Hannibal Buress is back at work.
This time, however, instead of working in new mediums, as is often the case for famous comedians like himself, Buress is working on what could be a whole new career arc. The quick-witted and multi-talented artist has released his debut EP, Eshu Air, under the same stage name, in mid-April. This eight-song album features both his production and beat-making work, as well as his sly and skillful rapping. For Buress, work is both an exciting window into future creativity and something that connects him to one of his first loves: music. It’s something that invigorates him these days and, perhaps later, the work will inform future stand-up specials. But in the meantime, it’s all about the songwriting.
“I could do stand-up and time a lot more than I do right now per week,” Buress told American Songwriter. “But I don’t know if I would be so happy and inspired by it. Because I already did. I already have five stages and I’m happy and proud of them, but I feel like there are more.
True, Buress does not completely retire from stand-up. He can even incorporate jokes and storytelling into his upcoming musical sets. But the artist also has an important perspective. He knows that hard work — this time in the realm of music — will ultimately only inform future stand-up specials. In this way, for Buress, music is synonymous with effort and growth.
“I’m not saying I’ll never do a stand-up,” he says, “but I bet that in three years my stand-up special will be much more interesting if I talk about how I pursued the rap for three years, you know what I mean?
Truth be told, Buress is one of the best stand-up comedians on Earth. He is determined and nonchalant at the same time. His demeanor on stage is effortless, although it is true that he has devoted his whole life to it. He speaks to his audience like a friend or roommate, but he’s impressive enough to rival the greats. And the same level of work it took to get there now applies to songwriting, beat making and performing in a recording studio. He’s even learning drums – something he’s wanted to do since he was a kid, forced to learn saxophone instead of ultra-loud kit.
“I look at it, like, okay, if I’m really working on these other aspects of the game and I’m locked in,” Buress says, “then when I’m 50, my gigs will be fucking crazy!”
While his career to date, which includes popular TV specials and appearances in Marvel movies, Buress knows there’s a certain level of leapfrogging granted to him that other unnamed performers don’t. are not. Yet, although his name brings him in, no name is good enough to afford bad songs or lackluster performances.
“It’s not new shit,” he says.
He even started booking big shows, contacting promoters and working on sets for upcoming gigs. He calls himself a “starving musician” who is willing to take cuts to perform his songs. (However, “if you want stand-up, I’ll tax your ass!” he laughs.) But while Buress officially presents himself as a musician in his own right these days, his love affair with songwriting started when he was young. Starting with the sax, he says, which “probably had an imprint in my brain”. He wrote songs growing up, even before he started doing stand-up music around the turn of the 2000s. While the songs might not be exceptional, they were good.
“Maybe they weren’t meant for radio,” he explains. “But if you listened to them, you wouldn’t be bored.”
He remembers going to open the microphones. He remembers having rubbed shoulders with rappers, musicians, beatmakers. He remembers “beat the rap” against lyricists, including Chicago legend Open Mic Eagle, whom he once even beat in a fighting competition. Later, as his stand-up career developed, he had visions of creating sets around the idea of what bothered him in the world of hip-hop: why certain lyrics didn’t have makes no sense why some rap videos included a “To be continued…” ending but were never resolved afterwards. He even talked about releasing an EP with fellow comedian Eric Andre. But nothing really materialized (although in 2020 Buress released the song “Judge Judy”). As his acting career grew, it became harder to find the resolve to sit down and write songs or go into the studio.
“The time was absolutely there,” he admits. “But I was doing other shit like playing or partying. With my extra time, I wasn’t really using it properly.
But when the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting shutdown happened, he got his chance. Towards the start of confinement, in September 2020, Buress did what several comedians have done: participate in a drive-in tour. But that, to say the least, did not suit him. At that time, his last special, Miami nights, is out (free on YouTube). The show did well and gave him great publicity, but with COVID still raging, he needed more to do. He wasn’t interested in acting (and all the hoops it took to take on that job given the COVID-19 restrictions), so music became his outlet day in and day out.
