Last month marked (out) the three-year anniversary of my foray into the battle rap medium. My debut was against one sharply dressed English teacher named Mark Grist back in April 2011. I did it as a platform from which to interview Eurgh for my English Language university dissertation on battle rap (available here in its full glory) and to find out more about a culture by which I was utterly fascinated. Part of me wanted to prove myself as well – I’d only really presented myself/been seen as a joke in the Brighton hip-hop scene up to that point, and I suppose I just wanted to see if I actually was one, on my own terms. I ended up learning way more than I expected.
Here are my ten clearest memories, in no particular order:
10) Completely faceplanting at Don’t Flop’s Verdict event
I’m casually waddling back from a visit to the gentleman’s room, fresh from the seventeenth best wee I ever had when a stray step jumps out at me, bringing me straight down to the floor like a sack of clumsy potatoes. Only one person sees this. It’s funny because falling over is funny. I just remember the look from a fan knowing they’d seen me bodybagged worse than I could ever be in any battle. Probably.
9) Eek doing karate at the 5th Birthday
After a brief discussion with my fiancée Rapunsell about the merits of Tae Kwon Do, Eek starts furiously demonstrating his karate kata.
Imagine this diagram in bright red and you’re close:
It wouldn’t have been anywhere near as funny if it had involved anyone but Eek. I remember this more clearly than my proposal, which had happened roughly 10 minutes before. It was like meeting the Red Power Ranger. Which I have, of course, always wanted to do.
8) Battling DNA
A husky-voiced Eurgh sidles up to me at an outdoor event, in one of the less grubby London alleys. “Would you like to battle DNA?” he asks. “Yes, Eurgh,” I reply, “Yes I would.” “Cool. Be over there in one minute.”
I am over there in one minute. I stammer my way through three minutes of awful, treading the thin line between battling and geeking out. Charlie Clips is being jovial and doing happy faces. Conceited is confused. They are all in front of me. I don’t know what’s going on. The battle finishes and I nearly pass out.
Yes, yes, I know. It’s not really worth bragging about seeing as he’s everywhere now and I was terrible, but it’s actually one of my higher-viewed battles. I won’t forget that feeling of knowing how absurd the situation was, and being unable to shake it for ten minutes. It’s exactly the situation I was looking for on entering Don’t Flop, and I still laugh at it.
7) Shuffle T and Marlo freestyling nonsense in Liverpool. At 5 a.m. For a full, exasperating hour
We have a long walk from the living quarters of Rikky Wiley (for those unacquainted think the Robin to Oshea’s Batman) to the bus station after a lively event in Liverpool. We haven’t slept. We all live at the other end of the country. Marlo starts off, and without missing a beat, he and Shuffle freestyle for sixty solid minutes. Which would normally be pretty impressive, except they stop using actual words after five. Meaning that, by about 5:37 a.m., the “cipher” of sorts has reached a level of Lynchian weirdness that I haven’t experienced before.
I can’t even explain why this is such a strong memory for me. It was just so bloody odd.
6) Two-Can accidentally pointing out everything wrong with my life
It’s telling how useful clearing the air in such a public and creative way before you’ve even met someone can make for a friendship. So many connections are ruined by not being open about flaws or issues. Battling seems to circumvent that.
Case in point: the memorable moment of one particular UK charity battle event is not Don’t Flop’s often hapless Two-Can finally winning a clash with unanimous votes (although the footage never surfaced) but a passing comment between friends the night before. We are musing on things, and Two-Can says: “You’re like me. You’ve spent most of your life pretending to be an idiot so you can get away with more.” I’m fully aware he and I are not alone in this, but it’s very rare that a sentence can change an outlook as his did mine.
Turns out the next day is an unmitigated disaster on my part – my sketch troupe, also performing, is largely ignored, my battle opponent no-shows and I cut an impressively forlorn figure trudging the rain-sodden streets of London laden with a keyboard. I learn a lot of hard lessons about balance, with that truism ringing in my ears.
Having never known Two-Can before demolishing him at a Norwich event in early 2012, I remember this as the moment a great friend came from four-and-a-half minutes of rhyming abuse that I wrote for someone I’d never met before. That was also the moment I fully realised how good a community the UK battle scene has built up.
5) The pins and needles in my arm before battling DPF
It’s April Fools 2012. I just lost a job, am going through a really, really grim patch in my personal life and have this battle to contend with. I don’t know if it’s the tightness of the pit setup or the pressures from which the battle is allowing me to escape, but I feel gut-wrenchingly nervous. UK comedy hip-hop stalwart Doc Brown is there, watching. Judging. That’s probably it. Without any explanation I get these savage pins and needles all the way from my wrist to my shoulder on each arm. The only time I’d felt this before was after eating one of those tiny chili peppers that ruins your night in a grotty Mexican restaurant.
