Opinion: Opposites Attract—How Nardwuar’s Unique Mix Of Comedy And In-Depth Research Brings Out The Best In Rapper Subjects

By Michael Vettesse

Nardwuar the Human Serviette is doing an interview with Atlanta rapper Waka Flocka Flame, and it’s going well until he takes out a rare Doug E. Fresh LP and asks Waka to comment on it. Waka looks at the LP, squints at Nardwuar and asks him in a quietly threatening tone, “Do you know who Doug E. Fresh is, man? Do you know Doug E.?” It’s a loaded question, perhaps the question that every white connoisseur of rap must inevitably answer. In other words, “How can you claim that this music has the same meaning for you as it does for me?” The tension is palpable, and Nardwuar responds, “I haven’t gotten that close to know Dougie, but you know Dougie.” Waka looks again at the record, and says, “You a cool guy. You ain’t cocky, like a lot of ‘em.” Danger is avoided and the interview again becomes light. At the end, Waka’s brother takes one of his chains and puts it over Nardwuar’s neck – “You with the squad now, homie.”

It is one of the most triumphant interviews in Nardwuar’s over twenty years of experience profiling musicians. Here is this strange man with plaid clothes, thick-rimmed glasses, and a squeaky voice, yet he wins over the respect of Waka Flocka Flame, a tattoo-covered recipient of multiple police raids on charges of firearms and prostitution. Yet although this interview is exceptional in how explicit Waka’s approval is, it one of many that demonstrates Nardwuar’s growing stature among rappers. What’s his secret?

The contrast between Nardwuar and most rappers could not be greater. Aside from appearance, there’s the difference in demeanor. Nardwuar comes off as a sweaty, nervous fan-boy and rappers exude cool, laid-back confidence. If this were not enough, there is his bizarre routine of asking, “Who are you?” as a first question, regardless of how famous the artist is, and ending with his trademark of “doot-doola-doot-doo”, which the artist is expected to finish with a “doot doo”. You would think that this would forfeit any chance of a good discussion, and sometimes this happens; Kid Cudi was famously so bothered by him that he walked out mid-interview (with Nardwuar pathetically pleading for him to say the final “doot-doo”). You would think that he would be better off playing it cool as well, talking like rappers talk, making them comfortable by showing he is one of them, yet he does the exact opposite.

His nerdiness and strangeness is so exaggerated as to be comical, but it works. Interviews can often be bland, in which the cool banter between interviewer and rapper prevents them from saying anything interesting. A lot of chin-stroking and  “yeah mans” but no substance. But then there are Nardwuar’s interviews, which are the exact opposite. He gets tough guys like Waka to laugh, go off-the-cuff, and show a side that is normally hidden, lest they be accused of being “soft”.

A huge component of his ability to get rappers’ defenses down is his interviewing approach. He does a huge amount of research before-hand, to a degree of detail that’s sometimes absurd (when he asks Kendrick Lamar if he orders “Combo 3” at Louisiana Chicken, you know he’s thorough). By doing so, he reminds these rappers who they are, behind the jewelry and bravado. He also brings out their favourite records from their youth, getting them to reminisce on their influences growing up. Sometimes these records are exceedingly obscure, and that only adds to their nostalgia. But the real secret to why rappers love Nardwuar is that he acts as their foil; his weirdness is so out-of-this-world that they feel that they can come out of their shells without looking silly. As much as they appreciate the effort he puts into each interview, they probably appreciate the freedom he gives them to be themselves even more.


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