In his 2003 book “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them,”then-comic Al Franken coined the criminally under-used phrase “Kidding On The Square” to describe a Schrödinger’s Cat-like situation in which a joke, delivered in jest, is simultaneously intended to be taken entirely seriously. And while now-Senator Franken has gone on to (I suppose) bigger and better things in Washington DC, New York City brothers Jeff and Eric Rosenthal have made a career out walking that microscopically fine line between joking and serious with their comedy-rap (rap-comedy?) group “ItsTheReal.”
The duo first landed on my radar after the Christmas-time release of their 2013 “Jews for Jesus Piece” video, but Eric and Jeff have been part of the hip-hop scene for years. As a result of their perseverance, they’ve earned a huge degree of credibility in a world that might otherwise be inaccessible to a couple of Jewish kids from Westchester, NY. With backgrounds as entertainment industry professionals, the two gained notoriety for their Puckish interviews with big-name rap stars – something that quickly transformed from a youtube hobby into serious gigs with MTV and Bonnaroo. With the release of their first mix-tape (2013’s “Urbane Outfitters Vol. 1“) and the upcoming, much-anticipated, release of their second, ItsTheReal has transformed from rap comedians to something altogether different: Actual rappers.
I spoke with Jeff and Eric not long after they dropped their “Jews for Jesus Piece” video (Incidentally, you can now buy your own “Jesus Piece” along with “Eric” and “Jeff” pieces). Over the course of the conversation, it became clear that, backed by a laundry list of rap notables, this pair of joke-cracking yids might just be the realest thing happening in hip-hop today.
Let’s start with a basic bio – who are ItsTheReal and where do you guys come from?
Eric: I’m Eric, by the way. That’s Jeff. We’re brothers. We’re originally from Westchester, which is just north of here, and we’ve lived in the city for the past six and a half years, all in the same apartment. We live with our other brother Dan who works for the Yankees. I went to Syracuse University. I was a film major – I thought I was gonna be a feature film writer and director. It set me on this interesting path where I was mentored on the film “Two Weeks Notice” by the legendary cinematographer László Kovács who did “Five Easy Pieces” and “Easy Rider” and “Ghostbusters” and “My Best Friends’ Wedding” and stuff like that, so a pretty good guy to learn from. I interned at a music video and commercial and documentary company, I was on a film called “Capturing the Friedmans” which was a huge, crazy film. I went on to write scripts that didn’t sell. I pitched them to different places like Universal or United Artists. In retrospect they definitely shouldn’t have sold. But I didn’t see it that way, obviously, because I’m a kid looking for every opportunity, and thought I was amazing at the time. I needed to grow up and have experiences and all that stuff. I worked with Kanye West and was a…
Jeff: You were his videographer.
E: …a videographer for him. Went to the Grammys with him in 2005, which was an incredible experience. It was his first Grammys and he and his whole team treated me like family, which was amazing for a bunch of street dudes from Chicago – real street dudes from Chicago – looking out for this kid from Westchester who had a video camera, and who they didn’t need to treat that way.
J: Also it should be noted that this was your first Grammys also.
E: It was my first Grammys [LAUGHING] It was my biggest week, also.
Between the two of you, you guys came home with some awards.
J: Eric and that other guy, right.
E: So that’s my story to the point where Jeff should get involved.
J: So I graduated school, Boston University – Go Terriers – and I came home and started working for HBO on a comedy website which didn’t last very long. But, while I was still working there Eric and I joined up and were like “well, why don’t we get in front of the camera and do something that we both enjoy” so we started doing this marriage between comedy and hip-hop and started putting out videos every week, every Monday at 9AM, and it was basically making fun of, but making fun with the hip-hop industry. What was different about us was we had this insider-y knowledge. We were doing something different. We were sketch comedians. But, everyone could have been sketch comedians.
E: Right, anybody could have had a camera.
J: A camera, a youtube account… But we immediately found an audience. The first video did forty thousand views in a night.
What was your first video?
J: “Deconstructing Biggie”. It was taking the lyrics “You’re mad ‘cuz my style you’re admiring // don’t be mad – UPS is hiring” [From Craig Mack’s “Flava In Ya Ear“] and looking at it from the UPS driver’s perspective, who hated it, and the DHL and FED-EX guys who loved it. So, not knowing any better we went to a UPS Depot and tried to get some drivers to be a part of it. And they were like “No we definitely can’t do this. Corporate would never let us” and so Eric man-sewed UPS logos onto brown shirts that we’d bought for like two dollars each and we made a video that was succinct, that was funny, was different, and really caught on.
