By: Justin Cook
Last Friday, I had the privilege to attend my first “beat battle.” The event was put on by our friends at Back Beat Magazine and All of the Above, a hip-hop academy based out of Lansing, Michigan. The event was a fundraiser for Michigan State graduate Stacy Blakeslee, who was recently diagnosed with a severe staph infection that has spread to her brain. Because of gaps in insurance coverage, and America’s faulty healthcare system, Stacy’s family has been burdened with hospital bills and other medical/emotional expenses. Considering the situation, it only makes sense that the hip-hop community would reach out and help a local family in need; and I must say, this event was all about the love and support for Stacy and her family.
The night began as I danced over to the RCAH Theatre, bumping ScHoolboy Q’s new album Oxymoron. I had the track “Blind Threats” on loop, getting into what seemed like the necessary vibe—I really had no idea what to expect. As I entered the basement where the theatre was located, the walls shook with bass and echoed across the tile floor. I couldn’t help but smile. I stood in line, waiting to purchase a ticket, and Rafael De La Ghetto (of All of the Above) walked up, shook my hand and introduced himself. I instantly felt welcomed, which is sadly in today’s society, rare. Then, I looked around and noticed Rafael was doing this to everyone who entered. Respect. We all appreciated the love.
After I bought my ticket, donated a little extra, and got the smiley face stamped on my hand, I was ready to enter the beat battle. I got there early in the night, and the auditorium was almost empty—only a few people scattered about. I sat myself in the middle-front: the best vantage point. At this time, Mr. Rodney Lamar Page aka DJ Rod P., was laying it the FUCK down. Like seriously, this guy was amazing. I could have watched him all night. He was having a blast spinning, dancing, singing, beatboxing, beatboxing while singing, and yes, tearing up the electric violin. He set the tone. I could hear people start to cipher around me, while others quietly entered the room and sat in awe; it was a slow build that would culminate in the main event. The most interesting thing about DJ Rod P.’s was his turntable setup—he had electronic turntables made for the CD. I’ve never seen that before, and it blew my mind. That, and the fact it was juxtaposed to a man who could replicate the same sounds with his body.
People continued to fill in, and soon the theatre was buzzing with excitement. My man Rod P. just kept it going—he was the one-man party sensation. After about an hour of waiting, the MC Ozay Moore was dedicated to drop some info on us folks: one, some of the participants in the battle were running late, due to traveling across Michigan; two, that in a few moments, Mr. Rafael De La Ghetto would be spitting some wisdom; and three, that we must remember why we are gathered, for Stacy, for her family, for love. He continued on to say that hip-hop is about unity—it’s not a black thing, or a white thing, or a brown thing, it is a human phenomena. It’s not about you or me, it’s bigger than us, bigger than hip-hop. It’s about coming together, all walks of life, and helping out those in need. Snaps.
Before things got started, I ran to the bathroom where I encountered an elderly gentlemen, with his face lit up in a smile. He looked to me, “How you doing?!” I replied, “Pretty well my man, excited for it all to go down.” He laughed, “Well alright! Amen my brother.” “Amen!” It seemed like no matter where I went I would be greeted as a friend, a human being, another life worthy of recognition. It was a transcendent feeling. As I walked back into the theatre, I could see Rafael running around the audience, still introducing himself to everyone. He was getting ready to throw down a few rhymes for the people, and I was excited to see the man perform. The room was electric, humming with laughter.
Then, Ozay Moore stepped back on the mic to give us a lesson in hip-hop history. He told us of the conception story of hip-hop: the black and Latino youth of the south Bronx, the Ghetto Brothers block parties, DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa & The Zulu Nation, and of course, the four pillars of hip-hop, which are MCing, DJing, B-boying, and graffiti writing. Ozay highlighted the aspect of hip-hop culture that was about the liberation of youth from institutionalized oppression and that it was used to focus their energy on positive change within the community; it was about making something out of nothing, about creating & self-expression. It was intended for everyone. Moore claimed that when DJ Kool Herc was blasting his beats into the streets, he was blasting it to the world—everyone, no matter creed or color, was invited to the party. His narrative was particularly fitting; Moore himself was building “something out of nothing,” trying to kill time while the remaining contestants arrived. He passed the mic to Rafael, who, of course, kept it conscious, rapping about truth, love and his daughter.
Finally, as the slow build was about to boil over, the beat battle was ready to begin. Unfortunately, some of the contestants couldn’t make it—but 11 remained and it was go time. The rules were simple: two producers would step up, play two beats in the traditional back & forth style, and the judges would select one to move on. In the event of a tie, the audience would have to make some noise. What happened next is really hard to describe: the beats, the hype, the crowd participation, the love, the laugher and the dancing. Damn, the atmosphere was incredible. My dude from earlier in the bathroom, the elderly gentlemen, was getting down. I seriously think he was having the most fun in the room—besides DJ Rod P. Well, I guess they were at an equal “I’m enjoying the fuck out of this” level. This guy was front and center, rocking to the beat, throwing his hands up, miming drums, miming turntables, throwing up the love sign, snapping, clapping, feeling every little sound every second. He made me realize this world needs a lot more singing and dancing, and a lot less texting and traffic.
After the first round, only five producers remained: DaG, Young Heat, Mozaic, Kuroioto, and JMac. All of these dudes were straight fire. I was actually in awe at some of the beats—like these dudes were better than most well known producers, and all of them were from the great state of Michigan. There was a short intermission, where Grand Rapids MC shamarAlef laid down some bars of straight wisdom; his song “But Beautiful (for Nina)” articulated exactly what everyone was feeling that night:
You’re beautiful. That’s it. What else needs to be said? It’s songs like these, experiences like these, that empower the human spirit. I haven’t been around so many people, in such an open, loving environment in a long time. And I barely knew anyone at the event—but that didn’t matter, because we were coming together for hip-hop, for Stacy, for the greater good of all our sisters & brothers. We got to realize, that maybe, Heaven is here on Earth.
By the final round, only Young Heat and Kuroioto remained. And despite me hoping the finals would be DaG (my favorite, because seriously this dude is smooth) vs. Mozaic, I had to give it to the others—they got the crowd moving like no one else, and in a competition like this, pleasing the audience is a sure way to victory. The final round had people out of their seats, screaming, clapping, laughing, the whole room bursting with life. It was like one giant celebration of beats, and all this love, this life, was being directed right into the hearts of Stacy and her family. Not once did anyone forget that fact. It was a reminder that we, as human beings, can still be serious while having an incredibly fun time. In the end, Young Heat took the crown—with good reason of course: he BURNED the house down. Props. I stood from my seat, gave DJ Rod P. some hugs, love and thanks, and left the building elated.
By the end of the night, the Beat Battle was able to raise $1,000 for the Blakeslee family.