Music News

Battle Act

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."

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Serene Dominic
Contact: Serene Dominic