And we did that for three and a half years. We didn’t get paid for any of this – This was all out of our own pocket, involving friends, no deadlines but the ones that we put on ourselves. So every morning at nine o’clock our audience knew they were gonna get something that looked great, that was funny, that was different, and we kept doing that to the point where people like Bun-B, or Camron, or Pete Wentz – All these people kept reaching out to us. You get a phone call from Bun-B who’s done songs with Jay-Z and is just a legendary rapper, and he’s like “First time, long time” and you’re just like…
E: It’s an incredible experience. And you know, what are these two Jewish white guys from Westchester doing in this world now, where we’re respected on some level by these industry heavyweights. Youtube was a pond, and we wanted to make a name for ourselves – because of our interests, we’re hip-hop sketch comedians. There was no such thing, and we made up that term, and that’s what we were. Because we love hip-hop, we love comedy. So we were able to stand out, and hip-hop obviously courses through our veins. It’s within us, it’s just part of us. What I’m saying is it’s part of our lexicon, part of our attitude, part of our whole thing. Somewhat part of how we dress. All of that. But, what we’re really proud of is that it does cross over into other things, so we are able to interview someone like Alice Cooper the same way as ?uestlove. I think there’s a couple of reasons why we succeeded. No one’s doing it the same way as us. We came into this, especially the interviews because we worked for MTV for a couple of years, running around the country to Austin and Chicago and Orlando and LA. We’ve had three amazing chances to interview R Kelly, which would have just been top of the heap for us. And we just put in so much work into getting every question right, and obviously they’ll have conditions coming in where another artist won’t. Because he has a lot of..uh…
E: Yeah. But every time we did so much research and crafting these questions, so much rehearsal, and every time at the last minute it just didn’t work out for whatever reason. So he’s sort of our White Whale.
Your other brother works for the Yankees? Where do you two fit in in the family dynamic? And I say that also in terms of working with your brother – some people couldn’t hack that.
J: When we go to Passover or Thanksgiving, our family has almost zero idea of what we do. Our brother Dan has, like, a tangible job. He’s at an institution. ItsTheReal’s not quite there yet. Although when we were in the NY Times, they were like “Oh! We get you! Your picture’s in the paper!”
E: Grandma doesn’t understand Rick Ross or the Internet, but as far as us working together: For the very, very, very most part it’s constructive. We know how to read each other very well, especially after working together for six-plus years. We know what works, what doesn’t work, how to collaborate. I think that my strengths match with Jeff’s strengths and hopefully there’s not a lot of weaknesses but we cover for each other. It’s a really good dynamic.
J: There’s physical weakness on my part.
So you start with interviews and sketch comedy, man on the street type things. How did the “ItsTheReal” and the mix-tape come about?
E: Well, technically we started out as “The Real” all these rappers could agree on one thing – they all could agree that they were “real.” Right? Like, Eve could be real, and Kanye could be real, and Young Jeezy could be real, but they all come from such different areas, such different lifestyles, and and opportunities. They all agree that they, themselves, are real. So we were like “well, why don’t we be the definition of what that is?”
J: And so we were “The Real” but the problem was “Thereal.com” was taken and so “ItsTheReal” just flowed, but also you can’t spell “ItsTheReal” without “Israel” and so…
J: We are very…our views are very radical.
E: Oh, I thought you meant like our Youtube views are radical?
J: Our Youtube views are radical!
E: The real answer is “ItsTheReal” is easier to find that just “The Real” so tell that to twitter so they can verify us. We’ve always been some iteration of “ItsTheReal” – that’s been our name, regardless of whether that’s been the sketches, the interviews, the podcast, or the music. The music stuff, again, has always been ingrained within us, but at a certain point that we had earned enough credibility within the industry…
J: We were dancing around the issue, and at a certain point you’re not an outsider anymore so the thing for us we thought was to blow it up from the inside. So, why not start acting as rappers, and be funny as rappers.
E: We wanted to walk this fine line between reality and ridiculousness. Where we were different from The Lonely Island or Weird Al is that we had our own name where we wanted to make it like the Colbert Report or the Daily Show where it was really hard to determine if it was real or not. And we think we do a good job about that – Getting good production, getting real features and with us rapping as genuinely as we could on subjects that are crazy as possible.
I was looking at the comments on your mixtape download page. And everyone is trying to figure out what this is, which I think would be problematic if it weren’t for the fact that that’s what you’re trying to do – you’re trying to be in that nebulous grey area.
E: And internet commenters on the whole are kind of interesting and having been doing this for 6+ years now we don’t take any of that stuff to heart, and the people who are gonna leave comments generally aren’t the people that actually are very in tune with what we’re all about anyways. It’s a mix. We’ve had people who don’t like us in real life, we’ve had people who don’t love us online. We get people who love us and we get stopped on the streets. We’ve been stopped in LA on the streets, NY, in Chicago.
