A local hip-hop critic puts his money where his mouth is
Music critics can’t win. As far as civilians are concerned, if we’re not wanna-be musicians exacting revenge on those who rejected us, then we’re complete failures who lack the sack and the talent to step in the arena. It’s flawed thinking — by that logic, readers should demand that Dan Shaughnessy have a killer crossover — but it’s a prejudice we accept in exchange for promo discs and front-row seats. I always fell into the latter category; despite imagining that a rap career would be sweet, I never wrote rhymes, recorded tracks, or rocked open mics. But that all changed last Friday night at Harpers Ferry, where I entered myself in the Leedz HeadQuarters MC battle (sponsored by the Boston hip-hop production juggernaut), crossing the divide from critic to artist.
"It’s the second time that day someone has used 'worst ever' to describe my rapping."
Before describing the hip-hop boot camp I went through to train for this event, I’ll answer some questions I was asked by the post-collegiate Caucasians I told about it. What exactly is a rap battle, or an MC battle? It’s a traditional rite of passage in which two rappers face off — whether in the street or in a club — with the sole aim of demoralizing each other using improvisational — or freestyle, as the kids say — lyrics. How does one win a battle? Much as in electoral politics, you bury an opponent by exposing him as gay, weak, fraudulent, or, preferably, all three. And finally: By “battle,” do you mean like that scene in 8 Mile? Sort of, but Eminem’s rhymes in 8 Mile were scripted and therefore not freestyle. The Harpers event would be judged by a knowledgeable crew: former star battle rapper Jake the Snake, producers J-Hunt, Stu Bangas, and Matty Trump, and Leedz Edutainment in-house photographer Sam “Sly” Young.
Before this endeavor, my own freestyle experience was limited to rhyming among friends during late-night blunt sessions. In high school and college, I was always the kid who could rap, but only in the way that a kid at Newton North whose parents net an annual $1.2 million is the poor kid. Lately, my freestyling has been limited to occasional Friday-night blackouts. I had some serious practicing to do, so one week before the big dance I ripped my favorite instrumentals — from “Still D.R.E.” to “Nas Is Like” — to my iPod for the gym, car, and crib. I rapped in traffic, in the shower, at my desk, and, to the amusement of many at my health club, on the Stairmaster. I ordered Burger King drive-through in near-Shakespearean end-rhyme couplets. After two days, I was able to recap my day’s activities and communicate Law & Order story lines in raps.
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