Noises Off: Russell Simmons on bringing def comedy jam to Britain

Just like hip hop, comedy can give a voice to the voiceless
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The Independent Culture

It is always people who are locked out who create cultural trends – from the opera, to the ballet, to hip hop now. It is always people who are locked out that do something different because they are not participating in the mainstream.

Like jazz, blues and rock'n'roll, that expression, that cultural phenomenon, is a form of rebellion. The difference is, the rebellion that was jazz or blues or rock'n'roll turned white. The white artists did what the black artists did.

Like hip hop, comedy has the ability to relay a message and share understanding. They are both expressions of a community in which most people don't have a voice; an expression of a locked-out group, a group that comes from poverty in America.

Hip hop hasn't changed. It is mainstream, but though it has crossed over to the buyers, it has not crossed over to the producers. The stars are the same. They come from the same places. Most of hip hop still comes out of poverty. That's an important distinction.

It hasn't changed a bit. It may be a little better: the poets are better, the comedians are better. This is because there's more exposure, which inspires more people to join and actually quit their jobs to become rappers or comedians. It's about expression. "We want peace" or "We want the American dream".

Now it's the same with French rappers, British rappers and Palestinian rappers. They all echo that sentiment: "We're locked out. We feel poverty." It's the expression of those that are oppressed. Lots of things people are thinking aren't voiced, but our live show Def Comedy Jam embraced open expression, much as hip hop did.

When we put it on the US TV channel HBO in 1991, the honest language and the no-boundaries attitude was a big deal. The comedians could say things that they might not normally say on television and, more importantly, people whose expression would never get on television were heard. There was no Bernie Mac or Cedric ("The Entertainer") or Chris Tucker or Martin Lawrence. Very few comedians' voices were heard, but through this, suddenly these people were thrust into the mainstream.

Most talent scouts wouldn't know of these comedians, but Def Comedy Jam exposed to the mainstream this very important phenomenon. It exposed the expression of the poor and what was happening culturally in America. And it caught on immediately. Now we're bringing Def Comedy Jam to Britain. Before, budding comedians used to keep their day job. Now, someone like Kojo (Def Comedy Jam's UK answer to Chris Rock) goes to work and says, "I'm gonna let go of everything else and focus on my career," making him more successful.

Comedy, like hip hop, is irreverent. The things that are said by rappers have an ability to shock but they're real. When Kanye West said George Bush doesn't like black people or when NWA said "Fuck the police" years ago, that's real sentiment. They're expressing what a lot of people are saying.

It's shocking to the mainstream to hear of people who feel the police are an occupying force, who feel the police are not there to help them but to suppress them, but that's their reality. That "no-snitch" reality is so sad – the fact that Italians and Irish and black neighbourhoods just never told on criminals in the community because they didn't feel connected to the police. Everybody is so shocked about that but, again, that's the reality. And so hip hop and comedy give us a chance to explore the thought process of millions and millions of Americans who ordinarily wouldn't have a voice.

In the same way, a lot of Def Comedy Jam is racially provocative. It's a reality we live in that people make fun of stuff they can't really understand or things they can't get a handle on, but comedy makes people loosen up about it. I'm never offended by racial stereotypes; I think they are funny. They make me think. We hope that is what Def Comedy Jam does for most people. We hope people don't hear jokes about each other and somehow separate themselves. Hopefully, it will bring them together.



Rap music impresario Russell Simmons presents Def Comedy Jam next month at the Manchester Apollo, the Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, and Brixton Academy, London. The show features Kojo, Patrice O'Neil, Capone and DJ Kid Capri

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