This post is not about battle rap. Sorry.
But bear with us, because some of the city’s best battlers are completely unknown in rap circles.
Toronto is home to Canada’s first and only WRITE CLUB, a “bare knuckled lit” league with chapters in Chicago, Los Angeles and San Fransisco.
Two authors are each given an opposing idea and a strict five-to-seven minutes to persuade the audience, who ultimately choose which writer’s charity will get a donation. It’s a lot like rap battles without the rap (or the misogyny).
Gun bars give way to grammar. Punctuation replaces personal insults. But trash talk is still strongly encouraged.
The combatants are invited by the organizers or selected after applying. Mostly it’s a mix of literary writers, journalists, bloggers, and comedians. They duke it out over issues: Basement vs. Attic, Early vs. Late, Spontaneity vs. Planning, or Friend vs. Stranger. The writing can be funny, or sad, or touching, but it’s always entertaining, and seven minutes isn’t really enough time to get bored anyways.
Between battles, hosts Catherine McCormick and Alicia Louise Merchant keep the energy high with charm and hilarity.
The official WRITE CLUB rules:
The first rule of WRITE CLUB is:
you tell 5-7 people about WRITE CLUB.
The second rule of WRITE CLUB is:
you tell 9-11 OTHER PEOPLE about WRITE CLUB!
Third rule of WRITE CLUB: if someone yells “Stop!” goes limp, or taps out, the fight is over.
Fourth rule: only two WRITERS to a fight.
Fifth rule: one fight at a time, fellas.
Sixth rule: the fights are bare knuckle.
Seventh rule: fights will go on for 14 MINUTES EXACTLY.
Eighth and final rule of WRITE CLUB: audience picks the winner of the fight – decisions cannot be appealed.
Instead of a coin flip, the first to read is chosen by a rowdy game of rock-paper-scissors. The crowd counts with the contestants and the tension builds with every tie.
The author stands alone on stage, speaking into a microphone. A timer ticks behind them on a screen, the audience poised to cut them off like an alarm clock should they pass the seven-minute limit.
Once both have read, a winner is chosen by the crowd, and should probably be given a trophy marked “loudest friends” rather than “best writer.”
The loser is then invited to tell the audience which charity has been robbed of a donation.
“The Toronto Rape Crisis Centre,” they might say.
There’s some consolation when the winner announces where their donation is going, but it still feels like watching someone stomp a puppy and then hearing it’s going to survive.
We asked three of the writers to share excerpts of their writing.
Writer, editor and TV producer Megan Griffith-Greene, (who blew my mind when she referenced King of the Dot champion Arcane) in her defence of planning:
You may think that in the moment, if you act spontaneously, you are going to make good decisions, because you have good instincts, you can improvise. But you are not a Jedi, or John Coltrane or Jason Bourne or this guy Arcane, who the Internet tells me is very good at rap battles.
You can’t just make it up. And actually the aforementioned Skywalker-Coltrane-Bourne-Arcane set, they’re not even doing that. Good improvisation looks spontaneous but that is not what is happening. They went away and learned skills and studied and got better over time because talent isn’t like being hit by lightning, it’s about spending many many many unglamourous hours doing the fucking work, possibly in your bathrobe. Even in movies there would totally be a montage.
(Read our full coverage on the controversy behind Arcane’s latest rap battle)
Illustrator and author Evan Munday, in praise of strangers:
And it’s not just a numbers game: strangers are just better people, period. Are any of you criminologists? Really? No one? Okay, I’m not a criminologist either, but I did take a full semester in university, and let me tell you: the people you know are degenerate scumbags. Look at the Canadian homicide statistics. In 2011, 50% of all homicides were committed by a friend. 33% by a family member. A mere 15% were committed by a total stranger. Every year in the United States, about 800,000 children are abducted. And only 115 of them are kidnapped by the proverbial stranger in a dirty raincoat? Statistically, you’re better off inviting a random street person to babysit your kids than asking a friend. Why do people even want friends? They’re just planning to kidnap and murder you and take a piss on your shallow grave. It’s statistics.
Writer/director/actor Ryan F. Hughes, on the topic of attics:
It wasn’t raining when she left. And I spent two nights after, moving through the house, between the floors, destroying rooms and sleeping where the drink dropped me, collapsed double on myself. When I woke on the third day it was to the certainty that she was in the attic, and by then it was raining. No recollection of the moment that started, no great thunderclap on file, so I don’t imagine it’s significant. On the third day she returned, even though the doors, front and back, were still stove in, wedged hard against the jambs where I’d kicked them. Even though I never heard her moving but knew, at any moment, I might. But I could not bellow her down, so up I went through the hole in the floor, through the murk of the attic’s one high bulb into the dark cold corner, and while I was back there, she moved it, slid it somewhere under the foothills of insulation. Like an imaginary key, turned to lock a mouth, and thrown off into the dark, the hole in the floor was gone.
Write Club Toronto happens at The Garrison (Dundas, west of Ossington) on the third Tuesday of every month.