Q: What do you get when you combine comedy, hip-hop, and multiple viewpoints… And channel it all through the entity of one man? A: The Greatest Rappers Alive: a solo show by Gabe Caruso.
Directed by Dujuan Pritchett, The Greatest Rappers Alive is currently running on Friday nights at Under The Gun Theater in Wrigleyville, Chicago. Writer and performer Gabe Caruso opens the show playing the part of Jackson Pact, a struggling Chicago talent agent, pitching performers to America’s Royal Couple: Beyonce and Jay-Z.
After Caruso establishes himself as the talent agent, he introduces the show’s next character: an aspiring rapper dubbed Silk. The next scene cuts to a rap battle and Caruso harnesses the tone and physicalities of not only of Silk, but also his competitor Kevlar and the battle emcee Ipso Facto. The audience is fully intrigued as Caruso seamlessly transitions between characters as a short story complete with its own original raps plays out on stage.
“I don’t exactly remember how or when I came up with this idea, but I remembered setting out the goal of having a one man show written that I could perform on my 30th birthday.” Caruso later recalls. “I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into, I just knew I wanted it to be funny, have a lot of hip-hop elements, and leave people feeling like they had just witnessed something new. I thought about a lot of different funny rap ideas, and a lot of different characters, and then brainstormed a way that I could get them all wrapped into one story.”
This comedic ‘hip-hopera’ is billed as a one-man show, but that is only because there is one physical being on stage. Caruso embodies a total of nine different, distinct characters on stage throughout the performance, in addition to the ominous Jay-Z and Beyonce characters that he refers to in the audience.
“Once I landed on [the idea of having the characters audition] for an opening spot on a world tour, I figured we might as well go big or go home, so I chose Beyonce and Jay-Z as the role of the audience,” Caruso explained. “I mean, what guy doesn’t want to be Jay-Z, and what woman doesn’t want to be Beyonce? Now that I think of it, I could probably drop Jay-Z, because what guy out there doesn’t want to be Beyonce?” Touche.
Caruso further delves into the show by introducing us to the rest of the increasingly varied cast of characters -each with their own unique musical performance- including a senior-citizen ‘veteran’ rapper, Max Sentence: an artist who Skype’s in from prison with his own “Cups” rendition, and Jimmy Keys who calls out the music critics with his line: “People say [what I’m doing] is easy. If it’s easy why don’t they do it? They don’t do it because it ain’t easy… LOGIC.”
The Greatest Rappers Alive continues to garner laughs along with many more thought-provoking themes. Anti-Mack, a character who hates Macklemore, explains his position by serving up a history lesson about Whites in hip-hop and a performs rallying parody of “Can’t Hold Us”. The next character, Percy, is also a very conscious rapper who proclaims “I hate mainstream music!” before revealing that he himself ‘sold out’, and performs a fast food commercial rap. This begs the audience to make the comparison between music in commercials (ie: music that is used for the buying and selling of goods and services) and commercial music (as in: non-classical or ‘pop’ music). This correlation makes you question what exactly is being sold in mainstream music. What is the message we are selling, and is it being compromised it in order to market it to the masses? Furthermore, we are left to wonder if the two concepts of 1: being ‘successful’ and 2: holding deeper meaning in your work, are mutually exclusive?
Caruso, a prolific rapper and artist himself, has written many songs outside of the ones in The Greatest Rappers Alive. His first album, Me vs. Rent, is also full of political messages- from the privatized prison system and police brutality, to the attraction that gangs have on underprivileged youth and the organized child molestation cover-up of the Catholic Church.
“These are things that most people are aware of, but are very rarely meditated on,” Caruso comments. “You don’t hear about these things because they make everyone feel uncomfortable, but that is the precise reason why you should be hearing about them. The radio is owned by the 1%, so if you are only listening to the radio, you aren’t listening to a true representation of life; you’re listening to what the people in control deem acceptable.”
You don’t hear about these things because they make everyone feel uncomfortable, but that is the precise reason why you should be hearing about them.
Though political themes wave in the background, The Greatest Rappers Alive remains foremost a comedic performance. Audiences take away laugh-generated side aches in addition to small seeds of thought and awe at Caruso’s talent. The show concludes with Caruso playing his last character, himself, as he ‘redefines a rap flow’ with a standing ovation-inducing performance.
Caruso, an instructor and ensemble member at Under The Gun Theater, is also currently working on creating a sketch show that comments on religion via video games, and an improvised Ted Talks show. In addition, he is starting his own Rap School, where he will teach students how to write and perform their own comedic raps.