Nothing screams "nothing new" quite like a "Battle of the Bands" contest. It's not so much the groups themselves competing for cash or valuable prizes or beer sponsorship that inspire yawns so much as the non-delivery of a real blood-drawing battle. What's so special about bands performing the same sets they always play, now with the added urgency of a reward besides free beer or a piece of ass waiting at the end of it?
Now, imagine if four competing bands had to improvise songs that make fun of the band that just got off the stage. Imagine personal attacks so invasive that Budweiser district managers would have to rush the stage to pull the warring factions apart. I'd be there at 7:30 dressed in a Cops tee shirt with my bullhorn in hand -- and so would you.
That's the appeal of the competitive battle rap scene, which recently garnered worldwide exposure as the backdrop for Eminem's acting debut in 8 Mile but has remained a largely underground phenomenon.
Battle rap's appeal was certainly not lost on director Darren Doane, who has spent the last dozen years directing videos for alternative, punk and emo acts such as Thursday, and the Valley's Jimmy Eat World. Doane has turned his fascination with the battle rap underground into what he hopes will be a series of documentaries on DVD, starting with The Battle for L.A.: Footsoldiers.
"I just grew tired . . . that there was no independent scene anymore. Everybody was hip to how to make a record and get signed," Doane says. "I saw Blink-182 go from a band that was shooting videos at their parents' house to spending a quarter of a million dollars with huge sets and tons of extras. Which was great, but I've always loved artists at that starting point when they're just really hungry and they get some amazing stuff. I was kind of jonesing for something real and right in your face and intense."
True, you have MCs jockeying for record deals like your requisite wanna-be punk-rockers out there. But Doane notes that the added incentives of independence and spontaneity help keep this scene fresh.
"A battle can go down anytime, anyplace," he says. "You don't need a PA. You're not bringing gear or having to find a bass player or a drummer, which -- if you've been around music -- you know those are rotating spots. These guys are continually working on their skills and at any given time can go out and test who they are as an artist. And every battle rapper I've met has a day job that kept them connected to their community and culture, like working at a youth center in Los Angeles. As opposed to when I meet actors or guys in bands and they're either in construction or they're a waiter."
Doane promises the series of DVDs will chronicle a battle rap trek across the U.S.; it will continue with The Battle for New York this spring. The L.A. installment mostly features on-street interviews with battle rap veterans, demonstrations of their abilities to the camera and footage of their live battles.
"Part One was sort of an experiment for me," Doane says. "I wanted to peel back the surface layer of what's going on. The second one, we're spending 20 days making it. Battle for New York will show the individual rappers' abilities, but you'll see the different styles pitted against each other. People are used to battling people in their own region. But mixing it up pushes everyone to be better."
One of the L.A. rappers who'll be trying to take a bite out of those Big Apple rappers is Santa Monica's In-Q, who gives a particularly nasty in-your-face rap to the camera in The Battle for L.A. , in which he promises to grind his unseen opponent like a latte, beat his face 'til it's purple like Barney's and make his open mouth into In-Q's outhouse. More than some of his peers, In-Q favors a more rhythmic approach; in his dizzying delivery, "You're a centimeter away from being a memory" and "a faggot who's seen more seamen than the Navy."
While watching battle rap, one wonders how one trains for it, particularly in the restraint department, when you have to stand there and rope a dope while another MC tries to cut you down to size.
"There's different philosophies," says In-Q. "Some people think you should listen to everything a person says so you can come back point for point. Personally, I blank the person out. I look at the person and style, but I blank out what they're saying. It's unimportant to me. You can't tell me shit when I'm battling with you. It can be difficult and people can pull you out of your zone really easily, but you just have to remain true to yourself. Know what you're doing and why you're doing it and remain calm. The best battle rappers I've seen are the dudes that remain calm. When the other guy is jumping around like an orangutan, they just stay centered, foundational, and when the time is right they eat the person up."
Being "in the zone" is a big thing among battle rappers, although Britney Spears has probably ruined that phrase for all of us in six short weeks. In-Q calls it "the most freeing feeling in the world. At that point, nothing is scripted and you couldn't even stop it if you wanted to. There'll be a lot of times if I say individual,' I automatically know that rhymes with indivisible, visible, invisible, intellectual, habitual, whatever. There are certain punch lines I have that come off, like, I'm invincible, you're invisible.' But if you really get into a zone, you let yourself go completely."
