Catherine and JD “Super Smack” Ricafort Blend Beats and Broadway in Nintendo-Flavored Debut Hip-Hop Video

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  • Matt Blank

Broadway favorite Catherine Ricafort (Spongebob, Allegiance) recently made her debut as a director and choreographer with the release of a new hip-hop video from her brother Juan Drigo Ricafort, also known as "Super Smack."

The video, titled "Choose," is a "jazzy anthem that tells Super Smack's origin story as a software engineer who became a musical theatre actor, who ultimately became a rapper. Catherine, who was awarded the Broadway Legacy Robe in 2017 with Miss Saigon, skillfully handles this story telling by leveraging video games - one of her and her brother's common interests - as a metaphor for choosing one's unique path in life."

"The choreography and costuming in the video celebrates everything from Chicago to A Chorus Line to the hit Nintendo game series Super Smash Brothers, resulting in a rap video that is singular in both presentation and narrative."

The video also features co-direction by Alan Tan, additional choreography by Shoshanna Babbit, and animations from Savannah Vieth. The cast includes Malik Victorian (Aladdin), Phil Sloves (Spongebob), Leslie Lissaint, Karley Willocks, and Shoshanna Babbit alongside Catherine and Super Smack.

Check out the video below, and get to know the two talented California siblings in an exclusive interview!

Before we get into the new release, tell me a little about your childhood. Were you both performers growing up, and was the goal always to pursue it as a career?

Catherine: Our childhoods were full of song and dance. Our parents love music and saw that we loved it too, so they supported it as our hobbies. My first role ever was in Goldilocks and The Three Bears in preschool in the Philippines. I was Baby Bear. I also did a "Broadway Baby" solo- so it's really amazing to see that professional dream come true.

Smack: I definitely owe my sister for getting me started in dancing. I was super introverted as a kid, but when it came to dance I was like Mike in A Chorus Line- I wanted to prove "I Can Do That" too. I eventually carved out my own space, and loved street dance styles like hip-hop, locking, and b-boying. Dance and a cappella groups were my social life in college, but I never studied it formally or thought I'd do it professionally, not even for a moment, years later. That was much more Catherine's track, she majored in Engineering but minored in Musical Theatre, and deep down our family knew that's where her heart was.

I believe this is your first "official" collaboration, but did you perform together much as kids/teens? Put on shows in the living room or anything like that?

Catherine: We played a ton of make believe as kids- coming up with elaborate, dramatic scenarios, putting together costumes and sets, and even putting on shows for guests. Outside the house, when we were little kids we did a bunch of song and dance duets for the Showstopper dance competitions. Our first one was "I Just Can't Wait To Be King"- my brother was Simba and I was Zazu. Looking back, it was pretty characteristic of our relationship.

Here's a picture of that duet:

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Smack: Catherine was always the ringleader in coming up with those make-believe games! She was a natural at directing not just me but other kids as well, and even then she demanded high quality performances from us. As much as we created stuff together as kids, though, "Choose" is actually our first collaboration as adults.

Before this, the last time we did anything together was in high-school. We did a hip-hop dance called "Ricafunk" with choreography by our mentor Chucky Klapow (High School Musical).

Smack, let's talk about your more recent journey. My understanding is that you were working fulltime in tech when the creative bug really took over and compelled you to spend more time nurturing that side of you. Talk to me about that journey and what decisions, changes and compromises were made in the interest of creating something new.

Smack: There were two weird turns I took in my career- first transitioning from the tech industry to musical theatre, then from musical theatre to rapping. When I left tech, I was not only leaving a solid dream job, but I was basically stopping all momentum in a career I had been working hard to build up for 5 years. I actually enjoyed my tech career for most of the time that I was in it, so it wasn't like I was hating life or anything like that. But one year I realized that I wanted to prove something else to myself, I had this other thing I felt I was pretty good at and wanted to test myself. I had to at least find out whether or not I was good enough.

When I moved from musical theatre to rapping, it was really out of a realization that I wanted to write and perform more original content, as opposed to only being in other productions. I was going to all these auditions for musicals, building up a repertoire of 16-bar cuts. One day, I realized that I was always changing the lyrics to these musical theatre songs for my auditions. It's like I had this allergic reaction to auditioning with a piece as originally written (sorry not sorry Meredith Willson!). I had a ton of fun personalizing all of those songs, so that was my first clue that maybe I should try writing more.

