Hannibal Buress Talks Curating His Own Festival, Landlord Controversy - Rolling Stone
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Hannibal Buress Talks Curating His Own Festival, Landlord Controversy

“It’s a different type of quiet and inactivity and boredom, so I think that’s why it’s the perfect place for me to do it,” comedian says of Isola Fest in grandmother’s Mississippi hometown

Hannibal Buress

Hannibal Buress tells us why he's re-recording his first album, curating his own festival and explains last month's "landlord" controversy.

Mathieu Bitton/Shutterstock

On Tuesday night, Hannibal Buress hopped onstage in Memphis to read the entirety of his first stand-up album, 2010’s groundbreaking My Name is Hannibal, straight off a teleprompter. He’s re-recording the album for the same reason Taylor Swift has indicated she’ll re-record her earlier work: to reclaim ownership of his own material after being unable to acquire the masters to his earlier work from the label Stand Up! Records.

But generally speaking, Buress just wants to go bowling. He’s been doing that a lot lately as part of a project tentatively titled 50 States of Bowling, a tour documentary that finds the comedian, actor and writer visiting local bowling alleys on every tour stop. “You can tell this one’s a classic spot,” Buress says, calling from a Memphis bowling alley. “They got a big, giant Space Invaders game here.”

50 States of Bowling is just one of many projects Buress has in the works. This weekend, he’s curating Isola Fest, a music/comedy festival featuring T-Pain and Open Mike Eagle set in his grandmother’s rural Mississippi Delta hometown. He’s planning the release of a feature-length project titled Miami Nights, the details of which Buress has not yet revealed. He’s also working on a show about his newfound love of the card game Spades (“Now anything hobby-related that I wanna do, I have to monetize,” Buress jokes in the show’s trailer.)

But before he goes bowling, Buress wants to talk about something else. In October, the 36-year-old comedian began trending on Twitter after he faced criticism for being a “landlord.” After Buress, who owns a building in Chicago that he converted into Airbnb rentals in 2017, tweeted about a comment about Bernie Sanders’ age, Sanders’ supporters began to disparagingly refer to Buress as a “landlord.” Buress responded, in a mix of playful trolling and frustrated annoyance, DM’ing strangers, expressing support for presidential candidate Andrew Yang, and tweeting a link to donate to the Illinois Rental Property Owners Association. The phrase “Hannibal Buress is a landlord” quickly became a Twitter meme. Outlets across the political spectrum covered the dustup with glee: (“Hannibal Buress Might Be A Landlord, But He Lives In Our Heads Rent-Free,” one headline read; “Actor Hannibal Buress Mocks Woke Backlash After Challenging Bernie Sanders on Rent Control,” wrote Breitbart).

Buress has since deleted all his tweets during that time, and he has some regrets about how he handled the situation. “Once people were mad, I was like, ‘You know, I’ve got this special coming out, I’m just gonna heat this up,’” he says. “I wish I didn’t engage it in that way. There was some stuff that was misunderstood and a lot of people who were speaking really loosely about me without having enough information.”

Rolling Stone recently spoke with Buress about re-recording his first album, his inaugural Isola Fest, and whether or not he’s a landlord.

You don’t hear about many comedians who’ve re-recorded earlier albums.
There’s a lot of stuff we take from musicians.

Including label disputes, it seems.
I wanted to buy back my first record from the label. They didn’t want to sell it. The deal was done in 2009, at a time when deals were structured with a focus on physical CD sales and iTunes purchases. It’s a different time. That record still does well in streaming, but I don’t personally feel like it’s being optimized. The company has an older model. I feel like I could do a better job with the record than the current label could. So I asked some other people in the business, and they said that after a certain number of years, I could just re-record the material, which is way more fun than just buying back the rights. Because now I get to do all these jokes I haven’t done in years.

