“You’re gonna see some real hip-hop tonight,” Asher said, “not that MTV bullshit.” A thousand-watt grow-bulb of positive energy, mad schemes, and machine-gun wit, Asher has finally convinced me to come down to Oakland to see the monthly variety show that he and his brother have been producing for the last decade, Tourette’s Without Regrets. We’re in a warehouse on the east side, surrounded by a diversity poster of urban youth in every gender and ethnicity, all of them about half my age. Mrs. M and I arrive late but still get the VIP treatment: guest list, comp drinks, the works. In fact, Asher is treating us so well that I don’t have the heart to tell him that I’m not much of a rap fan, and even less of a slam poetry fan, and will probably wind up slamming my head repeatedly into the wall of the warehouse bathroom before it’s over. But it only takes a few minutes of watching the show to sneak a bent paperclip into my ear-hole and hit the reset button on my old way of thinking.
Tourette’s psycho-vaudeville approach combines comedy, poetry, music, and stupidity in an unruly mix that would probably run quickly off the rails if it weren’t fronted by a great emcee. Fortunately, Asher’s brother Jamie DeWolf is exactly the right man for the job. An accomplished poet and open-mike maniac, he has the smarts, the stage presence, and the quick humor to make it all come together. His comedy bits were raucous, bawdy audience participation stunts, reminiscent of Chicken John in his prime. Guess what’s in my pants. Name that lap dancer. Stupid, funny stuff, well executed. But the real surprise for me, and what really got the house moving, was the series of freestyle rap battles.
I’ve been writing for a lot of years, and I’m reasonably quick on my feet, but I can’t imagine doing what these battle emcees do: composing rhymes in real-time, rapping them out in each other’s faces, and taking the art of the diss to absurd elevations. Asher was right: this is anything but MTV rap, full of profanity and perversion and some of the most creative racism you can possibly imagine. Battlers rip into each other with all their guns going, and PC it is not. But after they’ve gone their rounds and the judges have voted, they embrace like old friends, which many of them are, and another pair of emcees takes the stage to grind each other down into powder.
The finalists in last night’s freestyle battle were Subverse, a deceptively square-looking white guy from Detroit, and Tantrum, an Asian kid from East Oakland. Their styles couldn’t have been more different. Where Tantrum’s approach was thug-angry and in-your-face, laced with violent f-bombs, Subverse relied more on humor, and an attitude of amused superiority that seemed to keep him above the fray even when he went deep into the gutter for some of his rhymes. In tone and inflection, it was hard not to hear echoes of Detroit’s most celebrated white rapper, but to my ear he was more influenced by hip-hop’s other white flavor, the Beasties. And I mean that in a good way. In a split decision, Subverse came out on top. And he and Tantrum hugged like brothers.
If you’d asked me yesterday, I would have said that all the good poets were dead (RIP Bukowski, you sick SOB). But after witnessing my first rap battle, I’m willing to entertain the idea that these kids may be on to something.
P.S. Jamie and Asher are also making a film that looks pretty damn funny. Check out the trailer for Smoked.