Rapping about ‘Freestyle Love Supreme’ with Shockwave and Young Nees

Chris “Shockwave” Sullivan has co-created just that as an original member of the eponymous hip-hop improv squad and its 2019 Broadway show Freestyle Love Supreme. Begun by Thomas Kail, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Anthony Veneziale in 2004, the talented group later founded, in 2018, the Freestyle Love Supreme Academy – the first-ever school that teaches the techniques of freestyle rap and improv to both adults and kids. And Aneesa “Young Nees” Folds, who trained with Sullivan there, subsequently brought her own sensational talents to the FLS show, school, and troupe, which have since been the subject of the 2020 Grammy-nominated Hulu documentary We Are Freestyle Love Supreme.

As a master of beatbox vocal percussion, who has been with Freestyle Love Supreme for over fifteen years and is a co-creator of the FLS Academy, Shockwave has appeared on The Electric Company, The Daily Show, The Real Housewives of NYC, SportsNation, The Hamilton Mixtape, and various programming for MTV and College Humor. Young Nees, prior to joining FLS and the Academy, and being discovered as an outstanding improviser of freestyle rap, previously appeared to critical acclaim in the long-running Off-Broadway hit Sistas: The Musical and in the national tour of Ragtime. Both are currently serving as instructors/facilitators for the FLS Academy’s virtual 2021 winter weekend workshops, which include “Welcome to the Cypher” and “Hip Hop Homeroom.”

Welcome to the Cypher. Photo courtesy of FLS Academy.

Chris and Aneesa spoke with me about their experiences with Freestyle Love Supreme – how they got into it and what they find most compelling about it, for themselves and others.

What’s your first creative memory?

Aneesa: My Dad use to be a cabaret singer, so there was a set-up with a microphone in our living room, and I used to ask if I could sing with him. Also in sixth-grade music class, our teacher would give us papers with songs for us to sing in the auditorium. I was naturally shy and nervous, but one day we each had a line to sing in “We Are the World” and she asked me to do mine again – and told the other kids who were talking and making noise to be quite, so she could hear me. I had such anxiety, but that was so reassuring to know that she thought I was that good and to find out that she told everyone! Then she wanted me to audition for the school play; at that point, even though I had anxiety, I felt like it was something I should do.

Chris: Life is creative, right? So the first cry you make might be the answer! What first comes to mind for me was at about middle-school age. I had a group of friends and brothers who were into music, and we would watch MTV and listen to Beastie Boys, jumping around and playing the music on tennis rackets. Then we would create our own recordings with instruments, and do another one on top, for the multi-tracks of our time – using tape cassettes!

Chris “Shockwave” Sullivan. Photo by Deneka Peniston.

When, what, or who first inspired your interest in hip hop, rap, and beatbox?

Chris: Around the same time, with the same group of friends, we were in the Foxboro Music Program in my home town, and we put together a garage band, influenced by Beastie Boys and the punk band Fugazi. We’d make music with the instruments, but we’d also do vocal percussion without the drums (I rapped then, too, though now I don’t, I do beatbox). My biggest inspirations then were RUN DMC, Tribe Called Quest, and De La Soul.

Aneesa: Growing up in New York, my friends and I were listening to it in the lunchroom in middle school and high school and banging on the table, not even realizing at the time that we were being creative and making music. That’s where I got my name “Young Nees” – before FLS, my friends in school called me that!

Aneesa “Young Nees” Folds. Photo by Darnell Bennett.

How did you become involved with FLS?

Chris: I’m one of the founding members of the FLS Academy, along with Anthony Veneziale and Andrew Bancroft, but Freestyle Love Supreme existed in some form before me, and I went to one of those shows. I was already performing in New York, beatboxing, telling stories with sound effects. A couple of my friends suggested I see FLS – then with Anthony, Lin, Arthur [Lewis], Bill [Sherman], and DJ Plan-B, who played instrumental tracks from the sound booth. I met Anthony after the show, since it was right up my alley, and talked to him about my beatboxing; I became part of the group shortly after, and we journeyed to success in large part due to Anthony and Tommy Kail, our director.

Aneesa: Over the course of my journey, I was interested in musical theater and my Mom put me into musical theater programs. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t see myself doing it – at the time it was mostly white. But when I saw In the Heights, I saw people I know, people like me; it was really familiar, and I loved Lin. I was interested in going into music, a melting pot of all the different genres, but In the Heights was what made me want to audition for college. Then a friend told me about FLS; we went, and it was the coolest thing I ever saw! It was a perfect match for me, and I went for a second time.

In 2019, I found out about the Academy and I joined a class; Chris was my teacher. I was still shy and nervous, but it was a great mix of people from all backgrounds and it felt like a safe space and a place to grow. While I was there, they asked me at the last minute to perform a gig with them, because they saw I was good at it. I was scared out of my mind, but they thought I might be the real deal, so I did it, and then auditioned for the show on Broadway!

