War of the words
Local emcee battles are helping shine a light on hip-hop in Chico
Chico is on the verge of something—something that could be big.
But like any subculture movement, you have to know where to look.
On a recent Friday evening, while the rest of the town was out celebrating the end of the semester, 16 emcees and about 80 people were packed into the Crux Artist Collective for Crux Groove 5, a hip-hop emcee battle.
Host Amir One (aka Mazi Noble, also an editorial designer for the CN&R) divided the emcees—one of whom was myself, by the way—into four ciphers, or rhyme improv groups, divided at random. While DJs Split D and Matticulit spun instrumentals, Noble explained the rules to the crowd: Each four-man group of emcees would come on stage and rap for five minutes all together. No official time limit per emcee.
“We wanted it to be more of a showcase of lyrical skill as opposed to who can come up with the best punch line,” Noble said later. “The notion of it being a skills battle as opposed to an emcee battle. Or a [rhyme] skills competition.”
After each cipher, the judges would decide which two emcees should advance to the next round. The top eight advanced to battle one-on-one, the winners moving up the bracket until the last two standing battled for the championship prize—bragging rights, a WWF Championship belt and $100.
This was my first time in Chico, and I’d only been here for a couple hours, but I could see that this town has some talent. I’ve done freestyle ciphers with friends back home in Reno, but this was my first real battle. I looked somewhat out of place in my Abercrombie & Fitch shirt and glasses, holding my reporter’s notebook. I started to get butterflies.
Battling has been going on since hip-hop was born in the early 1970s. Throughout the years, emcees, DJs, b-boys/b-girls, and graffiti writers have used battling to carve out names for themselves in hip hop culture.
In fact, legendary emcee KRS-One might not be around today if he didn’t battle MC Shan back in the 1980s, before KRS had ever released any music. It’s a classic hip-hop story. KRS and his DJ, Scott La Rock, wanted two New York City radio DJs, Mr. Magic and Marley Marl, to play their music. They wouldn’t, so KRS dissed them at various rap shows. MC Shan, who got his start through Marl, retaliated by doing the same toward KRS.
Shan was from Queens and KRS was from the South Bronx. They battled over which neighborhood started hip-hop. Well, hip-hop did start in the Bronx; KRS won the battle and the fame helped perpetuate his career. The rest is history.
Here in Chico, the demand for hip-hop and events like the Crux Groove emcee battles is becoming more obvious. The Crux threw its first battle in September 2007, and attendance has steadily increased. Chico State’s Wild Oak Records has also held a number of emcee battles, while LaSalles just hosted its first DJ battle, where six turntablists sampled and scratched their way to try to take the crown. The place was packed, again proving that people want hip-hop in Chico.
Back at the Crux, the first cipher was in full effect. The names of who is in which cipher are written in marker on the wall. I was in the third cipher, along with emcees Ty Box, Bed Head and Cris Kenyon—all three have reps for being talented freestylers. Great, I thought to myself.
Two emcees, Eye-Que the Genius and Lynguistics, advanced from the first cipher. Bystanders told me Eye-Que had won the Crux Groove battle before, and that it was a very close win, to say the least, against Lynguistics in the final round of Crux Groove 4. I could see why; both emcees were witty and had flawless execution.
Before I knew it, it was time for the third cipher—that meant me. The instrumental came on and I rapped first: “Steppin’ into the ill rap cipher. I’ll kick the messages you try to decipher. Dope instrumentals from the DJ be like Christmas Day presents. So I’ll present some new ideas in this 16-man contest.”
I was about as shocked by the positive crowd reaction as the crowd was. DJ Filthie Rich, who was judging, told the crowd after the cipher that it was the toughest one yet to judge. But two emcees had to go. Ty Box and Kenyon progressed to round two.
The one-on-one battles were where the fangs came out.
“Nobody told me Chewbacca cut off all his hair,” Lynguistics said, grabbing the shaved head of his opponent, emcee Underrated, in round two. “You’re underrated where, the Special Olympics?”
The crowd went nuts.
Round three: Eye-Que and Lynguistics.
“This is worse than Michael Jackson with a child in a room alone,” Lynguistics said, standing at least a half-foot taller than his opponent. Eye-Que came back strong, commenting on Lynguistics’ strange outfit—tight jeans with a print of a cat on the front: “The only pussy this dude gets is on the front of his pants.”
Eye-Que advanced to round four, the championship round.
Meanwhile, Ty Box, who has a soft but well-rounded rhyme style that is the polar opposite of Eye-Que’s, easily advanced to the championship round as well. Each emcee did two rounds before DJ Filthie Rich announced the winner: a tie. A third round would decide the winner.
Ty Box mixed his freestyle with a beat-box (making a beat with your mouth). It was dope, but in the end no match for Eye-Que’s go-for-the-throat attitude, ridiculing Ty Box with punch lines.
Hip-hop in Chico is more than a bunch of rappers sitting around talking shit to each other. Every one of the emcees made a point to tell me how much mutual respect there was for one another at the battle. Off-stage it was easy to see they were telling the truth.
“All the cats that show up to the battles are the dopest emcees around,” said Ty Box. “At first, it was only a couple of us that would show up. As we’ve done it as a more regular event, more people from the community have heard of it.”
Crux Groove has become a monthly event (that may take a hiatus over the summer).
“I personally plan on keeping my hand in directing where hip-hop in Chico goes,” said Noble, who hopes the Crux Battles will be only one part of Chico’s hip-hop scene.
After the battle, emcees stuck around freestyling and joking around on the mic. Eye-Que humbly collected his prize and made his way out.
Later I asked him about his battle-rap training.
“I just got into a few battles, emcees calling me out. I started defeating them,” he said. “I don’t consider myself a battle-rapper. I just happen to be good at a lot of aspects of hip-hop.”