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It's kind of weird when you stop and realize that sometimes your goals change and your dreams change on you. For both of those decisions, the biggest thing for me was getting over the mental stigma that by trying something new, it was in some way disrespecting or doing a disservice to what I had already done in the past. Of course there were huge practical, financial, and logistical considerations I had to face in both instances, but hardest puzzle to solve was actually giving myself the permission to try out a different version of myself. That's what Super Smack, and "Choose", came to be about.

I'm guessing the name Super Smack is a head nod to Super Smash Brothers. How did you come up with it, and how do you see your life as reflected through the prism of a Nintendo Switch game?

Smack: Smack was my gamer nickname when I played Super Smash with my cousins. I always thought it was a great word sonically, the sound of it is so undeniable. When I sat down to start writing solo songs for the first time, I made a folder on my computer called "Smack" and put everything in there. I didn't show anybody the songs, or tell anyone about the name, for a year. But each time I went back to that folder on my computer, it made me smile. That's when I knew that was me.

Something I really love about video games is the choices you get to make. It's what makes gaming different from reading a novel or watching a movie. When you start up Super Smash Brothers, the first thing the game tells you to do (in an awesome stadium announcer voice) is "Choose Your Character!" I realized recently that that's a pretty great mantra for life.

Your story reminds me a little of my friend Carlo (now known as C-Tru). Also a Cali Filipino-American, he was working in biotechnology research before leaving to focus fulltime on his hip hop career. He told us this news in Vegas about 10 years ago, and we were all like, "Bold choice... but cool man, you go for it!" Now he's got hit records all over the globe and performed with Snoop Dogg and other legends. I'm curious to know if you were met with any resistance or criticism about the choice to step away from something seemingly so stable and "grown up" in order to be an artist. Did you have any particularly strong supporters or mentors along the way?

Smack: So the biggest criticisms I got along the way were from voices in my own head. That was tough because those are usually the hardest ones to flush out. Thankfully, I was really lucky that I had some very close friends who really did encourage me. I remember I was visiting some friends in D.C., we were at a pizza parlor when I told them I was going to quit my job to pursue the arts. They told me the same thing that you and your friends said to C-Tru. Go for it. And that was huge- I still think about that today.

My parents and sister were initially worried about my decision, but it came from a place of deep love because they're always thinking about my wellbeing and happiness. After they saw that this is what I believe in, they've been my biggest supporters and teammates.

As for my mentor, it's cheesy but true, so I'm going to ahead and say it anyway. Catherine is the single biggest mentor for me! I've learned so much from her about artistry and hard work and professionalism that translates just as much to rapping as it did for musical theatre. I also had some great mentors from the #BARS Program at the Public Theater.

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Something that strikes me about both of you is that you've both taken the considerable time and effort to create a life grounded in academia in addition to your life as a performer. Catherine, you've got an engineering degree in your portfolio as well as nearly ten Broadway credits! Talk to me about your relationship with education and your particular field of study. How do you find that your science background and your creative endeavors inform each other and benefit one another?

Catherine: I've actually found that when I'm juggling two very different things, it helps me do both of those things better. I think that when I feel like all my eggs are in one basket (for example, one career vs the other) it can become a source of stress and feeling like I'm getting stuck. But when I have something else that I can switch gears to mentally, it helps unlock and relieve those mental blocks, and I can start making creative leaps more easily. I think a misconception with "having a passion" is that you have to do that one passion 24/7. For me, I've actually found that having a healthy balance, using different parts of the brain, even if they are very different, helps with stimulation and inspiration.

Moving on to this exciting new project, talk to me about the origins of "Choose." Clearly following in a strong tradition of hip hop "intro" songs, I love how theatrically it traces your journey from Point A to Point B. What would you say was the main goal or message in mind when crafting this piece?

Smack: I love a good origin story. There's this tradition in hip-hop, of just straight up announcing yourself. It's so fun and liberating and empowering. The quintessentially old-school thing is to literally spell out your name, so I do that in "Choose" as well. Actually, origin stories are big parts of both hip-hop and comic books- two things that I'm partial to, so that's why it felt good to give myself a proper introduction.

I also get asked pretty often about my topsy turvy career journey. I wanted a more efficient way to answer that question, so I figured a speedy rap song would be a good way to do it.

