In the wake of the hyperbolically overrated Eminem star-vehicle 8 Mile, it's pretty safe to say that every town in America boasting more than three fast food franchises played host to a rhyme battle or two. It's also pretty safe to say that by the middle of last year, these head-to-head freestyle-rap competitions had petered out in most of the cities that didn't have original hip-hop scenes large enough to support them to begin with. You know, some guys in Minot, N.D., and Wichita Falls, Texas, saw the movie and put on a Battle Nite or two at the local live-music club/hot-wing joint, and then Finding Nemo came out, and everybody started breeding clownfish, or whatever.
Admittedly, Battle Basics, the rising Bay area rhyme-off series, came about in much the same way.
"[We] were just kind of like shooting the shit outside the Orpheum, saying we needed a good MC battle. We were just kind of filling a need. As cheesy as it is, we could play off the 8 Mile thing and people would come check it out," says Jerry DuFrain, a.k.a. Lazy, DJ for Tampa hip-hop act Red Tide and head of Peripheral Records. "And it just grew from there — we immediately got a big turnout. We knew as soon as we were done [with the first one] that we had to do it again."
Having said that, however, there are myriad reasons why Battle Basics continues to grow while other erstwhile rap-show promoters in various communities prepare to cash in on the inevitable Torque-fueled motorcycle trend.
First of all, the Bay has nurtured a fertile, if fractured and underground, hip-hop scene for years — at least since the mid-'80s rise of Miami bass and smut-rhymes — one that's been bolstered recently by the success of Southern-style sounds, the national breakthroughs of Trina and Rated R, and the establishment of Florida as a viable tour market for national indie artists. Secondly, the area's fans and MCs were familiar with open-mic competitions long before battles hit the big screen — the well-known Got Skillz? series dates back to long before the turn of the decade. Thirdly, the folks involved in Battle Basics are longtime fans, champions and purveyors of hip-hop culture and music (Peripheral and online almanac Tampahiphop.com are both highly credible sponsors), rather than promoters riding some perceived gravy train.
And perhaps most importantly, Battle Basics has found not only an audience, but what Lazy characterizes as a startling array of skillful rappers to wow that audience.
"I was surprised by two things," he says. "That we got as many MCs as we did, because we got over 20 MCs the first time out, which was more than could be expected. And we got MCs that I've never heard of. I hadn't even seen 'em at open mics, and I've been around. Kids came out of the woodwork.
"The number of people, and then also the talent. With a lot of MC battles, you end up with some guy up there just talking about how much cooler he is than the next guy. Which is I guess the essence of a battle, but there were a number of MCs [at Battle Basics] that can really flow."
Of course, the series also attracts a certain number of, er, less-than-adept rappers, but that's part of the show, too.
"Yes, there are the stinkers where you're like, 'Oh, wow, what made you think you could get onstage,' that cringe-worthy, can't-take-your-eyes-off-it car-wreck stuff," allows Lazy. "At the same time, you might get somebody who's doing it for the first time, and the crowd really gets behind them."
While ostensibly following the same one-on-one format of successive eliminations that virtually all rhyme battles follow, Battle Basics nonetheless has made some changes to the template. The most glaring is the use of judges, rather than audience reaction, to decide who moves up and who moves out. Lazy explains that judging, and the few less drastic divergences of Battle Basics, grew out of what he and his fellow show-throwers saw as inequities, inconsistencies and logistical problems with other gigs.
"We saw a need for something like that. And we saw the things we didn't like about other battles," he says. "With crowd participation [judging], if you brought all of your friends, you were the winner — it had nothing to do with talent. It was ridiculous. Somebody with minimal skills would win. And the guy we all agreed killed would end up going home annoyed and not wanting to be involved in the future."
In addition to deciding the victor of each battle, the judges — Red Tide rapper BC, veteran DJ Kramtronix, and producer T. "The Beat Specialist" — must initially winnow the cast of entrants down to 16 competitors. Every entrant gets 30 seconds with Battle Basics' resident DJ Nak to show off his or her freestyle; the judges look especially hard for rhymes that were obviously written ahead of time. (Battle Basics takes a hard-line stance against too much memorization and too little freestyle — entrants thought to be leaning heavily on prepared material may be disqualified at the judges' discretion.)
A lack of experience doesn't automatically bar hopefuls from making it to the run for the $250 first prize and various runner-up benefits. Neither does personal preference for any particular style, and representatives of every micro-scene and sub-genre participate. But the pairings are determined solely by picking random names out of a hat, and Battle Basics draws both hot-shit spitters from all over the state and roving rhyme-battle ringers like the second installment's winner Madd Illz, an Orlando MC who'll be on hand to defend his title.
"It's luck of the draw. You might go up against the champion from last time your first time, and he is a swordsman, he's won battles all over. He's an intimidator," says Lazy. "But if you gotta go up against him right off, you gotta man up and do it."
Congratulations Are in Order
The Bay area's own Suncoast Blues Society, producer and promoter of countless quality gigs and tireless genre advocate, is this year's winner of The Blues Foundation's Keeping The Blues Alive Award.
The Blues Foundation is a world-renowned nonprofit organization ded- icated to preserving one of America's oldest thriving musical styles; they're the folks responsible for doling out W.C. Handy Awards, running the Blues Hall of Fame, and all kinds of other 7th-chord-related stuff.
Kudos to Larry, Ken, Tim, Peter, Shawn, Tom, Dianne, George and the many, many musicians, fans and regular folk who've dedicated their time and talents to the SBS and its various philanthropic exploits at some point over the years. Keep up the good work.
Contact Music Critic Scott Harrell at 813-248-8888, ext. 109, or by e-mail at [email protected].