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The hip-hop improv show 'Freestyle Love Supreme' takes to TV

The cast and crew of 'Freestyle Love Supreme'
The cast and crew of 'Freestyle Love Supreme'
Participant Media

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"Freestyle Love Supreme" may sound like a strand of medical marijuana, but it’s actually the name of an improv hip-hop show based in New York City. The show, which has toured the country and been performed at venues in the UK as well, advertises itself as "''Whose Line is it Anyway?' meets Wu-Tang Clan" — mashing up the thrill of live improv with the tongue-twisting speed of freestyle rapping. Now it's been adapted into a TV series on Pivot — the cable network from Participant Media

Given that the show is now on the small screen, we recently spoke with Lin-Manuel Miranda and Tommy Kail, two of the show's co-creators, about the challenges of taking a live act into the studio— and the creative benefits of freestyle rap.

Interview Highlights:

On capturing the energy of a live show and transferring it to television:


It was one of the great challenges that we had, and Ryan McFaul, who is one of the other executive producers, worked on the edit with me a lot. We found very quickly that the split-screen helped us a lot, because when you're watching the show live you get to see Lin [watch] Anthony and Utkarsh perform a scene, and his delight is something that informs you, as well as knowing that the suggestion came from the person sitting to your left. You can feel that energy in the room. So there's a lot of simultaneous action, and sometimes there will be three things happening — you'll be watching the scene, you'll have a camera on the audience, and you'll be watching the guys — and we found that that actually created a pretty accurate feeling of capturing that electricity.


Yeah, the net result is longer, uninterrupted takes with split-screen bumping in and out. And so it feels like the electricity when you watch a really good Aaron Sorkin scene, and you know they're not cutting. This is all happening in real time, and we're making it up as we go.

On the creative effects of channeling consciousness into improvised raps:


I write musicals for a living. It took seven years to write my first musical, "In the Heights." We're in year five of working on my next show, "Hamilton," which Tommy's directing.  On that project I spent a month crafting sixteen couplets. Whereas, with this, the first draft is what's coming out of your mouth in real time in front of the audience, and I think it's been complementary to every other thing I do in my life. It's allowed us to have amazing gigs, like Tommy and I wrote the closing night raps for Neil Patrick Harris for the Tony Awards two years in a row.  That's a skill set that we developed working on "Freestyle Love Supreme."


The looseness of the structure of the show is an illusion. Lin and I generally after every show we've done — and we've done hundreds of them — will talk the next morning, see what we can remember, and kind of put the thing back together...As it's happening in real time, you have to be able to distill something to its essence. And that's useful whether you're working on a small play with four people sitting in a room or you're working on a big musical. So that's been really useful. I also find that "Freestyle" represents, in essence, a release of energy and pheromones [laughs] that is so substantial, and you're chasing that, like you feel a little depleted the next day. I don't perform with the group really for the good of the audience [laughs], but when I watch the're participating in a very active way, as is the audience. And I think there's something about trying to capture magic that I think is a larger challenge that we try to do with this television show. But also whenever you're doing anything you realize what you're trying to do in the theater is get a bunch of people to come together and sit in the dark and be taken away somewhere. And that's what "Freestyle" does at its core.


On the methods behind the madness of freestyle rapping on subjects as varied as Maya Angelou to the number of languages spoken in India:


Well, that's the fun of the show — there's no time to lie. The audience throws a suggestion at us, and we take the thing we think we can run with. I'm one of those people who, if I read a book, I read every other book by that author. I was assigned "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" in 9th grade, and then I read Maya Angelou's four subsequent [books], so if someone yells that at me in a freestyle setting, there are certain things I can access because I did that homework when I was 15 years old. The fun is: Can you get it, and can you regurgitate it and say it in a way that makes sense in order, to a beat, in real time? That's the challenge of that particular song — how much can you access from your own brain? So it's not so much that we go out and study the world, it's that we shorten the distance between our brains and our mouths through lots of reps.


In essence, what "Freestyle Love Supreme" does is it magical-izes the mundane. It takes the events of the everyday and it heightens them by incorporating music into them instantaneously, by having Shockwave lay a beat and the guys then tell a story over that beat. But it also says, in some way, the things that you have absorbed just by moving through the day are relevant. A lot of times when you have a certain kind of job, you live your life, you leave that at the door, and you go and do your job and go home. This is something that will tap into the subway ride you had on the way to the show, what you ate that morning, what you read when you were 15, and it all is immediately accessed — just because you're in the only place in the world where someone yells, "Maya Angelou!" at you and you have to then rap about it. [laughs]

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