These days I enjoy making a living writing and teaching music, but at one point not too long ago my primary source of income was battle rapping. Yes, entering tournaments and spontaneously rhyming insulting someone over a beat was how I earned a living for a number of years. Tonight, September 16th, I’m competing in the Freestyle Mondays Off-The-Head Gameshow Battle at Congregation Beth Elohim. It’s a 16 MC tournament where the topic of each round is determined by a giant spinning wheel or a Plinko board. The set-up is incredibly challenging and a bit peculiar as far as rap battles go, but it’s not the only unique freestyle competition I’ve participated in. I once entered a rap battle at a Gospel Hip-Hop Festival.
I moved to New York in autumn 2004 to attend NYU and immediately tried to make a name for myself in the underground hip-hop scene. I’d been rapping for a few years in my hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota, and tried to follow my hometown heroes’ blueprint of attending every show, rocking every open mic and entering every battle I could. The latter proved to be my greatest asset as I found I had a gift for freestyling. I know I don’t look like prototypical battle rapper, even amongst battle rap weirdos, but trust: I looked even less like it then. Here’s me battling at First Avenue in 2007, several haircuts ago:
Battling wound up working for me, so much so that it would end up essentially being my “job” through college. I’d book all of my classes for three days a week, and use the remainder to seek out battles in the city or, if the prize money covered the travel, along the east coast. Between 8 Mile sparking a new-found interest in battling and the modern hyper-organized and ubiquitous era where a new rap battle can be found online everyday, there were plenty of isolated scenes who would post somewhere online about a battle. As a result, I was getting onstage to rhyme insults quite often.
I’ve always personally enjoyed both performing and money, so the battles I wouldn’t enter were few and far between. The summer of 2008 was also a time when I was working at an avant garde film co-op and dating a female professional wrestler, so when I saw the post online with the title “Emcee Battle with a Twist $300 Rochester NY” it didn’t strike me as that strange. The flyer posted read (all sic everything):
Emcee Freestyle Contest (Battle of the Compliments) NOW $300 CASH PRIZE
First annual Gospel HipHop Fest SEPT 6TH ROCHESTER NY 890 N. Goodman Street 14609 SEARCH BY MAP QUEST agenda : DJ Trix battle , B-Boy 1 ON 1 contest , Graffiti Show case (we supply your cans),Iron sharpons Iron FREESTYLE CONTEST COMPLIMENT YOUR APONENT, Food, Games live Performances (also call if you want to perform or get in ANY OF THE contestS) Call [redacted] or email [redacted] send me a friend request for more event updates.
When I saw some of the top freestyle MCs in the country on a few message boards knocking the idea of an “iron sharpens iron” battle where you had to out-compliment your opponent, it kind of baffled me. It would be a substantial payday for doing what you do best, only using the other part of the brain. Rising to the challenge, I called the promoter the next day to verify the event was legit and find out the best way to get to Rochester. After he offered to cover the cost of transportation, I was down.
Full disclosure, I am a practicing Catholic, but while Christian themes pop up in my music from time to time, I wouldn’t by any stretch say what I do falls under the banner of “Christian hip-hop.” It’s interesting to consider how some of the universally considered all-time classic hip-hop records are fundamentally about kicking militant five percent doctrine, but outside the once-a-decade exception of MC Hammer’s “Pray” or Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks,” even some of the most diehard hip-hop heads have an immediate adverse reaction to the mere mention of Christian hip-hop. That’s probably because the words “Christian hip-hop” conjure memories of this, or even this. For me, some of my favorite rap releases of all time like Goodie Mob’s Soul Food or David Banner’s stronger works have dealt with the compelling struggle of the artist’s own Christian spirituality in their narratives.
I made the eight hour voyage knowing next to nothing. Of course I had my presumptions, as this was a time when the documentary Jesus Camp was still really popular and Sarah Palin had just received the Republican nomination for Vice President with her faith being a central focus of the media. The Republican National Convention had just ended two days prior, so I guess I was anticipating the hip-hop equivalent.