Also, this cat, when I had my TV show [Why? With Hannibal Buress], we did a bit that involved stand-up, and needed stand-up audio, and he charged me to use my own stand-up, so I really didn’t appreciate that back then. [“I support Hannibal in all of his creative endeavors, just as I always have,” the label’s President Dan Schlissel tells Rolling Stone. “My Name is Hannibal is an album that I am proud of producing, and it’s an important album in the Stand Up! Records catalog.”]

Have you been going back and studying that earlier material? That must be a weird experience.
I actually haven’t. I’ve got a transcript that’s been written up, and I kind of skimmed it, and then I’m just going to have it on prompter at the show. I’ll comment a little bit, maybe do some asides, especially when the jokes don’t fit where my life is now. There’s stuff about having a roommate, about being broke. At this point in my career, with stand-up it’s fun to find different ways to mix it up. If people are excited about this type of concept, then we’ll be doing it at some other places around the country.

When did you first have the idea to put on a festival in your grandmother’s hometown in Mississippi?
My cousin has this club, Playas Palace, and I wanted to help him boost it – get it some good attention –because Isola, Mississippi is a small town. It has a population of 800. It’s where my mom’s from [and] where my grandmother lives. But there’s potential for entertainment in small towns. Even though it’s a small town, you can draw people from within a couple hours. I was thinking, “First, I’ll talk to somebody in Atlanta, because that’s the easiest trip.” So I hit up T-Pain. T-Pain said yes. Now I’m really hype, because, it’s this new idea, and the first person I call is T-Pain, and he says yes? From there, I started booking other folks, and I said, “Fuck it, If I’m going to go down there I might as well make it three days.” It’s a solid lineup of good friends of mine. We did this on just a month’s notice, so I know most people aren’t going to be able to turn it around and come to this one on a week’s notice. But they might be able to come down for Memorial Day, when we’re planning the next one. I’m already starting to work on that lineup, for part two.

Do you spend a lot of time down there with family?
The past couple years I’ve been down once or twice a year, just to hang out with the fam. It’s slow motion down there, man. I enjoy my grandma, but it’s a different type of quiet and inactivity and boredom, so I think that’s why it’s the perfect place for me to do it.

People want something to do.
People really want it down there, in this random town. I was looking; there’s a lot of YouTube videos of how to throw a festival and they talk about how, with Coachella, they bought 250 acres of land around Coachella Valley. I was like, “Oh shit, let me look at the land around Isola!” [Laughs] And there is some land, some acres around there. As I say this, I’m like, “Should I be saying this?” Somebody might try to come scoop my land.

Will you just be taking it all in while you’re there?
No, man, you can’t just take it in when it’s yours in this type of situation. It’s the first time. It’s a new place. I’m hosting everything. I’m bringing everybody to a place that they’ve never been before. I’m not like, “Hey, this is a festival in Chicago. No, this is Isola, Mississippi.” I’m doing a set Saturday; We’re gonna do the live podcast Friday, and then Sunday we might do this noise band thing. It’s a new band, so we’re deserving of an early slot on the festival [laughs]. So yeah, I’m going to be active.

Hannibal Buress

You said there’s going to be a “Landlord Fashion Show” at the festival? Tell me about that.
Oh yeah, that was just trolling. It wasn’t real.

Speaking of trolling, what do you make of the whole “Hannibal is a landlord” debacle one month later? I saw you deleted all of your tweets from that period.
I wish I didn’t engage it in that way. There was some stuff that was misunderstood, and a lot of people that were speaking really loosely about me without having enough information. So when people weren’t being reasonable, I decided to just heat it up a little bit more. Then I realized there was no reasoning at all. It was a newer type of situation for me, and that’s why I got into it.