“At that time,” he says, “the studio experience was still awesome. The feeling of making music in that room, once you walk into a room. The outside kind of disappeared, you know what i mean?So i was able to lock myself in and from around november 2020 i spent a lot of time learning how to record.
In the studio, Buress would work to his own beats, get beats from producers, and rap, freestyle, and write. Songs began to form, including a raw 14-minute freestyle he was excited about and sent to friends. His main goal then (and maybe still is, in many ways) was to write music that wouldn’t make someone leave, in a bad way: What the fuck is this? ! Buress wanted to write and release music that fit into the playlists he loved, work in clubs, and not spoil the flow of the night when the DJ was spinning it. As he wrote, he improved.
“As far as the writing goes,” he says, “when I get the idea, then the writing is…it gets pretty easy.”
On the new EP, Buress raps about teeth, bowling, booze and more. The EP is fun. But this is no weird banter. It’s not Adam Sandler who sings Thanksgiving and Lunch Ladies. Instead, it’s authentic songwriting, not comedic music. One thing that really helped her process was a recent trip to New York. For the Illinois native, returning to the Big Apple, where his acting career really took off, allowed him to feel both old and new creative energies. Feeling emboldened where he had made a name for himself but also excited to start, somehow, anew.
“That’s one of the things that’s been really dope in music,” he says. “Revisiting these places in a way in a new state of mind.”
He did midnight sessions at studios in New York. He worked and reworked songs, cutting verses and using lines from one track to start another completely new song. He started reaching out to contacts to see if his songs would work, for example, for the Professional Bowlers Association. He even ended up in a New York “bottle service” dance club, randomly “dropping” his songs to whoever would accept the file. One of those people was a DJ in the club, who played the track, which didn’t mess up the rhythm of the night and the dancers. It was a big step.
“It was so cool to be in New York and realize how fast things can really move when you’re on the move and motivated,” Buress says.
In New York, Buress worked on new songs, using slower rhythms that he may not have been initially drawn to at first, working outside his comfort zone, but seeing that he was nimble and proficient on different vibrations and tempos. Later he traveled to Los Angeles and continued to work. Now, with the new eight-song EP released worldwide, Buress is making more plans, both for music videos and live performances. With music, unlike acting and even recording comedy specials, it can be completely hands-on, working with sequencing, mixing, and mastering tracks.
Next up: Buress wants to host shows in some of its most trusted markets: New York, Atlanta, Chicago and Los Angeles. For starters, he has his eyes set on a festival gig in mid-July in Chicago that could bring together some 20,000 people: the Silver Room Block Party. And maybe another at the big United Center in Chicago.
“I’m learning,” he says, “that there’s no need to rush. I don’t need to press the gas on it.
Buress has been doing a few little pop-up shows recently, and like a comedian might after an impromptu improv show, he analyzes what worked and what needs to be changed to make the material really resonate best with audiences. It focuses on the upcoming July dates. One song from the new EP, “Veneers”, was a particular hit live. It was an exciting revelation, says Buress. The song is slower, but so leads the listener through a catchy chorus. Buress recently performed the song at “Detroit Thanksgiving,” set to her friend Danny Brown.
“People rock right away with that one,” he says.
For Buress, work is all about love. He really loves music and piecing together the puzzle of a song. He finds both joy and honor in this enterprise. It is truly admirable. Buress could do more Marvel movies. He could get into a Netflix special or sitcom. He could leverage the work he’s already done to live off the land, so to speak. Instead, he challenges himself, does something he loves, yes, but in many ways he’s starting from scratch. Although, of course, his name will lead him into some important parts that others may not have access to right away, he has to make sure the product is there in its entirety, nonetheless. And it’s.
“I love having the shitty job,” Buress says.
Photo courtesy Hannibal Buress