Eshu Tune (aka Hannibal Buress) is the First Rapper to Bowl a Spare While Rapping Live
Hannibal Buress has built a career as a successful comedian and thespian. Now he’s giving rap a go. We shadowed Buress, aka Eshu Tune, as he prepared for his first solo rap show.
“Alright, so what’s the secret here?” I asked, standing before lane 22 at Brooklyn Bowl Philadelphia, holding an orange, 10-pound ball.
Fielding my question and standing at the ready in lane 21 is a comedian, thespian, and alumni of the Pro Bowler Association’s 2021 Celebrity Invitational — Hannibal Buress — who’s holding a 14-pound purple ball in his hands. We’re killing time before Adult Swim Festival 2022 where, in a few hours, Hannibal will be performing the first full-length rap set of his career to a crowd of about 300 on a stage that’s just several dozen feet behind us. We first met almost 10 years ago, which puts me in the unique position of having observed the progression of a big chunk of Hannibal’s career — from 15-minute sets opening for an opener of an opener of an opener for a headliner to headlining himself and building a new career as a rapper.
As a rapper, he goes by Eshu Tune, a name inspired by Nigerian mythology, specifically the Yoruba deity Eshu, a benevolent spirit also known to be a trickster, who serves as a messenger between Heaven and Earth. He’ll be backed by hometown funk and soul favorites Snacktime, an eight-piece band complete with horns, keys and even a tuba.
“Think of it like a handshake,” he said. “When you release, extend your throwing hand all the way up, like almost cartoonishly high. And get as close to the foul line as you can.”
The advice that’s understood but goes unspoken is to aim for the 1-3 pocket, the space between the front pin and the pin that sits just behind it and to the right. (If you’re a lefty you want to aim for the 1-2 pocket.)
That unspoken advice is also the hook of a single from his debut rap album Eshu Tune, which was released back in April. The album showcases his ability to make funny songs that are actually good, as is the case with the especially silly cut “CMDGT” where, in its extended outro, Hannibal assumes the role of a mad scientist holding a recording studio hostage, his demands a laundry list of samples he needs in the song. But it also shows how he can make serious songs too, with tracks like “Paradox,” “Back In The City,” and “Donde Esta” serving as some of the album’s standout cuts. While he may still have growing to do as a songwriter and performer — the night before the show he freestyled in a shoe store with the following fitting line, “My older songs sound timid, I’m getting them shits recut” — there’s a resolute confidence he brings to the album.
“People get nervous about nervous muthafuckas,” he said.“They can feel it. But if you’re having fun, it doesn’t matter what’s being said.”
As he lines up his shot, I watch and study his form. There’s no dramatic spin on his roll; his fingers are committed to the sockets in his purple sphere, while his red Adidas NMDs hit the floor and stop just before the foul line. He releases the bowling ball as his right hand goes skyward and he hits the 1-3 pocket — strike.
The birth of Eshu
The journey from Hannibal Buress to Eshu Tune starts in 2012, but Hannibal’s interest in rap really begins during his youth in Chicago, where he came up growing sunflowers in the backyard of his family home and rapping with friends.
“I grew up freestyling and roasting and shit,” he said. “Some of my earliest… goofy songs [were freestyles]. I always had catchy, weird hooks, man. And then in college, I was hosting open mics with [longtime friend and DJ] Tony Trimm. I always loved freestyling and not worrying about sounding sloppy. It’s just having fun.”
(In fact, he told me in a previous interview on my podcast how he once battled Open Mike Eagle in college, and allegedly won with the following incredible bar: “I’ll cut your dreads off / Plant ’em / And grow another one of you / And battle him too.”)