Anthony Veneziale, Chris Sullivan, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Aneesa Folds, and Arthur Lewis (on keyboard) in Freestyle Love Supreme. Photo by Joan Marcus.

What emotions do you feel and what thoughts run through your head when you’re on stage or in a live workshop doing improv?

Chris: That’s a good question! With freestyle, it’s like a channeling experience or being a medium – spitting out what comes into your mind at the moment. A lot of it for me, being the drummer, is keeping the ball up in the air, creating a style or something interesting while melding the beat with the performers and the story. I listen to the lyrics; for example, if it’s about a baby, I do a beat like a baby’s cry. When you think about it, everything is improvising, including this conversation; it’s what people do. And coming to that realization gets you to living a more fearless life. It’s a flow state, and it’s pure joy!

Aneesa: It’s special to be the youngest and newest member, and a woman, with the others who’ve been doing it for sixteen years now. The first time I met Lin was when I had to perform with him on stage. As someone who’s naturally nervous to be on stage, and someone who is a huge fan of his, I didn’t approach him, but he came over to me and said he was happy to meet me, and that HE gets nervous! It’s not a scripted show, you have to be alert, but it’s ok – even a superstar gets nervous. There’s really no time to be anxious or scared, you have to connect to the moment, to be present, to throw the love back and forth, and to be grateful for doing this beautiful thing.

Do you now always think to a rhyming beat, or can you turn that switch on and off?

Aneesa: Definitely when I’m in a run I’m thinking that way. Anthony said it well, that when you’re actively doing the show, you’re thinking to a beat – so I would fall into it at home in the shower! It does happen, but not all of the time.

Chris: For me it’s a switch. I’m a beatboxer, but I don’t categorize that as my full identity. I think that being well-rounded is the best approach to being creative and open; sometimes you don’t even know where it’s coming from.

Hip Hop Homeroom session. Photo courtesy of Freestyle Love Supreme Academy.

What does the FLS Academy offer to participants and what has their response been?

Chris: The Academy has been a light in this COVID darkness. When it started, we were in the middle of one of our eight-week courses and got caught in the indefinite two-week delays that affected us all, hoping the pandemic would soon be over. But we were able to move online quickly with our weekly Rap Recesses, open to those in the long courses, and our two-day five-hour virtual weekend sessions, which now include offerings for kids. It’s been a way for people to feel community when they can’t be together in person, and now we even have an international community, so people in England and other places around the world can be a part of it.

Aneesa: We offer the foundations of freestyle – where it came from and the basics of the style, while letting people feel safe and open, without being hesitant or embarrassed. And I’m so excited about the classes for kids. The virtual sessions have truly been a blessing in disguise, because we can connect with people on a global level, and that’s pretty great – though I can’t wait to work with the kids in person, too!

Chris Sullivan, Chris Jackson, Anthony Veneziale, Utkarsh Ambudkar, and James Monroe Iglehart in Freestyle Love Supreme. Photo by Joan Marcus.

What was your reaction to the success of FLS on Broadway and to the Grammy nomination for the documentary?

Chris: Who would have thought that improv comedy rap could be on Broadway? Every step that happens is just a “WOW!” moment, from Off-Broadway with Ars Nova to Edinburgh, Australia, and Aspen, to an Off-Broadway run, then Broadway! Then to cap it all off, the Grammy nomination was like, “WHAT?!” They didn’t call us to tell us, we just got alerts on social media. And not to sound like a cliché, but it’s really an honor to be nominated, when you look at the other contenders.

Aneesa: I’m still such a fan of the FLS squad around me, so I see the greatness in it – it’s such a special way of connecting people. It’s love and positivity, and we invite our audiences to be a part of it with us. Improv on Broadway is not something that traditionally happens, so it changed the genre. And it’s great to see how the group has grown, from young kids to adults who are always coming back to find each other. FLS is the foundation of it all; there wouldn’t be In the Heights or Hamilton without it.

What are your aspirations for the future of FLS, both the show and the Academy?

Aneesa: I’m hoping we get back to Broadway and get to do the tours that were being scheduled; I hope that we can be in person and travel, to bring joy to everyone. I also think it’s important for us to grow as individuals who share their talents, to continue to bring in more women and people of color, and to keep expanding as much as we have during the pandemic.

Chris: We were very lucky to have closed the show on Broadway before the pandemic hit, and I can’t speak for the real plans, but I believe that, when things are safe again, we would like to return to Broadway. The show has a unique flexibility, every improv performance is different and it’s not always the same squad, so people see it 40 times and have a new experience each time. The intention of the Academy is not to groom people for Broadway, it’s more about developing the skill-set to express themselves. It’s not about battle rapping others, it’s about support and encouragement, so we will continue to expand, perhaps with a brick-and-mortar space, or maybe spreading out to other cities. Let’s just say we’ll make it up as we go along!

Many thanks to both of you for sharing your insights into Freestyle Love Supreme. Wishing you much continued success with this groundbreaking work!


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