendrick Lamar in a show tune style in a recurring bit on the Tonight Show.
But this comedic trope of an awkward white person rapping goes way beyond Fallon. It's so well established that it even has a name. Known as the piss-take rap, it's premised upon the cultural divide between stereotypically awkward caucasians and the black-dominated genre of urban hip-hop.
In 2007, Flight of the Conchords dabbled in piss-take rap. Although the Kiwi duo drew laughs for their parodies of all kinds of music, their performance of "Hiphopopotamus Vs. Rhymenoceros" was arguably the funniest. The show's stars cause two tough guys to back down after they display their lyrical prowess, a scenario that's absurd considering one of the protagonists is wearing a cord jacket and uses words like "motherflipping."
Two years later, Joaquin Phoenix turned the idea of a white guy rapping into performance art. He appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman disheveled and bearded, claiming that he wanted to abandon acting to pursue a career in hip-hop. The charade lasted for two years and produced the brilliant-fuck what you think, it is brilliant-Casey Affleck-directed documentary, I'm Not Here. In the movie, Phoenix performs at Miami's Club LIV-a notoriously expensive nightspot-for a very confused crowd. In this instance, the piss-take rap is used to troll people sipping $20 cocktails.
Then there's the Lonely Island comedy troupe featuring comedian Andy Samberg. They've practically made a career off of piss-take rap, releasing humorous songs like "I'm on a Boat" with T-Pain and convincing Natalie Portman to spit "Shut the fuck up and suck my dick" over a hip-hop beat in a digital short for Saturday Night Live.
It's fascinating that it's still often seen as joke when a white guy picks up the mic, considering white artists like Blondie and producers like Rick Rubin have contributed to the genre since its early days. Of course, Vanilla Ice, the first really popular white rapper, has been permanently labeled as a doofus, so much that his current gig is clashing with Amish folks on the DIY Network. But not all white rappers will go down in history as cultural punch lines. In late 90s, Eminem blew up and opened the floodgates, allowing more serious white MCs such as Yelawolf and Iggy Azalea to get traction and respect.
It's hard to say why this joke is still funny. When you try to apply the piss-take rap formula to other genres of music, it doesn't work as well. Like, isn't Marty McFly performing that Chuck Berry song in Back to the Future the same exact thing? McFly was getting pushed around by Biff right before he picked up a guitar and pulled off one of the coolest performances in all of moviedom. If the piss-take rap joke works because it involves a character subverting our expectations, shouldn't we be laughing at McFly instead of wishing we were him? And if it doesn't make us crack up because McFly succeeds in wowing the crowd, then why are we so interested in gawking at Radcliffe who, actually, did a pretty good job spitting Blackalicious's verses?
Maybe it has to do with the fact that we don't think of the rock music Marty was playing as something co-opted from black culture-even though it certainly was. Unlike rock, however, people still see rap as the province of the urban African American community. I guess, that's why it's funny, if not problematic, that we laugh when we see a goofy rich white dude wade into that territory.
However, with the way things are going in hip-hop, the piss-take rap joke might stop garnering big laughs, simply because-for better or worse-white guy rappers are becoming pretty common. Iggy Azalea's "Fancy" now has the record for the longest a female rap song has spent at No. 1 on the Billboard charts. And whether or not you think it's fair (or that the Grammys even mean anything), Macklemore won Best Rap Album last year. And Eminem isn't just the best-selling rapper of all time, he's the second-best single male artist of any genre. White rappers are so ever-present right now in hip-hop that in a few years finding humor in a white guy rapping might feel as played-out as Gallagher smashing a watermelon.
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