Tuesday, April 03, 2007

battle weary

meet me in a battle…?

Battles are crucial to hip-hop. One of the best was the MC battle between Craig G and Supernatural. It was live, improvised, and hilarious.
There was a good portion of the battle where the DJ dropped the beat and Craig and Supernat traded chunks of rhymes one after the other… Craig would start his rhyme right on top of the last syllables of Supernat often responding immediately to something that Nat had just said.
And vice versa…
What was great about this was THE BEAT KEPT GOING! There was no pause at the end of each thirty-second section killing the momentum and crowd energy.
There was no gimmick of a host calling out words or subjects to freestyle about. The subject was ‘the enemy’ and how best to dis him.
And there was no standing ice grilled pretending that the other dude wasn’t sayin’ nothin. Craig and Supernat stalked the stage with an almost light-footed boxers grace, staying on beat and lunging and retreating so that the battle of words manifest in a simple symbolic swagger-capoeira. Both MCs were fantastically good at the ‘dance’ and the freestyle dissing. Supernatural was the epitome of the freestyle renaissance at the time, mastering the off-the-dome multi-syllable rhyme scheme. But Craig G surprised a lot of people by reminding fans of the effectiveness of clarity and clever punchlines.

I received ‘Hip-Hop Life’ with high hopes. It’s a DVD documentary of a battle between MCs representing Detroit and Houston (with between-battle performances by Rick Ross and Triple Cs, Young Jeezy and Fat Joe).
I still love a good old-fashioned MC battle but this promised a new twist because it tapped two of the more interesting regions of contemporary MC styles.
Detroit has built its reputation as the most grueling test-ground for battle MCs. The D has a slew of underground heroes that new-jacks must be tested against or at least strive to battle.
Houston has produced a generation of MCs also fiercely proud of their local scene which has emboldened them with a swagger that allows them to step to the mic with no desire to imitate another regions 'lyrical' style.
This clash of styles had the potential to move battles into a new era.
Sadly it may have done just that... but in the wrong way.
A few of the contestants emphasized clever punchlines or wordplay in their disses but most confrontations degenerated into tough guys spitting boring homophobic remarks at each other.
At best, the attempts at emasculation rhymed.
At worst, and more frequently, lazy MCs started to end their segments by screaming ‘Faggot!’ in a last ditch effort to get the crowd hyped up.
Many of the MCs’ interactions with the crowd were reduced to threatening a rival’s crew or getting props from their own crew. And when I say props I mean, stacks of money to incorporate into a little show-and-tell about how much street money is being earned.
I would say it’s better to ‘tell’ in an MC battle, than to ‘show.’
And of course a few of the contestants utter the last words any fan of real MCing wants to hear: “You can cut the beat… we can do this acapella!”
The horror…
The energy level, unfortunately, never recovers.

The DVD itself doesn’t describe the battle in any clear way. What is this? How did it happen? Who is judging? Of all the DJs in the world how did you pick a blonde British woman to provide the beats? And, uh, you’re actually not going to tell me who won?!?! (You actually get to vote on the website http://www.hiphoplifedvd.com )

Luckily some of the bonus material gives background on the City vs City concept and shows some interesting and entertaining MCs.
I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise that a couple of the best battlers are a couple of white kids undoubtedly inspired by Eminem’s path to glory. Both of them play their nerdiness to maximum effect; expectations are lowered so much that when they actually kick clever freestyles and bold disses the audience can’t help but be shocked… and entertained.
Another contestant in the Ohio State vs. Ohio University Battle is black, has dreads and has a funny simple structure and childish glee to his delivery that gets predictable but can still hit home a clever punchline. He stalks the stage in an odd back-and-forth lunge-and-point. I was happy to be reminded, even superficially, of Craig G and Supernatural.

BONUS: Special thanks to bgm722 for sending some youtube footage of the Craig / Supernat battle.