Says Doane, "Most battle rappers have stuff in their head they can fall back on, but they all talk about this zone they can just float into and all this new stuff just starts coming out."
He cites one Hispanic rapper named Raffi as being "the jazz version of battling because he's so intellectual. Sometimes he can go over some people's head because there are some battlers that can be like, You breath smells like doo-doo,' and then you got someone like Raffi putting in amazing pop culture references and becoming like a human thesaurus. Sometimes that can get lost."
Occasionally, rappers try to stack the deck and bring their friends to cheer even their dumbest couplets.
"It's essentially cheating," says In-Q. "When you bring a bunch of your boys to the battle and they're cheering you when you say something like, Your rap is wack,' that's not a punch line. That's part of the game. If I'm in a battle and the dude brought a bunch of his friends, I'll push even farther to turn his friends to my team. The best thing in the world is to be in a battle and say something so ill that boys of the boy you're battling start to smirk. You see the twinkle in their eye and they start to cover their mouths. You said something so sweet but they can't really show it, but you can tell."
Unlike competitive sports, there are no real rules in battle rapping. A certain amount of self-policing is involved, however.
"I'm more of a reactor-y person," admits In-Q. "I take it as it comes. If someone disrespects me, I'll get right back in his face. I tend not to touch the person first. I give them a certain amount of space. What I do is try to pull them out of their zone. If they say something, I'll talk over them to see how focused they are. If they say they're gonna fuck me, I'll be like, Go ahead and do it,' just to see if they can stay in their zone. I don't really have a code of conduct. I'll talk about people's mother, brothers. I don't give a shit."
"I think everyone polices themselves only based on how the crowd's going to react," admits Doane. "If you're going up against a girl and all you're talking about is gender, people are expecting that. Or if you're going up against someone who's got dreadlocks, you should be careful not to have a thing about dreadlocks because everyone knows it's coming. If everything is going good and you got the crowd on your side, then you bring some of the obvious stuff in."
"Generally, the more jokes you have, the more you win," adds In-Q. "My style tends to be more lyrical. I'll throw in some jokes, but I like to fuck with the rhythm. A lot of people think it's just a comedy session that rhymes. And people who are able to stick on the subject of clowning their opponents tend to win the battles."
While In-Q has seen his share of battles break out into fisticuffs, the only time things have gone beyond the usual battling tension happened, ironically enough, right here in temper-filled Tempe.
"What's the strip with all the college places?" he asks. "Mill Avenue, right. I was there with a buddy, [local rapper] Mia Mind, going cross-country three years ago. We were chilling and ended up getting into a battle with some dudes very randomly at a coffee shop.
"When [hip-hop's founders] started this thing in the Bronx, did they ever imagine that two cats would battle outside a coffee shop in Arizona? There's no way they'd imagine that! Before I knew it, we were talking about moms, neighborhoods, and before I knew it he pushed me. So I fuckin' hit him over the head with a metal chair. We got into a fight with six guys. When people lose a verbal argument, they want to take it to a physical level. Damn, my ego's been bruised, at least I can kick this dude's ass.'
"When I battle people who aren't good, I battle just good enough to beat them, but I don't rap great," he continues. "But when I battle rap someone who's amazing? Man, I kick up my level."
In-Q has only recently come back to battling, having spent the last couple of years recording his own hip-hop albums and helping to spearhead the Poetry Lounge, the largest poetry lounge in the nation.
"My poetry is my rapping. I take my rapping, which I put on beats, and do it a cappella for the crowd," he says. "I've been in the national championships for poetry for the last three years. I was on HBO's Def Poetry Jam. You get to a point when you've battled enough and then you only battle to protect your reputation."
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For many rappers who've grown up battling opponents, taking it to the next level entails putting their attacks on platinum records and in the press -- and, every now and then, punctuating them with bullets. It's kind of hard to keep your cool when some guy with gold teeth just dissed you in front of millions.
"In the end, you're not looking for a great battler; you're looking for a great rap artist," says Doane. "Eminem showed you can be an amazing battler and one of the greatest selling rap artists today. I don't think everyone's like that. These guys are great battlers. They're all making underground records. It'll be interesting to see what happens."
Already there is a reality show on Showtime called The Next Episode, which spends some quality time with rappers before they battle. Its debut followed the Battle for L.A. 's release by less than a week late in 2003. Still, Doane believes that the scene will stay underground a lot longer than punk did.
Note to the director: It already has. Battle Act