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Tom Barnes

“In the early days there were a lot of confused people!”: Abandoman

12 September 2017 Will Rathbone

Abandoman are an Irish improvised comedy hip hop duo who have been wowing crowds with their sublime mix of skill, ingenuity and genuinely one-of-a-kind performances since 2012. Rob Broderick, the rapper/comedian half of the duo, spoke to London Calling before their new show Life + Rhymes comes to the Soho Theatre ahead of a national tour.

Rob Broderick is a performer whose energy and enthusiasm is infectious, and it’s no surprise that the Irish comedy hip hop freestyler is so adept at winning over crowds as one half of Abandoman. Staples of the fringe and comedy circuits, they are arriving at London’s Soho Theatre with a new show, Life + Rhymes, which Broderick proudly claims is “the best show we’ve ever done! It tells the fictional life story of Abandoman, is set in the nineties and, for want of a narrative comparison, has a ‘Biggie and Tupac’ story featuring us and two French exchange students who turn out to be Daft and Punk from Daft Punk. The idea is that Sam [Wilson – musician/vocalist and other half of the duo] and I were famous in Ireland as their biggest, and only, hip hop band and that, for one night only, the whole crowd become the people most closely involved in our career.”


Abandoman: Life + Rhymes. Photo Credit: Tom Barnes
 
A standard Abandoman gig involves Wilson playing a series of instruments and creating hip hop beats, before Broderick asks the audience for suggestions and topics, and proceeds to improvise lyrics from the answers he is given. It’s enormously skilful and very, very funny. So what sets the new show apart? “We wanted something we could sink our teeth into a bit more. I’ve always loved the craziness of the nineties hip hop scene, and for a while I’ve been keen to build something that could sit there. At the time, it felt like that era had so much drama – the whole East Coast/West Coast divide – and the characters were like superheroes. Sam and I both really like music autobiographies as well – even musicians who we don’t even listen to that much – because we love that they almost have their own narrative: they start with nothing, then usually rise to fame, before undergoing a kind of slide at some point. That narrative allows us to give the crowd characters; they don’t have to be themselves. They’re allowed into the world, and they can be a bit crazier because the bubble of the narrative protects them.”


Abandoman: Life + Rhymes. Photo Credit: Tom Barnes
 
The narrative and the lyrics are only one half of the show however – how do the beats compare to previous shows? “The songs in this show are some of our best. Sam and I went all out to make sure each song has a completely different genre to it; the scope of the music in this one is much broader than in previous shows.” Broderick is someone who really knows his hip hop: the playful nature of the Abandoman concept doesn’t mean the music is taken any less seriously. Do current trends in hip hop affect their approach to writing? “Hugely. It affects the beats that I want to rap over. Hip hop used to be strictly 85bpm for years. Then, somewhere around Stronger by Kanye West and the rise of David Guetta and Black Eyed Peas, hip hop lost the shackles. Now a huge amount of hip hop is done at 70 or 140bpm – a Dubstep tempo – and that changes the way people rap. You either have a lot more words - the Nicki Minaj, super-quick flows – or a lot fewer, which gives you that slow, almost melodic style of rapping typified by Drake. It’s interesting to see how crowds react to these different styles and tempos.”
 
It sounds very similar to putting together a set-list for a gig. “Very much so - it’s a case of knowing, over a 60-minute show, when the crowd want to kick back and listen to something that’s more lyric focused, and when they want to go crazy. You’re trying to find the right flow. We also have an extra element: how long it takes to get the suggestions. Every song stems from suggestions, and in the past we would start with a chat before playing the song. Now we’re trying to get the suggestions mid-song and keep them super short. It’s a case of: drop the beat, ask for, say, a minor adversity, then ‘BOOM’ – there’s the track again.”


Rob Broderick. Photo Credit: Tom Barnes
 
What exactly was Broderick’s background? How did he come to front such a unique outfit? “I’ve always loved improv – when I started stand-up I was able to write, but I couldn’t deliver it. I got incredibly bored, incredibly quickly. So when I did my first Edinburgh, I just improvised. Around 2008 I auditioned for a show that featured a load of amazing rappers: Soweto Kinch, who has won a bunch of MOBOs, Bashy, or Ashley Thomas, who was huge in the grime scene at the time and now is an actor, and Delroy Lindo, one of the directors, who started off in some Spike Lee movies. I spent about a year and a half on the road with those guys, and we would freestyle non-stop. I realised that it was something I was good at, and my confidence grew a lot. I loved the act of freestyling: standing around in a circle and just going for it. After that I thought – that’s it. I rang everyone who normally booked me and explained that, instead of booking me for the thing they usually booked me for, I had a hip hop show where I was going to improvise.
 
So was hip hop comedy improvisation an easy sell at the start? “In the early days there were a lot of confused people! The reaction was exactly what it should have been when you hear those words. People thought: ‘that sounds like the worst idea’. I knew that I’d rapped since I was 16, had written a hip hop album, had a band briefly, battled and freestyled a lot: but no-one in comedy knew that! So there was a suitable reaction from agents: ‘this sounds shit’. With hindsight it caught on with relative speed, but at the time it felt like forever [for ever ever? For ever ever?]. Then we won a couple of awards, and Abandoman became an act that people could actually book!” Thank goodness people cottoned on in the end, because Abandoman are fantastic live performers, and London Calling believes Broderick when he states this new evolution of the live show is the best yet.
 
Life + Rhymes runs at the Soho Theatre from 14-16 September, at 9:30pm, with tickets from £16.
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