Catherine, with Rob McClure, in  Honeymoon in Vegas  (photo by Joan Marcus)

Catherine, with Rob McClure, in Honeymoon in Vegas (photo by Joan Marcus)

I particularly enjoy your rapid-fire delivery and sort of whimsical attention to storytelling that I think disappeared from a lot of mainstream rap in the early 2000s. I was a huge fan of late 80s and 90s gangsta rap that truly told a story. You look at half the songs from NWA's 2nd album, and you've basically got the outline of a musical! Both Ricaforts, who would you list as your major rap influences or role models?

Smack: The first hip-hop artists I gravitated towards were really strong storytellers, whether it was narrative or character based. So to me that's always been something that is part of hip-hop's DNA. Some of my biggest influences in that vein are De La Soul, Biz Markie, Homeboy Sandman, Daveed Diggs, Rafael Casal, Lin-Manuel, and Mega Ran. I've got other rappers who inspire me in different ways, technically or musically, but that's my shortlist on the storytelling front.

I think this is an especially interesting point given the more recent acceptance of hip hop's place in musical theatre (what could have caused that?) Finally we see musical theatre purists recognizing rap lyricism at its best as something very closely related to a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song. As someone with a foot in both the worlds of hip hop and Broadway, talk to me about your relationship with both. Where do they meet and overlap and where do they diverge for you?

Smack: For me, where rap and traditional musical meet is that they're both beautiful to listen to, beautiful to the ear. It's a form of heightening language in a way that just sounds good, plain and simple. In the film Blindspotting, there's this great quote from Rafael Casal's character where he says (paraphrasing) "If you want to get people to listen to a message they otherwise wouldn't listen to, make it bounce. People like the bounce of it."

And that's what I like about both art forms. It's this trick to get people to listen to your story or message by making it sound dope.

As for where they diverge, I think Broadway's come a long way in discovering what hip hop has to offer, but they're still at the tip of the iceberg. The culture of hip hop has grown into this incredibly rich, deep thing, with so many nooks and crannies. I certainly don't claim to be all-knowing about every facet of hip-hop, and I don't think anybody can. That's how big and deep and rich it is. I think it would be really cool for Broadway to find additional and authentic ways to engage with even more of what hip hop has to offer.

I found parts of the song a little reminiscent of Daveed Diggs' "Fresh From the Hood," another amazing "Here I Am" tune rooted in the hip hop tradition but with a strong nod to musical theatre. Smack, I believe you were actually in Diggs' program at the Public. Tell me a little about that experience and how it influenced your growth as an individual artist.

Smack: Yes! I got to do the #BARS Workshop with Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs in 2016. It was life-changing, there's really no blunter way of saying it. Those guys, along with the rest of my peers in the workshop, challenged me to write at a level of quality that I had never been challenged to do before. It kicked my butt, it made me better, and I came out with a ton more hunger and confidence to keep creating original work. Daveed and Rafa are these force-of-nature storytellers and masters of language, what they are doing right now is really pushing the art forward, with a sense of urgency and gravity and importance that I very much respect.

Let's talk more about this video! It is so much fun, and there's a lot going on! Tell me about your concept for the video and how it all came together.

Catherine: We knew we needed to tell a story, first and foremost.

Smack: But for this particular story we needed lots of locations. And since locations are expensive, we had to come up with something else. So we thought of cartoons- another interest we have in common.

Catherine: We figured if could get a palette of dynamic animations, along with theatrics and choreographed movement in physical space, then we could solve the puzzle of moving through space and time, and just ride the narrative waves that are already present in the text of the song.

Smack: And then on top of all that, it's always been my dream to do a hip-hop dance with Nintendo characters. So that's where the cosplay came in!

I love all of the references ranging from Chorus Line to Nintendo. Aside from being a lot of fun, they really add a lot to the portrait you're creating. Any more you can say about that aspect of the video/song, and any Easter Eggs the first-time viewer might have missed?

Smack: In the third verse of the song, when I'm rapping about following my sister's footsteps for musical theatre, we snuck in some sound effects from the Kirby videogame series. Kirby is one of the classic Nintendo characters, and his signature move is that he can copy the superpowers of others. We thought it was pretty fitting to work this into the sound and the choreography as well.

