Freestyle battles are not just forums for rappers to hop onstage and lyrically humiliate one another, although that is certainly part of the fun. They're also, perhaps, the truest test of an MC's abilities. The battle forces its participants to rely on their naked skills. Can you shape a hot diss on the spot? Can you spit that diss inside a quick, creative meter? Can you avoid the flow of the old battle standard, "Rapper's Delight"? And can you win over the crowd?
Take a favorite diss from last year's local freestyle and DJ battle, Versus, courtesy of Abnorm in his battle with Dutch Newman: I don't even give a fuck, you know the way I'm spittin/He lookin' like the real life version of Homer Simpson/You mad as fuck, cause you a ho/Got you Homer Simpson, and I'm leaving with the dough. Game, set, match.
Versus celebrates its fifth anniversary this year. Aiming to avoid fading into memory like the ill-fated Scribble Jam, organizers Stacy "Reach" Smith, Clarence "Vertigone" Draper, Raymond "Sephiroth" Hardy and Dylan "Trystyl" Day see 2012 as the KC battle's biggest year yet. As such, they're raising the stakes and hosting two events. The first, VS-Mini, goes down this weekend at the Riot Room.
"We have our eyes set on establishing Versus as the premier battle platform in the Midwest region," Reach explains. "We didn't want to leave fans of the franchise high and dry, though, so we kept our January date and opted to make it an appetizer for Versus 5."
This VS-Mini hors d'oeuvre, hosted by Reach and Sephiroth, boasts an eight-man invitation-only MC battle, as well as a four-man "ButtonPush Beat Battle." The ButtonPush battle is a five-round, six-minutes-apiece effort. The first three rounds are "free" — a producer can play whatever he or she wants. The fourth round is a remix challenge, in which the producer uses a popular a cappella verse provided by Versus organizers two weeks prior to the competition. The last round is like the fourth, except that the producer must use a sample instead of an a cappella verse. (Reach calls a 2010 performance by dubstep DJ Barbaric Merits as "maybe the most dominant performance in ButtonPush history.")
The MC battle pits the eight contestants against one another, one on one, until one person remains. In evaluating MCs, Reach explains that judges look at "the value of an MC's verse, how the audience reacts to the MC, linguistic creativity, and smoothness. Success at Versus requires improvisation, adaptation and calculation." For some MCs, Versus has become a means to make a name for themselves. For others, it's an opportunity to see what's happening in the scene. It's a little bit of both for veteran Sean "Approach" Hunt, whose 2010 Versus appearance was so hotly contested, it's considered one of the event's most memorable. "I came up in the battle scene in the late '90s, early '00s, and there was a lot more danger involved in those days," he explains. "You had to be wise; if you said the wrong thing to the wrong person, you might get your tail whupped."
What makes Versus (planned for summer) and VS-Mini different, compared with other battles, is both its size and its steadfastness in keeping the MC battle truly freestyle. The MCs for this year's battle are to be kept secret until the battle itself. If MCs know their potential competitors, they're able to prepare. This mystery lends an air of excitement for the audience.
Trystyl clarifies the distinction. "There are MC battles happening everywhere. There are whole leagues dedicated to it, but most of those battles are written, memorized, and you already know who your opponent will be. Versus makes it more difficult."