Self Improv-ment with MC Hammersmith
This month, we speak to MC Hammersmith, Scotland’s number one freestyle comedy rapper as he embarks on his first solo tour.
“I used to sit and download Whose Line is it Anyway? videos off Limewire”, says Will Naameh, aka MC Hammersmith. “The first half of them would be Whose Line is it Anyway?, the second half would always be something dreadful like Spongebob Squarepants porn.” He’s been doing improvised comedy for half his life, after being introduced to it at school as a teenager. “What a waste of time,” he laughs. He’s since seen success as a Scottish Comedy Award winning solo act, and as part of Men With Coconuts and Spontaneous Potter.
After moving to Edinburgh in 2010 and performing improv “that really sucked” within the tiny Scottish scene, he arrived at Second City in Chicago four years later. “It was amazing seeing a city full of tens of thousands of people that are very, very good at it with a thriving scene.” In the US and Canada, improv is almost built into the school curriculum, so audiences immediately understand the comedy format. Because of this, Naameh says, “there is a permission in places like LA, Chicago, New York or Toronto, to be experimental and do different kinds of improv because there's an understanding that most people in the crowd will have seen it.”
That said, you’d think familiarity with the form would result in audience originality. Suggestions tend to converge, regardless of where you are. “It'll always be the same three things: spatula, pineapple and dildo. Audiences always default to those same three things here and in the States and I don't know why.” So think of something different if you want to show off to the man.
And if you reckon a controversial suggestion will get some stage-time, Naameh isn’t afraid to shut you down: “There is no need to be polite about it. I used to feel like you had to politely refuse a racist suggestion, or a Trump suggestion or a Jimmy Savile suggestion. I think what being on the standup circuit has taught me is that you own the stage and the buck stops with you... Improv is seen as a very wholesome, approachable artform full of delightful wholesome vibes, and while that’s true, a little bit of edge and establishing dominance in the first minute of the set while taking the suggestion, as any stand up would do, doesn't hurt.”
Alongside his teenage love for improv, he also developed a taste for hip-hop. “When I was growing up, I loved Akala especially, and now I'm older, my favourite rappers are probably Big L, Supernatural, MC Juice, RA the Rugged Man, Rakim, Big Daddy Kane - the golden age hip-hop.” Naameh learned to rap in 12 months after setting himself and his best mate the challenge: he practised every day, while his pal forgot. To improve his skills, he listens to “East Coast rhyme dense vibes 'cause not only do I find it very cool, it's good material to remember and absorb for learning rhymes.”
Despite his success, Naameh suggests that improv is still maligned as part of the wider comedy landscape. For one, it’s hugely difficult to get quality press recognition: “The standard review you'll get of improv, when it is given four stars, is 'I thought it was a five star show, but I can't be guaranteed it'll be this good every night.'” He argues that acts such as TJ and Dave (“probably regarded in comedy circles in thick inverted commas as 'the best improv show in the world'”) are clearly off the scale compared to a bunch of graduates who are only just moving into longform improv, but could receive the same write-ups.
Secondly, it’s not eligible for any of the major Fringe Comedy Awards. He recalls long-running Jane Austen-themed improv, Austentatious, running into that problem when they debuted. “I remember going to that show four times and having to queue for two hours to get in... and it was incredible. There was this rumour about 'Why has Austentatious not been nominated? It is THE breakout hit. It is the show that every single person seems to be talking about, even if you don't like Jane Austen and improv, like most people.’”
But Naameh is hopeful that change is on its way. “Give it 10 years,” he says. “I think a lot of people will be screaming for it to be eligible for things alongside clown, 'cause like Doc Brown won it for a clown show which is semi-improvised, so it's getting there.”
MC Hammersmith: 1 Man 8 Mile
The Stand Edinburgh, 24 Apr, 8.30pm, £10; The Stand Glasgow, 25 Apr, 8.30pm, £10