J: I was hiking…
E: This is a true story!
J: I was hiking in the grand Tetons, two hours away from anything, and my other brother and I were walking and we catch up to this group taking pictures of all the mountains and stuff, and we catch up to them and there’s literally no one else around for miles. This guy hops off this giant rock and says “Excuse me, do you run twitter for @ItsTheReal?” And he turns out to work for FourSquare.
You say you walk that line between tweaking and critiquing the rap world from within, but also you’re pretty serious about your craft. You’re making jokes, but you’re not just farting around.
E: I think that we want to take what’s been done, and just twist it slightly to the left so people can appreciate both the original and what we’re doing.
J: We want to do smart jokes.
E: Yeah, we’re raised on Coen brothers and Wes Anderson and we’re raised on Saturday Night Live, so we don’t want to fall into those easy traps of the internet and just do fart jokes.
J: Well, you don’t.
E: I don’t.
J: I think 2014 is really gonna be the year of the fart joke.
E: But, like Jeff said, we just want to do us. We don’t want to follow trends. We want to take this where we want to go. When I was in college it wasn’t like “oh yeah, I’m gonna be a hip-hop sketch comedian.” And it certainly wasn’t, in 2007, gonna be like “oh yes, we’re gonna put out a mix tape with DJ Drama”. It wasn’t for that purpose. It was just “this is where we’re at right now. This is what we’re interested in. And then how else can we respect ourselves today and do it legitimately, and if other people dig it, then all the better.”
You don’t use pseudonyms and you’re very up front about yourselves. With the album, and the music videos in particularly, that’s where a lot of the humor seem to come from – you’re a couple of white Jewish guys. Like your song “Beef Wit Us”…
J: Well, I think we’re very much willing to make whoever’s with us the star, as opposed to us. So with Maino we let him do him, and, like, it was his idea to use the bow tie. I think he looked a little bit like Louis Farrakahan, but he was just so good in it.
E: As for ourselves, I think that we’ve always know that if people put themselves out there and it comes out there as “real” or “true” or whatever – even Rick Ross, who is obviously playing an exaggerated version of himself – the more honest people are, the more people want to buy into something. And we think that people dig whatever we’re putting out there. And we started doing videos, we know the importance of videos. When we make music we want to make it as smart, and as catchy as can be, but we know that the videos will take it to a whole other level. So, working with Rex Arrow on the new there was a lot of thought…
It’s not a joke
E: Right. Well. It is a joke,
J: If you watch closely there’s a lot of farting.
E: But we’ve had ambitions for other music videos that we be both smart and full and hopefully will take what are legitimate records and will bring them more into our world so people can be like “oh, I can connect the dots, and see what’s going on.”
So what’s next in the immediate future? You have a new album coming out sometime this spring?
E: We have a bunch of songs we’re really excited about, and we’re trying to get even more. We’re still recording. The funny thing about becoming artists is that we’ve become the kind of people we made fun of, so now there are times where we will show up, unfortunately, late to an interview. Or we will turn in something sort of late, or we will do all these things that artists are known to do…so, to be cliche, the album is coming soon. We’re having discussions, we’re doing things. We’re hustling out here. It is what it is. All these generic kind of things.
Is there anything in particular we should look forward to on the album?
E: Yeah yeah! We have Melanie Fiona, we have Curren$y, we have Smoke DZA, some other really cool people. As good as the first one was, we think the next one is gonna be way better. “Jews for Jesus Piece” was sort of our “street single” and we put it out there before Christmas, because it just made sense for the season, obviously. We’d had the record since June or July, all finished. But we’d only decided to shoot the video and have it mastered and the whole thing within like a week.
J: And it went for the mix tape that we put out on April first. We’d only decided to do that in mid-March. So it was kind of a scramble to put everything together, and suddenly we’re having our mixtape release party at Diddy’s studio and we’re making teeshirts and…
E: Because we’d wanted to put it out on April First. But now we sort of have this open-ended deadline where we’re just sort of like “we’ll see where this takes us, and we’ll take our time with it.” We don’t owe this to anyone but ourselves and we’re just going about what makes us happy. But, the songs really are a step up. The videos are clearly a step up, and we have a lot of cool stuff on the way.
So, next Grammy’s Kanye’s gonna shoot you guys?
E: I will say this. What’s very cool about “Jews for Jesus Piece” is that in a very short amount of time it’s opened up a lot of doors for us that we didn’t think were available to us. When you take risks, it really can pay off.
ItsTheReal’s new video for “Girls With The Dirty South” drops this Friday. Just in time for Valentine’s day.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]