As the bus pulled into Rochester I began to get the feel for how different the overall vibe was. Outside of the moderately crowded bus stop, the downtown area had surprisingly few people and activity for a holiday weekend. I called the promoter and, sure enough, a van pulled up with two friendly faces from the festival to give me a ride. We soon arrived at Joy Community Church with the gray overcast sky making for quite the contrast to the colorful event below.
I was immediately struck by how many people were there having a wonderful time. There was a wide range of ages, some folks there with their entire families. I then noticed how inaccurate my premonitions were right off the bat as Obama shirts seemed to be the most popular item of clothing, John Cena shirts a close second. After meeting with the promoter, ImageOne, and his wife, I found a good view of the stage just in time to hear an Atlanta Christian hip-hop artist perform a crunk song about abstinence called “Get Up Off That Girl.” He tore the stage up, hundreds of people in the crowd going wild. The song absolutely knocked.
ImageOne was also hosting the show, and hearing him name-check all the artists performing and where they were from made me realize what a worldwide event this was. The Christian break dance battle that followed had participants from around the country, as well as Thailand and Japan to compete. It honestly looked very much like any other hip-hop festival I’ve ever been to. There wasn’t anything overtly Christian about their moves, but the highly competitive last two teams wound up going into triple overtime until the judges just decided to call it a draw and they split the money. It was outstanding.
Finally it was time for the battle.There were 16 entrants, many were artists who had performed that day, one or two were people who hadn’t rapped before in their lives, but were in the spirit to try. ImageOne had mentioned some of the flack the idea of the battle had caught online, and then explained the concept to the crowd about how it was going to be about lifting your opponent up and “iron sharpening iron.” After three or four match-ups, I was called to the stage. I don’t think my first round opponent quite understood the concept as her round consisted of how I was ugly and couldn’t rap. I advanced.
Now, the tenderloin of freestyle battling for me has always been the challenge of flipping your opponents words to dis them right back. Trying to do that with a compliment is infinitely more difficult. My second round opponent said I attacked the mic like a pitbull, so on sheer instinct I said that if I was a pitbull, he was Michael Vick. It got a strong reaction and the comfort of knowing how far I could go with this particular crowd set in.
By the time I reached the finals, my opponent and I had the festival goers bloodthirsty for compliments. I remember two young boys in the front yelling for me to “KILL HIM! KILL HIM!,” which I’m sure they meant “…with kindness.” Truth be told, there were some excellent freestylers in the tournament, and each round saw several lines being flipped back-and-forth multiple times. I can’t remember exactly what prompted it, but saying my opponent “even made Jesus Christ say ‘Oh My Dad!'” was the line that took it home for me.
After the festival, ImageOne took all the competitors out to dinner, something I’ve seldom seen a battle promoter do. Being that so many of these Christian hip-hop artists were from all over the country, I got the chance to really discuss my love of mid-90s Cash Money and late-90s No Limit with people who shared such passions, something I had a hard time finding in the city. Religious discussions came up as well and, for some, I was the first Catholic they had ever met. We answered some questions about some misconceptions we had about each others’ beliefs, namely no, Catholics don’t worship the Virgin Mary or have horns. It was a fun discussion, and the type of interaction I never thought battle rapping would lead me to.
Overall, it was a great experience. On the bus ride back, something someone said to me after the battle stayed with me. In short, this girl told me my battle rap talents could potentially do a lot of good for this world. It kind of caught me off-guard as I wasn’t sure how insulting someone over a beat could benefit people in ways other than laughter. I took a hiatus from battling about a year later as, after four very active years, I was burned out and didn’t want to be the guy who kept battling when it wasn’t still as fun. When I stepped back into the ring in 2012, her words gave me an epiphany. I’ve since donated 50% of all my prize money from rap battles to Wigs For Kids (who also received my hair) and the other 50% goes to RAINN. I’m trying to do good, one unflattering celebrity comparison at a time.