"‘Chozen’s Grant Dekernion and Tom Brady On Hip-Hop, Homophobia, And Learning To MC"
The debut of HBO’s Looking last weekend spurred an inevitable debate over whether the three gay men at the center of that show represent the depth and breadth of gay life. But there’s been comparatively little conversation about another show about a gay man that also debuted in January: FX’s Chozen (Bobby Moynihan), about a gay rapper who’s recently been released from prison, and is crashing with his sister (Kathryn Hahn), who is in college, until he can get his career back on track. Maybe that’s because Chozen is animated, rather than live-action, and thus not burdened with some of the same concerns of representation. Maybe it’s because FX shows aren’t necessarily treated as significant cultural artifacts in the same way Girls and Looking have been. And maybe it’s that Chozen himself is so idiosyncratic, and so utterly lacking in self-consciousness, that he can’t possibly stand for anything but himself.
I spoke to Chozen creator Grant Dekernion and series executive producer Tom Brady about creating TV’s first white, gay rap star, why their series functions as near-future science fiction, and what it’s been like for Dekernion to learn to rhyme. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
I wanted to start out by asking you about the decision to have Chozen be white, since it seems like you are loading a bunch of faultlines in hip-hop into the character, and I think that’s fascinating.
GD: Gosh, that’s a good question. I just thought of the character, and he kind of popped into my head that way. I personally think making him white, to me, that doesn’t clash at all with hip-hop. I think there’s a long history of white rappers, of white acts. The Beastie Boys started probably 27 years ago. It just sort of struck me that that’s what he looks like. I never gave it much thought. He kind of popped into my head almost fully formed.
Obviously what you’re saying is true, but I think we’re still at a point where anytime a white rapper makes it big, his race is still a significant conversation. You know, the conversation around Macklemore, for example, who is white and sort of a hipster operates around these faultlines.
GD: Yeah, I think Macklemore’s tremendous—he’s really great. Yeah, I don’t know—that’s just how he was formed with me. I mean, a lot of characters I write—they just kind of pop into my head, and you start going and they are what they are. I don’t know why.
I was also just interested in the environment of the show. It sort of felt like near future science fiction. Chozen doesn’t experience a lot of explicit homophobia—he’s just so blithe and comfortable.
GD: I think a little bit, yeah. I mean, when I was writing this story, you know this character is who he is—he’s wide open, he’s in your face, he’s take it or leave it. I felt like I know many people like that, and they’re part of my world and there’s no judgment about them. And I felt that in the world I live in—I mean obviously we’re all in the same world—but the community I’m in—that’s kind of how it is. I think it would be great if it was like that everywhere all the time. It just seemed like this isn’t a show about identity politics. Our character happens to be homosexual. But it’s not an issue show. That’s not to say that at same point he may not experience something like that. But for now, we just enjoy him in his world and it being cool.
It’s not like, to me, the show erases issues, but it seems like, to me, coming out stories, or deal-with-homophobia stories can become to gay characters what origin stories are to superheroes, which is sort of stuck in that nascent phase. We don’t tell stories about what happens to people when they go on with their lives.
GD: Sure, sure. I think that’s true. I’ve never thought of it that way. Yeah, I wasn’t trying to write a true story about a gay character. That’s the thing—I don’t consider his sexuality when I write at all. Really, to me, Chozen is like a little 13-year-old boy. It’s money, food, sex, and that’s kind of what on his mind, and you know, we’ll peel back layers and show more who he is. I think he’s much deeper than that, but he has no filter. He’s that guy who says exactly what’s on his mind right when it pops into his head.
TB: He’s resilient, and he’s exuberant, and he doesn’t apologize for anything in his
I think there are a lot of people who operate on the assumption that hip-hop will change with the arrival of more prominent women and gay people in the genre. But your show is about a gay white guy who’s come in totally steeped in hip-hop tropes, rather than posing a challenge to them.
GD: That’s what I love about him is that he’s totally bought in. And I don’t this is hip-hop in general—I won’t make a general statement—but he’s bought into an ideal that has been promoted by quite a few people in the culture. And I do think we’re satirical at times, but I’m not trying to say anything about hip-hop.
My view with music is, music is for everyone, everyone does music, and every different type of person does every different type of music. And so it made sense forme—I mean, I grew up not the same as Chozen, but I grew up very heavy into hip-hop starting high school. And it’s just a part of me, and it’s a part of my world and it’s something that I love and certain artists I don’t and certain artists I do. It’s just part of pop culture now. It’s not some side thing. I mean hip-hop is culture now.
I was curious if you’ve watched your way through Beyoncé’s visual album.
GD: I have not—I think our writers went through it one day. I’ve heard about it—I want to see it. I haven’t had the chance to do much of anything but write.
Chozen’s vision of his music video, in which he’s surrounded by mostly-naked, ripped guys reminds a lot of what Beyonce has done there, in terms of claiming some of the visual conventions of hip-hop for his own enjoyment.
GD: All of us—somewhere, sometime—would like to have an experience like that. You’re being adored, so it’s a natural thing to want.
You’ve said you got bit into hip-hop in high school. Who are the MCs who are seminal for you.
GD: For me? For me, it starts and ends with Wu-Tang Clan, and not just because Method Man is in our show. He was who I dreamed of being in my show, and I was very fortunate. But for me, it’s Wu-Tang Clan and Gang Starr and Big L, Tupac, NWA. I could go on for like hours, but I really like Mos Def, Talib Kweli. In every genre of hip-hop, I kind of have my core favorites, but I love Eminem, I love Macklemore. An then even indie hip-hop, like EL-P, Aesop Rock.
Since you’re the one rapping, how have you worked to refine your MCing.
GD: I just kind of practice at it. I do find myself, though, when I’m writing a song, I’ll put on people I look up to, and be so blown away…So I’m trying to push myself, but it’s funny you bring that up, because about a month ago, I was working on something, and I’m thinking, “Gosh, I need to try to change it up. My delivery needs to change.” I played a Wu-Tang song and an Eminem song, and it’s just mind-blowing. There’s something organic about the way these guys come up with their flow that’s just unique to them. I just do the best I can, but obviously I don’t have the skills to be stepping out on the stage for a thousand people.
How familiar is Chozen with getting a video to go viral?
GD: He’s aware of all this. The way we think of him—he knows about of all this stuff, but he’s not that good with a computer, not that good with the Internet. So we have Troy, and we have Jimmy. They’re kind of both very savvy in these areas—Troy most of all. So you will see moments this season—we definitely get into the viral idea—what that means for musicians—how it’s good, how it’s bad, how you can exploit the music. We definitely work in all of that.
It seems sometimes like the hip-hop collective has declined as a form—Odd Future, for example, ended up overshadowed by its members solo projects.
GD: We see it as just a band dynamic. I mean, our band is a little bit old school in that you’ve got a DJ and an MC and a hype man. Although that still is really just what hip-hop is. Although you won’t see a lot of these guys—you won’t see the DJ; you’ll see the hype man. But it’s really a band story. I grew up in bands, and when you’re in a band, you’re essentially dating multiple people. That’s what it feels like. These guys have priorities Chozen might not have—they might not share a vision all the time. So yeah, there’s room to bump and have fun with that.