Art or War?

Seattle MCs are split over the merits of battle-rapping.

"If an MC can freestyle and write good songs, they're the complete package," says the self-proclaimed (and well-warranted) best battle-rapper in Seattle, Mic Phenom. "That's my ideal MC—if you can freestyle and you're able to write. I look at myself as a rapper that can defend himself. Freestyling is a lost art these days. A lot of people don't really pay attention to it." Without a doubt, the battle-rap scene in Seattle has died down substantially since events like the infamous Brainstorm battles were discontinued nearly a decade ago. Nationally, however, the craft is more visible now than ever thanks to successful battle circuits like the Grind Time Now battle league, a national organization that hosts popular events throughout the year and posts video of them free on the Internet, where they are rabidly digested by battle fans across the globe. And local freestyles are set to compete in the touring Red Bull Emsee contest, which comes to the Crocodile on Thursday. The traveling Emsee freestyle tournament is by far the biggest battle event to go down in Seattle this year. And while it's in only its second year, the contest has won praise throughout the battle community for its unique, well-rounded format, which forces MCs to rap to word and picture cues during the initial rounds, then clash head- to-head for the finale. The winner from each of the eight cities on the tour will be sent to the finals in Atlanta, where they will compete for a trip to the Red Bull studios in Santa Monica, Calif., to record with an unnamed high-profile producer. Locally, however, there is still a scene-cramping reluctance by many capable MCs to take part in these events, which, according to Tacoma's Justice—who is competing—is due mainly to the fear of being pigeonholed as a battle-rapper. "That label kind of makes people think they can't write songs, or there's something that they're lacking," he says. "That's not the case for everybody, but there are some rappers that can only battle." The sentiment rings true with La (formerly Language Arts), a top-shelf local freestyler who was asked to compete by both the event organizers and many of his peers, but chose not to participate in the Red Bull battle. "Probably one of the reasons I declined was just that I do have albums coming out really soon, and I just didn't want battling to be my first major look." He adds, "It's definitely an honor, and I'm glad people appreciate the talent of freestyling, but a lot of times I feel like I end up kind of shooting myself in the foot when I get pigeonholed as someone who's just a freestyle battler, and people didn't even know that I really made songs." Even someone like Phenom, with perhaps the most prolific battle resume in town, has made it clear that Thursday's Red Bull event at the Crocodile is his last hurrah. The time is finally right, he says, to focus on making a name for himself through recorded music. "I was always worried about how people would accept my music," he says. "If I put together a song that didn't add up to what my battles were like, or how my freestyles are, I know people [would say] 'Oh, I heard this song, it wasn't as good as how he freestyles.' " Justice, who at 21 is a full decade younger than Phenom, retains a youthful enthusiasm that's evident when discussing the battle scene. "I think they don't take battles as serious as I do," he says of the other competitors. "I still see it as an avenue for me to make a name for myself, and a lot of the older cats are like, 'Man, I'm tryin' to get out of the battle scene, I'm tryin' to go on with my career, and start making more music instead of having to battle.' I know the older rappers get tired of having to battle 'cause it makes them feel like they're not going anywhere with their career." Another factor that could drive many MCs away from the battle scene after experiencing—or in the hopes of experiencing—a moderate level of success on record is the risk of embarrassment that comes with a brutal onstage loss. After a time, the potential cost simply outweighs the benefit. "It could be a game-changer for somebody: It could expose them," says Seattle battler Billy the Fridge. "It could just be a challenge that's really not worth the reward." The most barbarous arm of a genre already laden with harsh rhetoric, battle-rapping is as much a test of an MC's on-the-spot wits as of one's ability to take mammoth helpings of verbal punishment without losing one's cool. Phenom remembers a feeling of true anguish after his first battle: "I literally wanted to cry," he says. Living in Hawaii at the time, the then-17-year-old had unknowingly challenged a vicious, battle-tested veteran named Omega Cix when he grabbed what he thought was an open mike at a community-college hip-hop showcase. The result was a brutal defeat that still sticks with him today. "I was like 'Man, I want to go home, let's go. I wanna leave right now.' After that, I just started practicing freestyling . . . so that next time I saw him, I was gonna try to battle him." It's difficult to imagine that someone like Phenom—who has racked up dozens of battle victories in the 14 years since that fateful first showdown, and cracked more Your Momma jokes and made more casual references to outlandish violence at the expense of other human beings than probably anyone else in the city—was once so demoralized onstage that he was nearly brought to tears. Any successful battler requires an ice-cold stage demeanor, because if the audience—often the default judge and jury during the proceedings—senses that one competitor is taking another's attacks too personally, he could easily be laughed offstage—a practical TKO in the world of the rap battle. "I would compare it to a UFC fight," says Phenom. One of the event's organizers, Karim Panni (also known as Nightclubber Lang from Seattle's Boom Bap Project), acknowledges that the Seattle scene has fallen off in recent years, but that the success of freestyling and battling throughout the rest of the U.S. has the potential to bring the art form back to local favor: "I think the art of freestyling is stronger now than it has been for years, simply because the battle circuit has become so big globally," Panni says. Though the contest contains a certain amount of frill, Panni promises there will still be figurative bloodshed: "They still have to try to put the [other] dude down, 'cause that's what battling is ultimately about." "At the end of the day, you might see someone get punched in the face," says Fridge, before conceding that "chances are it's just for fun."

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