We are excited for the All Def Comedy Special coming to HBO. But before we dive in, let’s give everyone a history lesson on its Def Comedy Jam roots shall we?
Def Jam is the premiere showcase of urban comedy in America. Def Jam was birthed out of necessity, kind of like hip-hop was born from not having music is schools in the inner city. And not having outlets for kids to showcase their talents. Hip-hop was birthed out of that. Def Comedy Jam was born out of mainstream comedy clubs not catering or showcasing urban talent. So Russell [Simmons] created a showcase that shined the light on urban comics to let the suits know that there is a plethora of talent coming out of urban areas that they aren’t paying attention to.
The beauty of Def Jam was that so many names from the scene became absolute superstars in Hollywood from Def Jam. So that platform was one of the most successful and amazing platforms ever created for comedians.
For the sake of comedy, we can name drop so many names that came out of that scene and time.
Dave Chappelle, Bernie Mac, Steve Harvey, Cedric the Entertainer, D.L. Hugley, Chris Tucker, Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence, Damon Wayans, Tony Roberts, you could go on and on and on.
It was a real important time for comedy too. After the 80’s bubble burst, we needed something new, something fresh, a cultural shift, comedy needed re-energized. And we got it with Def Comedy Jam didn’t we?
Not only did it showcase urban comedy, it showcased urban fashion as well. You would watch every weekend to see what people were wearing. It was like a fashion show, a comedy show, it was music driven, all while breaking artists. Music, comedy, and fashion was all changing all in one show.
Flash forward to today. You are hosting the new HBO special All Def Comedy. In this special, we’re going to be exposed to a whole new batch of comedic talent. Talk a bit about the show you’ve been currently hosting at The Apollo which this new special is based on. A lot has changed over the years right?
Well, The Apollo is never going to change. The Apollo is the premiere venue to showcase talent in the world. There isn’t an artist from any genre that doesn’t wish to perform on The Apollo stage one day. That goes for America or abroad. When people come to America, they want to perform at The Apollo. So The Apollo has never lost that, even though Harlem is a little different now. However, the theme of The Apollo will never change. It’s a landmark first and foremost and a ground breaking opportunity if you get to perform there.
What’s it like hosting The Apollo Live and seeing all of that potential talent walk through those doors? Not everyone makes it that could or should?
It’s amazing. I’m the ring leader of the greatest talent showcase in the world. And you are right, you see people that don’t make it and you see people that do. The beauty of it all is that you see a room full of people with a dream. And sometimes the dream doesn’t work out the way you planned on it. But, it’s inspiring to see that many people willing to take that chance to live that dream.
Now, you had to take that same chance. You are a comedian, an actor, a producer, and you write. And you have a ton of credits to your name. Was there ever a moment for you where you ran into a road block and all of this almost wasn’t a reality for you? How scary was it for you going for it?
There was nothing for me to fall back on. No office job, no regular situation. That was never an option for me. If you know my neighborhood in Brooklyn where I grew up, Bed Stuy, it was the worst neighborhood in America. I come from the bottom. So everything else was never a roadblock. What most people would consider an obstacle, it was nothing compared to what I had to go over, around, and through. I actually would run toward an obstacle growing up having that environment as an upbringing. I knew that once I got past one, it was further away from where I came from. There was never an inkling of “this might not work.” I didn’t give any consequences a second thought. I just went for it and never looked back.
Whenever people ask me what I would be doing if I wasn’t doing this, I just tell them that I would be working just as hard at anything else that I am towards this. But I never have to worry about it because this is going pretty good right now. Haha.You can create your mind set to make it happen. You can do that internally. And once you believe, you’re all set.
I used to watch Def Jam when it first started and I used to see Russell Simmons in interviews, breaking artists, Def Jam was incredible. I would see everyone from the show in New York City in the late 80’s early 90’s. I went to a few tapings of Def Jam. I saw Simmons at the MTV Awards backstage talking to my brother. I was just a kid in the room soaking it all up. And now I can get Russell Simmons on the phone anytime I want. I could go by the office right now and have lunch with him. I can party with him tonight if he wants to go out. And it all just came full circle from sitting in the room being the quiet kid in the corner just watching everything. And now I ended up being the man next to the man.
And you’ve got DJ Drama along for the ride as well for the new special right?
He’s my homie, DJ Drama. That’s even crazy too that one of my friends is the guy that they tapped to be the DJ. That’s crazy.
Well, you’ve crossed that line. All of these people are your peers, your colleagues, your work mates.
Absolutely, but at the end of the day, you’re still that little kid standing next to all of your peers. You’re thinking, “Holy Sh*t this is Russell Simmons.” That never goes away. Haha. The little skinny kid from Brooklyn is still blown away by all of this. And I hope that never changes. Greg Giraldo, may he rest in peace, I was at The Comic Strip one night, this is year’s ago. It was one of my first Saturday 10pm spots. The money spot. I’m jumping up and down because my name is on the list for that spot. Greg Giraldo saw me and he called me over. He said, “Hey man, I’ve been doing comedy for 25 years and I forgot what it was like to be on the 10pm show because I’ve done it so much. I hope you never lose that. It was beautiful just to see you and your reaction.” I still carry that conversation with me to this day. When Simmons calls me and says we’re going to do something together, I’m jumping up and down on the couch. When people want pics, I’m blown away. When I have to do interviews, I’m blown away. It never gets old.
What are some of your favorite comedy moments you’ve ever witnessed?
I was fortunate enough one night at The Comic Strip to be on a show where Sherrod Small, my cousin went up, then I went up, then my brother Chris went up. And I hadn’t seen The Comic Strip that combustible ever. It was like the roof exploded of the place. I got chills.
I remember being in the room at The Comedy Cellar one night when both my brother Chris went along and then Dave Chappelle went on. It was intense. I was privy to a few moments like that, if you weren’t there you really missed out. And it was all before social media where you could actually have a human experience. No pictures. No video. Totally in the moment.
When you weigh the good and bad of social media, do you wish we could go back or are you accepting of the new game we all have to play?
Well, it is what’s going on right now whether we like it or not. I just wish it was a little easier to regulate. People can be very intrusive with it. That’s dangerous. There’s no protocol. You can just walk into a comedy club and tape a whole show and I might not want that out there yet. It is a necessary evil in the end. It is an amazing promotional tool. There just needs to be guidelines. I just don’t know how we are going to be able to do it.
I am super excited! On the show we have Kevin Tate, a young guy out of Detroit. Super funny. To be honest, I think he had the stand-out set of the show. I’m very happy for him. I’ve seen him a bunch in L.A. just grinding. I happy to see how the people react to him. My friend Zainab Johnson, a New Yorker who use to hang out at the Comedy Cellar. She was me. She used to just be in the room and now she’ll be showcased on the special. She’s really shining. I’m really happy for her. We have another young guy named CP [Chris Powell] who just moved to Los Angeles recently and took off pretty quickly. I’m happy for him as well. And finally Tony Roberts. He’s one of the OG’s. I used to watch him at Carolines when I was just starting out doing bringer shows. And finally, Robert Powell. He used to work in politics and made the jump over to comedy. He’s a very unique voice on the scene. And of course we can’t forget myself. Haha, I’ll be there as well hosting this thing.
Well, I’m very happy for you Tony, this is a great gig and really l looking forward to when it all goes down.
Thank you very much!
All Def Comedy premieres Saturday, November 12th at 10pm on HBO. Here’s a sneak-peek into what you’re going to witness: