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By Alex Bartiromo

In 2012, knowledge on how to run a good battle rap event is largely shared by those invested in the scene. Legitimate and reputable venues are rented out, professional video crews are hired, and top-tier battles are booked. However, one area that remains an enigma is the crowd, whose comportment from event to event remains erratic and unpredictable. A good crowd can bring energy to an event, act as a boon to the battlers by holding them to a high standard, and allow everyone involved (including internet viewers) to have a good time. However, it is a rare occasion when a battle rap crowd actually behaves like this, often eschewing positive, controlled hype and respect in favor of disconcerting rowdiness, hometown bias, lack of knowledge, and intolerable harassment of the battlers that they have paid to see.

First off, can we all agree that the crowd does not impact the result of a battle? Good. Now that we’ve established that (and really, there’s nothing to establish – it’s practically a truism), we can begin discussing what role the crowd does and should play in the battle rap world, as well as analyze the behavior of some of them around the world.

The Don’t Flop crowd has frustrated me in the past. They have a tendency to laugh at bad jokes and stand stoically when someone is actually rapping something of value. The most extreme example of this is the rise of Lunar C, who crushed weak opposition before quasi-retiring without facing any top-tier battlers. His stationary style would not have survived in any other battle league, where he would have been forced to improve and test himself by a crowd that would hold him accountable (except perhaps the all but defunct Grind Time, but that is no compliment. Were this an isolated incident, it would not be so bad, but the Don’t Flop crowd (and judges, too) have failed to be the quality control that big time battle leagues need. Don’t Flop has showed indifference to this (but alarm at the fact that people are complaining about it) stating recently on their Facebook page, “All that matters is that the crowds at our events are the ones who bother to pay and come watch it live, which funds the next event. Who are we to judge their level of interest in the scene when they are the ones who mean we can continue to do shows?” While I respect and sympathize with this point of view, I have to disagree.

Regarding the first half of the statement, what the post fails to mention is that not everyone can pay or watch it live. Take me, for example. I am a huge Don’t Flop fan, and have been following the league since 2009. But I have never attended an event. Why? Because I live in New York City. They have not yet had a PPV event a-la Vendetta, something which I would gladly pay for. Obviously, not everyone’s situation reflects mine, but there are a myriad of reasons why “hardcore” fans cannot attend a Don’t Flop event. As for the second part of the statement, it is not as much a judgment of interest as it is one of respect (and to be fair, Don’t Flop clarified in the comments section of this post that they are attempting to expunge the chatter that goes on from the back of the crowd in many battles from their shows). While it is appalling to me that a new fan of Don’t Flop would not want to at least peruse some of the league’s back catalogue, he/she should not be forced or expected to do so. What they can be expected to do, though, is to respect battlers that they don’t know or that are not their favorites and to enter battles with an unbiased attitude, giving both rappers their rapt attention, and not heckling one in particular for being white, black, skinny, gay, female, American, Malaysian, et al. You get the gist. To read further about crowd bias, check out David Masters (who, despite holding no official position in the battle rap world as far as I know, is as much of an authority on these matters as there is) blog post on this website (for the record, I started writing this post before his article was posted and I was not aware that he was writing it, hence the overlap).

In a vastly different world exists the Ultimate Rap League crowd, which is mainly filled with dedicated, intense fans that, due to their lack of patience for anything which they deem to be below the utmost standard of quality, force the league’s battlers to perform to the best of their abilities. Always. In the URL, even a minor choke, which in other leagues like King of the Dot or Ozone Battles would be largely pardoned and met with support for the rapper, will incite heckling and jeering that cannot be recovered from and that damages a rapper’s credibility for months to come. It is often unfair, but ultimately, it is good for the quality of the battles, because rappers never show up unprepared.

Where this intolerance becomes a problem, though, is when it spills into the domain of style, with many URL fans unwilling to accept rappers who don’t perform in the “street” fashion (gun bars, exposing the other rapper to be a fake gangster, etc.). At its worst, this can become tantamount to racism, which makes it intimidating and difficult for battlers of different styles (especially if they are white) to attempt to ply their trade there. Recently there have been signs that this attitude is changing. Real Deal, who is white and does not rap in the “street” style, has broken in to the league, but only with a great deal of work. In his most recent battle, versus B-Magic, Real Deal put in a daring, even intrepid performance. But some of the material that he used to fantastic effect in his later rounds (“I’ll take your wig off like a Native American”, “But what happens when the black goes up against the white and loses/ Aight then”) would not have been possible had he not brought the crowd over to his side early on. Deal was smart to acknowledge that he is different from the typical URL battler; he is. One of his first bars was to hint at URL’s catchphrase, “Real nigga time”, without saying it (which would have been disastrous), forcing the crowd to fill in the missing words for him, and then thanking them for “making the exception”. This communicated to the crowd that, yes, he is different than them, that yes, he understands that, but that yes, he was going to come to their stage and perform, and that they should try to understand where he was coming from. And, to their credit, they did. As far as I’m concerned, this is a positive development. It shows that at least some of the URL crowd is able to accept rappers of different backgrounds and styles as long as they put in top-tier performances.

If that trend continues, the league will truly dominate the battle rap world. However, there is still a long way to go. One only has to scroll down to the comments section of the Real Deal vs. B-Magic battle to observe the (euphemistic) xenophobia coming from many of the fans of the league that are afraid of change and development. Smack White must be daring and take the uncharted path of tolerance if he wants his league to be as successful as it can be.

In a way, it is good that these two companies are dealing with this similar problem, and the reasons are twofold. For one, “crowd control issues” is distinctly a problem that a successful brand has. If these two companies were really struggling, no one would be discussing the crowd, as there would probably be more pressing issues. This is the problem of two companies verging on the brink of (relative) mainstream attention and success, attempting to figure out how to best put together their package before making that jump. The second reason is that both fans and people within each respective organization are talking about this openly, and discussion will lead to education which may even help, in part, to solve the problem.

However, the problem still does exist, and there is only so much Eurgh or Smack can do to help solve it. The fans have to take it upon themselves to be more respectful and open-minded, and only then will we achieve that electric atmosphere that can make battle events so classic all the time.

@Alex70394

By David “The Mast” Masters

Society, by its very nature, is about group behaviour. The idea that we all have to work together for the better of everyone is as old as societies themselves.  We all have our own sub-groups in which we move, and associate ourselves with people we like or need to know.

I’ve never been one for bias, in any situation. So, though I love the people who I would consider my own, I will never give preferential treatment where it counts. It isn’t productive, really. How good someone is at any given task is not determined by how much you like them, and this is an idea that people seriously need to understand in the British battle rapping community.

I constantly see people retweeting their friends battles, which is fine. Rarely will you see someone take an unfavourable stance on their friends’ battles, though. There is more Twitter beef or interaction than there are actual battles nowadays, and people let this cloud their vision of how good or bad someone can be. Callumboom’s legendarily dreadful performance against Impact was met with almost universal scorn on the Don’t Flop Facebook,  but he had an army of never-before-seen friends cheering him on and defending him. It’s no good for the community. We need more genuine fans of the craft than the people performing the craft.

There’s a lot of people in the Don’t Flop scene who have each other’s backs to the point of grand bias, and it’s never anything short of cringeworthy seeing them comment on battles (If you think this is about you, you’re guilty of something whether I meant you or not).  As for me? I wouldn’t give two shakes of a duck’s tail. I don’t care if my own flesh and blood steps in the ring, personally. If you’re not good, you’re not good. Quality control is something Don’t Flop seem to be cracking down on, and it’s about time, but we’re going to get nowhere if preferential treatment remains as ripe as it does.

You run the risk of alienating those wanting to join by making it seem like a club of mates. It’s not and it can’t afford to be. There needs to be a line drawn. Some people do not care to join in on all of the non-battle insults and banter, and that needs to be respected.

Another kind of bias is way more serious, and cliquey on a national scale.

Don’t Flop would not exist were it not for Americans and nor would hip hop. I am genuinely worried by the overwhelming amount of anti-Americanism that comes from the fans and the MCs.  “Let’s show them Yanks a thing or two.” The crowd for Illmaculate vs. Tony D was so disgustingly biased that you could almost taste it in the air. This is a grand shame, because the battle was phenomenal. It was as though people had already decided to cheer one man more because he came out of a vagina in this country. That needs to stop, fast. If it doesn’t, the league runs the risk of not attracting certain big American battlers.

Whether it’s nationalistic bias or one based on friendship, you seriously need to knock it off and pay attention to the bars. I don’t care how much you like someone. JUDGE FAIRLY.

I support quality. I don’t look at passports.

If you make great music, I’ll buy it. If you’re a good battler, I’ll support you. What I will not do is treat you like you’re fam if you’re not. I don’t particularly care if you’re a Londoner or not. Be good.

This league’s MCs, and indeed the country’s, are learning to rely on location bias. “YES! HE’S FROM WHERE I AM!” Who cares?

DNA vs. Eurgh was an incredible battle on BOTH counts. It was remarkably close. However, try finding a comment that doesn’t involve saying, “UK REPRESENT! DFAFD.!” and I will concede. Who cares where anyone’s from? It’s not war, people.

Talent should always prevail, not nepotism.

Things need to change or I sincerely fear for the future of this country’s battle scene.

@TheMastTweets

By Gareth Hancock

Subculture: a group of people with a culture (whether distinct or hidden) which differentiates them from the larger culture to which they belong.

Hip-hop has always been an art form enriched with various subcultures – gangster rap, comedy rap, conscious rap, etc. At one time the movement in its entirety was a subculture, born in the Bronx and away from wider society. Today, UK independent hip-hop is a subculture of the wider genre and regional hip-hop is a subculture of the independent scene, with artists being generally confined within the boundaries of their own demographic.

Keeping in line with the definition, to my mind and (untrained) ear, hip-hop, more than any other musical genre, embraces regional subculture; local accents are broad and easily recognisable and rappers are keen to base rhymes on their own stories and those related to their specific area. Many people will argue that other music is heavily influenced by regions also. This may be true, but it is not as easy (for me anyway) to differentiate clearly between a band from London and a band from Leeds as it is to tell apart a rapper from Birmingham and one from Liverpool. But is this a good thing?

My home region, the north east of England, is the perfect example of a regional subculture in hip-hop; an area of the UK where rappers rhyme predominantly in their own distinctive Geordie, Mackem and ‘boro accents. Now, in my humble (and biased) opinion, the north east has one of the best hip-hop “scenes” in the UK right now. The artists, if not as vast in terms of numbers as they once were, are certainly more talented than ever. If you’re in any doubt as to the quality of the music being made in the region, check out acts such as Leddie & Smoggy, Jister, Suus, Dialect and the rest of the Keep the Faith family. The north east hip-hop scene is a tight community and artists are keen to support and promote the music of their peers, the problem is, this music does not often reach listeners outside of the area. Why is this?

Musical subcultures are generally regarded as being resistant to the commercial aspects of the genre to which they belong. I feel this is only true to a certain degree. Granted, “going mainstream” as an artist is so vigorously associated with “selling out” that a lot of independent artists are keen to avoid it for fear of having their voice stifled. And it is true that rappers that achieve commercial success are required to change their style and lyrical content to suit record labels; however, you cannot tell me that no underground artist wants to achieve some level of commercial success in their genre? The underground scene is generally all about the music, but no one could ever begrudge anyone making a living from their music – something they love. And it doesn’t have to be done by “selling out” either; artists such as Lowkey and Akala are perfect examples of this. To generate an income from their art, artists must first have their music heard.

This may be me once again saying something biased, but the reason the music in the north east isn’t being recognised on a wider scale can have nothing to do with the quality of lyricism, beats or production, and I’m sure that is the case in other regions too. Is it the regional accent? I don’t think so. I can definitely see how some people from outside the area may be put off somewhat by north east dialect, but give me a regional accent over a put-on American one any day. This problem of hip-hop music not being heard outside of its local scene seems to be one that exists in every area north of London – I feel this is the fault not of the artists, but the fans. The vast majority of hip-hop fans (myself included) have been brought up on a diet of US rap and are unwilling to look at what is happening in their own area, let alone a region outside of their own. Why is it that we fans are willing to invest all of our time and money in hip-hop from across the Atlantic but will not entertain the music of an artist based just a couple of hours up the road? This needs to change – but how?

Well, far from being an oracle, my suggestion would be that first and foremost artists’ need exposure. This exposure needs to come from the fans. Some will argue the point that artists should be doing more to market themselves – I’m not sure what more they can realistically do with what they have available to them. A lot of independent hip-hop relies on the use un-cleared samples which makes it hard to achieve radio airplay, so maybe something can change in that area, but other than that, the responsibility is with the fans to support the local scene, buy the records and promote anything that you love. Not only this, more people need to embrace hip-hop from other regions; this is easier than ever with Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and costs absolutely nothing. Read blogs such as this one and visit independent hip-hop websites to discover new artists. Remember that feeling you got when you first discovered Nas or Wu-Tang? That same feeling still exists when you discover some exciting underground UK talent. Without abandoning their local dialect, fans and artists need to work to create a UK wide scene. Local promoters should do more to put on artists from other areas and in-turn artists should be willing to perform further afield. Get local artists known on a wider scale.

Hip-hop is as much about the fans as it is the artists, and working together to extend the parameters of regional subcultures can only be good for the future of the music.

@gjhancock01

By David “The Mast” Masters

What IS a choke? A choke is not a stumble and it’s important to tell the difference. Whilst the line does become blurry at some points,  chokes are generally  very different and very noticeable. In fact, they can also be very damaging.

A choke, for those with such boring lives as to not know what rap battles are, is when the participant forgets his or her rhymes and is forced to either freestyle, move onto their next part or just pass on the round. It’s generally considered fatal in almost all cases, with rare exception. Some people have minor chokes that are overcome, but generally they’re seen to be somewhat insurmountable.

A stumble, to me, is when someone clearly knows their part, but trips over their words a bit. This is nowhere near as serious, but can cause an unfavourable judgement if they occur too frequently.

How do you judge these events? There is no one answer. Some believe a choke loses a battle, some believe a choke loses a round, but some believe that you can win with multiple chokes. Here are some examples and how I judge them:

Porich vs. Soul Khan

Soul Khan has a noticeable lapse in memory during is second round, which seems to only be made worse when he forces himself to recite some of his other bars. Granted, he finishes his round, but it was a pretty large choke for someone like him.

In his second, Porich says, “Your obsession with short, black men’s a scary omen, guy. Hey, where were you the that night Gary Coleman died?” Capping off his third, he compliments Soul Khan rather sarcastically regarding the choke. Soul Khan, not to be outdone, brought forth the rebuttal, “Motherfucker, I could beat you if I did or didn’t choke. Where was I on the night Gary Coleman died? Giving your mum a different stroke.”

This is one of the more layered and effective rebuttals of all time. Why? He took note of his choke, and the fact that Rich made fun of it, and included it in the rebuttal. That indicates freestyling ability. He also replied to Rich’s S.O.N.S./Gary Coleman line, too. He cancelled out the choke, while also hitting Rich with a rebuttal, taking weight and damage out of both. It stood fresh in everyone’s minds and made Rich look bad. That is the very definition of a flip. He literally flipped the situation on its head by hitting every point needed.

Should he have lost based on that choke? The round? Possibly. The match? No, because he rectified it. This ties into the placement of chokes. Had Khan choked in his third, anyone who gave Rich any of the first two would have likely given it to Rich, simply because he wouldn’t have been able to perform the flip. Soul Khan went first, so his third round could flip the material in Rich’s second, but it would’ve been impossible to rebuttal anything in Rich’s third as that was the final verse.

As long as you have the ability to freestyle well or, at least, perform a really on-point rebuttal, you will always have a shot are recovering from chokes. Unless you do what happened in this next battle.

Disciple vs. Dose

Dose was undefeated (undeservedly so, but we won’t go there) when he headed into his first international battle at Don’t Flop’s To the Test 10 against Disciple. Many had the rounds to be very even, and they were, right up until the third round. Dose unfortunately forgot all of his third round, and as a result, it cost him the match.

I believe a full round choke IS an automatic loss, and I think anyone else should agree.

Lefty vs. Double L

At Don’t Flop’s ‘The Hunger For More’, Double L had a third round choke that was identical to Dose’s. The difference is that many had given Double L the first two rounds before he chokes. Do you give him the benefit of the doubt, or do you count the whole round choke as a loss?

Again, I believe it’s a total loss, but as you can see, there are multiple points of contention, however fruitless.

The Saurus vs. Pat Stay

This one is also met with contention. Pat, after winning the first (in my opinion) and looking to be taking the second, suffered a choke mid-round. He made the excuse that he wrote his “shit” the night before, but that doesn’t wash with me. He should know better. The material he claims he forgot, which he rapped in the post-match interview, was dynamite and would’ve have bagged him the round, I think. So, it’s very unfortunate.

However, lots of people feel he won the first and the third, even without rebuttaling the choke. Saurus had a monster rebuttal in his third (having gone second), but didn’t really have much else (I felt it was his weakest round),  and thus people apply the rebuttal to Saurus trouncing Pat’s second as opposed to winning the third.

I personally feel Pat won the first, lost the second due to the gravity of the choke, and the third is honestly so close to call based on the factors. Pat’s third was amazing, but it’s a case of Pat’s third vs. the HUGE rebuttal in an otherwise sub-par round from Saurus in his third. Then you factor in that Pat didn’t rebuttal the choke, either. Had he, I think I’d have gone with Pat. I maintain that the third was Saurus’s by the thinnest of hairs possible, but this is a prime example of how chokes aren’t always easy to work into a judgement.

Deffinition vs. Jefferson Price

This one, also at ‘To The Test 10’, that comes under a lot of fire.

Deffinition won, many claim, due to Jefferson Price’s choke in the third. He finished his round, but it was large enough for him to stop rhyming and comedically say, “You said this would happen!” to Deffinition. He handled it with class, even through the frustration, but I do feel it cost him the match.

I don’t think this was Deff’s best at ALL, and I’m sure he doesn’t either. I believe Deff took the first with a degree of safety, Jeff took the second with a larger degree of comfort, but the third wasn’t working out. I’m of the school of thought that if you choke, you lose the round.

Many claim that because Jeff’s first two were very good, and he finished his third despite the choke, that he should’ve won. That only works if you give Jeff the first two. I do not feel you can say Jeff deserves the L based on his third round choke, at all. I believe he lost that round and, due to Deff taking the first, lost the match as a result. That adds to two rounds to one in favour of Deffinition.

I don’t believe his choke definitely means he lost, but I do believe it’s madness to claim someone can win a round they choked in.

O’Shea vs. Sensa

This battle is one that I will never understand.

I have a great love for what O’Shea has done for Don’t Flop and he is easily one of the more entertaining guys to watch. If you go back and watch his battles with Loe Pesci, Dirtbag Dan, Lego, and Flex Digits (his best performance in my opinion), you will see he was the inarguable king of jokes/bars in unison. He had both to a high enough degree that there were few people he couldn’t beat, I feel. In this battle, the first ever Don’t Flop title match, O’Shea had stumbles throughout every single round, and choked a few times in addition to that.

I don’t believe there’s any justifiable reason for him winning that match. I don’t say that as a hater, because I am a fan of O’Shea and will remain so until given reason to feel otherwise. I say it because he faced off against Sensa. The importance of the match, the calibre of opponent and the fact that Sensa never choked is what baffles me about all of it. People say Sensa’s angles never hit home, but that’s irrelevant. O’Shea choked and stumbled his way through the match.

He choked in his battle with Ness Lee at Blood in the Water 5, too. It’s a growing problem of which Don’t Flop’s current champion is blatantly aware.

Everyone judges chokes differently, but I feel there are criteria in place enough to make it so that the decision isn’t a hard one. Once in a while you get a battle like The Saurus vs. Pat Stay, where it is very odd to judge because of the choke. Then, maybe you’ll get a battle like Porich vs. Soul Khan, in which the choke is made to not matter in the slightest.

It IS a big element of battling, but one that isn’t often discussed with any level of interest or equanimity. That’s all I wanted to do here, really.

Thanks to everyone who took the time to read this article, and the one before it (which got 2,000 hits in a day!). It’s much appreciated and, honestly, it’s a pleas….wait…it’s a pleasure to….ahh….FUCK!

@TheMastTweets

By David “The Mast” Masters

People say that competition isn’t about the winning, it’s about the taking part. As admirable a sentiment as that is, and as true as it may be in some cases, it doesn’t always apply. You win something because, usually, you were the best person competing, and you miss out on winning because you weren’t good enough to take the prized spot.

Every competitive sport is like this. Winning counts. Winning MATTERS.

I’ve always said battle rapping qualifies as a sport, because it does, and anyone who says it doesn’t is wrong. Sure, they aren’t athletes, so maybe it’s not a TRUE sport, but it is a competitive medium. Throughout the 90s and into 2000s, battles evolved from just being on stage and playfully mocking the opponent with verse,  or rocking a crowd (Busy Bee Vs Kool Moe Dee, for example), and became something else entirely. The plight of the MC was vastly stepped up as the craft of MCing became a talent all its own.

In 1996, Nick Accurso and Jason Brunson founded Scribble Jam, America’ largest hip hop festival. It featured everything from live music, breakdancing, DJ sets and MC battles.  It went from strength-to-strength, as everything in the battling scene seems to, and all of a sudden Scribble Jam had traded parking lots for known venues packed out with as many as 20,000 plus fans.

What IS Scribble Jam and why were the battles so important though?

Scribble Jam was survival of the fittest. Scribble Jam was an all-freestyle tournament where you would battle many MCs per day, with zero preparation, on beat. Everything had to be recited off-the-top, or at the very least recited from memory. Rebuttals were the currency during these times. They hit hard enough in written battle leagues of today, but back then, rebuttals were truly a ten to a penny. Anyone who won Scribble Jam almost inarguably deserved it, off the back of the sheer skill it takes to battle that way. When you saw Eyedea, Adeem, The Saurus (Twice), Illmaculate or Nocando crowned as king, you KNOW they won for a reason. You know they had the right to stand up and say, “I do this. This is my area. Get at me.”

Then came the W.R.C. (World Rap Championships), courtesy of Jump-Off. The W.R.C. was a monumental worldwide 2-on-2 tournament that yielded reward of $40,000 each for the winners. The Saurus/Illmaculate, again, won this twice with an unprecedented and, some say, unmatched display of freestyle and written lyricism on top of an ability to cater to each opponent. You won because you were the best. All of the league owners you see, for the most part, plied their craft in the W.R.C. tournaments. Eurgh of Don’t Flop, Organik of King of the Dot? They both started as freestyle MCs, and truly amazing ones at that.

These leagues eventually folded and/or went bankrupt, leaving a hole that sorely needed to be filled.

Like a phoenix from the ashes, we finally received organisations like The Elements League (Canada) and Grind Time (America). These were written battle leagues in which you are told of your opponent and given time to write bars before the event your battle is held out. This added an ENTIRELY new dynamic to the artform. Lyricism became harder hitting and way more relevant due to the ability of being able to write specifically for an opponent. Freestyle rebuttals became more noticeable and effective, too. Especially due to the fact that certain written MCs couldn’t, and still cannot, rebuttal.

It takes a grand amount of skill, bravery and talent to be good and come out a winner, but with promo (No win/loss) battles becoming more popular, crowning true winners seems to be a legitimately dying concept. Can any of these modern day battlers claim greatness over ALL time, or just their era? King of the Dot hosts a Grand Prix in which the winner gets a title shot, and that is written, too. It is a great competition and provides a much needed injection of MCs taking their bars seriously.

Just how much are we missing Scribble or the W.R.C., though? Much is said of The Saurus and Illmac’s legacies (I think Illmac is the best ever due to his top tier domination of both eras), and deservedly so, but would they still be bringing home championships today? Maybe they would be twelve time W.R.C. champs. Maybe Saurus would never win another Scribble, or win four more. Who can say? Nobody, and I do think that is the problem.

If I ever won the lotto, I would put up 10 grand and invite MCs to come perform in a Scribble type tournament. Not only would it force people to really measure their skills in an environment where winning matters, but it would open this generation to an entirely different aspect of battling.

I prefer written to freestyled battles; the content is cleaner and the material is generally much better. The only reason it’s so good now is because of what came before, though.

With that said, The Saurus vs. Justice from Scribble Jam 2006 is the absolute pinnacle of freestyle battles.


“Your name’s The Saurus, but your face is more like the asteroid that killed you.”
“This is America, bitch. Here, Justice is served.”

Amazing. Just amazing.

I don’t know how close we are to ever having something like this again, or ever, but I feel that today’s MCs are missing the chance to hone their craft in an area of battling that matters SO much…but seems to be dying out. I feel that any MC who hasn’t earned their stripes in those kinds of battles will never be a complete battler.

Bring back the freestyle tournament. To those of you who MC in written leagues, I beg you to step your freestyle games up. You’ll win a lot more battles. Trust me.

Can you imagine a Scribble Jam or a W.R.C. with the likes of Nils in it? Tenchoo/Lego as a W.R.C. team? These are the things we’re missing, and I think that is damned tragic.

@TheMastTweets


By David “The Mast” Masters

“They only say hip hop is dead ‘cause the dope shit is underground.”
– Joe Budden, D.O.A. Freeverse.

Music has been with me my whole life. I don’t believe illegal downloading is okay and every piece of music I own is bought/paid for. My CD collection has everything from thrash metal like Slayer to Prince. From mellow and jazzy folk artists like Norah Jones, to Norweigan black metal pioneers such as Emperor. If you’re into more electronic sounds, I have everything from Depeche Mode to Burial, from Brian Eno to Kraftwerk. If I like it, I’ll buy it. Good music is good music, to me. Today, I’m here to discuss hip-hop.

My first dalliance with the genre of hip-hop was ‘Prophets of Rage’ by Public Enemy. I was too young to appreciate bars, but something about the aural flow and linguistic punch of Chuck D. managed to hit my inner ear. It felt like swearing in French. If you don’t know what I mean, watch The Matrix Revolutions (it’s shit, but for reference).  After rattling off a barrage of foul language spoken in French, The Merovingian so eloquently states that swearing in said language is “like wiping (your) ass with silk. I love it.”

It was kind of like that. Hearing, “With vice, I hold the mic device. With force, I give it away, of course.” immediately struck me. As I grew older, I gained more and more of my hip-hop sensibilities, morality and code of ethics from that one line. “With vice, I hold the mic device.” Chuck was saying that he grabs the mic, his tool of artistry, with authority and an air of confidence. “With force, I give it away, of course.” Here, he is suggesting (from what I interpret), that if he’s gonna give the mic to you, be prepared to rule it or don’t bother. My point is that I like my MCs to rap well. I don’t particularly care if you have mediocre lyrics so long as the music is pleasing to me. Lyrics, in all music, are nothing more than a good bonus at best. I buy music for the sound. MCing, though, is an art within the music. It is a skill. One does not need to be able to perform linguistic somersaults, à la Canibus, to be a great hip-hop musician. In fact, the best albums are often ones with a heavy balance.

To elucidate: 2pac was never a top seed if we’re discussing lyrics. Ed Lover said that, word for word, when talking to Joe Budden. “I live the era, I knew Pac personally. He is not a top seed if we’re talking about lyrics, which is what BEST RAPPER should mean.” Yet, I would much rather listen to ‘California Love’ than a lot of what Canibus has produced. To judge hip-hop artists is not to judge them as MCs and vice versa.

Where am I going with this? Well, I want to talk about underground hip-hop vs. mainstream hip-hop. To get right into it, and continue from the previous thread, lyrics are typically a huge point of division between the mainstream and the underground. Though the mainstream has always been in the vein of more popular material, thus the more accessible, it did allow for incredibly talented lyricists to ply their craft as hip-hop artists. Nowadays, I do not believe that is so. I’d like to weigh up the changes, why things have changed, and whether I think they are changes for the betterment or decline of hip-hop.

Rewind to the 90s. Everyone will tell you that everything was so much better. Granted, the 90s probably do rack up as the greatest musical years of all time. Not due to nostalgia, but due to the sheer amount of stylistic movements across all genres. You had the grunge movement out of Seattle, the alternative rock movement out of L.A. and the West Coast, and you had the whole new wave of hip-hop artists. This, I believe, is where the current mainstream differs. Allow me to explain…

When Redman, Method Man, Wu-Tang Clan and their ilk came forth, people DID shun them. They dressed differently, they rapped about different things, and they were generally looked upon with the same view many people use today! “Ack! These new guys have no respect!” However, analysing the classic 90s hip-hop albums reveals to us the difference between now and then. Muddy Waters, those first two Wu albums and the affiliated solo efforts, ‘Ready to Die’, ‘The 18th Letter’, ‘Uptown Saturday Night’, ‘Lifestyles ov the Poor and Dangerous’ etc. These albums, if not made by vets, had clear musical links to what came before. Even if they sounded entirely new, they either had musical or influential links to what had proven to be pioneering, quality hip-hop.

Who can analyse a Young Money (you knew it was coming, shut up) track and say that? We’ve gone from musical evolution, to musical creationism. People are looking at all rappers as hip-hop artists, and that isn’t the case. I refuse to label Drake as a hip-hop artist. That isn’t me being afraid of new things, it’s him not being hip-hop. He raps. That’s it. He is no more a hip-hop artist for rapping as Adele is a punk rock vocalist because she too is a singer.

The continuity of history is gone, I feel. Let me clarify, though, that I do not feel everyone HAS to listen to, or like, Rakim or any of those older guys. I just think people should know where things came from, and what music was like at different points in time. Today, the mainstream of hip-hop is all about collaborating with whoever will help you get that money, and if you disagree…you’re a hater. It’s focused on “swag”, a word of which the usage should be punishable with death, and things of that nature. Things HAVE shifted, and I don’t necessarily believe it’s for the better. Taste is subjective, but I find it hard to believe that anyone can watch the last episode of Yo! MTV Raps and not feel depressed. I watched it when it aired, and it saddened me then. Seeing Rakim, K.R.S., Serch, Extra P., Special Ed, Red, Meth, Chubb Rock and many others getting it in to the instrumental Pete Rock remix of Real Hip-Hop by Das Efx is something I will never, ever forget.

They all looked like bums, but did it matter? No. What mattered was their ability. When you ask Drake to recite a verse, or drop a freestyle, he can barely manage three of four bars without pausing for a while. MCs these days have not developed to appreciate the craft of MCing in and of itself, for the most part. The closest thing we have is the B.E.T. Cypher, and that’s nowhere near the same.

“They’re doing alright! They’re getting all that money!”, I hear you say. True. That is a benefit of being a mainstream hip-hop musician. But at what cost? I am no Drake fan, but even evaluating his earlier work shows a magnificent difference between the Drake who did ‘Good Riddance’ and the Drake who does thinks like ‘Over’ or ‘Fall for Your Type’. Compromise is key, more so than ever. A mainstream hip-hop artist is not going to get away with putting a single out with no chorus or hook on it, for example. You would never see a posse cut, A TRUE posse cut, make the grade now. The ‘Flava in Ya Ear’ remix (if you haven’t heard it, then yes, I judge you) would never get the notoriety today that it did when it came out.

Joe Budden most famously put out ‘Pump It Up’ on Def Jam, as well as Focus (which, I believe, he did for DJ Clue and it blew up unexpectedly). They smashed into clubs and everyone bumped it. Then the album dropped and people were horrified to hear self-referential, reflective tracks such as ‘Walk with Me’; a masterfully executed meditation on how fame and fortune can change you and/or everyone around you. They didn’t want that, and so Joe was eventually forced off Def Jam and retreated into the underground. The money wasn’t as good, the exposure was non-existent, but he had 100% control over EVERYTHING he did. The result? Go listen to any of his four Mood Muzik mixtapes. The third installment, specifically, is absolute brilliance. He has lamented his time in the mainstream, even going so far as to say, “I pick anonymity over being famous.” “I’m not worried ‘bout the limelight, ‘cause that’ll manifest when the time’s right.”

Now, we see Joe and his four-headed monster group, Slaughterhouse, signed to Shady Records. When I heard ‘Loud Noises’, I internally screamed like Homer Simpson in Candyland at the prospect of no-chorus barfests coming back into the mainstream. Then I heard ‘My Life’ most recently and began to fear for the group that I truly believed would be saviours. That’s what happens, though. When sales security isn’t a guaranteed shout, do you push on or take the easy way out? Many mainstream MCs have done this, and it’s a regular pitfall. If you listen to Ludacris (yes, the guy who did ‘Baby’ with Justin Bieber) on ‘Incognegro’ or ‘Back for the First Time’, you will be blown away. He was the Southern Redman, at one point. His second album, ‘Word of Mouf’, showed some mainstream sensibilities (who DOESN’T love ‘Area Codes’ and ‘Rollout’?), but it had that Luda-essence. Then, things went wrong.

Most famously, though most often disagreed with, I have to shine the light on Eminem. ‘The Slim Shady L.P.’, to me, is arguably the greatest complete work in hip-hop history. It has great music, side-splitting comedic lyricism/ad-libs and some genuine, thought-provoking material. Lyrically, he not only smashed the ball out of the park on a technical level (‘I Still Don’t’, ‘Just Don’t Give a Fuck’ and ‘Brain Damage’), but he told amazing stories with his words (‘Rock Bottom’ and ‘If I Had’. Fast forward to the time when he realised he could get a lot more money and fame if he did give a fuck, and he’s doing Stan (one of the most overrated “deep” tracks ever. Do not EVER call that song deep, to me, ‘Without Me’, ‘Ass like That’ and the deplorable bandwagonry of ‘Mosh. People call it stylistic evolution, I call it selling the fuck out, to be marginally less eloquent.

There just seems to be a great amount of rappers, but no hip-hop. That is the issue, nowadays. I refuse to believe it’s nostalgia, because it isn’t. I have an analytical, justifiable beef with the way things have gone, and I refuse to support or affiliate myself with the hip-hop mainstream until it sorts itself out. MCs aren’t willing to grind hard in favour of owning everything they do, and doing everything they want. Granted, Drake may want to do what he’s doing now, but I have such unwavering suspicion when I see such a massive stylistic leap in someone’s back catalogue. How can ANYONE see Snoop Dogg doing tracks with Katy Perry and not give a big, loud, Nate Dogg-style “HOLD UP”? There was a time when Triumph by Wu-Tang Clan was a worthy, chartable single. Now, the closest thing we have to a posse cut is ‘Forever’ or ‘Bed Rock’. That’s not ok, and I’m not ok with it.

Make NO mistake, for I am not anti-mainstream. I am anti-what’s mainstream now, and I think that’s perfectly understandable. In 2012, where record labels, though powerful, are becoming less and less relevant, I believe artists should start taking back demand. Artists seem to be in a rush to give something to the labels that can be sold, or remixed. Instead, make the labels want YOU and you will retain the power. Labels need artists. Artists do not need labels. Record labels exist because of musicians, and it will NEVER be the other way around. Demand more, push for more, and make THEM change. There’s room for Young Money, J. Cole and all these mainstream guys, but they are out there, like it or not, representing hip-hop because they rap. All while Elzhi is probably never going to see the exposure they have.

I know we’re in a recession, and I know we’re in a steal-before-you-buy (if you even buy) culture, but please…if you claim to be a fan of hip hop…BUY something independent. Go support Flight Distance or 24/7. Rhyme Asylum or Jehst. Iron Solomon or Illmaculate. Soul Khan or Atmosphere. Just take a gamble on something less than famed and you more than likely will wish you’d done it sooner. I don’t wish to use this phrase, but the true essence of hip-hop (yes, such a thing exists) IS dying and it will continue dying until all that’s left is rapping over an R&B instrumental. That is, unless, people start pushing.

Chuck D. held what he loved with vice, and gave it away to these newer generations with force. I feel like he is being let down. Let’s change that, as fans.

@TheMastTweets

By Rob Boffard

OK, new rule. If you have a show that lasts an hour and a half, and the venue turns the house lights back on at 11pm, you are not allowed to start your set at 10. That’s just stupid. And if you’re Slaughterhouse, that means you have to close your set with the big pile of meh that is My Life as opposed to, say, the rollicking monster of a tune that is The One.

But this rant isn’t about Slaughterhouse. They played the Forum in Kentish Town last night, and were actually pretty damn good. Sure, Royce and Joell might have had to deal with a bored Crooked and a cosmically high Joe Budden, but when it all came together, it was magic. Seeing them open up with Sound Off must rank as one of the must-see live moments in rap.

Before Slaughterhouse came on, the capacity crowd got a set by Smiler. And this is the real point. Smiler isn’t a bad rapper, as his recent mixtape proved. But oh my stars and garters is his live show bad. He came out rapping along to Jump Around (Really?) and then filled twenty-five minutes with sketchy, half-formed tracks and dull a capellas. There was no effort, no energy, nothing to even vaguely suggest that Smiler was opening up for one of the most exciting rap crews around. It was just…ass. Pure ass.

And so here’s my second new rule, and my point. UK rappers are not allowed to moan about not being recognised or given props by their US counterparts.

Do you know why this happens? It’s because your live shows suck.

I’m not just talking about Smiler. I’m talking about UK rappers as a whole. Maybe I’m being harsh. I’ve lived in the UK for five years now, and I’ve only seen three or four thousand performances from UK rappers, so maybe a few passed me by. I am not exaggerating one bit when I say I can count the number of memorable performances out on three fingers. All the rest have been at best unremarkable, and at worst, boring and exasperating. I don’t get it: it’s not as if the UK doesn’t have good music – some of the finest tracks I’ve ever heard are from UK rappers.

Now take this, and hold it up against all the foreign rappers who come here each year. Think of all the amazing live shows you’ve seen: shows that have been put together carefully, that have been practiced, with full cognisance of the fact that people have paid quite a lot of money to see them.

And this is what is so infuriating about UK rappers. How much effort does it take to put a little professional spin on your show, really? A few hours of rehearsal? A coherent set-list? A DJ who knows what he or she is doing? You don’t have to be world-class on your first time out, but if you aren’t putting effort into your shows, then you’re a disgrace and you’re wasting the money of anybody who comes to see you. Well, not my money, because I’ve probably traded sexual favours for the guest list, but you get my point.

There really is zero excuse for this. For me, the standard was set by a three-man crew from Nowhere, Idaho or some such, called The Bodega Brovas. They came to London on tour with Tanya Morgan, and were slated to perform an in-store event at Wyld Pytch. There couldn’t have been more than seven people watching them in this tiny-ass room, with crackly microphones and shoddy decks, but these guys acted like it was Wembley Stadium, and they were opening up for Pac’s comeback show. It was an act that had clearly been rehearsed and fine-tuned, and it was an absolute joy to watch. Nothing but effort and hard-earned skill. I guarantee you that every one of those people in the store went home and Googled Bodega Brovas. You should too, by the way. They’re great.

Meanwhile, UK hip-hop fans have to put up with endless shit-talking onstage, boring freestyles, random shout-outs, a barrage of rewind-that-backs and tracks that fizzle out of existence after two minutes. When we have huge rosters of live brilliance coming to the UK every year, you expect us to pay to watch your pathetic stage show? Get outta here with that bullshit, man.