By: Lauren Royer
Photos by: Newspin Photo and Joey Stern
What is the first thing you picture when you think “Battle Rap”? I imagined some posers throwin’ light heat. When I went to my first battle rap event a few years ago, I discovered that while it sometimes goes down like that, there is actually a lot more happening and respect is due to this type of style. I got a couple reasons for saying that. Beyond the stylistic pressures these performers are under, they require unique skills and a few extra layers of skin to be successful.
In battle rap, you’ll typically have an opponent assigned to you ahead of time. You’re given 3 rounds to pin em down with your words alternating between you and them. These rappers not only have to create bars, but they have to spit them without an actual beat- meaning they rely on themselves to keep their flow on point without choking up. Choking up is real though because everything is happening live. I’ve seen dudes straight freeze on stage unable to speak. You breathe in at the wrong spot and you’ve lost valuable time and could find yourself knocked out. Your heat also has got to be backed up by hand gestures and timely inflections. Beyond all that, often you have to throw in some real time rhymes that you didn’t plan for in response to some shit your opponent may have said. Did I mention there’s also an audience listening to every word and responding to you in ways a typical concert audience wouldn’t? These people are friends, your opponent’s crew, rap and poetry enthusiasts, and uh, just people who like to see the carnage.
The thing I appreciate the most about battle rap is how theatrical, raw, and vulnerable it can be. These folks are putting themselves out there in every sense of it. There are so many emerging rappers but live sets are truly hit or miss. Sometimes their work is a type of freestyle. Traditional freestyle rap is occurring less and less. This is a bummer because one of the things I love about rap is the poetic intelligence that comes from freestyle. Rappers that can create personalized, in the moment bars are a credit to the craft. The whole thing is hella intense and Colin McGee has been putting on battle rap events under the name: ‘For MCs By MCs’ in Olympia, WA for about 5 years now. In chopping it up with Colin, I learned more about the state of battle rap in the Hip Hop world, plus the benefits of the community for the performers fighting in it, for it.
How did you first get put on to hip-hop Music?
My older sister back in the early 90’s she was bumpin’ Salt-N-Pepa, Tupac, the usual routes. I’m from Olympia so it’s not like it was happening right in front of me at that time you know. Of course the music on radio influenced me at the time as well.
L: Do you do rap yourself?
C: I did, but I no longer do because I’ve been so focused in on the rap battles and managing the league. I’ve also been really focused on doing the video work for a couple of leagues, and a lot of time goes into the organizational role of battle rap.
How many events have you put on?
Consistently, at least 20. I think there would be more if I really went back and searched some of the earlier days. Been doing it for almost 5 years now.
L: I remember being put onto you guys a couple years ago and it was just this little event out of a small art gallery in Oly (The Northern) and now being here tonight it’s so crazy to see the turn up!
C: It’s definitely been a slow build but it’s continuing to grow for sure. I try to always just think back to when I was a fan and then come up with an event that I personally would want to go to, something that is fun. That’s why we do the set performances in between too. It seems to be working well.
When did you first start seeing a need for rap battles and artist showcases in Oly?
I came up with people before me who provided those platforms. Shout-out to SP, he ran battles under the name “We Out Here” for a long time and he moved to Arizona to 2013. Before he left I was like “I’m not going to let battle rap just disappear from Olympia”, so I took over around that time and worked with him to transition it before he left. Someone had to step up! Once you get a little older, I believe you should mature with music and change roles really to just help the next generation.
Talk about the importance of what communities like For MCs by MCs has for new artists just starting out.
It’s been pretty amazing because out of all the scene’s I’ve been a part of outside of battle rap, we have a really big network. We have battlers here tonight from Bellingham, some from Portland, Seattle, Tacoma, even Las Vegas. We all go out and get to meet with each other, support each other. We’ve even been connecting heavy with Vancouver, BC- they definitely know what’s up. Beyond that network, battle rap is kind of funny because on the outside it looks like people are really going at each other’s necks and disrespecting but there is actually a lot of camaraderie and wisdom and relationships that go on outside of that. You’ve got young people battling, old people battling, they’re networking and helping each other even outside of battle rap so they’re an important system for each other. In Tacoma, they have battle rap events where people from different neighborhoods that don’t traditionally get along because of gangs or shit like that, they do these events and respect the mutual space and get to know each other. On the surface, it appears aggressive and even violent but underneath there is so much unity and respect.
L: I recall the first rap battle event I attended I totally thought it was a bunch of dudes just talkin shit to each other but then you can see after they’re shaking hands paying respect. You can tell there is a truly supportive vibe.
C: Oh ya, it’s a lot like MMA. By and large people respect the craft and it’s more about competing with yourself- even though you’re breaking in on the other guy, it’s not about the other person at all.
What elements are battlers judged on?
These days we no longer officially judge most battles with a panel and an official verdict so there is usually no official winner/loser. We just release the footage and let the battle rap community discuss who they thought won and why, typically online. Once in awhile when the MCs involved either put up money to bet or when we have a tournament once a year we have judges and official winners and losers but most of the time it’s just debated after the event and online. But in terms of the criteria of how the community comes to a consensus on who we think won, we’re looking for qualities in two different areas; performance and writing. For performance, were looking for how clearly and well they projected themselves and how smoothly they rapped their bars. Any stuttering, slurring, mispronunciation, or chokes (forgetting your lyrics) will count against you. How well you used the stage space, how aggressive or animated you were, how you handled the crowd and how well you used rhythm and cadence to rap are all taken into account for your performance. The 2nd main and most important thing we’re looking for is your pen game (writing). How clever was your word play, how often you used words with double meanings, use of writing tricks like metaphors, puns, double/triple entendres, alliterations, homonyms, name flips, use of word association (or as we say “schemes”, how complex were the rhyme schemes you used in terms of multi-syllable rhymes and creative use of vocabulary, how you broke down and attacked your opponent (your angles). Was it cliche and based on easy things to go off of like physical appearance- or did you really analyze their style and break down their weaknesses by maybe pointing out some hypocrisy in the content of their style as an MC? Being original in the approach you take to attack your opponent is important to us. Humor is also important, but these days if you’re only funny and not lyrically clever people typically see that as a lack of diversity in your style.
What does the current rap battle scene look like in the PNW?
It’s really growing at a rapid pace! Originally each city had its own scene, but now a lot of the regions are really banding together. The thing about Washington is, we kind of get slept on by the national scene, but we’re kind of a frontier of Hip Hop- battle rap included so we’re really trying to support each other. We use the hashtag #TeamNW and we always put it at the end of everything. Even though we’re competing with each other, we’re also trying to push for our region, for our movement to be part of the national and eventually the global rap scene. We believe in our town and that the Pacific NW has a distinct flavor to offer to Hip Hop and battle rap.
L: And we want our voice to be heard!
C: This is a very intelligent state and we have something new to offer, we have a different style that will bring some diversity to battle rap.
If you’re down to get into the ‘battle cage’ you can hit up Colin McGee at: firstname.lastname@example.org. They host battles with contestants from all over with occasional cash prizes thrown in. It could be a great way to sharpen your skills and link with other mad skilled rappers no doubt!