On December 1, 2012, a song called “Gibberish Rap” featuring Hannibal Buress (and produced by Clams Casino) was uploaded to Trimm’s Bandcamp page. On the surface it might just sound like gibberish (and it is), but consider it for a second as a commentary on the state of society. Released as dubstep graciously faded out of popularity on college campuses, the song can be interpreted as a challenge to the listener to think about what it means for popular music to be mindless and devoid of substance. The song, according to Hannibal, also went no. 1 in Norway. (Although there doesn’t seem to be any chart data to back up this claim, who are we gonna believe — Hannibal or Norwegian data?)
He took the song on the road and performed it everywhere, even alongside rap titans like Bun B. These “Gibberish” performances helped Buress warm up to the idea that he could really do music. Eshu Tune‘s closing track, “Back in the City,” encapsulates this, serving as a retrospective on the long and winding road to becoming Eshu.
“‘Back in the City’ is about my growth and reclaiming that fearlessness I had when I was doing ‘Gibberish Rap’ in front of 15,000 people,” he said. “It took me a while to get back in that zone and trust what I’m doing.”
A few years after “Gibberish,” he contributed a verse to Open Mike Eagle’s 2014 song “Doug Stamper.” Then, years went by: movies were filmed, freestyles continued, and a pandemic became our new reality. Movies, live music, and stand-up faced an uncertain future. Theaters went out of business, cherished venues closed down, tours stopped, and artists wondered what would become of their careers. It hit me hard, too. As a writer, I live for the in-person interview. You just can’t bond with someone the same way over a video call that you can in person. Ultimately, I slipped into darkness, with one of my lowest points having slept a whole day away, falling asleep at sunrise and waking up after the sun had set. I was fucked up but I knew I had to do something, so the next day I decided to start therapy. A few weeks later, still wading through the darkness, I got a text from Hannibal out of the blue.
It was a selfie video of him freestyling in Hawaii accompanied with a 14-minute audio file of the extended freestyle. I did what any good friend would do: I laughed and then listened to the whole thing, broke it down, took notes, and sent them to him. That freestyle eventually became Eshu Tune‘s “Kept About 3” — hence its hook, “Rapped for about 14 mintues on this beat / Then I just kept about three” — which is partially a callback to an old joke he had about gambling and betting (and losing) a baby in the bet, and also about being a new father.
“My daughter is 14 months now,” he said. “Me and her mom are not together. We’re in a good space, but it takes work.”
Little did I know, it was the beginning of Hannibal’s therapy journey, too.
“I started [therapy] after I had an incident,” he said. “And the music definitely got better and more honest. Now I’m better at [making music] than stand-up.”
When he takes the stage at Adult Swim later that night, Eshu opens with “Donde Esta,” addressing the controversy he once courted in the past on the song’s introductory lyric — “It’s the landlord bastard.”
Props to Ziwe Fumudoh for grilling Hannibal about it, but by then it was old news that he had already addressed, telling Rolling Stone that he was no longer a landlord and never charged anybody rent. It seems he saved the real answers to Ziwe’s questions for “Donde,” where he raps about being young, having “a trash brain,” drinking costing him “millions,” and being “humbled by some dumb decisions.” He then implies that he’s working on being a better version of himself with the closing lines, “Smooth slide when I fall / Dust off, new beginnings / Eshu Tune, trust the mission.”
“I get emotional about it because [music] is what I’ve always wanted to do,” Hannibal said. “In comedy you’re always playing for the laugh, but with music I’m able to write from a more honest place.”
“8 and a Hook,” an unreleased track Hannibal also performed during his set, is an example of this. The song is partially about a nervous breakdown he had while filming the 2018 movie Tag. It was a time when he was taking on lots of work to make money without considering his human need for rest and balance. It all came to a head when he pulled up to the wrong studio on Tyler Perry Studios (where the movie was filmed) for a pre-production meeting, only to be turned away for being too drunk after attending a party beforehand.
“And then I end up leaving there, getting on a bus, my phone’s dead, take another bus back into the studio,” he said. “It was a weird day, but it was all because I wasn’t in a good space for that and wasn’t taking care of myself.”
