ItstheReal And The Rise Of The Rap Nerd
By Ben Westhoff
Eric and Jeff Rosenthal, the comedy-rap duo known as It’s the Real, are huddled near a Canon XL2 camera in rap label E1 Music’s offices in the East Village, working on their latest video. Eric is the older brother with curly locks spilling onto his forehead; Jeff is the taller one in Reebok Pumps. Both, however, crane their necks upward to regard Houston rapper Slim Thug, who has gamely agreed to co-star. The Rosenthals aren’t employed by a label, a production company, or anyone else—they’re in it mostly for the yuks. For this clip, Jeff plays a clueless Verizon operator.
“May I get your first and last name, please?”
“How can I help you today, Mr. Thug?”
“Please, Mr. Thug is my father. Call me Slim.”
As it turns out, Slim has been receiving all sorts of random calls, owing to the fact that his new phone number, 281-330-8004, formerly belonged to another Houston rapper: Mike Jones.
Inquires Jeff: “Who?”
“Funny,” says Slim, slamming down his phone.
If you don’t get the joke, well, then you’re not the intended audience for It’s the Real, which for three years has featured the Rosenthals’ rap-themed clips: Works this year include “Jay ElecLeBronica” and “Kat Stacks: Last Comic Kneeling,” which offers you the opportunity to see the vixen “in a position she’s never been in before: standing up.” Funded entirely out of the brothers’ own pockets, the clips get wide play on rap blogs—sometimes hundreds of thousands of views—and draw celebrity appearances. Cam’ron dispensed advice to teenage girls, while Clipse discussed “rapper fraud.” For the shorts they filmed with Nick Cannon, he insisted they call him a cornball.
Publicists now regularly offer up their famous clients; surprisingly, just about everyone skewered “gets it,” with the exception of one rap personality the Rosenthals prefer not to name. (He and a handler threw a drink in Eric’s face and manhandled Jeff at a club.) “Since they’re not journalists or radio personalities, people kind of take it as just a lighthearted joke,” says Bun B, who appears in a sketch where Eric calls him “the Fresh Prince of the Texas State Fair—Trill Smith.” “If they were, say, Source employees, it would have been like they were taking a shot, trying to damage credibility. But even people who were made fun of [work with them]. You gotta be able to laugh at yourself.”
Attempting to expand their satirical empire, the Rosenthals are recording a comedy album, featuring their own rapping and production from childhood friend Greg Mayo. (It includes a bar mitzvah-inspired dance called the “Upper West Slide”; they claim major-label interest.) They’ve also got a podcast called Hype Men: Launched in August and co-hosted by an L.A.-based fan-turned-friend named Jensen Karp, the series purports to “dissect hip-hop in the way it should be, which is by three Jewish white kids.” Recorded in the Rosenthal apartment’s kitchen/living room/dining room with a different rap artist or comedian guest each week, the hour-long episodes are funny and addictive, and have quickly gone viral, peaking at more than 10,000 downloads per week. (They usually tape when Karp is in town on business, although they recently finished a batch in L.A.) The show’s best moments are never-before-heard anecdotes from guests like Just Blaze, who in October discussed the degeneration of his relationship with Damon Dash.
No matter who’s involved, however, Karp does most of the talking. Nowadays the co-owner of a pair of pop-culture–themed California art galleries, he’s quicker-tongued than a meth addict and boasts an endless supply of stories from his former rap career. As a 12-year-old Calabasas battle MC, he was christened Hot Karl by Ice-T because he “shit on” his opponents, and was later signed to Interscope after his mom befriended Mack 10’s mother. (True stories.) He recorded with a then-unknown Kanye West, was made into a short-shorts-clad avatar in NBA Live 2003, and eventually put out his album The Great Escape on Headless Heroes. What he was clearly put on earth to do, however, was discuss Ken Griffey Jr.’s brief rap career.
“When he was 19, he released a rap song with Kid Sensation, who was this big rapper out of Seattle, and by big rapper, I mean number two behind Sir Mix-a-Lot, the only big rapper from Seattle,” he explains on the Hype Men episode dedicated to professional-athlete music crossovers. “This song was called ‘The Way I Swing.’ I have the cassette single at home.”
The trio makes it difficult to remember a time when “nerd” was an actual pejorative—they regard it as the ultimate compliment. (Bestowed on anyone who can name the St. Lunatic affiliate who wears the Phantom of the Opera mask, for example.) As Karp explains, “I always say to my girlfriend—who I believe is way more attractive than me and way out of my league—that I’m very lucky people like Seth Rogen have made being this kind of nerd really popular.”