Rap vs. Poetry – Bedroom Bar, 17th August 2012.
There is something about the concept of rap vs poetry that brings people in. A similar event happens annually in Brighton and, although neither the regular poetry gigs nor the regular hiphop nights are that big, Poets vs MCs sells out every year. I participated in 2005 on the poetry team and then took over the running of the event for a couple of years. At the Bedroom Bar last night, Dizraeli was host. As he also has done those nights and been based in Brighton for years, for him and me at least, it meant there was a spiritual link with the original event. Love and props to Paul and Ros and all those involved in the Brighton shows.
We didn’t adjust the format much. Five rappers, five poets and three rounds of contest, each time alternating MC and poet. I remember in Brighton (and it may be different now as I haven’t been at one for a few years) the rappers complaining that the contest was too weighted in favour of the poets. So we tried to level the playing field by allowing rappers to perform over beats and forcing poets to try setting their poetry to music.
Fat Gold Chain booked the rappers (despite what Leen said in his last freestyle of the night), I booked the poets and with Benny Diction, who unfortunately could not be there on the night, we agreed the format
- Round 1, home (poets accapella, rappers with beats).
- Round 2, away (poets with music, rappers unaccompanied).
- Round 3, battle (freestyle or written on the night, cussing off the other genre).
Dizraeli expertly managed a talkative, if not quite rowdy, Friday night crowd and treading the right line between stirring up the contest and emphasising the union of the art forms and respect for the all the artists. Each round ended with the audience bawling out to decide who won each round. Poetry took the first and third and rap won the second – the relative noise levels were clear each time.
I heard some theories on the night as to why poetry won. Some said it was a poetry audience. That might be true but I certainly didn’t know that many people there and FGC brought more guest list than we did. I suspect a large part of the audience had never been, or only rarely go, to either poetry nights or hip hop nights. When people see the event advertised as a contest between genres, they’re coming down to see something different and original, not necessarily because they are a fan of either side. Maybe (although I’m not sure about this) rap is a distinctive and separate culture and perhaps requires an insider’s understanding to appreciate the skills, while poetry, just being words, is easier to access.
I also heard the theory that the poets were, relatively speaking, higher status within their field than the MCs. We were not (thankfully) up against Chester P, Jehst, Mystro, Rodney P and Wiley. The top people in rap get paid more than the top people in poetry so when you ask artists to come and do an event for beer money and travel you’re not going to get the best names in the business. On the other hand, more people do rap than performance poetry so there should be a larger pool to choose from. Most of the talent in UK rap doesn’t get massively well-paid either and there are also bigger name poets who wouldn’t have done it for the money I had to offer them. I didn’t bother asking (for example) Linton Kwesi Johnson, Polar Bear, Jean Binta Breeze, Kate Tempest or Benjamin Zephaniah. In terms of fame and status, it was a contest of the underground.
I think it was more about what happened on the night. The first round, poets were heavy. The issues addressed were grabbing and the styles were pretty varied. Stephanie Dogfoot’s carefully crafted poem about sex, discovery and rebellion, alongside curious’s rousing paean to poetry’s revolutionary power, Kat Francois’s powerful piece about black deaths in police custody and Keith Jarrett’s self-critical poem, which was subtle, intelligent and funny, just had enough to swing it our way. Leen’s freestyle – only just having walked in – was pretty amazing too.
The second round showed us how difficult a skill it is to talk over music. None of us really did a very good job of it, though perhaps Kat managed it best. Whereas the MCs came out with some pretty sick accapellas: Consensus doing some clever grime bars with kids’ cartoon characters, Solo Cypher bringing the comedy, Mista P the conscious stuff and Leen still managing to be really tight freestyling even without beats behind him. I was just relieved not to have completely fucked my bit up. I decided to do ‘You Can’t’ with a live instrument but left it pretty late to find a musician. Fortunately, Nico, whom I met at Wilderness last weekend, was up for accompanying me on the sax. I was practising in the smoking area an hour before the show and messing it up each time so the fact that I didn’t completely flop was quite a surprise to me.
In the end, the last round was won because we came out guns blazing and the MCs were surprisingly too nice. Only Leen and curious really did freestyles but all of us poets went in pretty hard about what we’d seen! What won it for us, I think, is that the battling thing is fun and people like to hear amusing cusses. Obviously, in reality I love hip hop and wish I could do what the rappers are capable of, but having rhythm-dyslexia and being chronically scared of performing over music, I’ve just got to stick to poetry.
It was a great night and a massive thanks and big up to everyone who took part in it. As artists it was refreshing to meet other people from a different scene and I think much of the crowd were introduced to something or someone new, one way or the other.
Next Event: Hackney Hammer & Tongue Slam Final, Tuesday 4th September @ The Victoria, Dalston. I’m hoping some of those people who showed up last night and had never seen live poetry will come on down to watch this year’s slam winners battle it out to be 2012 Hackney slam champion! Spread that Spoken Word.
The Battle Poem
I wrote this on the night and it’s obviously a bit flawed. But I thought I’d post it as a record. No real offence meant to any of the rappers. They were all wicked. I wrote the bit about myself to a Walt Whitman beat before the show started and the cusses I scribbled down as the night progressed or in the breaks when not having to deal with someone trying to explain why they should be let in for free or a sound engineer or a venue manager.
Listening to these rappers talk
I try to hear the message but it’s hard to recall.
I’m wondering, is it real or is conscious?
Or just overgrown kids talking juvenile nonsense?
I remember those days of computer games and blowbacks,
Sexual frustration and making jokes about prolapse,
But we’re not 14 and things must move on,
Accapella raps without structure go on too long.
To be a poet you’ve got to be timeless, bruv
And these rappers are just quite good at rhyming stuff.
The tradition of P.E., KRS what does that mean?
You can’t represent the oppressed with no women on your team.
You may have noticed it’s the poets who’ve got the content,
And it’s always poets who get up at the protests.
You know best,
Rap is no longer underground.
Corporatised and advertised,
It lacks the radical of freeform
It’s time that we re-form
Come to poetry nights,
Away from the limelight
Where poetry gets the rhyme right.
No pop figures, no hard sell,
‘Keeping it real’ keeps MCs in a prison cell.
For poetry, no topic is off topic
We got things we need to say
I hope we’ve helped you see today.
Rap in the tradition of Malcolm X and Bobby Seale?
But these MCs look like the lovechild of Phil Mitchell and Ian Beale.
I’ve been doing this for 15 years
And know my career has hardly started.
I’ve loved and lost and paid the cost
I’ve sinned and I have fasted.
I’ve gluttonised with crazy guys
I’ve passed the night with button eyes
While my soul was cold and starving
I’ve been on the ropes and lost my hope
But still I’ve come out punching.
I’ve felt the surge of crowds, aroused and loud
And seen the fear behind the truncheons
I’ve been battered down with riot shields
And humiliated senselessly
I’ve known the abandonment of heart to mine
And tried to treat it carefully
Tried to put all this in my poetry
And still you haven’t seen the best of me.
These rappers best tread carefully
10,000 years of tradition and you can’t diss poetry.