In January, the face of New York hip-hop radio was changed forever as the station parted ways with long-tenured, taste-making, and fan-favorite DJ Cipha Sounds. After 17 years at the station, he and Hot 97 split following a number of departures over the past year, leaving Funkmaster Flex the last remaining connection to the station's iconic legacy.
Cipha’s first public appearance following his departure was at New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade East theater for his weekly improv comedy show, Take It Personal. The show, where Cipha, an improv obsessive, and his team, A Tribe Called Yes, perform a series of spontaneous sketches based on the stories of a revolving weekly hip-hop celebrity guest. Previous guests, many of whom are Cipha’s longtime friends, range across the hip-hop spectrum from Jim Jones to Joell Ortiz to Ty Dolla $ign sharing their anecdotes, and one special occasion where Childish Gambino himself, comedian Donald Glover, sat in as part of Cipha’s improv team.
We spoke to Cipha a half-hour before he took the stage on this emotional night from a supportive, sold-out crowd, and he voiced his feelings on his departure once he was a few days removed as well as how the unpredictability of improv helps him maintain his sanity.
Chaz Kangas is a writer living in New York. Follow him at @Chazraps.
Your weekly improv comedy show at Manhattan’s UCB East theater has been uniting the worlds of hip-hop and improv comedy for over a year and a half now. Have you felt the show or its audience has changed much in that time?
The audience has grown in terms of people who haven’t seen improv before, so it’s definitely way more mixed. Then, the cast always changes. [When it started] Phil Jackson was on, and he moved to L.A. to write for Key and Peele. Then, my boy Neil Casey was on, and he moved to L.A. to write for Amy Schumer and another show. Then this girl Natasha Rothwell was on my cast, and she just got a job writing for SNL. It keeps rotating cast members, but it’s great improv all the time.
When you first started the show, you said your intent was to bring the hip-hop and improv worlds together.
That’s my main goal, [but] there are two obstacles. One is that the theater is small, so only so many eyes can see it at once. And there’s always a lot of repeat customers, so they know how to reserve tickets early. And two, improv is such a live thing that no matter how well I cut up clips and put them on the Internet, it’s nothing like that feeling in the theater. Like when you feel the connection to something that was said at the beginning of the show and it was brought back at the end. You were like “how did they do that?” It’s definitely a live art form.
One thing I’ve noticed is, a lot of the time, it seems to be the hip-hop special guest’s first time seeing improv. Who in hip-hop do you feel has taken to the show the best?
M.O.P. was one of my favorites because M.O.P. are known to be violent individuals who have been around some extraordinary circumstances and both of them were in the green room nervous. And these guys have been in riots and brawls...
—they’re known to mash out.
They are known to mash out, thank you! And these guys were nervous, so that was funny. And Jadakiss, when he did it, his face was screwface like, “What is this? What do you got me doing?” By the end of the show he was jumping up, “I’m coming back! I’m coming back!” A couple weeks ago, this battle rapper Gorilla Nems did the show. Woo! I didn’t even know the guy. It was a recommendation from someone I trust. The stories were amazing, and he rapped. He made the whole show, and it was awesome. And Steve Lobel, he’s Bone Thugs’ manager. And he’s a guy in the industry, not a rapper. He’s interned for Jam Master Jay and interned for a bunch of labels and managed Bone Thugs. He told the story of how Bone Thugs met Biggie. No one could tell that story as well because Biggie has died and rappers tell the story a certain way because they’re in it. When you’re outside you get a different perspective, and it was the craziest story I’ve ever heard. A lot of people are nervous in the beginning and amazed in the end. I’ve only had two repeat guests: N.O.R.E. did it twice and Bodega Bamz did it twice.
How’s it been holding down the Friday night 9 p.m. slot at UCB for almost two years?
It’s the best and the worst. Gift and a curse. To have a weekend show at UCB is the greatest accomplishment, and to try to get rappers on a Friday night is the hardest thing in the world. They’re off doing shows. Even if it was a Thursday night, I’d have the biggest rappers. And Friday, and rapper or hip-hop celebrity who is in town, is here Monday to Friday morning and then they go do shows. It’s a little complicated, but to have a weekend show at UCB is the highest you can get.
Considering what’s happened this week with you parting ways with Hot 97...
Sorry. [Picks up phone and reads off-screen.] “Hot 97 is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.” [Puts phone down.] I’m sorry, go ahead.
Hot 97, the person?
[Laughs.] It’s a person. Hot 97 the person.
Do you find performing improv after something like what you went through this week with Hot 97 is something of a stress relief or that helps your focus?
Oh, yeah, yeah. I look forward to this show every week. It’s what I most look forward to. When I happen to have a gig on a Friday, it takes a lot for me to not come here. When my manager’s like, “They’re giving you a lot of money,” I’m like “I know, but it’s Friday!” But yeah, last week I had a very stressful week with Hot 97 because before everything happened this week with Hot 97, it started the week before. I was stressed out, it was very weird, I had to make a decision. But from 8:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. when I was here at UCB, it was all gone. Forgotten. Completely out of my mind. Killed the show. Amazing, and then I went back and it got a little stressful. It definitely keeps your mind focused on other things.
I was stressed out, it was very weird, I had to make a decision.
And tonight’s your first public outing post-Hot 97.
Yeah, but I’ve been feeling great all week. It’s just going to be a highlight.
Has there been a strong outpouring of support?
I did not expect that. If you want to know your self-worth, leave a job. The amount of people that hit me up, people I haven’t heard from in years. People on my Instagram, on Twitter, just friends. To the point where I’m still answering messages. I haven’t gotten back to anybody. I have a generic response where I say, “Sorry for the delay,” and then I write my real message. People have been offering me all types of stuff and saying I had a great run. It’s almost like some people take it a little too far, and I write back “You know I didn’t die, right? I’m still here bro!”
The first day I was nervous, but after that it’s been great. So many opportunities, people I didn’t even know were fans hitting me up. “I never thought to hit you because I never thought you’d leave Hot 97. Are you coming to L.A. anytime soon?”
It was a 17-year run.
Yes, but on the books it’s not 17 years. I started with Flex in 1997 as an intern and just worked my way up.
And from the way it sounded from your departure, it was an issue with the station’s bureaucracy and constant management switchover.
Yeah, [but] “bureaucracy” makes it sound like there was a conspiracy or a lot of red tape. I just think we switched bosses a few times, and we merged with another company. I just got a little lost in the shuffle. I don’t hold it against anyone personally, but I had to tell them I’ve been a jock at this station a long time, and they were like, “Oh, really?” That was weird. It’s hard to admit it, but sometimes things just run its course. And, it’s been a long run, so I can’t be mad. The movie is over. Maybe not, because they’re making more Star Wars? Man, I could have had four more years.
Well, first George Lucas would have had to sell you to Disney.
[Laughs.] Yeah, but I look at the only negative thing is, I can’t say it ended badly, but I just wish it wasn’t weird at the end. That’s all. I wish I would have got my watch. I think the next year I would have got a watch.