On a rainy Thursday, we sat down to catch up with Craig muMs Grant, fresh off his critically acclaimed one man show, A Sucker Emcee at Labyrinth Theater (now playing through October 5th). Grant may be the busiest man in the Bronx but he took a few moments to tell us about his wizardry and why he loves theater below 14th Street.
How was A Sucker Emcee born?
I used to go out on the road; I had this booking agent who would send me out on the road to the college circuit. And he knew this other guy that was doing a history of Rock ‘n’ Roll -- it was like a PowerPoint presentation. My booking agent suggested that I should do a history of Hip-Hop. It had been in my head, I wanted to delve into that, but I wanted it to be non-linear and to align it to my own life. I started performing again and Jenny Koons, the director of Sucker Emcee, saw me perform like three times straight and she said you may have a solo show. I was like, “Cool”. We met once a week at the Public Theater. Then Lab (Labyrinth Theater) asked me to do something for a salon, I had this solo show and they were like, “bring it.” And it worked just like that.
Can you tell me a bit about the rehearsal process?
It was rough. One: Memorizing your own words. As a writer, you are writing it, developing it, making sure it’s streamlined, that the arc is there, and everything is working perfectly. Then you have to take your writer hat off and put on your actor hat and pretend you didn’t write this and really connect to it emotionally. It’s tricky, it’s tricky. It’s not like doing a normal play. The rehearsal process was like walking on broken glass.
Paint us a picture: What does your creative process look like?
For me, everything starts as a poem. It’s about that; it’s about finding the poetry in the story I want to tell, and writing the poetry of it and then expanding out from that. And I look at the poetry like…it’s like tomato paste and you gotta add water. It’s concentrated, it’s a really concentrated like sappy, dramatic essence of the story I want to tell and then I just open it up from that. And sometimes the poetry goes to the wayside. Sometimes the poetry doesn’t even exist any more.
In a world where everything is experienced in hyper-speed, how do you guide your audience to slow down and luxuriate in the poetry?
I beg them to let it just kind of like, slip over them. My thing is about getting lost in the words. I love words, I love how words fit together, that’s why I loved being an Emcee, I love rhyming. No matter how fast a computer gets, you can’t get away from the connection the Griot has to the human in regards to storytelling. It’s captivating, it’s hypnotizing. A good Griot will get somebody to put their cell phone down, and just listen. And it’s not something where you have to understand every word, you just have to listen and let it kind of sweep over you. That’s my wheelhouse you know, that’s my wizardry. [laughs]
Your play Loveness at the NY Fringe is about 2 people who fall for one another and Sucker Emcee has you falling in love with Hip-Hop and language. Is it safe to say that falling in love is a steady stream in your work?
Yes, definitely. I got another play going up in February at the Wild Project called Paradox of the Urban Cliché and that’s going up with Poetic Theater Productions and that’s also about love. That’s my thing; I love “love.” So that’s what I like to write about from all kinds of perspectives, it always ends up that way somehow. You know, I love “love,” man.
Who’s inspiring you these days? Heroes?
My heroes? Rakim definitely was always a big inspiration. I’m a big Cormac McCarthy fan, as a writer. Stevie Wonder is inspiration; Jimi Hendrix is inspiration; Jim Morrison is inspiration as far as being a poet and just allowing myself to be able to do anything I want to as a poet.
Toni Morrison I adore; and of course Sonia Sanchez. I mean I could go on and on about people who inspire me. I get inspired just getting on the train seeing regular people who have to get up and go to work every day. I’m inspired by their courage and their strength and their desires to have the things they want in their lives.
What’s the best and worst thing to happen to Hip Hop?
Best thing: The blackout of ’77. In my eyes, Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa, I don’t know if they had the vision, but they had the courage to party with everything that was going on in that time
Worst thing: The industry. Once industry got involved, the natural creative, the natural expression, the natural progression of where hip hop was gonna go was altered, because people need money. So therefore I’m gonna write lines like this ‘cause I gotta get paid. And they’re successful, so let’s keep doing it like that. It’s like a plant that grows and then got digitized.
Theater’s antiquated. Theater should’ve went the way of Beta recording, like years ago. The moment radio came out and TV was invented, these things should have gotten rid of theater. Theater stuck around because of people’s desire for it and love for it. But the thing is the attention span is totally different. Back when Tennessee Williams was writing plays he could write 9, 10 page monologues and people would pay attention. These days? I write plays, and scenes are like half a page, and you cut ‘cause you gotta keep people’s attention span.
Best thing that’s happened to theater is that it is, what it is: Theater isn’t TV, theater isn’t radio, theater isn’t the Internet, and that’s the best thing about theater.
The worst thing about theater is that it’s technology: people need video in theater now; and the other thing is you need the biggest star, so it’s altered by star power now, and it’s not really driven by story. I love downtown theater, I love theater below fourteenth street. Because everything else is just rehashing old things. I wanna see something new, and that’s why it’s great. Let’s break the mold, let’s keep pushing the envelope. That’s what I love.
What kind of work excites you?
I like any work that is not affected by financial gain. Like, the Roots' latest album? A little crazy, and I was like I love it, because they get a chance to experiment, to take a chance. They get a steady paycheck, so when it comes to making music they can experiment up the wazoo. I’m waiting for Jay-Z to experiment. I mean I love Jay-Z, if he puts out an album, I buy it. I’m a big Jay-Z fan, I’m not gonna front, but he’s the one: a 44 year old rapper that there’s no precedent for. Let’s step outside of the box of what we think hip hop is supposed to be, in regards to youth. What’s hip hop for a grown man? I’m about to be 46 years old and I love hip hop. What does hip hop mean to me as a grown man?
What would you say to baby muMs?
Don’t be scared. Don’t be scared. It’s all going to work out in the end.
A Sucker Emcee continues its run at the Bank Street Theatre through October 5. More more information and tickets, visit https://labtheater.org/
A Sucker Emcee runs through October 5 at the Bank Street Theatre.