Catherine: That whole sequence was so fun, and it's packed with references. We have a Bob Fosse-style dance, which adapts steps from the famous Chorus Line opening (a callback to "I Can Do That") which then morphs into a "Fame"-inspired dance audition room. That moment when we magically transport scenes is when we use the exact sound effect from Kirby.

Are you purely a Nintendo person, or do you play other systems? What is your fave video game of ALL TIME?

Smack: Nintendo all the way! There are a few exceptions- particularly Final Fantasy and (of course) Dance Dance Revolution on Playstation. I was raised on Nintendo, though, and what they are doing right now with the Switch, I think it's honestly some of their most innovative and best work. My favorite games of all time are Super Mario RPG, Zelda: Breathe of the Wild, Celeste, and Super Smash Brothers.

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Catherine, this is your directorial and choreo debut. Again, it's so great how theatrical it is at times. You don't see enough rap videos these days with costumes and props and an ensemble! How did you find the entire process? What were some of the challenges you ran into, and what did you find the most rewarding aspect? What was the biggest surprise?

Catherine: My brother actually only asked me to direct/co-choreograph the video two weeks before we were scheduled to shoot. Because of that time crunch, there was no way I could say no! If I had had more time to consider it, the nervous part of me probably would have wanted to back out, since I had never officially done anything like that before. It was like getting on a roller coaster- and then being asked to drive the roller coaster. But I'm so glad it happened this way because I discovered it's something I really enjoy doing.

Starting out, I didn't know much about rap videos, but I did know a ton about costumes and props and ensembles, so I worked with what I knew! We were also really lucky to have an amazing cast and crew that was easy to direct. That was one of my favorite parts- gathering a group of amazingly talented people, becoming friends, and uniting for a common purpose. It actually felt a lot like an RPG video game- form your party, save the world.

One of the trickiest challenges was costuming the whole thing, which I did as well. Half of the non-cosplay clothes actually came from my own personal closet, or from my mom's vintage wardrobe. Our mom is very fashionable, and she passed it on to me.

Honestly the most surprising thing was probably how smoothly the whole day went. We had only had one day to shoot everything. 8 hours to get all of our complicated shots with choreography and costume changes and everything. But between my brother and I, we were able to use our engineering/project management skills to get a pretty effective spreadsheet going to keep us all on track.

How did the collaboration go from a personal standpoint? Do you think you'll work together again?

Smack: It was really smooth and fun! Yes, we're definitely going to work together again!

Catherine: It was fantastic! It kinda felt like we were kids again, getting to engage our full imaginations and instincts to play, but this time we have more experience and skills under our belt, and a full team as well! The whole experience was actually so personally inspiring that it made me want to find more projects that I am passionate about directing and choreographing for. It also inspired me to buy a Nintendo Switch of my own- I'm having a ton of fun playing Stardew Valley right now!

This is the first single from an upcoming full-length album, correct? Give us a little taste of what audiences can expect when that drops!

Smack: That's right! It's a concept album called "Neontendo" and it's going to be released in Summer 2019. I want to be careful not to spoil too much, but I will say that this is the most excited I've been about any creative project I have worked on. It has a fusion of nerdiness and edginess, old-school and new-school, boom bap, trap, chiptune, spoken word poetry, and of course a theatrics and a narrative through-line. It's my most ambitious project to date. I feel like 2019 is the first time in my life where I'm ready for an artistic challenge this big, and I'm thrilled to be taking it on. I think Super Smack fans will be in for quite a thrill when it drops.

Finally, what can we expect next from the Ricaforts?

Smack: I just got back from performing at an amazing Nerdcore Hip-Hop series at SXSW last month, and am now working on recording my upcoming studio album. After that drops, I'll performing at different shows on the East Coast (more info on that soon!). My goal for this coming year is perform at Comic-Cons around the country so that's the dream I'll be shooting for next!

Catherine: I just wrapped up an absolutely beautiful and innovative show, ALICE BY HEART, at MCC Theater Off-Broadway. I'm finalizing my next plans at the moment, but I think I'd actually like to flex more of my engineering muscles right now. I've got a few personal and professional tech projects that I'm really excited about.

Smack: I haven't told Catherine this yet, but I've got an idea for a pretty dope rap videogame that we should code together.

Catherine: I WOULD LOVE THAT.

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Follow these talented siblings at @supersmackraps and @cattricafort.