“It’s wild when you are out in public and people are like, ‘Oh, I love that movie,’ when it was a terrible time for me,” he added.
So, Hannibal went sober for a long while and started making music, and it’s music that has helped him find comfort in vulnerability.
“You can talk about heavier things in comedy, but you still usually play to the laugh,” he said. “…Shifting to a space where I don’t always have to play for the laugh has been helpful.”
Hannibal has long incorporated music, specifically rap music, into his stand-up material. There’s a Riff Raff joke imagining what it would be like if comedians told jokes over their own joke track, like how some rappers rap over their own song in concert; a recurring 2 Chainz joke about a Bentley truck; a joke about Kanye’s 2015 hit “All Day” that will forever change the way you hear it (skip to 28:08); and, maybe one of his best jokes, a bit about Jeezy’s closets. But with music front and center, he’s not leaning on the laughs — the vulnerability is the point. Instead of skydiving and using laughter as his parachute, he’s stage diving and trusting his fans to catch him.
“Music brings people together,” he said. “They sing with you, versus you just trying to elicit a reaction [in stand-up].”
“This is genuinely about making music and… doing good live shows.”
Hannibal Buress is drinking again, and trying to see if he can find the right balance. He knows very well the sting of when alcohol gets the best of him, and he has also seen the way it helps him.
“It is a poison,” he said. “But in some moments I’m able to harness it in a positive way.”
What I’m seeing from Hannibal tonight — both on and offstage — is the kind of honesty and introspection I want from all my favorite artists. But sadly many artists, as Jimi Hendrix once said, trap themselves in a room full of mirrors where all they can see is themselves. For many of us, it takes a whole lot of therapy to realize that there is much more strength in being vulnerable (let alone being vulnerable in front of a crowd) than there is in pretending like you have it all together.
It’s astounding to see not just how vulnerable Hannibal Buress is through Eshu, but in trying to make Eshu happen in the first place. He went from city to city asking for stage time as a rapper — not as a comedian — and had to try and fail again and again to get to this point. Even at Adult Swim Festival he had to take an earlier set time and smaller stage because he was performing as Eshu and not Hannibal. For him, Eshu is a rebirth: an opportunity to make the music he’s always wanted to make, and being able to work with talented, under-the-radar artists he really enjoys like Haile Supreme and Eryn Allen Kane.
“I’ve done the famous thing already,” he said. “This is genuinely about making music and putting out music and doing good live shows.”
As his set nears its end, Eshu goes into “1-3 Pocket.” He gets through a verse and a hook before jumping offstage and hopping over a barricade to run back to our lane and knock down six pins. Unsatisfied, he jumps back onstage and tells the crowd that they’re running the song back one more time as he tries to get a better score.
Snacktime starts back up and Eshu jumps offstage again. He lines up his shot in his right hand while his mic is in his left, never stopping his rap. He hits that 1-3 and knocks down nine pins. Then he lines up and completes the spare. By this time, a good 20 people from the crowd have found their way to the lane. When he turns around, he’s greeted by a cluster of lit-up cell phones.
What’s beautiful about “1-3 Pocket” is that, yes, it’s the rare rap song about bowling, as well as a metaphor for life.
“It’s about knowing what you’re supposed to do,” he said. “Just do what you’re supposed to do. Hit the fucking shit.”
Sama’an Ashrawi is a writer, filmmaker, music producer, and host of the Nostalgia Mixtape podcast. His work has featured Megan Thee Stallion, Drake, Coldplay’s Chris Martin, Chris Rock, Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Abbi Jacobson & Ilana Glazer, the Beastie Boys’ Adam Horovitz, Bad Brains’ Darryl Jenifer, Q-Tip, Pharrell, Nneka Ogwumike, Gary Clark Jr, Leon Bridges, DJ Khaled, Mac Miller, Thundercat, Khruangbin, and dozens more. He once appeared in a Waka Flocka music video.