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How Phonte Made Those Sherman’s Showcase Parodies ‘Jam Like Real Songs’

Photo: D Dipasupil/Stringer/Getty Images

IFC’s new sketch-comedy show Sherman’s Showcase plays like SCTV for folks who remember R&B one-hit wonders like Adina Howard and Gregory Abbott. Created by Diallo Riddle and Bashir Salahuddin (also the creators and showrunners of South Side on Comedy Central), this Soul Train takeoff sees Salahuddin’s ultrahip host Sherman McDaniels introducing live acts who are basically thinly veiled versions of legendary performers. To compose the original songs performed by these fictional acts, Riddle and Salahuddin brought in several folks in the music biz, including Phonte Coleman — rapper, singer, and co-host of the podcast Questlove Supreme, who’s also been doing projects here and there for the small screen. (He previously came up for songs and skits for the animated Adult Swim adaptation of Black Dynamite, and was also a lyrical consultant on VH1’s The Breaks.)

With the Sherman’s Showcase soundtrack now available on digital platforms, we chatted with Coleman (who’s currently working on a long-anticipated Little Brother reunion project) about his process for crafting catchy-yet-funny songs that pay homage to the past without mocking it.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

How did you get involved with Sherman’s Showcase?
Me and Bashir and Diallo, we first met each other back in, like, ’07 or ’08. A buddy of theirs, Craig Bowers, he was running the label called Soul Thought, and he was putting out Donnie, who’s a singer. Me and Craig connected through MySpace and I ended up doing a verse on the Donnie album, and so he was like, “Man, I got homies of mine, they do this show called The Message.” It was just a web show that they were doing. He said they were big fans, they fuck with you, whatever. I saw one of the sketches that they did, it was like a spoof of The Wire, and I thought it was hilarious.

We stayed in touch over the years, and they ended up getting a pilot for HBO in 2015 called Brothers in Atlanta, and they brought me on to do some songs and also play a role in the show. I was having a ball. We shot the pilot — it was super-dope, and we got picked up, we got a series order. And then they just axed it. It was like we was on and then they were like “no.” So we just kept working together, man, and they just kept me in mind for stuff. And, finally, when it came time for Sherman, they said, “Listen, we got this thing. We’re doing this crazy show and there’s a lot of music.” And so they started sending me the sketches and the rough song ideas and that was when I said, “Okay, man, I’m in. I think this is hilarious.”

So how do such future classics as “Drop It Low (For Jesus)” and “Vicki, Is the Water Warm Enough?” come to be?
I’m not actually in the writers’ room, but Bashir or Diallo will send me, like, “Hey, man, I got this idea!” and it’s just maybe a voice note. And from that point on, me and [frequent collaborator Lorenzo “Zo!” Ferguson] will sit down and kind of flesh it all the way out. I’ll cut the reference vocal or, if I need to bring in, like, [singers] Shana Tucker or Kristi Ae to kind of flesh the idea out, I’ll do that.

The real crazy part is that these tunes are legitimately catchy.
I mean, for me, in order for it to be funny, it’s gotta be real. They gotta sound like real songs. So even when we’re singing a song as ridiculous as “Drop It Low (For Jesus),” I mean, we’re singing that shit like we mean it! And we’re producing them songs like they’re real songs. I mean, we’re making that 808 hit like a motherfucka, you know what I’m sayin’! So, to me, that’s where the comedy is. The comedy is in making these ridiculous premises actually jam like real songs.

You appeared in the pilot episode as James Brown–esque soul singer Jackie Redmond, performing his hit tune “That Ain’t Right.” How did that come about?

“That Ain’t Right” I think came from Diallo. They literally just sent the lyrics and let me loose. I sing the references for pretty much all the songs that we do, if it’s a male vocal, but that was one that I did the reference track and they liked it so much they just cast me in the role. Rather than trying to cast another actor to re-sing it, they had been playing my demo for so long they just said, “You know what? Let’s just keep it and let’s just ride with him.”

What I find interesting is how, even when the show mocks artists and performers, it doesn’t seem to be done with a lot of malice.
I can’t speak particularly to Bashir and Diallo’s intentions, because I wasn’t in the writers’ room with them. What I can say for me, and what I think is true for just a lot of people who work in comedy, is it’s very hard to mock something you don’t love. The reason I can do a spot-on James Brown song and the reason we can do a Mary J. Blige song and we can do send-ups of all these artists is because we really love their music and we really love all that they’ve contributed to our lives. So even if we’re sending up, you know, Anita Baker, or if we’re pulling from all these references, these are people whose music that we’ve listened to for years and days and months and hours on end and studied it and loved it. I think comedy has to come from that place. I think it’s really hard to be funny about things that you genuinely do not like — at least for me. Because at that point, it does just come across as mean, and it could come across very mean-spirited and just kind of bitter. But in this show, all the people we’re sending up are people we have the utmost respect and love for. I think that shines through in the songs and the performances.

Did you have any trouble finding the right groove or tone with certain numbers?
I mean, “Vicki, Is the Water Warm Enough?” was a lot of fun. I remember demoing that just on my old little SM58 mic — because we were basically sending up Prince, and, you know, a lot of that early Prince stuff was recorded with basic equipment. Like, he wasn’t recording in fancy studios and shit; some of that shit he was recording at his crib. So it was really fun to be trying to re-create that Dirty Mind kind of sound in a modern-day context. Like, really re-creating that lo-fi, kind of raw sound.

I ain’t gonna front, man: It’s really like musical college. I mean, it’s coursework. Every song we do, I immediately go and I reference old songs, to really listen and pull it apart and see what kind of reverbs are they using, you know? Are they gating the snare this way? Every song, it’ll be a song that you think, Oh man, I can knock this out. It’ll be easy! Then you sit down to do it and it’s like, Damn, it’s a little more complex than I thought it was gonna be. It just really gives you more of an appreciation for the artists that you’re sending up because it’s like, Man, this is some really sophisticated shit.

Speaking of “Vicki, Is the Water Warm Enough?,” how was it getting the music together for the latest episode, where Chicago rapper Vic Mensa plays a Prince-like star?

Well, the funny thing with that one is it was actually my idea to cast Vic Mensa. [Laughs.] So me and a buddy of mine — he’s out of Chicago — would just be, like, joking online and our texts and stuff like, “Man, Vic Mensa should play Prince!” That was just always a running joke we had, and we’d be laughing about the shit. This is years ago, even before [Prince] died. So, when we started doing Sherman and Diallo came with me about the idea of doing the “Vicki” song, I was like, “Dude, do you know who I think would kill this?” He said, “Who?” I said, “Man, Vic Mensa!” He was like, “Wow, I never thought of that.” And they reached out to him, he was with it, and he killed it. So that was just one of those things where something that we put out into the universe, we really saw it come into fruition.

When doing the songs, again, you wanna do it in a way that honors the artist, but it’s still funny. You don’t want to slander the person, particularly if they’re not here to defend themselves. But I think even the most die-hard Prince fan will see it and get the humor and that it’s not something that’s meant to be inflammatory and incendiary. We’re paying homage and having fun.

Sherman’s Showcase’s Phonte on Paying Homage Through Parody