The event is held at a The Red Room, a downtown Vancouver venue. Scheduled for an unusually early seven o’clock in the evening, ending at ten.
Ken, who invited me to the event, met me around eight. He held his own show earlier, performing under “Swabski” at the University of British Columbia campus.
I waited for Ken outside as I loaded the ultra-sensitive Kodak T-Max P3200 film. The camera that received it is a West German mid-century Voigtländer. When it was first sold, rap and hip hop would not be a thing for another twenty years.
We enter an average-sized club space. There are no more than fifty people, circling around a spotlight in the middle of the dance floor.
Never a fan of the clubbing scene I nonetheless participated for a good decade as I followed my friends around Toronto. The consolation were alcohol and a company of good people — along with a youthful inclination towards implied misdemeanour. Mindful of old mishaps, I worry about the security having an issue with my metal brick of a camera. And the lack of appropriate footwear i.e. dress shoes.
Lucky, my yellow Pumas pass the test; there is no one to pat me down in the usual fashion of a clubbing “welcome.” Easy.
My old hometown, aside from starring in the flashbacks at the club doorway, happens to be the birthplace of KOTD. Spelt out as King of The Dot, it is a nod to the way Toronto used to be called back in the day: T.dot. Though long-surpassed by Drake’s appointment of The Six as the new official unofficial nickname, KOTD stuck around. The K.O. part of the acronym may be (mis)interpreted as knockout, which I think is much nicer than the male-exclusive kings of.
As it happens, Drake is known to have participated in the event series, which started at an alleyway behind the Eaton Centre. It has since grown tremendously, opening chapters across North America; Vancouver being just one of the franchised performances.
Despite the modest size of the crowd, the venue has a somewhat impressive camera crew following the contestants. A strategically placed microphone hangs above the well-lit space, marked with black tape on the floor. Each battle is prefaced by the organizers’ introduction along with sponsor mentions. A complete silence is requested from the audience, echoed by “Shut the fuck up!” from the excited fans. The intimate setting resembles MTV Unplugged. Indeed, a pay-per-view web channel is how the dues are paid.
The battle is preceded by a coin toss. Whoever goes first gets a chance to start strong, but the last word stays with the second contestant.
In every battle, the first set of bars (as in musical time notation, not unlike stanzas in poetry) is learned and recited. Each performer is to spend the time understanding their rival and plan a strong lyrical blow to their ego. And a loud response from the crowd.
Eminem’s 8 Mile is a worthy dramatization of how such preparation plays out. The movie heavily emphasizes the struggles and mishaps that make us vulnerable to scrutiny and provocation. Accepting these challenges, aside from the musical, lyrical, and performance skills is certainly a prerequisite. The best bars are vicious enough to bite anyone’s head off. I certainly wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of some of the things I’ve heard that night.
In my first act, two friends begin to take each other apart. I listen to them trash talk with thought, skill, and evident experience. In an attempt to prove to the crowd he’s not holding back, Illipsis throws down personal insults. Jaws replies in-kind.
The rhyme is mean and competitive. Like a match of words before the duel. No rapiers, no basketball — just words. The skills at the test are poetry, music, improv, and performance.
Though hip hop, as a culture, often likes to present itself as gangster, more often than not it really isn’t. Such as it is today. There are no AK-47s, no palettes of cash, no fountain in the lobby. If anything, I am picking up a lot of nerd vibes — in the best sense of the word. Namely practice, imagination, and enthusiasm.
For some, it is not enough. Bar J “somehow” managed to get a label of a coke rapper, which has followed him onto the stage. MC Damnit ran with it, turning what Bar may have hoped to give him a street credit into a sad habit. Adding to that, of course, that Canadians aren’t known to have the best coke anyways. Damnit is from the United States.
MC Damnit is visibly overweight and he knows it. Timed, he shuts down the fat jokes before they happen; cheap shots. Unfortunately for Bar J, that is all that he had prepared.
The final act features So Severe stepping on the line with disses directed at Kreative’s native background. He manages to somewhat validate the discomfort with a well-woven, direct, aggressive performance. Relentless, he confronts the crowd of Kreative’s supporters directly, with valour.
His opponent shows no signs of breakdown. Choosing to keep it above the waist, he receives the lines calmly and retaliates boldly with references to violence, implying that his people are not to be fucked with.
The mood changes quickly after the battle with immediate hugs and compliments. In a matter of minutes, the crowd dissipates.
I say bye to Ken and reach home before midnight.