Bear and bull baiting; fighting between dogs or birds; bare-knuckle brawling between men; the British pub over the centuries has been witness to them all. Though while the blood sport between beasts has since ceased, the blood lust continues – now by verse and flow – with rap battling added to the taverns’ repertoire for one-on-one assault
– Elbows, MCs & Foes –
The last thing you need on a nice night out is hostility; normally drummed up by two grown beings bickering at the bar; hurling abuse at one another and spitting threats to reconvene the discussion outside. We’ve all seen it at play and glad to see the situation laid to bed by the landlord, or diffused by a friend of the pent-up duo.
Picking your pub wisely thankfully means you may go a lifetime without ever witnessing a confrontation such as this.
However, a recent visit to a London pub wakens the eyes to a place where people are paying for just that experience: the vocal range of topics, use of language and flailing of hands would normally insight your immediate and lifetime removal from most pubs, but here it is welcomed.
150 or so revellers are proof, gathered here today, paying £5 at the door of The Fiddler’s Elbow – a grade II Camden pub complete with token battle pit; sparking with ruthless rhymes and aggressive articulation.
It’s musical comedy at the end of the day, amped up with a need to involve each opponent’s mother, girlfriend or Nan. Fat, skinny, short or tall: straggly beard or cleanly shaven, a mop of hair or receding – expect it all to be brought to the surface by the next man encircled by the standing crowd, jeering and egging.
Nothing is safe from reach, though the rap contenders – seen clutching pints or water bottles to quench their tongues in between battle verses – find themselves chuckling along to the verbal mud-slinging unravelling a few feet in front of them.
The harder and more harrowing the better, as a panel of judges sitting at the bar mark each round of three one-minute head-to-heads, on delivery, swagger and direction. Content is clearly paramount, as is crowd appreciation. The greater the laughs the greater your chance of sinking your immediate MC and awaiting the arrival of the next.
It’s a January Saturday and we’re talking about the first quarter try-outs for the 2012 Don’t Flop Rap Battle League, here at this Kentish Town corner pub, organised by Rowan Faife, better known for his battling alter ego, Eurgh.
Other than the fill-in beats from the event’s DJ, Mr Cosmo, the only thuds heard are the heartbeats of the fuelled rappers and their support team of hype men and women. Laughter from the crowd sometimes deafens the next line’s delivery, while their silence too loudly buries another MC’s confidence.
It takes balls to sign up for this; nerves to volunteer yourself for what is a contest of deep and damaging insults; to sidle into a ring of nursery rhymes gone bad. Despite the damning of another’s flaws and failings, the atmosphere is an air of amusement – admittedly at the expense of those willing gladiators from up and down the country – with the wittiest wordplay drawing out the cracks; baring not weakness, but the being behind the hard mask of inappropriate references and borderline topics – slipping to reveal a friend fighting to keep the belly laughter in. Later on the two remain head-to-head, enjoying a pint together at the bar, locked in respectful tittle-tattle, giggling at their to-and-fro lines of lowness throughout their dual, sometime earlier.
It’s no new thing, this pat-down poetry… beat-less and mic-less, staged in pubs such as this. Since the Hollywood echo of 8 Mile, many face-offs have happened, all over the world, resulting in such events as: When Animals Attack, King of the Dot, URLtv and Grind Time – all in the US – whilst here in the UK, battling properly began with birth of The Jump Off.
Launched in October 2003 – as a weekly battle – complete with live mics, sometimes looped beats and big blackboards chalked up with their names, slung low around their necks on string, it is the event that gave Professor Green his first exposure. Eight-months later the same event crowned him their first battle champion. His last mic battle, five years later, against an MC called Stig, granted him yet another win; a victory in which he bagged £50,000-worth of MySpace marketing spend.
The contest to come first in, we learn, has since become this Don’t Flop show – trading tonight the big stage of The Jump Off for a petite pub floor; wooden stools and Chesterfield sofas shoved to one side to surface as a deadly dug-out for today’s devilishly descriptive dialogue of down-beating.
Cee Major tackles Young Mace; Masta Krisp against Adamzy; Seanie-Boi square on with Big J… plus many more: 12 armed and deadly meetings of minds filling this no-frills Victorian venue – three minutes from Camden Market; near to Chalk Farm tube station.
The ale flows, as the lyrical bars baring bogus bad blood carry a confident weight; a pre-penned plot of punch lines and personal attacks that balance on physical brutality.
Part stand-up, part slagging match, it’s nonetheless a low-key showcase of this country’s promise in the rap stakes. Scouring the Net for those Don’t Flop events that ocassionally marry US MCs against the UK’s, is possibly the best way to view the rule British rappers are now having over the scene.
Played out in small capacity pubs and bars may whiff of small-time sub-culture, though its underground persona doesn’t quite speak of its huge online following, with 1,546,709 YouTube views alone for the Don’t Flop MC match up of Blizzard and Mark Grist; pitting fire-spitting student against a grey-suited supply teacher.
As long as it stays small, within pint-sized boozers rather than airy arenas, this could well be the most appropriate of vehicles to heighten modern-day British hip-hop, bringing the breadth of this island’s talent to those who may otherwise never consider attending a hip-hop gig. Bar brawling, so it seems, has finally found its place…