3 a.m. An abandoned warehouse. A sea of shadows sways to a beat that pours out of thumping speakers, filling the cavernous space. Two MCs. One mic. One shot. One opportunity...
At least that’s how freestyle battles work in the movies. But Harvard hip-hop is hardly “8 Mile,” and a battle, organized by campus radio station last week, received mixed reviews from rappers and listeners alike.
For starters, the event, held in the small confines of Harvard Square’s Massive Records, is slated to begin at 5 p.m.—well before dark. Despite the uncharacteristic warmth, blazers are more prevalent than wife-beaters.
Wordy, intellectual rhymes from underground hip-hopper Busdriver pipe through the speakers before the show. A freshman proctor has come to watch the battle. Nonetheless, anticipation is still high. The show was coordinated by The Darker Side (TDS)—WHRB’s hip-hop program.
Before the show, Sam D. G. Jacoby ’08, co-director of TDS, bounces around giddily.
“We started planning it a couple of weeks ago. Originally what we wanted was to let people know what an amazing resource we have in the radio station,” he says in reference to his show.
The competition is open to all comers, and rappers sign up to battle on a legal pad passed around by Jacoby. “We could totally do a round robin,” Jacoby says excitedly as he examines the list.
That plan doesn’t work out. The format for the battle is as improvised as the contestants’ flows. At the beginning of the show, seven rappers stand onstage. Four one-on-one rounds produced four semi-finalists, who then compete for the two final spots. Despite talk of a “losers’ bracket,” one never materializes.
Darius P. Felton ’08, co-director of TDS, is more reserved about the upcoming battle for the radio station. WHRB had planned on airing portions of the show, which means that expletives had to be kept to a minimum. “I don’t want to be editing for hours,” Felton says.
FIRST SHOTS FIRED
At half past five, the battle finally starts. Two MCs trade 30 seconds worth of rhymes, spitting over beats provided by Massive’s in-house scratcher, DJ Rugged One. A panel of three TDS members deem Hang Liu ’09 to be the winner of the first bout.
However, it was a close decision that elicited boos from the audience. Liu calmed the crowd. “Everyone’s entitled to their opinion,” he says over the mic. “No one has to defend me.”
More rappers take the stage, each with a “Yo yo yo!” Verses flow. Profanities abound; Felton’s hopes for a clean show are clearly dashed.
The crowd celebrates disses. One competitor raps: “I’m kinda tired of this Harvard square / Yeah, they’re kinda smart but I’m hardly scared.”
Liu gradually wins the audience over with his quick, aggressive lyrics. In the final round, he ismet by Mikal N. Floyd-Prewitt ‘06, aka MC Mikal.
Floyd-Prewitt is the yin to Liu’s yang. His flow is relaxed, comical, more blatantly offensive. His oversized white sunglasses and white polo shirt—collar popped—provoke some competitors to roast him as middle-class, but he withstands the barbs through opponent after opponent.
After two one-minute rounds between Liu and Floyd-Prewitt, judges still cannot decide between them. One 30-second tie-breaker round later, Liu walks off with the spoils—a $50 gift certificate to Massive.
AT WHAT PRICE VICTORY?
MC Mikal takes his loss in stride. “I’ve been rapping for a long time,” he says. “It’s fun, but I’m pretty serious about it.” Nonetheless, Mikal offers some words in his own defense: “I maintain that I was cleaner than the victor.”
He also downplays the entire event’s importance. “This was just a little fun,” he claims.
“This isn’t the best representation of what these battles are like,” agrees Trevor J. Walsh ’06, another competitor and an avid freestyler since high school.
Kameron A. Collins ’09, an audience member, feels that the battle has limited significance for the Harvard hip-hop scene.
“I hadn’t even heard about it beforehand,” he writes in an e-mail, “and I wouldn’t have known about it if I hadn’t happened to have been walking down Mass. Ave. with someone involved with WHRB.”
“The audience was pretty small, and I know of a few rappers on campus who weren’t there,” Collins adds.
Michael J. Mure ’09 is one of those absentee rappers. He had, however, heard about the battle and says he would have attended were he not preparing for his own CD release party the same night.
“I feel it helps our community,” he later says of the battle. “We as rappers need those kind of venues to support our art form.”
Jacoby also felt the battle was a step forward. After last year’s failed Snoop Dogg concert and this past fall’s cancelled Wyclef Jean appearance, he’s happy that the battle drew any audience at all.
“What it changed, more than anything I think, was the perceptions of the people already involved in the hip-hop scene here at Harvard,” he writes in an e-mail.
Liu has high hopes for the underground at Harvard and TDS. “The scene is very small, but when Harvard kids really like something they go all out,” he says.
Despite the skepticism of spectators like Collins and rappers like MC Mikal, Jacoby feels that the show portended good things for Harvard hip-hop. “I’m totally delighted,” he says after the show. “It was awesome. A lot of people came out of the woodwork.”
Shaking his head, Jacoby grins. “I can’t believe the intensity of the freestyle at Harvard.”