That absolute adrenaline rush is something I have rarely felt onstage. Maybe directly before the proposal (which, quite obviously, is another strong memory for me, but has escaped inclusion because it’s too obvious and has kind of been tampered with by racist video comments and negativity) but it was absolutely electric.
4) The drive home from Norwich with ZT
For those who don’t know ZT, he’s an old school Don’t Flop head who was pretty much Eurgh’s favourite … Pokémon.
Right after an involuntary six-month break, I trek up to Norwich to battle a relative no-name (Two-Can) and have a jolly good time. Afterwards, however, I face the very real threat of having to spend a night, alone, on the cold, dark, gruesome streets of Norwich City Centre, to embrace the now typical post-battle wait for the Megabus (N.B. for those North Americans who aren’t aware how non-gritty Norwich City Centre is, search up some Alan Partridge and weep a bit.)
ZT swoops in with his real life Car™ and offers me a ride all the way back – four hours’ worth of ride – to Brighton. I am, of course, incredibly grateful. Up until the point he puts his own EP on and starts rapping along to every word, little fitted cap wobbling about all over the place. He then moves onto Rhyme Asylum, and more Rhyme Asylum, and then some Rhyme Asylum. Rapping almost every word.
It’s one of those moments where the self-absorbedness of characters inside DF (myself included) mingles with an equally boisterous generosity of spirit. Enigma is another classic example: complete bellend most of the time, but when you catch his human moments they’re brilliant – his Hitler salute in the process of enabling my engagement is a wonderful/utterly appalling example of this.
3) Prince Kong’s advice on how to win a battle
I am about to battle Bowski, still on the prowl for my first win after two whole battles. I’m doing the ritual pre-battle MegaWee when Prince Kong staggers up behind me at the urinal, having not slept and unable to stand on the spot. I think I’m about to die or get pregnant.
He imparts this timeless wisdom: “Remember,” he intones, “shank him in the kidneys with a rusty shiv.”
He swaggers out of the toilet, and I breathe a sigh of relief. It’s haunted and inspired me to this day. I don’t think this even goes on to be one of Kong’s short-term memories at all.
Needless to say, any damage done to Bowski’s internal organs since then has been inflicted by the hench burger I saw him destroy recently, and not any DIY weaponry of mine. There’s not really a lesson to this one, outside sleeping before you host a battle event and avoiding conversations in the gents’.
2) Pete Cashmore battling Bentlegs at April Fools 2012
Journalist vs Journalist: a world with which we at TOBB are hugely familiar. A rotund, sweaty, 57-year-old-(ish) man from Middlesborough or somewhere (he’s actually 40 and from Wolverhampton, but please god the American contingent of readers should never have to visit either hellhole) runs off to the toilet and has an emotional breakdown. He is a journalist for the British lad’s mag Nuts, and since coming to his first event he’s been a very vocal advocate of battle rap fandom.
Minutes later he is yelling gun threats at a meek, sad-looking Welsh guy (Alex Bentley was happy until he started running the Don’t Flop blog – it was his boots that I filled and recently unfilled) in front of a roomful of utterly bewildered onlookers. It’s wonderful, awkward, hilarious and kind of sentimental as well. Pete disappears and has an emotional breakdown again. I realise I’ve witnessed a guy do something he’s wanted to his whole life.
That’s been part of the joy of seeing people battle. It’s just normal people who may not have imagined it in this way, but are fulfilling what they’ve always wanted to do. It can be people like Pedro, who have raw aggression and conviction but just never got to put themselves out there, or people like Pete Cashmore, who loved hip hop his whole life and hit 40, that most dreaded age after which you probably shouldn’t rap for the first time. It can be people like both at the same time. Speaking of which…
1) Pedro’s riotous mid-battle assessments on the whimsy of chronological passing
Not only is the low-key street-based Free4All notable as the first time at which I see Rapunsell battle at Don’t Flop (again, pretty unforgettable), but it’s also the first time I witness what is pretty much a full-blown riot start as the result of a line. During a tirade that involves him instructing me to move to New Jersey and him eating Toblerones through his ear, grown man bars I’m already struggling to deal with, he then earnestly asks, “What you laughing for, half past four?”, still jackhammering along at full speed, completely unaware of what was so brilliant about the line.
Everyone is going absolutely nuts. It’s the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. In the video you can literally see a seismic wave spread from the centre of the pit. It’s the moment the true joys of freestyle really became fully evident to me. The chain of logic that led to that moment came out of absolutely nowhere. Pedro taught me not only how to love life again, but also how to tell the time.
Moral of the story: the world of battling is absolutely jeffing mental and hilarious.