Can you explain what actually happened from your perspective?
I’ll try to do a quick breakdown: Eric [Andre] had a post about Bernie Sanders, supporting him. I commented about Bernie Sanders being old, because I think that’s valid. Even if he has good policies, passions, ideas, he’s old. So then I thought, “How is it that people went and took that comment and connected it to, ‘Oh, Hannibal’s rich, he doesn’t like Bernie. That’s why he doesn’t like Bernie.’” I took offense to that because no, why can’t I just question that he’s old? It’s not even that I don’t like him; I just think that it’s a valid concern, him being a 78-year-old that had a heart attack. It’s annoying to have one thing just turned into people making that into your political platform just based on another piece of information that they have about you. So that was the start of it for me.

When you talk about “another piece of information,” you’re referring to people reacting to you owning a residential property in Chicago, right?
People really ran with the landlord thing. I had a building and there were tenants there. I didn’t charge the tenants rent; I just wanted them to move out. Then I changed them to Airbnbs, but also stayed there myself. There are some people that think that’s really evil. I think it’s decent business. But I don’t even Airbnb anymore, which made it even more absurd to me.

You no longer rent out the units in your building on Airbnb?
Yes, but also, I don’t think it’s evil if I did. There are people with way more money who have way more buildings but are way less famous than me that you should be worried about. But people were really mad about this thing from two years ago, which isn’t even a part of my life now. So once I saw that people were just gonna say what they were gonna say, and there was no reasoning, that’s when I tweeted out the Landlord Association donation link, which I thought would obviously be read as a joke, but people got really heated about that. Like, for real? Like, “Oh, this is crazy! You think this is real?”

[“Mr. Buress’ ill-conceived, impulsive joke, at our expense, did no one any favors,” Andrew Timms, President of the Illinois Rental Property Owners Association, wrote in a statement to Rolling Stone. “Not only were there no donations, we had to spend valuable time fielding ugly, juvenile messages from his audience. One which stood out as fabulously immature was the e-mail which used keyboard characters to draw a phallus.”]

So then, Bernie had a tweet about rent control and I just said “Wrong” over his rent control tweet. I was just kidding around. I don’t even have a strong opinion about rent control. I don’t have residential tenants at all, so it’s not even a true concern. I know rent control is an important issue for people, but for me personally, it’s not something I’ve dug into like that. I was just messing around.

But I see how … here’s what made me pull back. I did a show for KTown For All. They’re a housing non-profit in LA. They raised a few grand, it was a benefit, and I said I would match what they raised. But once those tweets happened, all the tweets, the landlord articles, they put out something that said, “We’re not going to take his donation because of this shit.” I was like, “Whoa, this is crazy.” Nobody called me, tried to check in, they went off the tweets, and turned down the donation. It was fine with me. I saved $4,000. But it was just a feeling of, “Man, this is getting really weird. It’s getting beyond the trolling and having fun. It’s starting to mess with other aspects.” That’s when I made a response video [“I’m being made to feel like an asshole by twenty-something white kids for trying to secure my financial future as a black man,” Buress said in his since-deleted response video.] But then I felt weird about making a video. I just felt weird about engaging with the whole thing. It was a bunch of nonsense.

You’re saying that a non-profit turning down your donation made you realize that something that felt like a partially-trolling internet controversy was started to have real-life consequences on your career, and your reputation.
Yeah. Once people were mad, I was just heating it up. I was like, “I’ve got this special coming, I’m just gonna heat this up.” And then there were people that didn’t realize that it was trolling. I didn’t call anybody [at KTown For All]. I maybe should have had a conversation with somebody there, talked it out. But I just pulled back on the jokes and deleted all my stuff.

What do you wish you had done differently?
I would have disengaged with it all and just let it be. Because re-engaging, just DMing people, is what heated it up. I was just playfully questioning people, because it really was wild to me, the “You’re evil,” and all that. The false connection of, “You say this, and this is why.” It’s like, “No, you can’t say that that’s why.” So that’s what was happening. That’s what started it for me, was the absurdity. That was new for me. It’s not like if somebody said, “Oh, you’re not funny.” I’ve heard that. But this was something so new that I wasn’t used to dealing with it, so I engaged more than I normally would. And now I know.

In This Article: Hannibal Buress

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