MC Mr. Napkins, aka Zach Sherwin, is an exception. He recently released his debut album, The Album, on Comedy Central Records.
It manages to urge both laughs and rhythmic head nods from its listeners, as Sherwin nimbly delivers raps on smoothies, sphygmomanometers (“If you want to be a commoner / I guess you could call it a blood pressure monitor”), a particularly aggressive bee, and so much more.
Sherwin began performing as Napkins in the fall of 2007, and in short succession he was hosting shows at the famed Comedy Studio in Cambridge, MA. I got to know Zach when he was slumming it as the musical guest for Boston’s criminally under-attended (and now-defunct) “Rob Crean Show.”
No matter how poorly the show was going, you could always count on Sherwin righting the ship with a three-song set.
Sherwin knows his way around a microphone, and verbal agility goes a long way toward separating the wheat from the chaff, the dope from the wack, if you will. But what truly differentiates Napkins from those who have failed at the joke rap game is that Sherwin himself isn’t the punch line, and neither is hip-hop.
So, what is? I chatted with Zach recently to find out. Check out the results below.
Tell me how the beats for the album came together.
I have a producer I work with, his name is Dan Fox and he produces under the pseudonym Upryz. He’s a jazz pianist and also a bass player, so he really has the music end down. And then on production we have really congruent tastes. He loves golden age mid-90’s hip-hop and I do, too, and we tried to bring that feel to some of the beats on there. I also like that he isn’t a comedian, so he was going for the beats for real, which is great. We weren’t trying to clown on the beats or anything. I think that comes through.
You mention not wanting to goof on the track. You’re actually a good rapper, whereas some things that pass for comedy rap aren’t informed by any knowledge of hip-hop. I’m wondering if you can speak to the perceptions you had to combat and what you’re going for that’s maybe different from some of the precursors.
I’m very wary of being conflated with the “yo, yo, yo, homey G” school of comedy rap. I think that stuff is just reprehensible. And the closest I come to it is “Street Cred,” but there’s a whole lineage of raps like that that are out there. (Weird Al’s) “White & Nerdy” definitely comes to mind. I wrote raps for a long time that were thugged out when I was a kid because I didn’t get it yet that I shouldn’t, and then there was a long in-between phase where I still wanted to write raps but knew that it was not rewarding to write about a made up hard-knock come-up on the streets.
So I basically was just rapping about how dope I was. And that leaves room for all the things that I like to do now, like puns and wordplay and clever punch lines. But eventually that wasn’t really good, either, because it was like, ‘Who is this guy and why does he get to rap?’ Hip-hop is very democratic and you can kind of rap about anything —Ghostface wrote a rap about the sun and more seriously Mos Def writing “New World Water.” You can take on weird topics and my hope is that the flow and rhyme schemes will be really rewarding to listen to and will establish, I hope, my bonafides as not just a guy who figured out how to do like, “buh-buh-buh, cat / buh-buh-buh, hat” — and then wrote songs about dicks.
I feel like for a lot of joke rappers, they’re the joke.
For me the comedy is not intended to be clowning on rap. I don’t want it to be, “I’m so unlikely as a rapper, and so it’s funny that I’m even attempting this.” It’s more like, these are things that I actually think are funny and I also really like writing rap songs and I’m really lucky I’ve found audiences that’ll get on board with it.
What was your experience with the comedy scene in Boston, where you started?
Ample stage time was great. I don’t want to blow smoke up his asshole one more time, but The Comedy Studio was a really important terrarium for me to do stuff. Rick (Jenkins) gave me that weekly hosting spot and then I’d do a couple other spots a month, and it just was a really good community of smart, appreciative people who gave me a lot of good feedback early on.
People like Myq (Kaplan) and Shane (Mauss), and I could name others but especially those two guys, really helped. I love both of their comedy. They are definitely two of my favorite comedians. They’re really different from each other, but they really like each other’s stuff, too. They’re sort of blazing some trails that I want to follow them on. And they’re both very, very good friends of mine.
You somewhat recently moved to L.A. Why did you make that decision and what’s the experience been like?
I was feeling a little bit stuck. I mean, I didn’t feel maxed out in Boston, I just felt like I wanted to shake things up, and my management was really excited about me and really wanted me to come out to L.A.
I took sort of a trial run out in L.A. for a few weeks and really enjoyed it, and didn’t think a lot of the East Coast hatin’ that gets done on it seemed accurate — you know, that everybody was fake and show-bizy and awful. There are great, smart ambitious comedians out here. A ton of great stuff has happened since I’ve been out there, and some of it was in the works before I got out there and some of it wasn’t, but it’s very invigorating to be in a big city where there’s a lot of comedy happening.
Give me a quick rundown of the highlights.
My album’s released on Comedy Central Records. I just shot my first talking head thing for E!; I’ve shot two music videos that I’m really excited about. I’ve established myself in the scene out here and have an awesome weekly show that I run. I did the Aspen festival, which was a fantastic experience. My college touring has ramped up an infinite amount. And I just feel like I’ve put a bunch of irons in the fire.
Who are some of your favorite artists right now musically?
I find it very easy to just listen to the acts I know and love. So I’m trying to actively not listen to as much Doom especially. I really like Das Racist, I’ve been listening to them. Their rhymes are great and they just have a really interesting viewpoint.
And they’re actually really funny, too.
They are. When I heard “Fake Patois,” that is one of those moments as a creator when you’re like, “Fuck, they nailed it, and I should have been the one.”
How about comedy-wise?
Can I just say, I’ve also been listening to old Eminem a lot lately as far as hip-hop. He’s really just doing comedy stories. [Note: Seven-minute conversation debating the relative merits of Eminem ensues.]
And as far as comedy?
Obviously Shane and Myq, blah blah blah. I really like watching Marc Maron perform. I love Chris Fairbanks, he cracks me the fuck up. I will say there’s so much good comedy in Los Angeles.
For more info on MC Mr Napkins (aka Zach Sherwin) check out his official site at mrnapkins.com. To download his new album, just click the image below.